I got into a conversation today about why abuse survivors feel like a burden on others. This feeling has led me to a pretty suicidal realm at times, because it dovetails all too neatly with my other neuroses, but most people with trauma feel this way to some extent.
Some of it is projection – we tend to assume that people think like we do, unless we actively work to look beyond that. So if we’re unhappy with ourselves, we assume that dissatisfaction is universal. The bad qualities we perceive in ourselves must be tattooed on our foreheads, and the fact that these people tolerate us just shows how amazing they are by comparison.
I think there’s a larger factor here, though, and it’s that people raised by narcissists learn an adversarial game of love. I believe that until you unlearn this game, you can’t gain energy from loving company, can’t be empowered and soothed by the company of the people you love – it will always be taxing to some degree.
an adversarial game of love
Part of being a kid is getting saddled with your parents’ values. This just comes with the package – your parents can’t avoid expressing what they believe subconsciously, even if they’re careful about what they say and do in your presence. So until you’re at a point where you can begin to question these things – and remember that trauma stunts emotional development, pushing that point further and further away with every blow – these things are just part of how you see the world. These are your “received values.”
When you’re raised by a narcissist, you receive the values through a megaphone, because a narcissist makes the outside world responsible for their self-worth. What does a narcissist value? Only one thing: supply, or emotional sustenance. It’s not quite the same thing as when you spend time with a friend and you feel better – that, hopefully, is a symbiotic thing, you and your friend supporting one another and giving one another energy in different ways that aren’t deleterious to either of you.
Narcissistic supply, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be positive. Supply is provided any time the narcissist can feel that they are central to others’ lives. Their centrality, the extent to which they feel important and focused on, is the extent to which they feel worthy. If they’re feeling neglected, they will act out to increase the flow of supply, of attention and emotional energy, directed their way, whether this means asserting dominance, provoking others, or demanding their love and devotion.
you are valuable to the extent that you forget who you are
So the narcissist wants supply. Their emotional state, their relationships, their worldview and view of themselves as a person are all dependent on the level of that supply gauge. Which means that if you’re a narcissist’s child, what your parent taught you is that you are valuable to the extent you provide supply. To the extent you make your parent feel central to your life and identity, you are loved. In a very literal way, you are valuable to the extent that you forget who you are.
The problem with this – well, another one – is that narcissistic supply isn’t the same thing as emotional support. It’s like living on nothing but popcorn. It fills you up, but it’s mostly air – you’ll need more in ten minutes. So you might learn to supply your abuser with what they need, but as soon as it becomes routine – or the wind shifts – the demands will change. This makes every interaction an adversarial game: can you divine the way the wind’s blowing, and assume the appropriate position in time, or will you make a mistake? In a way, it doesn’t matter – either outcome provides narcissistic supply. Either they get you to scramble and attend to their needs, or they get to excoriate you for not doing so. Either one reinforces their starring role in your life.
manipulate me for my comfort, but don’t you care let me catch you at it
So if you grow up being told that this is love, how is interacting going to feel to you? Interaction isn’t a source of solace, or support – it’s like being in the room with a hungry animal, something unpredictable that you must nonetheless predict in order to be safe. And when you try out the dubious skills you’ve learned on people outside the family, they call you passive-aggressive and manipulative. That’s how it works. That’s the narcissist’s edict: Manipulate me for my comfort, but don’t you dare let me catch you at it.
You learn a lot from this, growing up. A lot of things that later you’ll have to unlearn, things like:
- All interactions involve layer upon layer of emotional sparring that you will be punished for winning or losing.
- All interactions are one person trying to get supply from the other, trying to drain their emotional energy. At best, every conversation is a negotiation.
- Your value to others is the amount of selfless energy you can provide them.
- No one is ever being dishonest or emotionally manipulative except you. We have no idea where you learned that.
- No one is interested in anything but themselves.
- As a result, every second you spend expressing yourself in another person’s presence, rather than reflecting on and attending to them, is a drag and a drain.
- Your inability to manage this situation with eagerness and enthusiasm is a disease that we need to cure for you to be normal and therefore loved.
And here we are. If this is what a conversation feels like to you, even with people you care about, why would you want to interact at all? Why wouldn’t you count the cost of it every second when you do? Why wouldn’t you be certain those around you are doing the same, and why wouldn’t you, each and every time, come up short in that calculation? You always have before.
do what the narcissist can’t
To get out of this life-sucking trap, where every notification makes you twitch and every phone call gives you a sick feeling of fear and shame as you stare at the phone, still not answering... To get out of this state, you have to do what the narcissist can’t: you have to find self-worth that doesn’t rely on another person to survive. I think self-worth, strangely enough, is a thing you build from the edges in, like a puzzle. It’s going to be a very long time before you can envision the face of the person you’d like to be, the person who doesn’t live in this trap, the person who can love and be loved without counting the cost.
But you don’t have to envision their face. Start with the edges. Learn who that person is by watching their effect on the world. You can’t help acting out your values, any more than your parents could, and I think you’ll find that yours are not simply the ones you were given, no matter how much effort was spent to indoctrinate you. I think you’ll find that when you felt supported, when you felt safe, when you were able to act instead of react… your choices reflected the person you want to be. What does that person seem to value? How do they treat people? Do they make others responsible for their pain, or do they strive to give more than they take, even if they don’t always succeed?
I’m going to bet that person is worthy of love. I bet if you saw another person making the choices you’ve made, you wouldn’t even question whether that person was worthy. Start from that value – you are worthy of love. No one can diminish your value, and no one can increase it. You are not required to bleed for those you love. That’s not what we preach here.
love isn’t something you give or take… it’s something you do
Love can be painful, it can be stressful, but it is not adversarial. They say all relationships are work, and they kick that one around the internet arguing whether it should or shouldn’t be so. I’m gonna clarify it by generalizing like hell: everything in the world is work, unless you’re a sponge. When the person next to you has the same goal in mind and is helping, work goes fast and doesn’t feel like work. When the person next to you isn’t helping, or is working in a different direction, it will feel like every slogging, unproductive step is on you.
It’s not, though. Love isn’t something you give or take – it’s something you do. Do it for yourself first, and then if someone ain’t doing it for you, don’t do it back.