Ask a Narcissist
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Ask a Narcissist

ask a narcissist #3: how do i stop hurting?

I have to admit at the outset that this question wasn’t sent to me specifically, not at first. It was written by a friend of mine, who has requested to remain anonymous, and I was so struck by it that I wrote to them in turn to ask if I could try answering it here. I’m grateful to them for giving me permission to publish this.

My answer will almost certainly involve some discussions of trauma and (mal)adaptive coping mechanisms. Please be kind to yourselves as you read.

Whenever I complain about not having my needs met in some way, I’m told I need to advocate for myself harder by internal and external parties alike. I am told that I clearly didn’t advocate for myself enough and how dare I expect things I didn’t ask for. I have no one to blame but myself for my shit communication, you see?

But when I *do* screw my courage to the sticking place and ask for things, always careful in how and when I ask, I’m ultimately ignored, told I’m Too Much, pushed away, cut off, reacted to defensively, etc. Even in the best case with the best types of people who want to do right by me, I’m deprioritized to the point where it doesn’t feel like it was even worth it to ask. So I learn not to.

Plot twist: Now that I’m open about this shit, my needs still often don’t get met, but with an extra heaping helping of hurt. Now, my needs don’t get met *after* the person I opened up to about it validates my vulnerability and tells me that I was brave and good for asking for what I want from them. So basically, the outcome is often the same, but with extra steps. When I’m not so overall depressed that I’m numb, I’m incredibly demoralized and sad about it.

I keep getting evidence that my prior MO of being overall distant, closed-off, self-sufficient, avoidant, and guarded was, while not painless, at least less acutely and actively painful than this new openness schtick. There’s no avoiding disappointment, rejection, and pain in life, but there are ways to minimize it, and it seems like being vulnerable is an opportunity to invite more of it into my life.

What’s the benefit of doing what my therapist and others are telling me is the better, more evolved, more emotionally mature thing? I sometimes suspect that people believe that openness and vulnerability are a good thing only in theory, and that in practice, it’s a bad idea.

I have memories from when I was very very young, and I don’t have memories of myself not already being caught up in *waves vaguely* all this, this cycle of being told to tell, then being told to not tell, then being told to tell, and on and on and on. Why not just mourn and grieve and Do the Work, but without this vulnerability thing?

After all, I mostly relied on myself as a broken and resource-broke person just fine, so why not rely on myself? Especially given that I am stronger and better and more capable and more healed than before, with a lot more in the way of resources at my disposal? Why not stay home in my solitude and grow plants and pet cats and work and play video games and read and masturbate? Why not protect myself from that feeling of utter foolishness when I realize that trying to get others to help me is not ultimately a useful or meaningful endeavor? Why not constantly be reminded that my needs don’t actually matter to anyone but me?

(And yes, I am in therapy about all this… though my therapist is changing employers so she’s gone end of this year, and I told her that it was fine and wished her well, and am trying to not take it personally because it isn’t personal, but like, this fucking sucks? Oh, the irony.)

Dear friend,

Do you remember the first time you ever figured out that nobody was going to care about your safety as much as you did? I remember my own experience quite vividly. The story is a little violent to recount, so I won’t, but one very clear memory that I have of the incident is telling myself that I mustn’t cry, mustn’t even make a sound, because it was important not to alarm anyone by showing them that I was scared.

Avoidance is a trauma response. You are the way you are because, as you say, you learnt as a child all of the many ways in which you could be punished for showing vulnerability. You have learnt self-reliance and stoicism not out of any particular desire to cultivate them as virtues, the way capitalism so often demands that we do, but as a matter of survival.

I know a little about doing what one has to do to survive. And I know a little about people who have never had to do the things that you have had to do to protect themselves, who look at you and don’t see everything that has led you to where you are now, and don’t understand the choices you’ve had to make, and can’t possibly know how it felt to make them, who feel qualified to tell you that your decisions were the wrong ones.

I am not sure I agree with your therapist (or with most therapists) that the way forward for you is to unmake yourself to the satisfaction of others. I think your guardedness and your self-reliance are woven into the person you have become, and the act of unweaving would bring more pain than profit in the long run. I think you have a lot to lose by opening yourself up to the possibility of hurt. Perhaps other people would tell you that the potential gain is worth the risk, but this isn’t that kind of advice column.

When I made the choice to start therapy, I was quite clear in my own mind about my goals. I had no real interest in changing the person I was; in fact, I was quite satisfied with the person I was. What I wanted was for my interactions with other people to be more productive, and hopefully more positive into the bargain. What I wanted was to learn how to get what I needed from others, and I think that’s where you are, too.

There is an old and incorrect saying: you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. In fact, vinegar is a more effective way of attracting flies than honey is, and besides, why waste honey on catching flies? Save the sweetest and most precious parts of your nature for the people that deserve them. Even better, save them for yourself. Vinegar will more than suffice for the others.

