It’s often difficult for victims of narcissistic abuse to recognize it for what it is and make sense of their experience. There are many reasons for this. I’ll try to explain some of the most common before recommending a book of essays by survivors of narcissistic abuse for those of you who, after reading this, suspect you are, or were a victim yourself. 

A relationship with a narcissist often begins with what’s known as love bombing or the idealization phase. Narcissists choose victims with attractive qualities they wish they possessed; qualities that will increase their social currency if they can win you over. They are effusively charming and complimentary. They make you the primary focus of their life, telling you they have never met anyone as perfect. Never loved or respected anyone they way they do you.  During this phase you feel like you’ve hit the relationship jackpot and have never felt as valued and loved as you do with this person. They often become the primary focus of your life as well because they have identified and are feeding many of your emotional needs to an extent you may have never experienced before and because they require and demand the same from you. This is something that, during this phase of the relationship you are more than happy to provide. 

However, once the narcissist feels they have secured your devotion, affection, and trust, (the “narcissistic supply” or validation they need) their interest and affection for you start to wane. This is the devaluation phase. They find ways to place the blame for this on you. Projection and gaslighting are two of the most common tactics they use.  Assigning their own negative qualities and behaviors to you, such as accusing YOU of showing less interest or affection in THEM, not the other way around, is an example of projection. It’s also a form of gaslighting- convincing you that something you are seeing and experiencing isn’t real. You may catch them flirting or cheating and confront them with the evidence, only to have them deny it and call you crazy. At other times, they may deliberately hurt you and use your (understandably) negative emotional reaction to justify their behavior. “See??! You’re crazy! How do you expect me to treat you?! You’re so irrational!” This is known as “reactive abuse” and is also a form of gaslighting.

At this point in the relationship you are likely thoroughly disoriented, doubting your sanity and self worth, and begin to question whether you are maybe to blame for the toxic dynamic at play. Very often, your self esteem and sanity has been systematically destroyed to the point where you assume responsibility for the problems with your partner and may try your best to please and placate the narcissist. When this fails and your efforts are dismissed and criticized, you feel even more helpless and hopeless.  

To make matters worse, the narcissist has likely isolated you from friends and family by effectively making you reliant on them, the narcissist, having worn you down via their love bombing, demands for all your time and attention, jealousy, and by making you question your sanity and self worth. At a time when you have lost all perspective, you also now lack a support system to help restore it. 

The final stage in the cycle of narcissistic abuse is the discard phase. By this time, the narcissist has gotten what they needed from you which was to provide them with the self esteem they covet but lack and, in the case of the most malignant narcissists, may have taken your friends, job, and the contents of your bank account for themselves. And because they lack ego strength, they must find a way to blame you for all of this and use it as an excuse to move on. In fact, they are almost always looking for their next source of narcissistic supply during the devaluation phase. Once they find a new victim, they discard you, often flaunting their new victim in your face and extolling their virtues, leaving you severely traumatized, confused, and isolated, faced with the monumental task of rebuilding your life from the wreckage they have left behind.

Click on the book title below for a link to the book.

POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: A Collection of Essays on Malignant Narcissism and Recovery from Emotional Abuse, provides a wealth of information on the topic of narcissistic abuse for anyone unfamiliar with this type of abuse and the stages of the cycle. It will give you the much needed language and stories (you will likely find the latter to be very familiar to your own) that will allow you to make sense of, and give voice to your experience. This is the first step in the healing process. Being armed with the language and understanding of the abuse cycle will help you find the resources you need to rebuild your life and your confidence.

Many of my clients, especially those in the tech industry, come to me as a result of work burnout. Work related anxiety, depression, procrastination, and imposter syndrome, are some of the common signs I see related to burnout. Some clients come to me with a clear sense of the cause of their struggle but can't understand how it could be affecting them so profoundly. Others are confused, thinking work couldn't possibly be the cause of their problem because their situation isn't significantly different from that of their coworkers and has been normalized. In helping clients determine whether what they are experiencing is burnout, I educate them around the difference between working conditions that, objectively, almost always lead to burnout for anyone, and other, less obvious factors, that represent subjective, mismatches between employees and aspects of their job.

A comprehensive research article on the topic of burnout dating back to 1999 by Michael P. Leiter and Christina Maslach identifies what they see as, the the six most common contributing factors to burnout, many of which come as no surprise. However, having them clearly laid out and delineated makes for a more comprehensive understanding of what leads to burnout in addition to how, and to what extent, it not only negatively impacts one's work, but other aspects of one's life as well. Below, I've summarized the article for the sake of brevity and have included the original paper at the conclusion.

