I was asked to write about narcissists appropriating No Contact. No Contact used to be rare advice. Now it’s the standard answer on message boards and blogs, professional or layperson. A No Contact Movement has grown exponentially this past decade; however, cutting off relationship isn’t always healthy distancing. Sometimes it’s abuse. Beginning with an explanation of No Contact, I’ll conclude with three ways narcissistic people have used No Contact to serve themselves. I believe “appropriation of No Contact” will be a worthy discussion because a lot of people are being hurt by a concept that was never intended to control, punish, or coerce.
No Contact is a method of last resort, protecting people from abusive relationships. It is not intended to be a punishment; it is not meant to break spirits through ostracism or implementation of The Silent Treatment. No Contact is not coercion, punishing people until they yield, repent or surrender. No Contact is not based in magical thinking: the wishful belief that absence makes hearts grow fonder. No Contact is based on the best of intentions: to help people restore their equilibrium and stop the escalation of abuse and/or violence.
No Contact is an extreme method for cutting emotional ties to someone who treats you with contempt. Persistent invalidation will, over time, erode your self-esteem. No human being is immune to feeling worthless when they are consistently rejected, criticized, excluded, neglected, and scapegoated for blame. Reducing time spent with people who build themselves up by tearing others down, is self-protective.
Self-protection is the goal of No Contact.
Low and No Contact can be life-restoring, self-esteem building, self-empowering methods for stopping aggression and reducing destructive reactions. Low Contact may restore psychological well-being; however, we cannot heal wounds that bind when our wounds are persistently invalidated and disrespected. In my experience, most people reluctantly choose No Contact after numerous attempts fail to create a mutually safe and loving relationship. After an initial break from the “upside-down narcissistic relationship”, many people are able to neutralize their reactions to emotional and psychological triggers, resuming some degree of contact. Low and No Contact turn reality right-side-up again.
You are hard-wired to make and sustain connections. Successfully freeing yourself from destructive bonds may require a period of No Contact while restoring your equilibrium. My preference is reducing reactive patterns by increasing self-awareness and building resilience through Low Contact. BUT, maintaining Low Contact depends on the degree of hostility and contempt you are subjected to when interacting with the narcissist. The horror stories people have disclosed online and in-person, justify No Contact in-the-now and the-eternal-hereafters. Yet even in cases of obvious abuse, they feel guilty about ending the relationship! So please take exquisite care of yourself and have courage in making the right decision for you. Low or No Contact, each approach has its own challenges and opportunities for growth.
“After spending twelve months away from the drama, I attended our family reunion without crying or hiding in the bathroom. When my narcissistic brother said it was no surprise to him that I hadn’t remarried, I asked him to pass the potatoes, please.”
My preference for Low Contact is not meant to invalidate anyone’s decision to protect themselves with No Contact. No Contact kick-starts healthy recovery. Knowledgeable support is vital to long-term success. This means relying on therapists, family and friends to talk things through when fear, obligation and guilt (FOG) make your knees buckle. Supportive friends empathize, allowing you to work through magical thinking, anger, self-doubt, regret and sadness. They have a long-view of the ultimate goal instead of getting stuck in the muck of the moment. Be cautious of anyone who blames or rejects you for breaking No Contact. No Contact isn’t a perfect plan; its a goal. Reneging on your commitments takes a toll on your self-esteem, so be sure you are prepared to stick with No Contact before announcing your independence.
Limiting contact with abusive people can transform powerlessness into healthy self-efficacy. Limited contact with abusive people can restore your self-respect. No Contact establishes a safe space for recognizing vulnerabilities and weaknesses, increasing self-awareness and fostering healing. (Judith Herman) People who’ve suffered relational trauma must establish a safe environment and for some dear souls that means: No Contact. Even from people they love.
No Contact has grown centipede feet since its inception, running away from its original intention protecting victims. This is a predictable scenario since narcissists identify as victims. Perpetually. They may stalk, cheat, plagiarize, abuse and betray people, yet consider themselves to be victims, their victimizing behaviors justified. Perpetually. Well, what can you expect from a disorder preventing accurate self-appraisal, inhibiting the capacity for self-reflection? If someone is unable to introspect and own their aggression, they will view people’s defensive reactions as unpredictable and threatening. From the narcissist’s point of view, people are attacking without any provocation on the narcissist’s part. They believe they are defending themselves from aggression. Since pathological narcissism is defined by distorted perceptions, what narcissists see is not what is. Their provoking behavior is outside their awareness. This does not mean they aren’t consciously aware of their aggressive tactics. They believe their aggressive tactics are warranted.
“Focusing on themselves” was a self-serving interpretation of a principle intended for other-serving people.
