For those of you reading this who are parents, imagine caring for a child who stays 3-years old or 13-years old forever. How draining would that be? Twenty years of tantrums and bad attitudes. Fifteen years of, “I know you are, but what am I!” Ten years of, “I hate you! You’re ruining my life! I don’t need you! I should just kill myself! Nobody in this family cares about me!”
Maybe some parents find these childhood developmental stages rewarding. If you’re like me, you’d rather have a root canal sans Novocaine or pick your form of torture. Many parents don’t especially enjoy these childhood stages, despite the sweet, funny and adorable moments. Good enough mothers and fathers soldier through the trying phases trusting that, with parental guidance, their kids will mature and become responsible, decent human beings. That’s not to say parents get it right all the time, but often enough so that their kids feel loved and secure, even when being disciplined.
Typically, personality disordered individuals, like narcissists, borderlines, histrionics and psychopaths, don’t grow up (even with treatment). They remain emotionally and psychologically arrested somewhere between the Terrible Two’s and the Troubled Teens. Codependent people have difficulty growing up, too, but in a different way. Codependents frequently have extreme difficulty letting go of the wish that mommy and daddy will miraculously change and care for and love them in healthier ways. This is the juncture where the childhood wounds of narcissists and non-disordered codependents dovetail. Ultimately, the goal for codependents is to recognize the childhood wish is futile, set it aside and begin the work of loving and caring for themselves. Essentially, you become your own parent as an adult and do the work for yourself that your actual parents weren’t capable of doing for you in childhood.
Before you can do that, however, you have to stop taking care of your abuser and making them the focus of your life. Many people aren’t able to do this until the proverbial empathy well runs dry. This occurs when the narcissist, borderline, psychopath or other toxic personality has sucked you dry until you become an empty husk of your former self. This is usually when the narcissist discards you and moves onto a new target. Or, you have a stress-related health scare and re-prioritize, or reach some other breaking point or tipping point. When your empathy well is dry, you’d be wise to see it as a sign that it’s time to make some life changes. Namely, to start taking care of yourself. Again, you cannot do this and continue to enable and care for your abuser. You have to choose. Will it be you or the narcissist?
From my professional and personal experiences, there are distinct stages to the emptying of the empathy well. You may recognize some of these stages from your own experience with these issues. It’s not always a linear progression. Some people bounce back and forth between the stages several times. Some people get stuck indefinitely.
1) When you’re being love bombed in the beginning of the relationship, you believe the narcissist or borderline has been horribly abused by their exes, families and life. You tell yourself, “I can help this person to love and trust again, and then it will be happily ever after.”
2) Inevitably, the narcissist begins the boundary testing phase (i.e., will you tolerate their abuse). You rationalize, justify or minimize the narcissist’s tantrums and acting and lashing out. You double down on empathy and enabling and tell yourself, “I just need to be more patient and loving and we’ll get there. I can do this. I’m strong. I made a commitment.”
3) The narcissist’s self-absorption, selfishness, emotional volatility, blame shifting and other abuses are increasing, not getting better despite your best efforts. It’s very confusing and not at all logical. What are you missing or not doing? You triple down and try to figure out what you’re doing wrong. You decide to be even more patient and loving. You give more and ask for/expect less. You’re also beginning to feel resentful.
4) Uh-oh. This isn’t working. Eureka! You just need to find a way to explain yourself better. Yeah, yeah, that’s it! It’s a communication problem. If you can just find a way to make the narcissist or borderline understand then everything will be okay. But, you don’t have as much energy as you once had. You’re becoming snappish. You allow yourself to be pulled into pointless arguments in which you JADE (justify, argue, defend, explain). No matter how it plays out, it’s always somehow your fault. You’re getting really, really tired. Why isn’t this working?
5) Emotional numbness sets in. You become hyper-vigilant and avoidant (i.e., walking on eggshells/landmines). You’re depressed and/or anxious. You seek escape through self-medicating. You’re isolated. You feel alone and separate from the world. The narcissist blames you for being broken as they continue to actively break you down.
6) Now, when the narcissist makes one of their distress cries, you don’t feel all that compassionate. You don’t feel the urgency to make it all better for them. You may try to do so in an effort to avoid name-calling or another pointless rage episode. But, what you’re really thinking, is, “WTF is the matter now?” The empathy well is dry. Bone dry.
7) You can continue to live your life like this. Many people do. Resigning yourself to voluntary martyrdom is a choice. It’s not a particularly healthy choice, but it’s a choice. Or, you can decide enough is enough and begin the healing process. Meaning it’s time for you to begin taking care of you. Becoming healthy often spells the end of the relationship with a narcissist or borderline. Whether you realize it or not now, that’s a good thing. Adult toddlers and teens rarely grow up, but you can change. The healthier you become, the more intolerable being around toxic people becomes.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of abusive relationships, coping with the stress of abusive relationships and healing from abusive relationships. Coaching individuals through high-conflict divorce and custody cases is also an area of expertise. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for more information.
Want to Say Goodbye to Crazy? Buy it HERE.