I do think you need to ask for what you want to get what you want, but there are ways and ways of asking. You have tried what you’re told works for other people: vulnerability, open communication, ‘putting yourself out there’ (that tired and terrible phrase). It isn’t working. So what does work?

In my experience, other people will only give you what you want if they want to. So the trick is making them want to.

You’ve said that even people who should have your best interests at heart, people who should be ready to hear you, people who should be safe ports in a storm, don’t prioritise you. Well, what would it take for them to prioritise you? Would it take your detaching from them until they no longer experience the unconditional and unquestioning love and affection they have come to expect from you? Would it take your stepping back, investing less and less of yourself, and allowing them to feel the loss for once?

I am reminded of Lysistrata, which has become synonymous with the withholding of sex as a manipulation tactic. I am sure a Greek chorus is waiting in the wings to cry that manipulating people by refusing to give them what they want until they listen to you is cruel or cold or heartless. Perhaps it is. But I submit that a certain amount of coldness, a certain lack of heart, is what keeps us from burning up, what keeps us from bleeding out — in short, what keeps us alive when we are driven to extremes, as you surely have been. You grew up in an environment that did not allow you to be warm and vulnerable and giving, and you have adapted to survive. One could lament a lost childhood, certainly — and I hope you give yourself plenty of space, with this therapist and with the next, to rage, rage against the dying of your innocence — but that won’t change the present. You are here, and this is now. You are a product at least partly of your circumstances. Why shouldn’t you be able to use them to your advantage a little?

A tenet of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, which was developed for the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, is something called radical acceptance. There are things you cannot change. You cannot make people kinder or more considerate. You cannot travel back in time and give yourself the loving childhood you deserved. There are so many things you cannot change. There are so many injustices you will never rectify, so stop burning yourself out in the struggle.

You cannot change other people. They will always be self-interested or uncaring of the harm they cause you or unwilling to listen. What you can do is change what parts of yourself you are willing to give to them, or change what you demand in exchange. If people don’t prioritise you, don’t prioritise them. If people don’t listen to you, you don’t owe them your attention. You certainly don’t owe your empathy or your altruism to people who are not empathetic or altruistic towards you.

You asked, why not just stay home and care for your cats and your plants and yourself? That’s a good question. My answer is: I think you may have to do a bit of that to get what you want, because from where I stand, it seems like a lot of what you need to do to protect yourself is disengage from the people who aren’t giving you the things you ask for, and wait for them to come to you. Some of them won’t, and you’ll have to give them up as a bad job. Some people won’t even realise when you withdraw your love and care and affection from them because they never valued it while they had it. They won’t realise when you stop being vulnerable and open with them because they weren’t listening when you were. Leave them behind. Mentally wish them well and stop investing your time and energy in them. They will never be useful to you.

Other people — let’s be mercenary and say the people who can still be useful to you — will realise that you’ve withdrawn. They’ll miss your attention and your care. They’ll wither a little, deprived of your light and your warmth. They’ll realise that if they want what you have so generously given them for so long, they will have to give you something in return. And they will come to you. That is when you ask for what you want: when and only when you can be assured that you will get it.

I am not a therapist. I am not going to tell you that you need to mend your broken heart or let love into your life. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do those things some day, but I won’t pester you to do them and I won’t blame you if you don’t. That’s because I believe, have always believed, that the person you need to take care of the most is yourself, and if what you need to do to be safe is to stay home and care for your cats and grow your plants and play your video games and read your books and masturbate, then damn everyone else to hell and do what keeps you alive. Don’t set yourself on fire to keep everyone else warm. Other people will burn you enough without your needing to hand them the matches. Take care of yourself first.

I am a person who is the way I am because of very profound trauma, and I have had to find ways of living with myself that don’t pull on my old scars until they tear back open and bleed afresh. This is my advice: when something hurts, stop doing it. If opening up is just leading you to more pain and disappointment, step back for now. Maybe in the future you can try again, but that’s not where you are at the moment. Where you are at the moment is keeping yourself alive. Where you are at the moment is trying to heal. Focus on that. You are not a bad person or a bad friend or a bad lover if you prioritise yourself. I know that’s not what we’re told. I know we’re fed all kinds of virtue-signalling about self-sacrifice and vulnerability and wearing our hearts on our sleeves, but that is advice given by people who have never been hurt to people who have never been hurt. That is not useful advice for you. The advice you need to hear right now is that you are the most important person in your life. I am giving you permission to act like it.

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If you have questions for a narcissist, email jaythenerdkid [at] gmail [dot] com with the subject line ‘Ask a Narcissist’. Updates happen weekly-ish.

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Aaminah Khan

Aaminah Khan

the writer formerly, currently and most likely eternally known as @jaythenerdkid

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