Communication as we all know is incredibly important in any relationship, but when we’ve been involved with narcissists, even the most skilled communicators can feel helpless and handicapped when it comes to being understood – narcissists will inevitably refuse to understand us, especially when what we’re saying is not something like “OMG, you’re so amazing.”
For example, try telling a narcissist exactly how you feel about the way they belittle and invalidate you – and watch how they twist the conversation around. In some of the most extreme cases, you will end up apologizing for not thinking they’re perfect and for having the nerve to even suggest otherwise.
And, when we go through years of this, not to mention that narcissists often isolate their victims from others who might actually offer some support, we sort of forget HOW to communicate – in a way. We stop feeling like we can (or even should) talk about OURSELVES, and we stop trying to make valuable contributions to conversations, in part because we’ve been conditioned to believe that we have nothing of value to say and nothing to offer.
We believe that we’re not good enough and that no one wants to hear what we have to say anyway. When we do speak up, we tend to keep it short and to the point when it relates to ourselves or our own opinions or beliefs.
There was a time in my life when, if you asked me a question about myself, I might not even know WHAT to say, or even if I did, I’d feel awkward saying it and wanted to get the attention off me as soon as possible.
This was because I had been conditioned to think that nothing about me was interesting or even worth hearing about.
When we go through narcissistic abuse, we might find ourselves dealing with depression.
We might also develop other issues – various compulsive behaviors, or an eating disorder or substance abuse problem, because sometimes, we try to sort of ‘self-medicate” to deal with our issues.
We could have flashbacks or panic attacks, and we will most definitely deal with a certain amount of self-doubt. Some of us experience suicidal thoughts – and in the worst cases, some people find themselves seeking or even carrying out the abuse they experienced as a child. On the flip side of that, you may go so far in the other direction that you are a different kind of unhealthy – for example, an abused child who grows up to be a doormat parent (as in, allowing your kids to become spoiled and run the show). It’s a fine line, isn’t it?
But back to communication.
There are certain issues that can directly affect our ability to communicate after this kind of abuse – and as always, I’m going to tell you that I believe knowledge is power – and the first step to power is to realize there’s a problem. We’ve got to first discover it and then admit it if we’re ever going to heal.
So, after abuse, the issues that might affect your ability to communicate are multifaceted. The first one I’d like to outline is our heightened reactions to various common relationship issues – we may become triggered over something small, such as an innocently-used phrase that used to mean something awful. Example from one of my clients: her narcissist would always say “Who are you trying to impress?” So when she was later in a healthy relationship, this same phrase uttered by her new partner triggered her and caused her to revert for a moment to her “former self,” the abused self.
This leads to my next point: emotionally-fueled disagreements. When we’re healing, we don’t always know how to deal with conflict and we may get overly emotional when we don’t mean to. Going back to the client I just mentioned, in that situation, her trigger led her to an emotionally-fueled discussion with her new guy – but in his healthy state, he actually calmed her down by validating her and reminding her that it was okay to be emotional sometimes, and then by comforting her and HEARING her (IMAGINE!).
We may also withdraw and become unresponsive when triggered by our old issues, which obviously affects our ability to communicate, and we almost always feel a serious aversion to conflict. This can lead to an inability to talk through our issues especially if we feel judged or like the person we’re communicating with is somehow not on our side.
We may always have a lingering doubt about how our partners in the future feel about us and sometimes doubt their faithfulness, especially when our narcissists include romantic partners in the past.
And thanks to the fact that many of us have never felt loved unconditionally, we often find ourselves having difficulty accepting any love at all – we are suspicious of people who try to offer it to us and we often need repeated reassurance of the fact that someone cares about us.
This of course can push people away from us and isolate us even further, which will make communication even harder.
So how can we get over this? What can we do to improve our ability to communicate after abuse?
First of all, you have to let go of the fear and start with the basics. Let me ask you a few questions.
Do you dread talking to strangers or those you barely know? Some people seem to be born with the gift of gab. They talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime, about anything. By understanding a few strategies and putting in a little practice, you can talk to anyone with ease, too. You don’t have to be mesmerizing. You just have to convince the other person they are.
A successful social conversation puts the emphasis on your conversation partner. It’s also a highly effective way to sell products and services.
You can become an excellent conversationalist, even after narcissistic abuse. Try these tips.
1. Make a good first impression. People make a lot of conclusions about you before you ever open your mouth. Conveying the message that you’re friendly, confident, and relevant provides a huge advantage. People will naturally want to engage with you and will listen to what you have to say.
- * Stand or sit up straight. Put on your best confident smile. Look them in the eye.
2. Pay attention. Everyone wants to matter. By giving your conversation partner your full attention, you can accomplish that with ease. Avoid looking at your watch, your phone, or scanning the room. Keep your attention on the other person.
3. Avoid worrying about what you’ll say next. This could easily fall under the previous point, but deserves specific attention. Are you one of those people that’s viewed as socially awkward? That’s because you’re worried about what you’re going to say next. You’re not listening intently to the other person.
- * When your mind is furiously working to think of something to say, you become fidgety, your eye contact wavers, and your anxiety is obvious. It makes others uncomfortable. Just listen, and the other person will give you plenty of material to move the conversation forward.
4. Turn the spotlight on the other person. You’ll find that your most successful conversations will be about the other person. People love it when you show an interest in them. Keep turning the conversation toward the other person, their interests, and opinions. Your new friend will greatly enjoy the conversation.
5. Worried about running out of things to say? Repeat the last few words of your conversation partner.
- * “So, you went scuba diving on the great barrier reef?” Then just sit back and relax.
6. Always have something interesting to say. You will have to contribute something interesting to the conversation on occasion. Be prepared. You wouldn’t blindly reach into a dark closet and wear the first thing your hand touched. There’s no reason to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. Be prepared.
- * Watch the news before you head out the door and be aware of the latest global and local happenings.
- * Have a story or two prepared.
7. Expect success. Your expectations and results match more often than not. Expect to have a good conversation. Believe that you’re a great conversationalist. Visualize conversational success.
8. Give one sincere compliment. Avoid making a direct compliment, because it can be potentially awkward and begs for a response.
- * “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen” is too much.
- * “Wow, you obviously work out. What type of exercise do you do?” is very complimentary without going too far.
- * One sincere compliment is enough.
- Even after abuse, you can learn conversation skills – or re-learn them.
Angela Atkinson is a Certified Life Coach and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic relationships since 2006, Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own.
Atkinson offers trauma-informed coaching and has certifications in life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves.
Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded QueenBeeing.com Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. In her life coaching practice, Atkinson’s clients enjoy her personalized approach that allows and encourages them to become the best possible versions of themselves and to succeed in doing what they love most. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online and NarcissismSupportCoach.com.