Episode 93: Narcissistic Abuse, Pt 2 with Rebecca Christianson, LCSW
Episode 93: Narcissistic Abuse, Pt 2 with Rebecca Christianson, LCSW
What is covert vs. overt narcissism? What do symptoms of abuse look like in victims? Can an abuser ever truly change? This week brings us part two of a two-part series with Rebecca Christianson, LCSW, on narcissistic abuse.
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Alyssa Scolari [00:23]:
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Light After Trauma podcast. I am your host, Alyssa Scolari, and we have part two today of our episode about narcissism with Rebecca Christianson, who you all know very well at this point, is the founder and owner of Rebellious Wellness Counseling in South Jersey. We are just going to jump right into it, pick up where we left off. So if you have not listened to last week’s episode, please be sure to do so because we are breaking down narcissism into a two-part episode and this is part two. So if you didn’t listen to part one, please remember to go back and listen. And really, we are just picking up where we left off. And where we left off is wanting to talk about the differences between covert narcissism and overt narcissism because narcissism can be glaring and in your face, but it can also be much more subtle. And I think Rebecca and I can probably both agree that both types are terrible, but covert narcissism can be, I don’t know if I want to say a little bit more insidious, but it can be much more confusing for the victims. So do you want to take it, Rebecca? What do you have to say on that?
Rebecca Christianson [01:43]:
One of the ways that narcissism can be covert is that sometimes narcissists play this down, depressed … They elicit empathy and you always end up feeling sorry for them. And so people are like, “Oh no, they’re not a narcissist. They’re depressed,” but certainly there are times where people are depressed and are down and do need empathy and support. The problem is that a narcissist uses that to entice people to feel sorry for them. But those traits of narcissism like selfishness and they’re never really trying to help other people, it’s always just about getting people to help them. It’s always about them.
Alyssa Scolari [02:33]:
Yes. Yeah, I can think in a relationship, a red flag for this could be … And I guess I should say this and I think we might have said this in the other episode, but if we didn’t, then it bears saying now. So Rebecca and I are giving examples, but the loved one in your life that you are thinking may or may not be a narcissist, we are not diagnosing this person. We’re not that person’s therapist, so we can’t diagnose people. And simply because we are giving traits of what a narcissist can look like does not necessarily mean that somebody who has these traits is always going to be a narcissist. So just keep that in mind as you go through this process and just reflecting off of what Rebecca said, I think, a good example might be. The narcissist even tries to elicit sympathy if you are the one with a problem. Right? Would you agree with that?
Rebecca Christianson [03:34]:
Yep. Yes. Right. They elicit sympathy even if you’re the one that has the problem, they will turn it around so that you are then taking care of them. They lack the ability to have compassion or empathy for other people. It always has to turn back around them so there’s a very selfish nature in a covert narcissist and they keep you in this detrimental cycle. And it’s really sometimes hard to see because we typically think of a narcissist, an overt narcissist, who is egocentric and the need for adoration and arrogant, also very selfish and lack sympathy, but very overt about it. And a covert narcissist does that very under the radar. It’s hard to see sometimes.
Alyssa Scolari [04:30]:
Yeah. I think a covert narcissist, we can look at Adolf Hitler, I think we could say, was a clear example. And potentially some other political leaders in this world at this very moment, we can clearly identify them as overt narcissists. They are loud and out there about the fact that they really don’t care about anybody but themselves and their own personal gains.
Rebecca Christianson [04:58]:
But they’re very charming and there’s that love bombing stage that we did talk about, I think, in part one, and they have this way of making you believe that even though they have those personality traits, you’re the one that sees the real them. You’re the one that can change them. You’re the one that can help them understand why other people see them that way. They can hook you until you hit the devalue phase and discard phase. But even though the way we’re talking about them, it seems like, “Well, who would even want to be friends with them?” they have a way, and that’s the love bonding stage. They have a way of making you feel like a million dollars when you’re with them in the beginning.
Alyssa Scolari [05:44]:
Yes, they’re so charismatic, so charismatic. And I think also another good way to identify a covert narcissist is the one upper. Who’s the one upper in your life? You had a bad day, they had a worse one. You got a nail in your tire. Well, guess what? They got four nails in their tire. Your kid is difficult. Well, guess what? The kid that they had is 20 times more difficult. You can’t even begin to imagine how hard life is for them. Yeah. It’s like the constant one upper in your life.
