In my 40+ years as a therapist, people often told me stories that would fall into the “Complicated” category. As we would sift through problems created by difficult people, there would be no one-size-fits-all approach to a case. Therapy is a creative process requiring both inquisitiveness and steadiness. Peeling away the layers to the proverbial onion can be painful, soothing, perplexing, and calming.
As you might imagine, the person in front of me would often feel emotionally twisted, so it became my task to maintain objectivity. I never panicked, and in my mind, I would often think, “Ok, this is a convoluted situation, but I know we will figure it out. We’re just not there yet.” In the midst of potential emotional volatility, I would model emotional sobriety.
Eventually, I would explain to my patients that when they are challenged with responding wisely to a narcissist’s manipulations, that same emotional sobriety is required. Narcissists take delight when you feel off-kilter emotionally, using it as an opportunity to gain an upper hand. It is a classic case of them kicking a person who is down. Unfortunately, they are quite adept at that tactic.
When you choose to employ emotional sobriety, you determine to keep your emotions in check. It is not necessarily wrong that you feel as you do, yet you remind yourself that these are not safe people who will respond fairly. Instead, narcissists will use your emotionally delicate moments to shame you. To them, your tears or your anger “validate” you as weak. They will seize upon your emotions (especially your hurt) as an opportunity to sling their own emotional rubbish your way. Then they blame you for creating the bad vibes. They are forever the victim, so when you display tension, they will blame you for making their lives miserable.
Like I say, they are not safe. They look for any potential evidence that will support the notion that you are the crazy person in the equation.
So, exactly what is required for you to employ emotional sobriety?
Foremost, you will have a strong understanding of relationship boundaries. This begins with the understanding that you are responsible for yourself, just as the other person is in reverse.
You will remind yourself that you are not responsible for making the narcissist use logic, and you will not require their compassion. Also, you will not attempt to force harmony, agreement, or concurrence, as desirable as those traits are. You will not seek the narcissist’s approval, nor will you make it your task to cause the narcissist to modulate emotions like anger and contempt. That is not your job.
You will, however, develop answers to the question: “What does it mean for me to become a healthy me?” And you will rehearse in your mind how to focus on your defining features in trying moments. You will accept your feelings, opinions, and preferences as legitimate. When the narcissist tells you how off-beat you are, you will allow that interpretation. It is, after all, what that person thinks. In the meantime, you will remind yourself that you do not take your lifestyle cues from one who is defined by the need to control you, to demean, and to act upon all sorts of entitled initiatives.
Emotional sobriety would require you to drop your wishful thinking as illustrated by the words, “I just wish…”. Instead, you would accept as fact that you will be misinterpreted, invalidated, disrespected, held in low regard, and mocked. You will be accused of being phony, and you will be told you are the source of their unhappiness.
As an emotionally sober person you will drop the pipe dream of hearing the narcissist say words like:
“I have lots of soul searching to do.”
“You make mistakes, but so do I.”
“When we differ, let’s use it as an opportunity to learn and grow.”
In your emotional sobriety, you will make room for ambiguity. The only thing consistent about narcissists is their inconsistency.
As an emotionally sober person, you will focus on finding the confidence to believe that you are indeed a decent person with reasonable beliefs and priorities. And when the narcissist disagrees, you will remember that your confidence can remain intact, keeping in mind that you never appointed the narcissist as the Keeper Of The Facts About You. With humility, you will be mindful of your flaws and imperfections, and you will take comfort in knowing that you are a work in progress.
Narcissists represent the opposite of emotional sobriety. They are addicts who feel a never-ending need for power, superiority, admiration, and your subordination. Narcissists are the ones who have childishly poor regulation over their emotions. They are the ones who cannot cope with life’s complexities. That is why they work so hard at forcing you into their paradigm.
As an emotionally sober person who accepts your own full range of emotions, you can press forward knowing you can cope, you trust yourself, and you can lean into your inherent dignity.
And when the narcissist remains intent on keeping you dysregulated, your response can be, “I will only allow people who share my commitment to sobriety to enter into my inner circle.”
~Les Carter, Ph.D.
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