It make come as a surprise, or perhaps not, that I’ve been writing from a position of failure – from a powerless, losing, martyred perspective in many of these posts. This strange combination of fighting, of taking on a provocation with authentic confrontational response, yet with the constant experience of losing is the proper perspective and disposition for the cultivation of wisdom in these dynamics.
It’s not a passive position, because I do quite a bit of fighting, but its a persistently losing one.
If you want to glean the lessons and purification that warfare provides, you have to surrender to what is, to how it is, to the powerlessness, but without passivity. You have to get comfortable with losing, and failing, and the injustice and humiliation of being powerless, because that’s the only real place the lessons are learned and the impurities excavated. You have to admit those things, the awful honest sense of loss and futility, always outmatched by an impenetrable sadistic enemy, rather than pretending otherwise. Because arrogance, false wins, superiority, and the illusory invincibility of the ego represent huge obstacles to this kind of growth work.
And knowing you’re going to lose, you have to keep from falling into resignation or despair. All the most important lessons and discoveries, the most important mystical work, happens in a powerless, surrendered, receptive position, capable of admitting and working through its vulnerability and pain.
Now into some ugly truths. I’m going to paint a somewhat grim picture, but if we are going to derive the real benefits of our suffering, we have to work with the truth.
Let’s get this out of the way first – the “victorious empowered survivor” thing in cases of narcissistic abuse is a false pride. It is an attempt at reconstituting the false self, a new egoic identity structure, built on another set of lies. There is no victory to speak of, no power in the abuse victim’s hands, and no pride in mere survival. Perhaps these false ideas are functional for a lay person, but for those engaged in spiritual work, this construct attempts to gloss over and deny the underlying reality. Those who are able to feel and have some spiritual depth reject this myth on a visceral level. It doesn’t do anything to actually empower anyone. (To the extent that mysticism offers an empowerment, it is a fortitude to confront more and more pain, enduring greater and greater obstacles, challenges, and destructions, accepting those losses humbly and in the right way.).
We all know that when you’re up against a narcissist, you can’t win. Not in the normal sense of that word. Failure, loss, persistent injustice, and being remorselessly harmed are all a practical certainty. And getting justice for the destruction they’ve caused is almost always impossible. Whether you are trying to hold them to account for a hurtful sentence, or for some larger harm in a court of law, it’s not going to work. It’s not just that they have all these interpersonal advantages, it’s that they are designed to win, designed to destroy, and to make you experience losing, powerlessness, and injustice.
If you study your reactivity closely, you will find a curious thing. Their actual winning is significantly deeper than what seems to happens on the surface. Much like with terrorism which wins merely by causing fear, a narcissist wins merely by his initial provocation; the provocation itself is the win.
By opening his mouth, he touches a wound or pushes a button with cruel seemingly careless words. And with this he has already caused emotional upset, he has already triggered something, and he has already put us in a bind, whether we wish to admit it or not.
What we do in response is secondary and almost insignificant. (It is significant in the sense that inside of our responses we will find more of ourselves, but it’s insignificant in the surface-level human sense).
(1) If we ignore it or remain silent and walk away, he wins. He gets away with the provocation, with having triggered us, and then ridicules us for walking away. (Lots of well intentioned people want to convince us that not engaging with them is the win. That walking away is the “real” win. It’s a lofty idea. It isn’t true, of course. It’s said to make us feel better about accepting the loss. “Being the bigger person” kind of thing…).
(2) If we engage the provocation and try only to defend ourselves, only to stand up for our personal dignity, he will cause even more harm, and win.
(3) If we try to actually fight him in some way, to offensively avenge the provocation, he will escape our best efforts, deny us any satisfaction, and make us look foolish and feel even more frustrated and powerless.
Narcissists, those classified as psychopaths in particular, are known to be immune to punishment. They are notorious for slithering their way out of accountability. Whether you are trying to hold them to account yourself, or you’re trying to get someone else to do it, somehow, like a slippery eel, they always seem to slip out of one’s grasp.