Work burnout is characterized by low energy, low involvement, and low efficacy. It's caused by chronic mismatches between employees and their work setting in some or all of the following six areas of work-life; workload, control, rewards, community, fairness, and value.

Workload: An increased workload can lead to burnout because it often results in emotional exhaustion. Workload demands in office settings may not allow employees enough time to meet or exceed their own, or their employers, standards, allow for enough recovery time, and may erode the distinction between personal life and work.

Jobs with high levels of emotional involvement and distressing exchanges that resonate well after the work day, such as in human services, can also lead to burnout in the form of emotional exhaustion and also blur the line between personal life and work. Insufficient organizational support systems and and the emotional requirements of staff members represents and pervasive mismatch throughout the human service sector but this type of emotional involvement is prevalent in other fields as well.

In the service industry, emotional exhaustion often occurs because employees are required to display emotions inconsistent with their feelings. However, "emotional management" can apply to any work setting and often represents a mismatch of work and expectation. This happens when the work does not lend itself to the emotional displays demanded or expected by employers and/or when the expected emotions are inauthentic to the employee, requiring an expenditure of energy that could otherwise be used in service to their core job.

Control: An employees ability to have a sense of agency and control over their work can be affected by role conflict. One type of role conflict leaves employees with insufficient control over their work because of multiple authorities managing the work, each having conflicting demands, and/or incongruent values. Role conflict can also be defined as a mismatch between the employee, the nature of their work, including the prescribed process by which the work is to be accomplished. Studies have shown that lack of control due to role conflict leads to greater levels of exhaustion and burnout than does role ambiguity, in which an employees work is poorly defined.

Reward: Mismatch in reward is also associated with burnout. Insufficient reward, whether financial, institutional, or social, increases employee vulnerability to burnout. Recognition through monetary, institutional, and social rewards is associated with personal accomplishment and professional efficacy. Employees deprived of of recognition feel under-rewarded which can lead to feelings that the organization undervalues their employees. This perceived value mismatch may contribute to cynicism and burnout.

In contrast, "equity theory" is applied to employees who feel over-rewarded. They believe they work less than their colleagues but are given similar rewards which can cause them to feel additional strain and pressure. Equity theory can also come into play in situations where an employee receives a promotion or a raise. In both cases, in an effort to justify their perception of being over-rewarded, these employees may reinterpret their workload in a more demanding light and/or place more emphasis on conflict with the organizations values. The focus on additional demands as well and conflict can lead to exhaustion.

Community: Community refers to social support from supervisors, coworkers, and family members. People use social support to cope with demands. Not surprisingly, with sufficient support, additional demands are less likely to result in burnout.

The overall quality of personal interactions among people in an organization also has an impact on burnout. A lively, attentive, responsive, community is incompatible with burnout and employees in work cultures which foster this, can often handle additional demands.

Supervisor support is closely tied to whether or not employees experience exhaustion because of a supervisors direct impact on workload. Coworker support is closely related to accomplishment and efficacy, reflecting the value staff members place on peer evaluation.

Fairness: Fairness is a quality of supervisor support. Fair decisions are those that give due consideration to the diverse conditions of employees. Resources and opportunities are allocated with respect to organizational objectives, not with respect to the personal advantages of privileged individuals or cliques.

In regard to process, a fair decision is one in which people have an opportunity to present their arguments and in which they feel treated with respect and politeness. Employees are concerned with much more than the favorableness of the outcomes of a judgment. Their sense of place in the work community is based on their assessment of the decision making process itself, including their treatment. Unfair, cursory, or disrespectful decision making alienates employees from their community.

Research confirms that if employees perceive supervisors as being both fair and supportive, this contributes to their acceptance of major organization change and reduces susceptibility to burnout. Employees consider fairness to be indicative of genuine concern for the long-term good of employees during difficult times.

Values: Values encompass the ideas and motivations that originally attract employees to an organization. These transcend the utilitarian exchange of time for money or advancement. Value congruence is an alignment between what is critically important to the employee and the priorities and expectations of the organization. A mismatch in values can dramatically disrupt the relationship between and employee and their work, primarily by stripping work of its meaning. (I would also add that a misalignment of values can also cause employee distress if their work requires them to compromise their personal integrity.)

