In Part I of “Divorcing A Narcissist” I describe the character traits of an individual diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. As a reminder, these are people who have an overblown sense of importance, lack empathy and compassion, are manipulative, fantasize about their own success and power, and as far as they’re concerned, you’re there in service to them.
Narcissists are toxic individuals.
As such they are self-obsessed and anything that runs counter to their sense of superiority suggesting they’re flawed individuals can provoke them to the point of blind rage. All you can think of is running for cover because honestly, who wants to be on the receiving end of such attacks, they happen far too often as it is. Once again, you may not see it coming and may even be at the point of thinking it’s your fault anyway. It’s not.
Your sense of self from living with this person already has you walking on eggshells. Any sort of criticism, probing, calling out their behavior and simply saying “No” can spawn an attack that will leave you reeling. With each successive incident of this type you can’t help but feel fragile, unable to think clearly and quite frankly, you’re just not at the top of your game.
Mindfulness, as discussed in the first article, is paramount.
It will keep you focused in the present moment, the here and now, allowing you to feel balanced and far less reactive. It’s as simple as looking at a banana, noticing it, touching it, tasting it, smelling it by using all of your senses. This takes you out of your ‘head’ and away from any ruminating or self-downing thoughts that cause impulsivity or withdrawal.
There are two DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills rooted in mindfulness that are helpful when in distress and highly emotional. The first is called ‘Distress Tolerance’ followed by ‘Emotion Regulation.’ Both of these are invaluable skills as you’re certainly in distress with a narcissist so you can bet it becomes difficult to regulate your emotions. They count on you being confused, wildly upset, impulsive or meek and willing to do anything to get the abuse to stop.
Tolerating Stressful Situations
Since life is unpredictable with a narcissist and you never know when they’ll fly off the handle, it’s helpful to prepare what to do in a situation you find emotionally unbearable. Sometimes people resort to self-defeating and self-medicating behaviors that are clearly unhealthy and always ineffective in the long run.
Distracting yourself is key here. This temporarily stops the painful feelings allowing you to lower the intensity of your emotions. DBT calls this state of mind “Wise Mind,” the point where emotions (Emotion Mind), and analytical/reasonableness (Rational Mind) overlap (think Venn diagram). This marriage of emotions and reasonableness becomes “Wise Mind,“ defined as a feeling in your gut, a sense of “all’s right with the world,” a peaceful wisdom that leads the way. Distraction isn’t avoidance. You aren’t choosing to disregard the situation altogether, you’re just lowering the emotional temperature to manage it.
Squeeze Ice Cubes
Things like squeezing ice cubes in your hands is remarkably helpful. The sensation from the cold brings you immediately into the present moment and out of a tidal wave of emotion.
Your Face in Cold Water
Or put your face in a sink of freezing cold water all the way up to your ears. Same principle. The sensation from the cold water instantly lowers the intensity of the emotion by distracting you. You might also try some strenuous, aerobic exercise that helps deplete both your energy and the intensity of the feeling. Even writing a letter to your partner telling them how you feel, what they did to you, why you ‘hate’ them, to then rip up and toss into the garbage can be distracting as well as cathartic.
Activities That Bring Joy
Other ideas to distract yourself include taking part in activities you find pleasurable. Go for a bike ride, a walk in the park, read a book, listen to music, exercise. The list is endless. Pay attention to someone else, do something kind for them, go shopping where others hang out, reach out to someone you care about and have a chat. Take care of errands and chores like getting a haircut, a massage, going to a farmers’s market and cooking dinner.
Another way to reduce the overwhelming distress is by self-soothing. You do this with your five senses. It helps to self-soothe before facing a potentially challenging situation and then again afterwards, especially if you’re someone who panics, is easily overwhelmed, gets tongue-tied or can’t process things at the speed of light.
Try sitting back in a comfortable chair, closing your eyes and imagining your favorite place. Feel it. Smell it. Hear it. Taste it. Touch it. Or take a hot bath, have a warm cup of tea, listen to a favorite podcast. You can do a progressive body-scan meditation by lying down, closing your eyes and focusing on each part of your body, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, one body part at a time while breathing deeply. Only you know what you need to soothe yourself in the moment, be confident the list of possibilities is endless.
If you’re someone who’s easily emotionally aroused and often goes from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye, the following may be helpful. First, let’s admit a narcissistic partner knows exactly how to get under your skin, in fact you’ve shown them how countless times before. And if your marriage is of any duration they’ve honed their attacks and put-downs much like a samurai sword.
Our nervous systems control our emotions.
When you’re under stress the sympathetic nervous system causes your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, activates glands that release sweat, increases the rate of breathing and produces sugar that provides energy. All of these functions are part of emotional responding. The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite. It lowers the arousal rate back to homeostasis and your original baseline.
The challenge in controlling your emotions is recognizing them first before they overwhelm you. When you’re in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’ such as a narcissist often leaves you, it’s easy to be impulsive and react more than you’d like. Overreacting is a gift to a narcissist as it’s the opportune time for them to call the police, claiming you’re out of control and have done something egregious. You may then find yourself arrested and sitting in the rear seat of a police cruiser, maybe even hand-cuffed. The ultimate indignity. It’s a sure bet a narcissist will stop at nothing to get a leg up on your divorce case.
Mindfulness comes into play here.
Tuning into how your body feels is essential. You may not realize your body gives you signs before the emotion hits consciousness. You may notice your palms are sweaty, shoulders are hunched up to your ears, heart’s beating faster, there’s a pit in your stomach, etc. All signals you’re on the way to becoming dysregulated. Simply ‘listen’ to your body. Then start talking back. Something along the lines of, “I’m okay, I’m strong and I can get through this.” Any sort of self-talk, affirmations and reminders you’re the person you believe yourself to be is extremely helpful. Validate yourself consistently and emphatically as you probably haven’t been during your marriage.
Be aware when you’re on the receiving end of a torrent of insults and attacks. Spewing these hateful, hurtful words are really about what the narcissist loathes in themself. It’s called projection. Ask yourself, “Where are the facts that this is true?” You’ll realize there are none.
To Prevent Gaslighting
Gaslighting is the technique used by narcissists to confuse you, disorient you, cause you to question your memory and judgment, turning your world upside down until you don’t know what’s fact and what’s fiction. To combat this keep a list of things said, situations that happen and have happened in the past, personal items that disappear. Keep a file of text messages received from and sent to your partner so you have a record of reality, ‘the facts.’ You’ll have this as reference if you need to counter a lie or accusation as well as a documented history of situations should you ever be challenged. All of this further serves as a record of your ‘sanity’ and what you’ve endured, ultimately given to your lawyer as a diary of your experience.
In The End
With much perseverance and fortitude you’ll get through your divorce. It may take everything you’ve got both emotionally and financially, but your freedom in the end is worth it all. Practice the above skills, keep a record of all conversations, do not engage more than for informational purposes and stay firm on boundaries. A narcissist will try every tactic, including warmth and kindness to manipulate you. Don’t think they’ve seen the light. They haven’t. And never will.
Your freedom is worth it all.
Find yourself an excellent lawyer, one well-versed in mental health issues and personality disorders. They may have to educate all those involved in your divorce so a true picture of the situation is understood. Therapy is equally important and a must. Particularly with someone who practices Cognitive Behavior Therapies and can help undo the unhealthy negative beliefs that may have taken hold. Whatever sort of team you put together to help you through this, be it 2 or 10 people, make sure they’re all well-versed in the issue and its many complications.
Hold Onto This
The rest of your life is out there waiting. You have the chance to rebuild it anyway you’d like, either returning to the person you left behind or the new one you didn’t know existed. You know where you’ve been and now it’s time to move forward into the future. Embrace the past for what you’ve learned then let it go of it and grab hold of the present and to set your new course.