Rebecca Christianson [06:20]:
Yes. Yeah, absolutely. You’re a hundred percent right about that. I think one of the things we talked about in this interview is are all narcissist abusive? Now, I did some research and I thought about that and that’s a hard one. I don’t know how to answer that. I really don’t.
Alyssa Scolari [06:44]:
Yeah. I was thinking about this question too, and it’s hard for me to picture a situation in which they’re not abusive. I know we’re not supposed to really be using all or nothing generalizations about people, but it’s really hard for me to picture a narcissist who isn’t abusive because they feed off of the attention from others. So it’s not like a narcissist would ever just be a lone wolf, that they would never have an effect on other people. Right?
Rebecca Christianson [07:27]:
That’s exactly what I thought too, is it’s hard to imagine a scenario where that would not be an abusive cycle, where that would not turn into. It’s really hard to imagine that. And I think one of the things that piggybacks of what we were saying earlier, as we’re talking about, you think, “Well, who would want to be friends with somebody like that? Who would want to be in a relationship?” And as you mentioned, they’re huge charmers. Their personalities are bigger than life. You’re drawn to them.
Rebecca Christianson [07:58]:
And I think a lot of times, at least when I see people, I’m sure when you see people too, who have been victims of narcissists, they feel ashamed and feel like there’s something about them that allowed them to … They’re not smart or they’re not self-aware, all these different things, so I thought that was really important to point that narcissists get attracted to people who are intelligent, who have really good qualities. They are empathic and they do have a lot of compassion and they show a lot of heart and they’re open. That’s who narcissists are attracted to. So if you have those qualities, which are all really good qualities, you’re a target for a narcissist. They need their ego fed and they need it fed by somebody who’s intelligent and self-aware and open and empathic and can be vulnerable and are mature and have a lot of friends. That’s who they need their ego fed, so the qualities that most of us strive to have are all what narcissists target.
Alyssa Scolari [09:09]:
A thousand percent, a thousand percent. They’re not going for easy prey because it doesn’t do anything for their ego. Relationships are all about feeding their ego.
Rebecca Christianson [09:19]:
All about feeding their ego. People who are all often successful and have many achievements and all those things, because that is who they want to feed their ego. If they can hook them, it just is all the better, too. And I think that’s an important thing for people because they break you and they come out of that abusive relationship and you feel none of those things about yourself. That feels like another person. That feels like the former you. Therapy for somebody who’s a victim of that is about helping them reattach to that person that they are, that they still are, but they’ve lost in this abusive cycle. They’ve lost themselves, but helping them reattach to who they really are and mend friendships that they’ve lost and mend the relationship with themselves.
Rebecca Christianson [10:17]:
I read this thing about the first step is learning how to observe, be an observer and observe your own thoughts and feelings and that person’s thoughts and feelings and actions. And when you can start just observing, you can then start to have some detachment from the cycle, that abusive cycle, and some clarity. And then, obviously once you start to detach, going to therapy and starting to reattach to that former self that you feel like you lost is so important. But I read this thing about, if you don’t know where to start, start meditating and be mindful, because meditation teaches you how to detach from your thoughts and feelings. And I always thought that was such a great piece of advice because it’s so true. If you just start meditating, just the act of meditating forces you to detach from your thoughts and feelings and observe them, and then you start to observe their thoughts and feelings. And when you can learn to detach them a little bit, then you stop the effect of that abuse momentarily so that you can start to see it for what it is instead of get sucked into it. And I thought that was really good advice.
Alyssa Scolari [11:37]:
Yeah. I love that. And I almost think that can sometimes be the role of what the therapist does if you aren’t able to get there in that moment, where you can be mindful and step outside yourself. That’s where I think a therapist is so important. As you’re talking, I’m thinking about myself and the clients that I’ve dealt with who have had narcissists in their lives and they haven’t been able to do that at first. So it’s the thing that us as therapists do because we are literally the outside person and we can say, “Hey, this is what this is looking like,” and then we teach you to then be able to do that for yourself. And yeah, I think that is the first big step to healing.