When work requires the full engagement of an employee, the magnitude of commitment requires extra consideration around value alignment. When employee and organization values overlap, work furthers both parties. The employee finds meaning in their work and is able to leverage personal impact. This means that employees are able to pursue what is critically important to them and develop projects of considerable scope, backed by company resources and reputation. In this way, they are able to accomplish much more of what they find personally important than they could on their own.

When there is a value mismatch between an employee and organization, the employee finds themselves making tradeoffs between work they want to do and work they have to do. Work can become personally irrelevant if it doesn't further personal objectives even in the face of increased scope and expertise. Value mismatch can also undermine employee confidence that their efforts are making an important contribution. In addition, insufficient opportunity to pursue personal values through work can cause employees to overextend themselves in other areas of their life to find meaning, leading to exhaustion.

Burnout as a result of value mismatch often occurs in the initial phase of career development if employees have idealistic or unrealistic expectations about the organization that don't align with the realities of the work. The ensuing buildup of tension leads to burnout unless the employee either adjusts their expectations to align with actual experience or leaves the organization for a more fulfilling opportunity.

Value alignment between employee and employer is critical to the employee finding their work meaningful. When values don't align, employees can find their work personally irrelevant, their contributions lacking in importance, and may be forced to find meaning outside of work. Meaningless work is directly related to the three main characteristics defining burnout; low energy, low involvement, and low efficacy.

Conclusion: Burnout is not simply the result of some quality of an organization. Burnout is the result of the relationship between an employee and the organization. The solution to burnout is not about engineering the perfect organizational environment. Appropriate intervention involves a goal toward supporting a lively, well-established communication processes in which the organization and its employees work to address and develop balances in the six key areas of work-life that most impact burnout.

I hope this synopsis helps identify, explain, and attach language to the experience of burnout for those who may be struggling with the symptoms but lack the clarity to fully understand their situation.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12693291_Six_areas_of_worklife_A_model_of_the_organizational_context_of_burnout

As a result of my personal and professional experiences, I've done extensive reading and training on various types of narcissistic wounding and abuse. Most victims and survivors I work with either experienced this abuse in the context of a romantic relationship or within their family of origin, the latter being the most common scenario. There are two books in particular on the topic of narcissistic families that have been invaluable to both my clients and me. I've witnessed many clients go through profound movement, growth and healing after reading these books on my recommendation. (Progress that might have taken years to achieve had they not had access to this material.) Links to both books can be found inline below. I first wanted to address a few of the concerns and themes inherent in working with those who come from narcissistic family systems.

Narcissism is a loaded term with pejorative connotations. This is only reinforced by its frequent, casual, use in everyday conversation. Narcissism, as a clinical term, can serve as a useful shorthand in some instances but, in others, it doesn't begin to cover the full range of nuances, complexities and meanings attached to it. This can, and does, result in a lot of confusion and reluctance for clients when it's applied to their family of origin. As a result, it requires extra care and effort on the part of therapists when broaching this topic. It's not uncommon for clients to initially feel guilt, reluctance, or rejection when narcissism is used to help name and explain the conditions of their early childhood. I cannot stress enough that one's family of origin experience shapes one's life in enormous and pervasive ways that make it all the more important for adult children of narcissistic families to understand how their upbringing contributed to many of their current struggles. Identifying narcissism or narcissistic traits in a family system does not mean that value judgments are needed or ill intent is assumed; nor does it mean that positive qualities or experiences (if they did exist) should be diminished or dismissed. But it does mean that adults from these types of families are faced with a number of overlapping, serious challenges that need to be addressed in order for necessary healing to be possible.

Narcissism can look like a lot of things in spite of the common perception that it only applies to grandiose, selfish, individuals who lack empathy. Like any other trait, it exists on a spectrum and can differ in both quantity and quality from one individual (or family) to the next. A defining feature of a narcissistic family system would be what's known as an "inverted" family structure. If you were a child who had to manage a parent's (or both parent's) emotional state rather than the other way around, you may be a product of a narcissistic family of origin. If you were primarily valued for your role in the the family or for what you could DO rather than who you WERE as an individual, you may be a product of a narcissistic family system.

Some of the most common struggles of adult children of narcissistic parenting are confusion around, and inability to set, boundaries, a tendency toward unhealthy levels of people pleasing, or, conversely, discomfort around getting close to others. Healthy boundary setting is also common and can manifest as a lack of boundaries or overly rigid boundaries. A lack of trust in oneself, insecurity around one's worth as an individual outside of prescribed roles, and workaholism, are other commonly shared struggles.

Identifying your family of origin as narcissistic in nature does not mean your parents did not show love, care, or concern in the ways they were able. (Although there are plenty of instances in which narcissistic parents were not not able to provide these things in any real ways.)

