“I feel like I am covered in a shroud that no one else can see and that no one else wears”, says Melissa, a 40-something mother of one.
Melissa came to me seeking understanding and insight for decades’ worth of what she called “low-grade trauma, desperation, and dysregulation”. She said it followed her around and haunted her no matter how much time and effort she put into her recovery, but she couldn’t figure out why or where it came from.
“I have been in therapy for years for seemingly unrelated issues that I can’t find the origin of”, she says. “ I’ve worked on negative self-talk, low self-esteem, extreme burnout, hesitation to take risks, inability to make decisions, unfulfilling relationships, imposter syndrome, lack of focus and motivation despite being full of talents and ideas, bouts of anxiety and depression I can’t shake and somehow, simultaneously being an over-productive, over-achiever while also holding myself back, self-sabotaging, and never truly showing up fully in my own life… I honestly don’t get it. I had a normal upbringing. I excelled in school. But every year that goes by I become more brittle. It’s like everything inside me collapsed and life imploded in on itself!”
Melissa isn’t the only person to show up in my office “with a normal upbringing”, displaying classic signs of chronic attachment trauma or even CPTSD, carrying heavy feelings of being not good enough, chronic guilt, and walking on eggshells around everyone and everything — even their own feelings.
They complain about dating the wrong people, constantly being betrayed by friends, being chronically rejected, and exhausting themselves at work. The only conclusion they come to is that they are the common denominator and therefore there must be something fundamentally broken about them.
As Melissa puts it, “I don’t know if I shouldn’t trust others or if I shouldn’t trust myself.”
Melissa, like most attachment-trauma clients, is so self-aware, intelligent, and insightful that I have joked that her therapists ought to be paying her. Her intellectualizing skills are off the charts and her therapeutic inferences are so spot on that when we first started working together, I also wondered “What are we missing?” She had pulled her entire life web and history together in a compelling and complete narrative. It’s not like decades of therapy just “didn’t work” for her. So what was going on?
We started to pull apart the shroud; why was she wrapped up in something so tightly that it constrained her freedom, obscured her vision of herself and her future, and made having genuine connections with others so challenging? Melissa was enigmatic, lighthearted, smart and a joy to work with. Surely others were drawn to her? And while “recovery burnout” certainly was a factor, what was she working so hard to recover from?
Unlike most clients who seek my services, Melissa didn’t come to me with a clearly defined story of narcissistic abuse. And yet she displayed all signs of it. From lived experience, I knew that covert narcissism had tendrils that extended well beyond the recognizable toxicities that propel us towards furiously scrolling through #narcabuse and #toxicrelationship content online. Professionally, I felt there was much left to be desired in the content available. While immensely validating in many ways, it didn’t seem to explain why and how narcissistic abuse happened, beyond discussions of “evil” or “parental bullying”.
I never bought into the evil narrative, and that made me stand alone. I knew that if I was going to go against the grain and offer a compassionate — but in no way condoning — stance, that I would need to fill in those gaps. So, I dove into the socio-relational psychology of narcissistic abuse.
I came up with the same question Melissa and I faced: What the HECK are we missing?
As fortune would have it, my own recovery burnout was the answer.
I had just sat down to write a newsletter explaining why narcissistic abuse is particularly exhausting, how people get caught in a hamster wheel of healing that drains all their energy, and what you can do to recover more quickly and effectively when my epiphany arrived.
In explaining, step by step, why recovery from narcissistic abuse was so complex, and how we often exhaust ourselves along the way (even when we do everything “right”), I uncovered connections that made the whole concept of narcissistic abuse make so much more sense (at least to me). I saw beyond the shroud.
I’m sharing these with you today in the hopes that you, too, can have your own lightbulb moments. What I am offering is simultaneously nothing new, and (hopefully) completely illuminating. In shining a light on narcissistic abuse from an angle that hasn’t been fully exposed, perhaps you will see things differently/more clearly/ more thoroughly. More importantly, I’m hoping that what I am sharing will make narcissistic abuse make sense to others who haven’t experienced it and cannot see the shroud.
So join me as we dismantle the Narc Machine; In seeing how it operates, maybe we can more effectively escape its clutches.
Narcissistic System Abuse: An Introduction
For those of you new to this newsletter (welcome!), one of my main focuses has been on what I now (as of today) call “Narcissistic System Abuse”.