Rebecca Christianson [12:22]:
I do too. I do too. I thought that was really … And then mindfulness teaches you to be aware of the in the moment and be aware of how you’re reacting, what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling and how you’re reacting. And sometimes when I teach mindfulness, as in DBT, that one whole section of DBT, one of the cornerstones of DBT is mindfulness. And sometimes when I teach it, I talk about self-respect and personal integrity and being able to be mindful of what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling and what how you’re reacting and how that’s landing and what your intent is. And there’s a certain amount of self-respect and personal integrity when you can stay mindful and be aware of those things because you’re more likely to react in a way that is congruent with your intent. I thought that was really interesting. Also, the role of a therapist in helping somebody heal from narcissistic abuse, to help people, teach people, mindfulness because you get sucked into that abuse and you become reactive. That’s why I say that can break you. You can become somebody that you don’t even recognize and …
Alyssa Scolari [13:48]:
Rebecca Christianson [13:50]:
Yep. And you can break off friendships, family relationships, whatever you have to do to keep that relationship because it becomes all important to you, so I feel like mindfulness is a really important skill too, in the treatment of healing from a narcissist.
Alyssa Scolari [14:10]:
Yes. No, it’s so important. And I think about my own experiences and I remember … You say you don’t even recognize yourself. You don’t even know how you end up light years away from who you used to be and you don’t know how you got there or how you’re even going to begin to get yourself back. I remember when I was dating a narcissist and for the listeners, if you’ve been a long time listener on this podcast, you all know about my experience with being in a very abusive relationship. I left my home, moved in with this dude. And before I knew it, literally before I knew it, I had cut off my entire family, didn’t speak to any of them, and I was looking for apartments for us to live in. I was a college kid. I couldn’t afford an apartment. I could barely afford a cup of coffee, but I was suddenly about to pay 50% of the rent for a really fancy apartment in a really ritzy area because he told me that this would make me happy. And I was like, “This doesn’t make me happy. I’m going to be alone and broke. And you’re going to be living with me and I don’t even think I like you.”
Alyssa Scolari [15:34]:
You lose yourself. And I think, in talking about the treatment that victims get, mindfulness, absolutely. And I think further along that journey is boundary setting. Whether or not you’re still in that relationship, boundary setting. Would you agree with that?
Rebecca Christianson [15:59]:
Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. I think that’s, like you said, farther down that journey. I feel like once you can start to detach from the thoughts and feelings that you’re having and you can observe what’s happening for you and you can observe what’s happening for them and you can start to identify the abuse and you can start to become mindful and aware of what your needs and wants are and not just what the narcissist’s needs are wants and your desire to fulfill that bottomless well, you can start to, again, focus on what some of your needs are wants are. I feel like then boundary setting is … And some people were really good at boundary setting and then they got caught up in a narcissistic abuse cycle and they’ve lost that ability. It’s just remembering boundaries are life sustaining. We need boundaries for everything and …
Alyssa Scolari [16:58]:
Your whole life.
Rebecca Christianson [17:00]:
Your whole life. Boundaries do not make you a selfish person. Boundaries make you a healthy person.
Alyssa Scolari [17:05]:
Yes, and this is important. This is especially important if the narcissist in your life is a parent or is the person who raised you. This is especially important because oftentimes, we have parents or caregivers who are narcissists and it’s not so easy to just cut them off because you can’t just break up with them. You breaking up with a caregiver doesn’t make them not your caregiver. You breaking up with a parent doesn’t mean that they’re no longer your parent. Now, you could go no contact, but for some people, it takes years to get there. And for some people, that’s never an option, so I think especially when the narcissist in your life is a parent, I think boundaries are crucial. Crucial down the road, of course, after you learn how to solidify your voice and take back what was taken from you.
Rebecca Christianson [18:11]:
Yep. Exactly. No, I absolutely agree. Yes.
Alyssa Scolari [18:15]:
Now, we’re talking about treatment for the victim of a narcissist, but what about treatment for a narcissist? Can narcissists get treatment? Will they get treatment? And if they do, what does that look like?
Rebecca Christianson [18:36]:
I have, over the years, seen a few narcissists that have gotten treatment, have been successful, I should say, in treatment. So they often do not seek treatment because this is an ingrained personality disorder. And like you said, we are not diagnosing somebody that we don’t know in somebody else’s life. To be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, you have to meet criteria for a period of time and you have to meet the criteria in the DSM-5, and that has to be over a period of time. It’s not just like these personality traits are present in one relationship. They have to be there pervasively for a period of time. But I have seen over the years, a handful of narcissists that have successfully been treated. And in all of those cases, them seeking treatment was brought on by a traumatic event in their life or an illness or accident that was life-threatening. So oftentimes, that is when the consequences of some of these personality traits hit home. When they are facing a life change or an illness, something that could possibly, they would need a caretaker or they’re going through treatment, sometimes that is when some of these personality traits, they become aware of some of these personality traits and how they have impacted other people because they’ve alienated so many people.