Almost all narcissistic parents are the product of damage done to them in childhood and are also likely the product of generational trauma. Calling attention to this is not intended to diminish the damage they inflicted nor to excuse it. But generational trauma does need to be taken into account for a deeper understanding of all the dynamics involved and the interplay between them.

Discovering that your upbringing involved being part of a narcissistic family does not necessarily dictate the need to cease contact with family members (although that is sometimes the case in very toxic dynamics). It is not assume or require that you stop loving your family after clarity is gained around this issue. That being said, it does usually require you to reframe your childhood and current relationship with your parents in whole new ways based on a newfound understanding of their limitations and what can reasonably be expected of them. This results in an altering your expectations of them in a number of ways. There can also be a grieving process involved when you realize the parents you thought you had never existed and, in fact, will never exist for you. Sometimes there is a sense of empathy based on a greater understanding of their shortcomings when seen through the lens of their own adverse childhood experiences. If you are a product of a narcissistic family, your parents may have provided for many of your needs but, unfortunately, their efforts were not enough to create the kind of environment that supported your development as an individual. And, in cases involving serious abuse and neglect, very few, if any needs were appropriately met.

If you think that you may be the adult child of a narcissistic family (or, as the author's of the second of my recommended books on the subject call them, "emotionally immature" parents) then I cannot overstate the value and insight these two books provide. Both are invaluable in their respective ways. Each offers many real-life examples of the variety of ways narcissism can manifest from family to family. They both illustrate the various effects on children living in these families as well as the types of struggles these children experience in adulthood. They outline various steps toward healing as well as advice on how to protect yourself from ongoing emotional pain and damage that is often inherent in relationships with these families as an adult.

I would recommend reading both books in the order of the links I provide. The first, The Narcissistic Family Diagnosis and Treatment, provides an overview and introduction on the topic of the narcissistic family. The second, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, goes into deeper detail and nuance around childhood experiences, adult struggles, and also breaks out and defines the four main types of narcissistic families. Again, narcissistic parenting can manifest in a variety of ways that I have found makes this topic particularly confusing for client's when initially confronted with it. If you know or suspect what you experienced in childhood was narcissistic parenting or you are curious and need more certainty, these books stand out as the best tools I can offer you.

While I don't offer psychedelic therapy, I'm very aware of the great potential for therapeutic change inherent in many psychedelic substances. Public interest and awareness around the use of psychedelics as treatment interventions has increased, in part, due to Michael Pollan's book, "How to Change Your Mind."

In addition, a few years ago, I came across a deeply personal narrative of profound personal growth through LSD therapy in the form of the documentary film, "Becoming Cary Grant." (See link provided at the bottom.) Grant was an early participant in guided LSD therapy and, as a result, experienced meaningful shifts in both his perception of self and the world. The documentary uses a very skilled voice actor to convey Grant's trajectory in the latter's own words. It's a must-see for anyone interested in exploring the world of psychedelic therapy.

A recent study "suggests that the type of fiction a person reads affects their social cognition in different ways."

The researchers make it clear they are not making a value judgment between the two styles.  Personally, I skew more heavily toward literary fiction (actually, these days, non-fiction) but I read both. Of literary fiction the researches say, "It is important, but it can paralyze us in our attempt to navigate the social world. "  This explains so much about my social experiences in school.  Fascinating article!   Read the entire article as published on PsyPost here.

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My brief explanation of how infants and very young children process traumatic or distressing events.

"To hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim that that joins victim and witness in a common alliance.  For the individual victim, this context is created by relationships with friends, lovers and family.  For the larger society, the social context is created by political movements that give voice to the disempowered.

The systematic study of psychological trauma therefore depends on the support of a political movement.  Indeed, whether such study can be pursued or discussed in public is itself a political question.  The study of war trauma becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the sacrifice of young men in war.  The study of trauma in sexual and domestic life becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the subordination of women and children.  Advanced in the field occur only when they are supported by a political movement powerful enough to legitimate an alliance between investigators and patients and to counteract the ordinary social processes of silencing and denial.  In the absence of strong political movements for human rights, the active process of bearing witness is inevitably gives way to the active process of forgetting.  Repression, dissociation, and denial are phenomena of social as well as individual consciousness."

Judith Herman, M.D., wrote these words in 1992 in her seminal work, Trauma and Recovery, and they carry more weight today than they ever have.  We cannot do this alone, people.  We need our policy makers backing the efforts of those bearing witness.

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