My therapist gave me “ruthless lessons” as part of my treatment, because I was so naïve, lacked street smarts, and couldn’t spot a cunning, manipulative, exploitative individual because my rose colored glasses and trauma-informed compassion gave everyone the benefit of the doubt and cast even the most ruthless people in a rosy light. She said that I needed to understand ruthlessness so I could protect myself from it. I was resistant to learning these lessons. I didn’t even like the word “ruthless,” because it felt so insulting and judgmental. But I now realize some people do have ruthless protector parts with no interest in healing those parts, so we have to steer clear of them and stop letting them off the hook for their hurtful behavior.
I’m preparing the curriculum for my upcoming class Becoming Unf*ckwithable As part of my preparation, I’ve been binge listening to the Navigating Narcissism podcast with Dr. Ramini. The podcast is so helpful at unpacking the patterns of how narcissism can show up in all kinds of different relationships with romantic partners, bosses, best friends, parents, siblings, etc. I’ve been keeping Cliff Notes as I listen, and I shared a few of my Cliff Notes in Taking Off The Rose Colored Glasses: Ruthless Lessons, Part 1.
In Part 1, I covered some red flags to look out for, like love bombing, data mining to track your likes, dislikes, fears, confessions, and dreams, fast forwarding commitment & dependency with urgency around entitled demands, weaponizing your empathy and tendency to forgive, future faking promises, blame shifting when they’ve screwed up, and grooming you into a trauma bond so you can be more easily manipulated and controlled. In Part 2, I’ll share some more Cliff Notes with another hat tip to Dr. Ramani.
If you’re educated to be on the lookout for ruthless people who enter your life in any way, that doesn’t make you permanently invulnerable since ruthless people can be very seductive and convincing, and any of us can fall prey from time to time. But if you know what to look out for, it does help you become more unf*ckwithable. You’ll be armed with knowledge that will help you spot danger more quickly and protect yourself sooner.
Please teach your teenagers these ruthless lessons too! Young people can be the most vulnerable, but for people like me with young, naïve, innocent, gullible parts that never got street smart, it’s never too late to get up to speed so you can have your own back and be less vulnerable to people who do not have your back.
- Empaths, beware
Narcissists are attracted to empathic people who cut them slack, extend compassion towards the narcissist when they misbehave, and don’t hold them accountable. They weaponize your empathy, using it like a thief uses a crack in the basement window to slip and rob you blind. They take advantage of the most generous parts of you.
Survivors of narcissistic abuse often attempt to find empathy of some kind for the narcissistic person by reflecting on what they’ve done wrong or what they did to trigger the narcissist’s abusive behavior. Especially in religious people, this kind of “turning the finger back on yourself” behavior often goes back to the Biblical passage when Jesus famously says, “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.” The problem is that survivors take that to heart and view some of their past history as being on equal footing with the narcissistic person’s current abusive behavior. They won’t cast the stone exactly when they should be casting stones- because there are little white lie “sins” and there are BIG GLARING ABUSE “SINS.” Survivors may justify the narcissistic persons’ abusive behavior by saying, “Well, none of us are perfect. I’m certainly not perfect and wouldn’t want anyone to judge me for my imperfections. Therefore I should let this person off the hook and forgive.”
In no reality is the survivor’s history typically on equal footing to the controlling, dominating, exploitative, con artistry of the narcissistic individual. Yet someone, because we want to be granted mercy when we mess up, we may fail to be firm with our boundaries or fail to hold someone to account or fail to end the relationship if we extend too much empathy to someone who is displaying a lot of red flags.
- Your self-esteem is whittled away.
You can’t be properly controlled if you have enough confidence, self esteem, friends, and capacity to take care of yourself. So in order to effectively control you, after the love bombing, you are scrutinized, belittled, and infected with their shame. Your successes are devalued. You are cut down after having been lifted up, so you start to doubt and question yourself.
When you express any emotion or protest the control or abuse, you are treated as if you’re the mentally unstable one. Your reality is systematically denied until you start to doubt yourself and wonder if you are the crazy one. You wind up very confused and have a hard time discerning what’s real anymore. Lying becomes common, and then when caught in their lies, they lie more.
What can save you from the gaslighting is having at least one other person who is validating your reality when they’re gaslighting you. This is why isolating you is so important to being successful at controlling you. If someone else is validating your reality and invalidating their gaslighting, they typically turn on the other person who is validating your reality and try to turn you against that person. If you break out of the isolation, it’s much harder for them to keep you under control.