Anyone experienced with narcissistic abuse will tell you that there are a bunch of tricks they perform, which prevent you from getting satisfaction. There is a kind of crazy-making deflective impenetrability to them that can’t be broken through. They might laugh defiantly in your face ridiculing your efforts, counter-attack with arrogant condescension, destabilize you with some kind of word salad, overwhelm you with negative projections, or they might turn themselves into tragic victims of your “abuse.”
They will talk down to you, they will shame and condemn you, they will confuse you, but at no point will they say or do the thing you actually want from them – a show of vulnerability or remorse for what they’ve done. You can try your best, and it won’t work. They won’t acknowledge even an ounce of responsibility.
In these instances, trying to get revenge leaves you looking like a fool, and feeling even more powerless and frustrated, not to mention even more traumatized by their response. They will cause you so much more pain in this effort, that you might even be moved to escalate your response on this account, but that will also fail and will only make you feel more guilty and ashamed later.
That is the nature of this dynamic. Engaging with a narcissist is a losing proposition. That’s how it’s set up to work most of the time. No matter which path you choose, you lose. This is why most narcissistic abuse instructions tell us not to engage, not to fight, not to confront them, in order to minimize further trauma and harm.
If we look deeply at our feelings, taking apart the various thoughtstreams, a large part of the injustice is wrapped up with a gross sense of unfairness about this. That they are allowed to do it, unimpeded by conscience; that they can hurt us unilaterally and there’s no way to control that; that another person has that kind of power and there’s no way to protect yourself from it; that no one can stop him and that no one even tries to stop him, because they can’t discern what he’s done; that he takes pleasure in it, while feigning innocence; that he feels no remorse or even a sense of responsibility for the harm he causes, so there is no incentive to stop; that he will continue the behavior gleefully, gloating about his wins and sense of omnipotence – all of these things (and many more) contribute to one’s feelings of powerlessness and injustice in the experience, and overall lack of safety and fairness in the world.
And all of that is before we even look at the substance of the thing they’ve said or done, or of the specific wound they touched. Their very existence, their way of being, their destructive toxic nature, which goes unchecked and is even celebrated, often feels mind-numbingly unjust. These are difficult feelings to stomach, and they bring up larger even more unacceptable existential feelings and questions about life, and God, and a bunch of other things.
It is understandable that most people don’t want to go there – they don’t want to feel these things, they don’t want to acknowledge them, they don’t want to wrestle with this kind of darkness. Many people just silently bypass this injustice, accepting it as part of living in a world with jerks, bullies, and trolls. Those who have learned the elegant gray rock method let these injustices go, ignoring them; they walk away in order to avoid more triggers and experiencing more pain. Those who become more assertive or more combative, feel these injustices acutely, as they are repeated in every encounter. Everytime you encounter a narcissist, and try to stand up for yourself or someone else, this sense of injustice is triggered, even if on the most subtle level.
This pain of injustice, like all other pains, can be healed if it is allowed to come up fully. If we are courageous enough and resilient enough to feel the depth of this particular feeling fully, to look honestly and discover all of its various threads, it can be healed, bringing us into full peaceful acceptance in the emotional body.
I want to repeat here that this kind of acceptance does not deny their evil. It sees it, it discerns it with great accuracy, it doesn’t excuse it, but the emotional body grows into more and more peace, in reconciliation with this ugly truth. Then from this inner peace, more just, wise, and temperate decisions can be made. (This kind of peace always takes emotional solidarity with victims, never gaslighting nor denying their pain. It helps them to bring out and process their pain more fully, without weaponizing or politicizing that pain prior to healing it.).
To complicate things a bit further, aside from the injustice, many of these feelings are connected closely with various aspects of pride in its negative manifestation. Our arrogance and sense of superiority, our self-importance, our vanity all get activated in these interactions. As a result, in response to provocation, we might attempt to dominate, to out-do, to punish, to silence, to ridicule, to destroy, to invalidate, to make the other person pay for the provocation… There are many different motives here inside our reactions. They must be discovered also. They too have to be brought to awareness, because in our attempts to purify the shadow aspects, these are considered polluting egotistical drives. The threads of vengeance, domination, destructiveness as reactions inside our anger must be seen, worked through, and purified. As with all the other purification work, we trace them back to the source pain in the unconscious, and processing out that pain, over time the egoic reactions slowly get extinguished.