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.
Counseling with Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
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.
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Wow. That is verbatim what I’ve gone though. This step by step is insanely accurate. And when I become snappish and walk on eggshells while also trying to build healthy boundaries, I was told I changed for the worse that I was “broken and never going to change.” Literally told to me by the ex and several people by the ex-MIL last year. It was my boundaries and simply saying “no” to things regarding my involvement in them I was volun-told to do that shit hit the fan and spelled the end of many toxic relationships.
Fabulous post. Describes exactly the torture I endured at the hands of my narcissist. Please keep writing these, Dr., they are a voice of reason and tranquility to men who have endured the unrelenting torture dispensed by an NPD person. Your words and counsel demonstrate to us that we are not crazy, not the ones at fault, and that we were right to suspect that our ex’es were severely disturbed. Thanks again.
OMG. Those seven stages are exactly my life for 25 years. I mean exactly. I chose the martyrdom option but over the years, your right on, the energy to try and make it better was gone. I medicated with drinking because I was more talkative and a little looser so that extended things a bit but in the end I was discarded under pretty awful circumstances. It’s been two years now since that point and finding myself again and trying to reverse all the crap that I was told about myself and stupidly believed. Thanks for your writing. GregE
Same Here Except I’m Married No Kids Thought (Thankfully). I Just Moved Out Today & I’m Looking Forward to Moving.
I have a boss that shows all the hall marks of Border line Personality Disorder. When he isn’t getting his way he’ll throw a raging fit and use bullying and intimidation to get his way – or get even. It’s clearly childish and we know it but, he’s the boss. What do you do? Last summer I witness a male co-worker sexually harass a young female co-worker. My being 36 years older hadn’t ever gotten any results in trying to talk to him about his behavior, so I followed protocol and spoke about it with the next line supervisor. She asked me to write out what happened and what was said and sign it. I did this – and all hell broke loose at the office I work in. My boss decided that because I had reported sexual harassment, that I caused there to be a hostile work environment and publicly punished me (retaliated) for the next 12 weeks by making me work out doors picking up trash around the property. This was first to make me miserable enough to quit and secondly, to send a message to all the staff watching this unfold. The first line supervisor resigned when she submitted her investigation into the incident and her report and recommendations rejected for “being done too hastily. Another investigation was ordered and also completed in just one week while I remained in punishment for another 11 weeks. We are a federal (US Army) installation and are required to take several annual trainings in Sexual Harassment/Assault and the No Fear Act. Reporting witnessing sexual harassment is supposed to be a “protected activity” and reprisals and retaliation are illegal. In the process of seeking input from my boss’s boss I was told it was my fault I was retaliated against because I had not gone to my boss’s boss about it – telling me if he didn’t know how could he have done anything about it? Both my boss and his boss both had the results of the second investigation on August 4th on their desks yet kept telling me they had not received anything and could not “do” anything about my status until they did – for another 11 weeks. Presently, I have an EEO Complaint in process. I was allowed to return to my regular duties in the office after the 12th week. That boss, the male co-worker and the girl and 16 others have all resigned between August 2017 and April 2018. I and another permanent federal employee are the only ones left and management continues to harass me and now her – it looks like they want to clean house and start over. My boss’s boss is pea in the same pod – maybe worse. Just smarter at covering himself. I’m standing up to management because what I did was right and is also what the US Army directs federal employees to do – not to be silent bystanders. The second investigation resulted in the incident could neither be proven it did happen nor that it didn’t happen. As things like this go along, more and more truth surfaces and my remaining co-worker, a 51 year old female as recently told me she had tried many times to tell the young male co-worker to knock it off and grow up – only to be ostracized and harassed for her attempts. She described times he would dry-hump the female workers and a list of other misogynistic behaviors towards women in the work place, calling them whore and sluts and on and on. She says she will witness to that in an upcoming hearing I will have. This whole EEO process can take several months to years even – so it’s tough. I won’t give them the satisfaction of quitting my job because that is how they get away with treating employees like they do. This is not only happening in our office but through out our directorate. If I quit, this all would go away and nothing will change. There are many other matters that management is being investigated for besides my reporting sexual harassment. They’re under a lot of pressure. I suppose a lot of people experiencing what I have and still am, would quit their work position. The bulk of the resignations have been in the last 4 months. I don’t expect them to roll over and suddenly be nice – they’ve proven this already. I do expect that this EEO process will expose them and with any real justice, mean terminations for them. I’m 60 years old and to see a 62 year old retired Sergeant Major scream at the top of his lungs at the women on our staff it won’t stop unless someone calls them out on it. I’ve no reason to believe that his behavior is not known by his bosses – and so tolerated. Where and when would it ever stop? So Narcissists and the harm they do is not only in marriages and personal relationships. Bill