Coercive control thrives in isolation. There’s a lack of transparency in narcissistic relationships . They’re shady. You can’t get a straight answer about anything, and if you try, you only get more lying and gaslighting, which is very confusing and disorienting. Once you’re isolated and gaslit, you may be coerced into doing things that cause you to betray your own integrity or betray others who you care about. Then you keep the narcissists secrets because you feel shame about what you’ve done or embarrassed that you’ve been conned.
- Smoke and mirrors
The narcissists are the peacocks of the personality world. The bigger the feathers, the less trusting we should be. They are a cult of charisma, but there’s not much of substance under the charisma. They are Machiavellian, cunning, and strategic. Ingrained in the high regard for themselves (eclipsing a hidden lack of self esteem), with no regard for others. They have a delusional and distorted sense of unjustified self confidence.
But they can’t cooperate with others. Dr. Ramani says, “You can’t hook a unicorn up to a carriage.” She also says, ““Narcissistic relationships are a solo act. At best, everyone else gets to be a back up singer.” Narcissistic leaders can be visionary, motivating, and exciting, but they lack empathy, they don’t cooperate well, they lack pragmatism, they can be paranoid, they’re fiscally reckless and irresponsible, and they’re not good managers. And they won’t trust and listen to good managers usually. Their charisma can cause them to be charming, visionary leaders. But what charisma is not good at is the day to day drudgery of running a business or parenting a child. The drudgery punctures the grandiosity.
To be successful leaders, the charismatic needs to partner with the pragmatic, but they rarely do. They partner with enablers who don’t challenge them or push back when they make bad decisions. Enablers are the army that make narcissistic individuals succeed, but the minute those enablers stop enabling, the smoke and mirrors reveal the lack of substance.
- Hope is kryptonite for someone trauma bonded to a narcissist.
Dr. Ramani says “Hope is a 4 letter word when it comes to narcissistic relationships.”
When the narcissist is on their A game, you feel like the sun is shining on you. But the manipulation tactic of taking the sun away intermittently is what makes you chase the unicorn. The back and forth between the excitement and the devastation- and the hope whenever the sun comes out for even the briefest moment- fosters the trauma bond.
Wishful thinking takes people to the point of utter devastation. But there’s often “loss aversion,” an unwillingness to face the reality of what has already been lost, which is often but not always a financial loss. This feeds into the “sunk cost fallacy,” the idea that you’ve already invested so much- time investment, energy investment, financial investment, investing in the future faked promises- that you might as well stay hooked. With the sunk cost fallacy, all you’re ever doing is chasing the uncatchable carrot. It’s not easy to just cut your losses, especially when your losses are as enormous as they often are when dealing with a narcissist.
- Forgiveness grooming
Dr. Ramani says, “The benefit of the doubt is the narcissists best friend.” She talks about “forgiveness grooming,” when the narcissist tests the waters to see what they can get away with and whether you’ll keep forgiving their abusive or exploitative or boundary crossing behavior. “Once they recognize forgiveness is on the table, they’re off to the races and all bets are off.”
She says that forgiveness, when it’s done the right way, means not only is there empathy, but the person giving me the opportunity to be forgiven is also giving me the chance to be better and do better- and they are not enabling my abusive behavior. If we extend empathy or forgive people who aren’t interested in doing better or being better, we are not helping them. We are harming them and giving them permission to keep abusing and feeding their narcissism, making them worse.
If the narcissist has insight, this does not mean there will be any behavior change. Dr. Ramani says, “Insight is the booby prize if it’s not met with action. Without the behavior change, insight is worth nothing.” Not only do we enable narcissists when we forgive an unremorseful narcissist or one who practices performative remorse without behavior change. We can actually turn God into an enabler, thinking that it’s Godly to forgive the perpetrator who has no intention of changing and that we have to hold out hope for redemption.
Dr. Ramani says, “Forget about redemption of the narcissist. Too much damage has been done. Focus on the redemption of the survivor.” She says forgiveness is the paradox of the narcissistic relationship, and unfortunately, it is what propels the narcissistic relationship forward. It harms you, helps them, and is encouraged by the world at large. The toxic folks keep doing manipulative and entitled things, while the abused person feels they don’t have a right to their triggered feelings, as if they are being a bad person for not forgiving. So you forgive, and the patterns perpetuates. The more you forgive the unforgivable behavior, the more toxic a narcissistic relationship gets.