There are several reasons why No Contact has been appropriated by narcissists. For one thing, it’s easier using No Contact if you never attached in the first place. If you were never emotionally invested in the relationship, it’s easier to walk away. Narcissists also have a desire to punish those who fail them, criticize them, trigger their shame. On the surface, No Contact may appear to be warranted and people support narcissist’s convincing claims; but beneath their pretense of self-protection is hostility, aggression, and varying degrees of sadism.
The Intent to Harm
“We had planned for you to go with us on the cruise and then Ted told Tom that he was afraid for his life because you were too crazy for cruises. We don’t want you to feel badly because we really like you. We just felt Ted would be a better fit and besides, Ted said you were terrified of water—something to do with your abusive childhood, which we’re so very sorry to hear about and never would have guessed. I hope you won’t take this personally because we can still do lunch. Without Ted, of course.”
At this point, the desire to defend ourselves and “set the record straight” often leads to over-sharing, the kinds of confessions that make us look guilty. Saying nothing ends up being our best defense, trusting the truth will eventually “out” and people will know we’re not too crazy for cruises. Please know that you are not obligated to explain why the narcissist refuses contact. Just sigh deeply and say, “Isn’t the weather nice today!” Change the subject. Don’t take the bait. People love drama, so act as if you are nonplussed and buy movie tickets instead.
The truth is that you feel slightly crazy and even broken by No Contact allegations. The narcissist feels powerful and proud. You feel rejected and alone. The narcissist finds your replacement, even a “mob squad” of flying monkeys to tear you down. You are flooded with fear, obligation and guilt, the very human desire to maintain connections. The narcissist is inflated with self-righteous satisfaction because you are being punished for disrespecting them, or for whatever your offense might have been and that can change from day to day, one hour to the next.
The reason people are hurt by No Contact is because we have four basic needs, according to Kip Williams in Ostracism: the Power of Silence. If you grew up with narcissistic parents, you likely experienced The Silent Treatment, the cold shoulder, the “You do not exist” torture of living In Contact with people who use No Contact to control family members. Without warning, you are shunned until you have suffered sufficiently for your perceived sins, thus satisfying the need to punish. Suffering sufficiently means: breaking your spirit.
“Being cut off, cut loose, cut down, and cut dead is perhaps the worst thing that can happen to us. I argue that the simple act of being ignored simultaneously attacks four fundamental human needs. Our sense of connection and belonging is severed; the control we desire between our actions and outcomes is uncoupled; our self-esteem is shaken by feelings of shame, guilt or inferiority; and we feel like a ghost, observing what life would be like if we did not exist. [meaningful existence] ” ~Williams (page 6)
No one in the narcissistic family knows how to resolve conflicts because feelings are not validated and recognized. Feelings are silenced, repressed, or used as facts and acted upon, irrationally. The narcissistic family cannot teach children how to resolve relational conflict because narcissists lack the social and emotional intelligence required for healthy resolutions. That means family members carry emotional dysfunction forward, invalidating others because that is all they know. Harming people by cutting off relationship is a learned behavior that can be unlearned.
I think it’s important to include some background as to why children of narcissists (ACoNs) repeat dysfunctional behaviors in adult relationships, even using the Silent Treatment they hated so much as children. Without intervention of some kind (self-help is great), they operate on automatic pilot until experiencing a serious crisis. If they don’t have a pathological disorder, a relationship crisis will encourage them to unlearn harmful behaviors because they care about their impact on others and desire relationship with them. If attempts to set limits and establish healthy boundaries are consistently trespassed or even ridiculed, they must assert their self-worth and focus on themselves, allowing others to do likewise.
Low or No Contact is a last resort after failing to resolve hurtful behaviors inherent to narcissistic relationships. There is no intent to harm others and it’s usually a private decision.
In contrast, the narcissist’s use of No Contact is a punishment granting complete control by blocking communication with perceived offenders. The intent is to harm.
Control, punishment and coercion are three goals of appropriated No Contact.
1) When No Contact is a preemptive strike (Control)
Narcissists use No Contact to prove they were victimized. It’s a precautionary defense against the perceived threat of exposure if and when you tell your side of the story. The fact that you are unlikely to tell people about the incident(s) won’t occur to the narcissist who believes “others will do to them, what they would do to others”. Contrary to their beliefs, most people are sensitive to the narcissist’s pain, oftentimes refusing to talk with other people about the situation because they don’t want to hurt the narcissist. Maybe our shame has something to do with that. It’s never easy telling people you were abused.