Rebecca Christianson [20:22]:
Or some tragedy, so I have seen one narcissist who went through the loss of a child and that really shook him to the core. I think it was some of his family and friends’ reactions to that tragic loss that made him seek treatment and want to understand why he was that way and wanted to change.
Rebecca Christianson [20:45]:
And it was years ago, many years ago, but I do believe that he successfully changed. Treatment, for him, was some exposure therapy, learning to sit with the uncomfortable truth of his fragile ego and how he would do almost anything to cover that anxiety or for somebody else to soothe that anxiety. So exposure therapy and DBT, because I think that all people with narcissistic personality disorder really missed some of the cornerstones that DBT can teach you, like emotion regulation, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness. I think they’re missing all of those. Mindfulness, I think they’re missing all of those. They didn’t learn them along the way because they learned very early on to get their needs met. They had to manipulate and that worked for them, so they never stopped manipulating. They never learned how to tolerate distress. They never learned how to regulate their own emotions. They just expect somebody else to feed that fragile ego and they keep manipulating to get that need met. They don’t really worry about meeting their own needs. They never meet their own needs.
Rebecca Christianson [22:09]:
So some exposure, where they are sitting, not literally naked, but emotionally naked and being able to force them to regulate those emotions, and learn skills, then, to regulate those emotions … And interpersonal effectiveness is really fascinating, the few times that I’ve been able to teach that to a narcissist, because they think they are very interpersonally effective because they always get their needs met. But what they don’t realize is that they burn through, it’s in an abusive way, so even though they think are getting their needs met, they’re just chewing up and spitting out somebody else. They’re not actually meeting that need and …
Alyssa Scolari [22:58]:
Right. They’re not fostering any genuine connections.
Rebecca Christianson [23:01]:
Nope. And so that’s always fascinating. I think they can. I think typically, it’s too painful for them and so I feel like that’s why it has to take a life threatening illness or some tragedy for them to get this … Not always, I mean, but …
Alyssa Scolari [23:23]:
Yeah. For the listeners out there who might not know what DBT is, that term might be new. I’m trying to think of a good way to summarize what DBT is. I love DBT and I used to hate it, but your girl loves it now. DBT is a type of therapy. It stands for dialectical behavioral therapy and that is really a fancy term for … Dialectical, that term in itself means that both can exist, the good and the bad, living in the dialectic, where all of it can be true and you can sit with it. Would you agree with that or am I off on that definition?
Rebecca Christianson [24:08]:
Yeah. No, I think that’s spot on. It’s a set of skills.
Alyssa Scolari [24:13]:
Yeah. DBT is really heavy with skills that, again, teach you how to effectively communicate with other people, how to deal with your emotions if your emotions are feeling so intense and out of control. Anything else? I feel like that sums it up. It’s teaching you basic life skills. But when I say basic, things that we really all need because nobody gets enough of it, like learning how to foster good relationships, learning about boundaries, learning about empathy, learning about self-compassion for yourself, taking care of yourself emotionally, things like that.
Rebecca Christianson [24:55]:
And learning how to relate authentically. I think understanding how to relate your intent and have it land the way you want it to land and mindfulness, being mindful. I think lots of things have impacted our ability to be mindful, our phones, social media, immediate gratification, so those have all impacted our ability to be mindful, so that’s what DBT is. It’s skills training to learn skills related to those concepts that we all need, that we all need to have.
Alyssa Scolari [25:34]:
That we all need, exactly. Exactly. And then so going back to what you were saying about narcissists and what will cause them to get treatment, absolutely. And I work with a lot of teenagers and young adults. I work with people of all ages, but most of my practice is filled with lots of teenagers and young adults. And I will also see that parents who are narcissists will only go to therapy after their child has gone no contact or has said, in a case of parents who are divorced, if the child lives with dad and dad is the narcissist, they’re like, “I’m going to live with mom. That’s it, I’m done,” and that is what will land a parent in therapy. My teens or my young adults will come in and they’ll be like, “Well, now all of a sudden, my mom is in therapy. I’ve been asking her for five years to go to therapy when I was living with her. I move out and suddenly she’s in therapy.”
Alyssa Scolari [26:34]:
But often what I find, too, with some narcissists is that if they do go to therapy, they will often seek out a therapist who they can also manipulate and who will validate them. I’ve seen a lot of the parents of my kids go to therapy and then they’ll come home and they’ll be like, “Well, my therapist thinks that you are being B, B, B, B, B, B, blah.” Now, whether or not the therapist actually said that, who knows, but the narcissist’s interpretation of therapy can often be to their benefit and then sometimes it can be another tool in their arsenal that they can use against their child. I’m sure you’ve seen that sometimes, right?