Admittedly, NSA in and of itself, is probably not a new concept or even groundbreaking; it’s just a more coherent and encompassing title to better understand, explain, and therefore more thoroughly recover from, the constellation of abuses and traumas that are characteristic of being in relationship with an abusive narcissist. After almost 20 years of exploring this (personally and professionally), I see the inner workings of the narcissistic machine, the covert maneuvers that get dismissed and discredited but that are actually the most insidious tactics, and the far-reaching damages and impacts that get overlooked and left to fester, rending its victims paralyzed to move forward in their lives.
The most common form of Narcissistic System Abuse is family scapegoating. While not all scapegoating stems from narcissistic systems or origins, all Narcissistic System Abuse uses scapegoating in some form. Scapegoating is a critical component of the narcissistic machine and it is one of the most harmful and damaging things that can be done to a person at an emotional, mental, social, psychological, and spiritual level.
But scapegoating isn’t the machine itself. It works in conjunction with — and because of — multiple other processes designed to discredit, deplete, and render victims powerless. The Narc Machine is designed specifically to overhaul entire social-relational systems such as families, workplaces, intimate relationships, and friendships.
So what is Narcissistic System Abuse, and how does the narcissistic abuser create the control and leverage needed to overhaul systems to this magnitude and disorient the otherwise healthy people/players/bystanders in the system?
Narcissistic System Abuse is the term I use to encapsulate the systematic practices of narcissistic injury used by the narcissistic individual and their recruits and the systemic impacts of those injuries on your external and internal worlds.
The systematic part is the first critical distinction: Narcissistic abuse becomes system abuse when it moves beyond just the narcissistic individual’s behaviours and infiltrates the entire relational system around its victim. It’s systematic in two ways a) because possessive of a victim’s entire network and b) because it follows very formulaic methods of gaining power and control over its victim.
The systemic part is the second critical distinction: It refers to the all-encompassing nature of the abuse and the subsequent impacts of that harm on the individual and on the system (yes, everyone wrapped up in the narc machine is harmed by narcissistic abuse; even those that seem to be benefitting). Just a few examples of the systemic tactics used and harms caused by NSA include injustice trauma, hypocrisy and discrediting, abandonment and attachment wounding, scapegoating, betrayal traumas, bystander silence and compliance, moral injuries, and the intricate pattern-work of relational triangulation, gaslighting, guilt trips, manipulation, smear campaigns and character assassinations that are so characteristic of enduring relationships with abusive narcissists.
For recovery to be effective, and to not drag on for years, one must fully understand the ways each of these specific components work on and through individuals. Otherwise, we are left with fragments of damage that seem to have no sense, no place, no origin, and thus no pathway forward.
Narcissistic Narratives: Going Beyond The Sensationalised Social Media Portrayals
There has been a heavy focus on narcissistic abuse recently, but not a lot of attention on narcissistic neglect. This is an important distinction. Because the reason narcissistic systems suck you in so thoroughly and deplete you so completely is not just because the overt abuse is exceptionally damaging (it is!), but because the only reason the overt abuse was able to happen in the first place was because of the covert tactics taking place as a slow boil under the surface. The frog will notice when you drop it in hot water. But it won’t often recognize the cold water slowly starting to boil over time until it’s often too late.
The problem is, if you can’t notice what’s happening even when it’s happening to you, it also means those around you also fail to see it. This is the beginning of the narcissistic shroud.
As such, by the time you start to see through the shroud, the abuser has had the chance to work its charm on the others. No one else in the kitchen would think to (or risk) rescuing the frog; the kitchen staff have been thoroughly conditioned to either believe the frog deserved it, that the frog is a threat and it’s safer to keep it in the water, or that if they remove the frog, then they will be next to be dropped in the scalding hot water.
Mentalities like this don’t happen overnight or in isolation. They are systematic and systemic. If any tactic occurred in isolation outside the machine, it would be more overtly recognizable and thus called out. The machine is necessary to obscure and normalize harm.
For abusers to so thoroughly get away with it (which many do), an overhaul of healthy minds and otherwise healthy dynamics has to take place, step by systematic step.
Unfortunately, social media has almost made a caricature out of narcissistic abuse, reducing it to an overt and objectively identifiable form of social and relational toxicity. This is why so many people exclaim that your family (or friend, or boss, or partner) doesn’t seem toxic! And thus imply that you must be reading too much into it. They can’t see the machine.
