Why we inflict our pain on others and how to change

As a child I was scapegoated by my mother. Everything was somehow my fault.

She would pick and pick at me until she hit a nerve, then I would explode. After I got upset, she would calm down dramatically. In fact, more than acting “calm”, she seemed to have an inner peace about her now that I was upset: contentment. She looked downright pleased.

Since I had blown up, she could then shift any wrongdoing away from herself and blame me for my poor reaction. In turn, she used this as proof to others (smear campaigns) that I was an “angry”, “out of control” child.

This set of behaviors I believe, played more of a role in my development of NPD than any other. It’s the reason I expect my feelings to be rejected, that others have the worst intentions for me, and why I assume people won’t like me before they even meet me. She taught me early on that I was inherently flawed and unloveable.

While I don’t excuse her behavior, since becoming aware of my own NPD I am able to empathize with how she must have been feeling at the time. That’s in part because I have seen myself do the same thing to those closest to me.

And even though I knew what I was doing was wrong at the time, I didn’t consider myself to be evil or see my behavior as manipulative because in my mind, my actions weren’t about hurting the other person, they were about getting what I so badly needed: empathy.

Those of us who grew up without empathy often don’t realize we are missing it. The people who should have cared the most for us never showed us empathy and we don’t know what it looks or feels like. But we still crave it.

What’s going on in my mind when I act this behavior out? I’m usually feeling angry, frustrated or hurt, and I assume no one will care. So, rather than show vulnerability—which always ended up hurting me more as a child—I attempt to FORCE the other person to share my feelings. Once they seem to be as upset as me, I immediately feel better.

It’s never my intention to outright abuse someone else. It’s an inner cry for love and compassion. But my learned behaviors do exactly the opposite—they keep those who want to show me empathy at a distance and perpetuate my inner narrative that no one cares about my feelings.

When you feel this way, remember, this is an inner plea for love and empathy.

What can you do if you find yourself feeling this way?

  1. Show some self-compassion. Be kind to yourself, remember you’re not perfect, and you don’t have to be. It’s OK to feel the way you’re feeling. Just keep trying to do better.
  2. Don’t assume you won’t get the empathy you need if you ask. Your friends/partner are not your parent. Give them a chance to show you compassion.
  3. Be vulnerable. Share how you feel and why in a calm, non-confrontational, non-blaming tone. This is incredibly hard to do at first, so take baby steps.
  4. Ask for their understanding and kindness. More specifically, ask for their empathy. Ask them to put themselves in your shoes and then explain why you feel the way you do. Be straight forward with what you need. I find taking turns letting the other person talk uninterrupted until they go silent, helps dramatically. Many narcissists marry or gravitate toward other ACoNs (adult children of narcissists), who may also not have the emotional intelligence or experience to instinctively know what you need or how to give it. Work on it together.
  5. Make a mental note of how you felt when you needed empathy, and try giving that same thing to your partner the next time they are upset.

Do you ever perpetuate this behavior? How do you deal with it? 

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