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Keep Dating Narcissists? Your Meter May Be Broken.

Here’s How to Recalibrate It.

It’s not so much about learning about narcissism as it is about learning about ourselves and how we reacted to poor behavior by our family members growing up. And then learning healthier responses and practicing them so that new neural pathways will be developed that will allow us to be, and gain, healthy partners.

If you can’t seem to free yourself from toxic relationships, you probably experienced some of the circumstances I've outlined below, growing up. They make us susceptible to scenarios that a person who grew up in a healthy family would quickly walk away from, since they are foreign to them, and unpleasant. The problem for us is that they likely aren’t foreign. They’re probably painfully familiar.

Darlene Lancer, marriage and family therapist and author of Codependency for Dummies, writes about daughters of narcissistic mothers, and how those dynamics "unwittingly get repeated in adult abusive relationships, including relationships with narcissists, because they’re familiar – it feels like family."

1. Being on the receiving end of the "Narcissist's Donkey Kick."

Narcissists can be easily triggered by perceived slights in everyday interactions with others. Even something so trivial as a difference of opinion may set them off. I call it the "Narcissist's Donkey Kick" for how strong and swift those reactions can be.

[Why narcissists are so reactive: The Narcissist's Alternate Reality]

This can lead to a person having to walk on eggshells.

Does the following scenario sound familiar?

You took the "donkey kick" without reacting to it. You were taken aback, but you knew better than to say anything, and you “recovered” fairly quickly, like you always have. And almost just as quickly, you forgot that it’s an ongoing problem. Until it happened again.

Now try recalibrating your meter:

Healthy people don’t lash out against unintended slights.

They don’t take things personally. They respond rather than react.

A reaction is a reflex action; the first thing that comes up, before we've addressed the feelings about what we've just taken in. Only once we address those feelings can you respond rather than react.

That involves taking the time to reflect on the feelings that come up, making room for each one (like onion layers) and processing it, and containing (not stuffing) any anger, so that we can talk about our anger rather than act it out. Not everyone everyone does this. The difference is that some of us can develop the ability to do so, and some of us can't.

This allows us to come back with a reflective response rather than a reflexive reaction.

Were you the recipient of the narcissist's donkey kick in your last relationship? How did you respond to these attacks? Did you set limits or did you put up with this recurring aggression?

[Examples of narcissistic reactions: Is It Healthy, Obnoxious, Toxic or Narcissistic?]

2. Having to excuse one bad behavior after the other.

If you’ve come from a dysfunctional family, you may have learned to excuse bad behavior as being a quirky or one-off thing, without realizing the large number of "one-off" behaviors you were enduring.

Imagine yourself looking into a long-abandoned attic. Your flashlight falls on a broken doll here, a pile of moldy magazines there. The overhead light is broken, so you’re blind to the fact that the whole space is, in fact, one big nightmare.

Now try recalibrating your meter:

Behaviors on the unhealthy end include:

  • aggression;

  • passive-aggressive behaviors;

  • controlling;

  • manipulation;

  • gaslighting (reinventing history to make you doubt your own memory and perceptions, and even saying you are paranoid or imagining things);

  • projection (accusing you of behaviors or characteristics they themselves have);

  • interrogation;

  • blame-shifting (to turn things around on you and put you on the defense); and

  • playing the victim.

Behaviors on the healthy end include:

  • anger that is contained (not stuffed) such that it can be explained rather than acted out;

  • assertiveness;

  • active listening; and

  • empathy;

as well as

  • taking ownership of mistakes; and

  • making genuine apologies.

Looking back at your last relationship, how many of these narcissistic behaviors did you tend to put up with?

3. Boundaries being run over.

Boundaries are your rules for defining what kind of treatment you will tolerate. In healthy families, parents define and respect boundaries for the young child, such as the right to privacy and the protection of their body, and the right to one’s own thoughts and feelings. This process helps the child internalize an expectation that they have rights and that those rights will be respected.

You may have experienced something altogether different. Your boundaries may have been run right over or maybe you were never allowed to develop the muscle for defining boundaries at all.

Now try recalibrating your meter:

In a healthy relationship, each person maintains boundaries that ensure they are treated well, and when those boundaries are overstepped, pushes back by setting limits, which leads their partner to either respect the boundary or for the couple to negotiate a compromise. In either case, there is agreement and clarity about what the boundary will be and that it will be respected. This helps instill trust and stability in the relationship. Neither tries to control or manipulate the other. And each person is responsible for their own thoughts and feelings.

Where did the needle land for your last relationship? Did your partner tell you what you think and feel? Did they blame you for how they feel? Did they exploit your emotions to get their way, keep you engaged in an unhealthy dynamic, or make you doubt yourself? Could your partner not take "No" for an answer?

4. Conditional love with intermittent reinforcement and the resulting trauma bond.

Looking back at your childhood, was praise and acceptance unconditional or was it tied to performance? Was love tied to obedience?

Were times good in early childhood when you adored your parent but then you were scapegoated when you started to individuate and come into your own personhood?

Did your parents use punishment and humiliation instead of limits and consequences and only praise you when you did their bidding?

Were you praised one moment and devalued the next?

Unconditional love means you were loved for who you were, even when your behavior was less than desirable, not manipulated into obedience by the threat of rejection. It means that while you may have been disciplined with consequences, you were not humiliated.

Intermittent reinforcement keeps a person coming back with the hope that the love, acceptance or attention they sometimes received will be there again. In the case of narcissistic, dysfunctional, and abusive families, this intermittent reinforcement can result in the formation of a trauma bond, which is when someone remains attached to a person who hurts them.

This familiar dynamic can play out in romantic relationships.

Now try recalibrating your meter:

Real love is consistent, not intermittent.

Looking back at your last relationship, was the love and attention you received generally consistent and reliable? Or were you alternately uplifted and then put down? Were you being treated poorly, but stayed in the relationship anyway?

5. Chronic emotional neglect.

Maybe this doesn’t sound like your situation. But hear me out.

When your meter is broken, the only way to learn that what seemed normal was not right, is to learn what is right.

And in personal relationships, attunement is the name of the game. And the opposite of attunement is emotional neglect.

Attunement starts in the very beginning, when the mother or other caretaker syncs her emotional tone to the baby’s, which provides the foundation for emotion regulation and relational intelligence:

This tuning in assists brain development and over time teaches the baby in how to self-regulate, make sense of their emotions and thus communicate his or her needs.... If a child’s feelings are continually discounted, ignored or reprimanded, they will not know how to soothe, respond, or express those emotions in adulthood.

In a healthy family, the parents are attuned to (receptive of and responsive to) their child's emotional needs.

In a dysfunctional or narcissistic family, the emotional needs of the parents take priority over the emotional needs of the children, which are ignored or stepped on.

In intimate partner relationships, attunement is the cornerstone of emotional intimacy. It shows up as your partner really getting you:

[A]ttunement is when we sense a clear image of our mind in the mind of another. Or simply put, when someone is attuned to us, we feel they really get us, experience us, and understand us.

It's important to note that Narcissistic Love Bombing can be confused with attunement. [Love Bombing and Limerence, a Potent Mix.]

Now try recalibrating your meter:

Attunement on one end, emotional neglect on the other.

What was the meter reading for your last relationship? Was your partner gauging what you were feeling and needing or at least caring enough to try? Giving time and space for those joining experiences to unfold? Not telling you how you feel, not talking at you, and certainly not talking over you?

Putting It All Together

If you have a history of dating narcissists, I hope this exercise provided some insight into what you've been putting up with, why that seemed acceptable to you at the time, and what you deserve instead. If so, you've won half the battle.


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