Here’s how one client so succinctly explained NSA:
“Even when abuse isn’t happening, the narcissistic system is working on you and on everyone around you. The slow boil of narcissistic activity extends beyond the clear displays of seeking supply, or DARVOing or gaslighting. It’s the subtleties of your boundaries being tested ever so slightly. The intermittent reinforcement, the subtle love bombing and the subtle withdrawal. It’s the ways your character is negatively hinted at before it is ever full-out smeared. It’s the way your abuser starts with the truth and slowly twists it so that the line between lies and fact is impossibly smudged and unrecognizable.”
Let me add that this gossamer line between lies that started as fact is precisely how the narcissistic abuser convinces bystanders that the harm done to you is not just justifiable, but necessary.
In other words, the abuser takes one of your better qualities – a quality that their next targeted recruit may be envious of or threatened by – and holds it up to the light in a way that obscures its beauty and distorts it into filth. The recruit is hooked; they are validated in their fears and feelings and the narcissistic person has just provided a solution to wipe those fears and feelings away. By wiping you away with them.
As my client has so aptly described, it’s the constellation of strategies and impacts that happen outside the active abuse, that are sometimes the most important to recognize because it is those elements that create the platform that enables the abuse to happen. Without that platform, the victim would notice the boiling water, would seek support, would have support available, and that support would believe them!
The system changes everything.
A Fish Doesn’t Know It’s Swimming In Water Until It Is Exposed To Air
Narcissistic abuse happens before it becomes acute. By the time the abuse is obvious, it has already rotted the system from the inside out. Instead, the harm becomes normalized, expected and even championed!
As my client says “We don’t trust our feelings because for so long there were no clearly discernible violations. You lose what is up and down. You think, Did they just do that? Is that my imagination? Because yesterday I got love, but today they have that look in their eye… You sense you are walking on eggshells at all times, but you don’t know why and more importantly no one else knows why either…”
You are always on the precipice of plausible deniability, and it’s safer to deny your reality than question the system.
We talk about the high-level, hyperbolic version of narcissistic abuse. The acute narcissistic abuse. But we don’t pay enough attention to the chronic narcissism that creates the system of our existence: that systematizes how we think, react, and how others around us respond as well. So when we explain the reality of our childhood or our relationship, people look at us strangely and say, “That’s not so bad…”. So now you gaslight yourself. The system has you in its snare. The victim is chronically feeling the impacts of a million tiny needles of slow boil covert harm, of constant, chronic and systemic behaviours meant to dismantle and discredit one’s own authority in their social circle but also one’s own authority within themselves. But none of these needles in an of themselves can be held up for scrutiny. And if they were, there are very few people who would – in isolation – recognize them as abuse tactics.
How do you explain, for example, that your brother leaving a voicemail on your birthday saying “we miss you, love you” was designed to harm you? How do you explain to an outsider (or worse yet, a friend of your brother) the traumatic impact of that event, which can linger for days? Who seems like the “crazy” one now?
Narcissistic Systems work precisely because they are emotionally unreliable. Therefore, your evidence is cast aside as unreliable too.
Everyone is systematically being tested to see how few crumbs they will accept and how easily they will back down. Those who accept the fewest crumbs and back down the quickest become the golden children, the pawns, the flying monkeys. As one client put it, “You’re the apple of my eye because you show up as who I want and need you to be.”
Those who question the system or dare to trust themselves or encourage health, reparation, or remediation are swiftly targeted. Because they are exposing the emotional unreliability (which is the only get-out-of-jail-free card the narcissist has). The person who exposes the machine becomes the biggest and most immediate threat to be dismantled. This is where scapegoating emerges. And when they cannot be dismantled, they are dropped.
Scarcity: The Essential Dynamic of Narcissistic Systems
Here is an empowering reminder: The narcissistic abuser has no power against the individual; if the masses believe the victim’s truth and character, then the narcissist loses all credibility. The only way narcissistic abuse works is if they can twist the system against the victim entirely, and keep them stuck in the role of target.
Narcissists don’t choose their targets because they are weak or easily harmed, or because there is anything fundamentally wrong or off about them. They aren’t the most disliked in the crowd. In fact, the opposite is usually true; they tend to be the most magnetic.