- Betrayal trauma
Betrayal is built into the narcissistic relationship. The betrayals can show up small at first- belittling and humiliating you in public, betraying your confidentiality by not protecting vulnerable secrets shared in confidence, betraying your trust and generosity by taking something that isn’t theirs to take, betraying your right to privacy by reading your texts or emails, betraying you by withholding the love bombing you might have come to expect, betraying you by lying about their age or exaggerating some past accomplishment. If you tolerate or forgive those trust breaches, the betrayals ramp up. Infidelity. Realizing the narcissist has withheld key information you should have been told (like the presence of an STD or a history of restraining orders or jail time.) Figuring out that the history you’ve been given about the narcissist is a lie (such as pretending to have a medical degree when they’ve never gone to medical school, or pretending to have done active duty when they were never in the military.) Discovering that you’re under surveillance. Realizing that the narcissist has turned your family and friends against you because of lies they’ve told about you. Conning you out of your money. Making you a co-conspirator in an unethical or even illegal scam. Promising to manage your money for you and then you find the IRS at your door. Ghosting you the minute you no longer cooperate with the narcissist’s manipulative and exploitative agenda. Abandoning you the minute you stop validating and mirroring back the narcissist’s inflated self image and start doubting their goodness or questioning their motives.
- Betrayal blindness
The betrayal trauma caused by the narcissistic relationship is such a fundamental breach of trust that it crashes down your world view. It’s a loss of innocence that can feel like an ontological shock. It can feel like too much to take in when you realize that the relationship you thought you had was not what it seemed. This can lead to “betrayal blindness,” such that instead of having the appropriate emotional reaction to betrayal (anger, outrage, sadness, grief, regret), you feel numb. Or you might even feel affection, defend your abuser, and “fawn” your betrayer in a Stockholm syndrome kind of way. (Stockholm syndrome describes a survival strategy that kidnapping victims who fall for their kidnappers sometimes develop as a way to save their own lives.) When we can’t handle facing the depth of the ruthlessness of the narcissistic individual, when we can’t tolerate facing the horror of the reality of our circumstances, betrayal blindness can be a strong protector part to protect us from being overwhelmed and emotionally flooded by what has actually happened. It can be easier to stay in the fantasy, believing the narcissist’s gaslighting lies or defended reactions to getting caught in the betrayal than to cope with the intense emotions. The “fawn” stress response is a common severe stress response for those with complex PTSD caused by narcissistic abuse and can be confusing to others who don’t understand why someone might be still attached to someone who has committed horrible acts of betrayal.
- Beware of “chemistry”
Dr. Ramani says chemistry is a dangerous word when it comes to narcissistic relationships. Even though everyone has been taught to look for it, chemistry is the unnamed, indescribable thing that hooks us and intoxicates us. Unlike more grounded qualities that might suggest a healthy, empathic, reciprocal relationship, like kindness, respect, compassion, patience, chemistry is elusive and overvalued. Often what we call chemistry reflects familiarity- or a distorted internalized societal message around what constitutes strength or safety or connection- or even the chance to work through a past unresolved conflict. But because chemistry is so ephemeral, it can take people to tricky or dangerous places.
- Inverted moral compass
Narcissistic individuals will do whatever it takes to get their needs met and fulfill their self-interested agendas, even if it means coercing you into violating your own values. They betray you, but in return, they expect you to betray others. If they see your kids, your best friend, your business partner, or the parent of your children as a threat, they will start a smear campaign aimed at turning you away from anyone who they perceive as a threat to their need to be centered 100% of the time or anyone who might make you doubt whether they’re good for you. To get you away from anyone who competes for your attention or threatens to influence you to leave the narcissist, they will pressure you to abandon and betray your loved ones. Rather than respecting your other relationships and allowing you to stand up for other people who are important to you, they make you choose with ultimatums- “It’s him or me.” When you choose the narcissist, you betray your loved ones and behave in ways that may violate your own ethics.
Because the narcissist requires complete domination and subjugated obedience, they will twist your moral compass to justify immoral behavior using manipulation, gaslighting, and strategic moralizing aimed only at convincing you to do what they want. For example, if you won’t marry the person within two months of meeting, they will pull the “We can’t violate our morals by living in sin” card and try to convince you it’s immoral not to get married right away. If the narcissist wants your money, they will convince you that it’s immoral to hoard money for yourself and you should give your money to their “good cause” (aka “their con”) in order to confuse your moral compass. You might even wind up doing something criminal because they’ve convinced you that the ends justify the means, even if it means you might go to jail.
- People pleasing will do you in
Accommodating parts of us that want to please others are beautiful, pro-social parts that make us likeable to other and help us make friends, attract partners, and belong. The problem is that people who don’t care one lick about pleasing you can take advantage of those beautiful people pleasing parts of people they target for their ruthlessness. It’s best to save our pleasing tendencies for people who will reciprocate and care for us, people with good values and good intentions, people who are honest, trustworthy, “marble jar” friends.
I’ll be sharing more tips for protecting yourself, having your own back, employing IFS-informed boundaries, and spotting and attracting safer relationships in Becoming Unf*ckwithable,