Rebecca Christianson [27:17]:
Yes, absolutely. Yep. It can be another tool that they use, like, “Well, my therapist said,” but that therapist is getting one viewpoint. And I always think as a therapist, if it looks really simple, there’s probably more to the story. If it looks like, “Oh, this person is the best parent in the world. Why would there be a problem? It must be the other parent or the child or whatever,” that I feel like you’re probably not getting the whole story. And the other time I think that narcissists show up in therapy is in couples therapy, when they’re on the brink of divorce. And the person that they have abused is finally leaving or has left or has filed for divorce or whatever and they’re scared, so that is always really difficult to mediate in couples therapy.
Alyssa Scolari [28:27]:
Rebecca Christianson [28:29]:
Yep, really difficult.
Alyssa Scolari [28:31]:
It’s so hard. So one last question that I’m curious to know your opinion on is if somebody is listening to this out there right now and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I think that I have a narcissist in my life. I think that I have somebody in my life who is a narcissist.” Would you recommend that they say it to the person that they think is a narcissist and say, “You need to go get help.” Have you ever seen that that has been effective?
Rebecca Christianson [29:08]:
No, I don’t. I don’t think a narcissist is going to take that and that critique and become suddenly self-aware and less selfish. I think that they’re going to be verbally abusive to the person who says, “I think you’re a narcissist.” So I think that if somebody thinks that they’re in a relationship with a narcissist and they want to stay in the relationship, they should consider couples counseling because I would let the professional point that out.
Rebecca Christianson [29:53]:
And I think that’s the only time that maybe they might be, if they have a connection to a therapist and feel like that therapist understands or at least has the good of the relationship and is their priority, then there’s a chance that they might listen that some of their traits. I rarely think that calling a narcissist a narcissist is a good idea. I really don’t think, even as a therapist. I usually just identify the traits, like, “Can you understand how that feels self-serving? Can you understand how that can be really construed as there’s a flavor of arrogance in that?” I feel like that’s much more palatable to a narcissist than being like, “I think you’re a narcissist. You should …” I just feel like that’s aggressive.
Alyssa Scolari [30:53]:
Rebecca Christianson [30:53]:
So I feel like pointing out the traits … That’s not to say that I haven’t said, “I think that you have a lot of narcissistic traits.” I just don’t always say that till I formed a relationship where they trust me enough that I can say that and they’ll actually receive it as constructive.
Alyssa Scolari [31:17]:
Right. Exactly. Exactly. Well, thank you so much for joining [crosstalk 00:31:26] part two with me.
Rebecca Christianson [31:26]:
Yes. Always a pleasure.
Alyssa Scolari [31:27]:
This is one of my, I don’t know. I’m very passionate about talking about this. I love it. And I also think that narcissism can be really overused and I think it’s one of those words that people just throw out there very lightly, but it’s actually really, really damaging. So, just like we talked about, if you are listening and you resonate with this and you feel like you have a narcissist in your life, you could potentially be opening yourself up to being hurt and opening yourself up to more abuse if you do directly confront that person and say, “Hey, I think you’re a narcissist.” And I think that either couples counseling or if it’s a parent or if you’re in a relationship and you don’t want to continue the relationship or you don’t know, get help for yourself because ultimately, that is all we can do, is help ourselves. We can’t change people. So I think that’s really important to keep in mind because when we are in relationships, we love other people and we want to see that other person get help, but you simply can’t and you have to come first.
Alyssa Scolari [32:39]:
So thank you so much for joining me today.
Rebecca Christianson [32:42]:
Absolutely. Always a pleasure.
Alyssa Scolari [32:45]:
Thank you. I hope that everybody has a wonderful week. Hang in there. I know times are tough right now. I will be back next week with another episode. And until then, I will be holding you all in the light.
Alyssa Scolari [33:00]:
Thanks for listening, everyone. For more information, please head over to lightaftertrauma.com or you can also follow us on social media. On Instagram, we are @lightaftertrauma and on Twitter, it is @lightafterpod. Lastly, please head over to patreon.com/lightaftertrauma to support our show. We are asking for $5 a month, which is the equivalent to a cup of coffee at Starbucks, so please head on over. Again, that’s paton.com/lightaftertrauma. Thank you and we appreciate your support.