Instead, narcissists choose their targets based on who the masses would be most likely and willing to turn against. The masses are happy to (or unhappy to, but by necessity need to) turn against anyone whose brightness outshines theirs or anyone who is in the way of getting their needs met.
So how do you get an otherwise empathetic/kind/healthy/intelligent person to become glad they are harming you? You create an “impossible-to-survive unless…” scenario.
When the cornerstone of a narcissistic system is scarcity (there isn’t enough love, power, attention, affection or safety to go around) everyone clamours to push others out of the way. Siblings topple siblings, coworkers throw coworkers under the bus, etc. The narcissistic individual creates the climate of scarcity and then assesses who the masses are most threatened by and willing to trample. Then the narcissist moves in on the target, amassing the army.
As you can see, the question of “why me” is shone in a different light. There was nothing wrong with you. It’s not that people didn’t like you. It’s not that they thought you deserved pain. It’s that you were standing in the way of them getting the thing that they felt was necessary and lifesaving for them. A narcissistic system drowns everyone. And the narcissist strategically throws out one liferaft. The sad thing is, you were probably the person most likely to share the liferaft with others if you caught it. But you were seen as an obstacle.
For example: When siblings are in fawn mode (aka saying and doing anything to please the narcissist so that they can survive) it is because they are clinging so tightly to the liferaft that they can’t even consider swimming to safety. Their desperation obscures the machine completely. They cannot see what is working on and through them. Therefore it can be terrifying for them when you deviate or do something differently (such as stop fawning and start fighting). When you adjust the system, you make waves, you wobble the life raft and they worry about losing their grip.
Maybe you spoke up or drew attention to the whole ‘drowning and limited life rafts’ thing, maybe you did something compassionate like ask the system to get some help so everyone can heal and make it safely to shore. Maybe you simply started taking care of yourself so you could heal, instead of taking care of everyone else. Or maybe you subtly tightened your grip on the liferaft because you were slipping off – you out-fawned everyone else’s efforts! Whatever it was, the scarcity monster rose up. Your sibling’s immediate thought is “They’re taking our life raft – push them off”. But even more than that, they fear the narcissist will see the waves and decide to withdraw the liferaft entirely.
I have a client who, years ago, spoke up to their narcissistic mother (she asked her mother to get help and that the family work together to heal) and the ripple effects were that it exposed the sibling’s fawning strategies. The siblings became so terrified that their mother would realize they weren’t genuinely adoring/revering but rather were afraid, and engaging in contortions and placating efforts in order to survive her narcissistic methods. Potentially having their people-pleasing efforts exposed felt so dangerous to them because it was their entire coping strategy. In response, the cruelty they slung my client’s way ended up being more traumatic than the lifelong endurance of maternal narcissism.
To this day, the extended family still speaks of how my client deserved to be disowned because of the “heinous and awful thing that she did to her sisters”. Of course, we know the ‘unforgivable’ thing she did was that she stood up for herself and asked for support from them to back her up. But what she did was seen, by her siblings, as the ultimate betrayal. Oblivious to the fact that being abused and disowned is a significantly larger and more disproportionate betrayal. Again: The beauty of her desire to heal the family was held up to the light, then obscured and distorted to filth. This is how the system works: When the curtain got lifted, and light was shone in, my client became the biggest threat. The overt abuse and subsequent abandonment she received – from every angle of her former family – was staggering.
I’m happy to report that this is in her past. She is happy and well and much better off. But no one should have to go through what she did in order to get to safety, happiness, and health.
Of course, this is just one case study. In sharing it, I am offering a glimpse at some of the inner workings of how the Narcisstic System operates. It is NOT meant to imply one should or shouldn’t speak up, that certain survival strategies are better/safer than others, or that all machines operate exactly the same way or for the same reasons. As always: Decisions about how to navigate the narcissistic system, how to maintain safety, and how to exit the system intact should only be made with the 1:1 guidance of a trained and qualified professional.
The good news is that once you know how the machine works (and why it was designed), you are more able to step outside of it (literally, metaphorically, emotionally and energetically).
Ready to escape the machine? Join my newsletter! I dive deeper into (my original goal of explaining) why this particular type of abuse is so uniquely exhausting, and why some popular recovery efforts can actually deplete you even more as a result. Plus I have a freebie for you: Sign up now and get a FREE copy of the 5 Ways We Get Stuck In NSA “Survival Mode” (plus ways to get off the hamster wheel of healing).