The preemptive strike might also be compared to the Smear Campaign. When your reputation is being undermined and you know it, even an innocuous glance feels like an accusation. Reputations are important to people. We want to be well thought of which is why Smear Campaigns posing as No Contact, are tactically effective. The public humiliation can drive people into behaving in ways that reinforce the narcissist’s accusation that you are crazy. (crazy is a typical accusation) Once again, the narcissist’s lack of self-awareness means their harassing behaviors are not recognized as contributory. And if they are tactically conscious, you must accept their sadistic intent. Enjoying the spectacle they’ve created is not normal. It can in no way be considered self-protection because the majority of people feel remorseful when seeing the harmful effect their behavior has on others. Even someone who “did us wrong.” (Revenge is the narcissist’s territory).
2) When No Contact is The Silent Treatment (Punishment)
All you know when people pretend you don’t exist is that you’re wrong. You are a bad person. Your presence is irrelevant. You’ve been banished. You are not allowed to defend yourself or refute allegations. The Silent Treatment increases feelings of powerlessness because we have zero control over the situation. How can you make amends if you have no blessed idea why you were “ghosted” in the first place? Total exclusion maintains the narcissist’s perceptions without contradiction and without resolution. If your voice has been silenced, there is no reason to doubt the narcissist’s version of events. The intent is to punish you for offending the narcissist (or group).
When people experience social rejection as torture, it’s fair to say they’re being punished. I think this form of No Contact can be defined as Relational aggression. The Silent Treatment posing as No Contact could be considered bullying since it also causes serious psychological distress (even suicide). I’m sure many of you have experienced this with narcissistic people. It is emotionally crippling beyond reason which is why I wasn’t surprised to read this statement: “Social rejection has been established to cause psychological damage and has been categorized as torture.”
3) When No Contact is Getting Their Way (Coercion)
This form of No Contact trains you through fear of rejection, to give narcissists whatever they want. After being cut off, you’ll try harder the next time without realizing you’re being conditioned to comply. Your anxiety increases because the relationship is not safe and you never know when you’ll say or do something worthy of another No Contact Compliance Lesson. The more you are rejected by the narcissist, the harder you’ll try to reinsert yourself in his/her life.
You are hard-wired to make and sustain connections. You may even be obsessive about getting closure because you don’t know why they went No Contact in the first place. Overtime, the unpredictability of doing something wrong and being punished, creates enough insecurity for people to “walk on eggshells” and (to the narcissist’s advantage) become even more manageable, more controllable, more compliant.
Sickeningly, some websites instruct people to use No Contact to “get back a former lover”. Well, game-playing is the stuff and nonsense of narcissistic personalities who have a ludic love-style (Campbell). Game-playing should be a Red Flag whether you are doing it yourself or someone else is doing it to you. The second red flag in this No Contact game is the sheer Machiavellianism taking advantage of the human need for love and connection. With Machiavellian personalities, the ends justify the means and that never sits well for trustworthy relationships. If someone is using No Contact to manipulate you into pleasing them, what kind of relationship do you think you’re creating? Susan Elliott counsels, “Don’t let yourself be bullied into being friends.”
When the betraying narcissist reconciles with their spouse and family, they are reminded of their mistake, the infidelity. They are reminded of their ordinariness because infidelity ain’t the road less traveled. They are reminded of their vulnerability to family member’s power to forgive or reject. They have lost control. They feel annihilated without their Good Person Image eliciting admiration and respect. The resultant shame can be overwhelming to a degree most people can’t fathom. This is how the family becomes a source of unbearable shame even if family members are repairing the damage, forgiving and forgetting. The family can get over the narcissist’s wrongdoings; the narcissist can’t.
Even though it’s hard to bear when you are subjected to another level of crazy-making abuse: No Contact is a good thing. No Contact, even when the accusations are unwarranted and have little to no basis in reality, still reduces conflict. Because you are able to take responsibility for yourself and because you have the capacity to work through your emotional reactions, respect the narcissistic condition. Don’t hold on. Don’t seek closure. Don’t try to be friends. Let Them Go. No Contact is a good thing. The truth of your character will not be permanently sullied by a smear campaign or silent treatment disguised as No Contact.
This will take time.
It gets easier over time.
Campbell et al. Does Self-Love Lead to Love for Others? A Story of Narcissistic Game Playing
Effects of ostracism are a health concern 2005. Medical News “Ostracism is more powerful now than ever because people have fewer strong family and friend support systems to fall back on.”
Freyd, Jennifer. What is DARVO?
Pain of ostracism can be deep, long lasting. 2011. Science Daily
Narcissistic Game Playing by PlanetJan
Williams, Kipling. D. 2001 Ostracism: The Power of Silence. The Guilford Press
Williams, Kipling on Vimeo (14:00 minutes)
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