This past weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting a friend in Miami Beach. It was a much-needed trip after enduring a cold, dark winter and navigating aging parents.
While my friend and I were sitting on the beach Saturday, a pregnant woman walked by. To me, she looked beautiful. Having a baby is such a miracle that I still can’t believe I ever did it. And this woman, well, I was worried she might have the baby right then and there since she looked ready to deliver any minute.
Anyway, I hadn’t thought about my pregnancy in a long time, but guess what memory came to me first? You guessed it. It involved the narcissist.
When I was about four months pregnant, my then-husband and I went to a pool party. I was in a hot pink bathing suit, feeling as cute as you can feel when you aren’t throwing up from morning sickness. That afternoon, I felt the narcissist staring at me. I asked what was wrong, and he replied, “Wow. It looks like you have a beer belly. I am just not used to that.” And he started laughing.
Maybe it was pregnancy hormones, maybe not. But those words stung. As I shared this story with my friend, he thought I was joking. I told him no, I remember that day as clear as right now. It was Mother’s Day 2005, and the tape of his voice is still playing in my head 15 years later.
Sitting in the gorgeous Miami sunshine, I began to reflect on why a narcissist’s comments affect us so much. Years later, we play such words from a narcissistic parent or spouse repeatedly until those voices cause us to act out and damage other relationships. It’s a toxic, trickledown effect.
Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT, wrote an article published on psychologytoday.com on April 3rd of 2020. It’s entitled “Neuroscience Explains How a Narcissist Can Control Our Brains.” The paper looked at neuroscience’s role in having one partner dominate over the other. Lancer’s research found that the dominant person in the relationship is more likely to get their needs met than their partners do.
Lancer cited research by UCLA professors, including Weizhe Hong, a biochemistry and neurology professor. The researchers looked at how mice’s brains react when there are one dominant mouse and another docile creature. The research was published in brevity on Sciencemag.org in July 2019. The article is entitled: “Brains Of Pairs Of Animals Synchronize During Social Interaction,” Here is what the abstract reads:
UCLA researchers have published a Cell study showing that the brains of pairs of animals synchronize during social situations. The synchronized activity arose during various types of social behavior, but also, the level of synchronization predicted how much the animals would interact. The team also found that brain synchrony arises from different subsets of neurons that encode the behavior of the self vs. the social partner and that the dominant animal’s behavior tends to drive synchronization more than the subordinate
We can certainly understand how the dominant person takes power in the relationship for those who have survived narcissistic abuse. It’s easier for the subordinate (empath or highly sensitive person) to agree with the narcissist rather than push back because the punishment of going against the toxic person isn’t worth it. The punishment of disagreeing on even the simplest tasks or thoughts far outweighs the crime of having one’s own opinion.
If we agree long enough and our brains sync as researchers theorize, then that means we are almost brainwashed into believing what the narcissist says. That’s why the voice of a narcissist parent can reverberate in our heads for years or decades. It’s why the voice of a narcissistic partner telling us we can’t do anything right makes us feel unworthy and unloved.
I have witnessed the trickle-down effect personally and in many of my clients. Recently, one client was telling me that her ex-husband, a narcissist, berated her sexually. He told her she was terrible in bed and that no one would ever want her sexually. Well, she’s in a new relationship, and the new partner said it’s the best sex he has ever had! Unfortunately, my client was nervous, withdrawn, and insecure for months until they discussed what was wrong. She’s remedied her self-destructive thoughts and threw out the narcissist’s voice.
It’s not easy to stop the rewind and replay of the narcissist’s negative comments, no matter what the subject matter entails. However, you can do it with focus and concentration.
First, talk back to the voices. For example, when I hear my narcissistic mothers’ voice in my head say, “You are the most selfish little girl in the world,” I talk back to it. I tell myself that, “No, Laura, we aren’t going there today. STOP IT. You are the opposite of unselfish. You are a healer and a giver.”
Secondly, talk to a therapist about the voices. There are modalities of therapy that can help if these voices have caused PTSD. There’s EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and EFT or Emotional Freedom Technique. These modalities can involve recalling traumatic events while also focusing on an external stimulus to process the trauma.
Finally, develop boundaries around the narcissist’s negative comments. If you have recognized a pattern around a particular subject for which the toxic person criticizes you, establish a boundary around that. Promise yourself that you will leave the room when the narcissist spews vitriolic words.
I should have had boundaries around both narcissists in my life, especially when it came to comments about my body. Fortunately, I can now laugh about the beer belly comment because my pregnancy belly certainly turned out to be the best beer I could ever be blessed with. My son is my greatest gift.
If you have a malignant narcissist in your life like I used to, please consider signing up for our Live Webinar that will take place on February 10th. Dr. Carter and I know that many of you have been struggling to deal with that person who has that extra “oompf” of meanness and harshness. We will talk about the do’s and don’ts of managing yourself while dealing with someone of this caliber. We will then open up the webinar for a Q&A session where you can ask Dr. Carter and I any questions you have.
You can sign up here: