The Blood-bag: Cutting the IV line
This is the second post in our series on identifying narcissistic relationships, ending or changing these relationships, and building communities that discourage narcissism (the first post is here and the third is here). As a recap, narcissistic relationships have two participants: the narcissist, and the person who supports the narcissist. Psychologists call this a co-narcissist, but we are calling them the “blood-bag” after Max’s role as a mobile IV blood-bag in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” This post is about how to get out of a narcissistic relationship when you realize you are serving as a blood-bag. The posts in this series are co-written by Marlena Compton and Valerie Aurora.
What is the goal of changing a narcissistic relationship?
In The Wizard of Oz, Eleanor Payson writes that there are three potential end goals in a narcissistic relationship. Either 1) the relationship ends, 2) the relationship continues with an emphasis on self-care for the co-narcissist or 3) the relationship is transformed into a healthy relationship. It’s easy to hope that your relationship with a narcissist will be transformed into a truly reciprocal and caring relationship, but the reality is that it’s far more likely that you will end the relationship or change it to make it less harmful to you.
Even when narcissists are self-motivated to change their behavior, it takes years for them to change. If a narcissist doesn’t want to change, there’s basically no hope for any change in their behavior towards you. As long as you keep working with a narcissist, they will keep acting like a narcissist and it will be a daily fight to avoid serving as their blood-bag. To give you some perspective on difficult it is to work with narcissists, professional therapists give each other advice on how to prevent narcissistic clients from harming their therapists — and they are literally experts on narcissism!
Recognize the positive qualities that draw you to narcissistic relationships
Often a narcissist relationship continues because the blood-bag cares about the work they are doing, and feels guilty for stopping “just because” they aren’t being treated fairly. This is a great time to read this excellent short list of reasons why good caring people get stuck as victims of “sick systems.” The TL;DR version is: you may be getting stuck in sick systems precisely because you are a loyal, kind, compassionate thoughtful person. The problem is that, even though you are doing work you care about, your sense of self-worth and quality of life will gradually erode as you continue to support the narcissist or narcissistic organization.
Seek out a therapist
Therapists cost money, but they play an important role in helping you see how a narcissist has affected your life and adjustments you will need to make to break free. Because there is so much happening in the narcissist/blood-bag dynamic, it can be overwhelming. While there are self-help books available such as our favorite, The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, it is easy to read these without going deep enough to make the lasting changes you will need to make if you want to avoid starting more relationships with narcissists. There is nothing easy here and you will need some support — most likely in the form of a professional therapist. Finding a therapist can seem daunting, especially if you have little time or money, but Valerie has written an article about how to look for a therapist that suits you and finding ways to afford therapy.
Set boundaries and practice defending them
If narcissism is all about a lack of boundaries, chances are that you and your narcissist have crossed many of them. These crossed, interlocked and inter-woven boundaries mean that it will be hard to even understand where all of them are. If you cut a tie in one place, you will likely find another somewhere else. Narcissists are particularly talented at pulling these strings. It’s how they survive!
Learning about healthy boundaries is key to understanding the adjustments you will need to make in your own life in order to keep cutting the ties.
As you learn about boundaries, start setting some with your narcissist. The easiest way to do this is to limit your exposure to them as much as you can. Slowing down the relationship with them will give you more space to examine what is actually happening in the relationship. When you are with them, watch the number of compliments you give them. Often they will ask for compliments or praise in subtle ways — saying a slightly critical thing about themselves and then pausing, for example. At work, keep a log of how decisions are made and what happens. This can help you go back and spot patterns.
When you start to set and defend boundaries, narcissists will often respond by punishing you — directly or indirectly — in an attempt to make you so miserable that you stop enforcing your boundaries. Expect to feel guilty, abandoned, lonely, defective, selfish, cruel — these are all feelings narcissists are good at provoking in their blood-bags. You will also have internalized these rules yourself and may have these feelings without any outside provocation. To help you figure out what appropriate boundaries are, you might try this book recommended by Eleanor Payson: “ Boundaries: Where you end and I begin,” by Anne Katherine.
Learn how to spot narcissists
You are likely to encounter many narcissists in your life, and they will be drawn to you because of your skills at supporting and enabling others. Although it takes time and effort, learning about the different types of narcissists and how to spot the narcissists around you will help you to control their presence and impact in your life. Two books that we like about narcissists are The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love and Family by Eleanor Payson, and Why is it always about you?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandy Hotchkiss.
Consider dropping what you’re doing with the narcissist and walking the other way
In her book, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism,” Sandy Hotchkiss refers to this as “Finding your own dream.” If you and your narcissist have a programming language in common, learn a new language. If you and your narcissist participate in the same meetup group, try a different one. Framing it as “taking a break” can ease the pain of feeling like you are breaking up “cold-turkey.” Experiment with introducing yourself differently (but truthfully) to new people to try on new self-identities (e.g., as a writer and programmer rather than a Rails expert).
Keep in mind that one way to keep people in a group is to create a sense that the people in this group are superior in some way to the people outside a group. Take the time to re-examine your assumptions. Maybe you can achieve your goals by working with some slightly different group, or in a different role. The sense of being trapped into a narrowly defined role is one way narcissists keep blood-bags around and serving them.
We’re making this one of the last steps because it can be the hardest, especially if you are “taking a break” from a community where you have friends and have invested time. Those friends are probably going to miss you and want you to come back, but remember that this is about finding your own new dream. You might be surprised at the new dreams and new friends that show up when you leave space in your life for your own dreams to show up and take shape.
Keep trying even if you go through a few cycles of cutting the IV line but then re-attaching
Even if you recognize that you are a blood-bag for someone close to you, it can be hard or even feel impossible to cut the ties. Even if you think you’ve cut the ties, something might happen that throws you back in the path of your narcissist. Remember, the training you received to be a blood-bag has happened over long periods of time and shaped core parts of your personality. It will probably take years to retrain yourself and change your patterns. Turning away from being loyal, helpful, hopeful, etc. is not something encouraged by society even when it is obviously harmful to you.
Ending the pattern
Hopefully this post can help you end or change a narcissistic relationship you are tired of. Ultimately, however, we hope your goal ends up being larger than one relationship or one narcissist. In truth, if you are a blood-bag, you are likely supporting or have supported more than one narcissist. Cutting the IV in one relationship is a single step on a path. That path will lead you towards asking for more and asking for what you deserve from every, from any relationship. It can be a hard path to walk if you’ve been raised to always be the blood-bag, but it is the path towards freedom for yourself and healthier relationships all around you.
One consequence of cutting the IV line is that you will start seeing and recognizing narcissistic behavior around you. You’ll begin to notice the effect of the narcissist/blood-bag dynamic playing out in front of you, sometimes in your own relationships but also in the larger scope of and industry such as tech.
In our next post, we will look at different examples of the narcissist/blood-bag dynamic that we have noticed in tech.