If you’ve ever experienced the silent treatment from a narcissist, you’ll know exactly why we call it emotional abuse. First of all, silent treatment hurts. Most narcissists that use silence as punishment in what we call “silent treatment” know they are doing it.
They will justify the silence by shifting blame, playing victim, outright stating why you deserve it or totally ignoring the fact that they did it. The silent treatment is felt by you as pain; it literally registers in your brain the same way physical pain does.
It is no wonder we react to it and have a hard time with the silence. Stick with me here and I’ll give you some ways to shut down the narcissist during the silent treatment and also understand what is happening to you so that you can have it affect you maybe just a little bit less. But first, it’s important that you understand the psychology of the narcissist during the silent treatment.
You might be feeling all kinds of things from frantic to totally disregarded. Who could blame you? These feelings can make some of us act in ways that show desperate attempts to “make things better,” such as fawning behaviors like begging, over-apologizing by taking all the blame, pleading, people-pleasing, walking on eggshells, or being overly affectionate with no return of affection.
Another reaction might be anger, resulting in the fight reaction. This can include things like yelling, insisting, pushing buttons or anything just to break the silence. All of these reactions are supply for the narcissist and will not get you what you need, an adult conversation and reconciliation.
What I’ve learned from dealing with narcissistic abuse and would like to share is that it is not about really shutting down or controlling the narcissist. It’s really all about learning to control our own reactions and our own selves. This way, we can think clearly. It allows us the brainpower we need to get out and not be affected by the tools of abuse.
Easier said than done, I know. But it is really important to learn to disengage from the behaviors of the narcissist. Why? Because the silent treatment has no power if you don’t engage with it.
Shut down the narcissist’s silent treatment by disengaging.
Know that silent treatment is not a mature and adult way of communication and it is not healthy.
Stop taking the narcissist’s behavior personally. Remember that this is not about you or because of you – this is how they control and manipulate.
There is no fixing this and it is not yours to fix if there were a way.
It is not your fault! Know that and tell yourself that.
Shut down the narcissist’s silent treatment by getting some perspective.
Take some breaths and look at the situation from a bit of a distance.
See that this is THEIR pattern and a way for the narcissist to never have to take accountability or resolve any issue in the relationship.
Your need for connection, resolve and care will not be met by engaging with the silent treatment.
Overcome the pain of the narcissist’s silent treatment with self-care.
Use the silent treatment as a time of self-reflection and decide what comes next.
The silent treatment can be a pause for you to assess the relationship and decide if it is what you want in your life. Know that as long as the narcissist remains in your life, it won’t change for the better.
Take away their power by seeing your own needs and that they are not mature enough to meet them – nor do they have the empathy it takes to be healthy in a relationship.
Silence can be a time to step back and really look at who the narcissist really is. If you engage with them it is more difficult to see it for what it really is, narcissistic abuse.
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Lise Colucci is an intuitive healer and certified life coach, as well as a certified narcissistic abuse recovery coach. She is a long-time admin and mentor for the SPAN Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Group, actively helping survivors of narcissistic abuse in the expansive community to learn and heal.
How do you deal with living with a narcissist who is giving you the silent treatment? Someone who will co-exist with you in the same house while literally ignoring you? What if that goes on for days? Weeks? The silent treatment can feel like psychological torture, and it can cause you to feel like you’re going crazy. This is why learning the truth about narcissists and their manipulative behavior is vital for those of us who are enmeshed with them.
Here’s the truth: living with and spending time with a malignant narcissist can lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, at the very least. And, unfortunately, it can also lead to situations where you’re so focused on getting the narcissist to change that you overlook other important aspects of your life.
How do you deal with the silent treatment of a narcissist?
Not only is it emotionally exhausting, but it makes you feel like you’re completely worthless, and it can make you feel like you’re losing your mind! So what are you supposed to do when you’re the victim of the silent treatment?
Most experts will tell you that ideally, this would be a two-word answer: no contact. But in real life, things don’t always work ideally, and people sometimes need to live with narcissists – so let’s dig into this.
What is the narcissist’s silent treatment?
The silent treatment is a manipulation tactic where a toxic narcissist will stop talking to you for days, hours, weeks, or even months to punish you for some perceived slight. It can cause severe emotional and psychological damage if you don’t realize what is happening.
What is the goal of the silent treatment?
The silent treatment enables a narcissist can take the “spotlight” from you – even inside your own head. It is one way they can sort of become the center of your life. Their goal is to cause you to become so obsessed with figuring out what to do to resolve it that you might even stop thinking about yourself, which can lead to your boundaries being violated one by one until the narcissist has complete control over you. You would naturally stop attempting to take care of yourself in the process because you’re so focused on the narcissist.
And, in the case of a covert narcissist, you might often find yourself getting the old silent treatment – AKA the discard phase. So the first thing you have to do is to educate yourself about the situation. I always say that knowledge is power, and the first fact you need to know about this issue is exactly why narcissists give you the silent treatment in the first place.
It’s critical to recognize that while many people have times when they need to retreat to think about things, someone who cares about you will never use this abusive tactic to punish you. The silent treatment isn’t a tactic that a healthy person would use to manipulate you. Normal (as in non-narcissist) people don’t punish someone they love for THEIR bad behavior (such as being caught in a lie), but narcissists most definitely will. This should be a red flag for you.
According to Medical News Today, there are three primary reasons people use silent treatment: avoidance, communication, and punishment.
Avoidance as a Catalyst for Silent Treatment
The “avoidance” tactic is less likely to be used by narcissists but more likely to be used by someone who is afraid of conflict. It’s literally what it sounds like – you’ll find yourself hiding out and avoiding calls and contact with someone who is likely to confront or attack you – think of it as an attempt to steer clear of drama in a high-tension situation. In avoidance, the person using the silent treatment would be most likely.
Communication as a Catalyst for Silent Treatment
There are some times where people try to use the silent treatment as a form of communication. In other words, to get their point across, they are manipulating someone and attempting to communicate that they’re feeling upset or bothered by that person’s behavior.
A person may use the silent treatment if they do not know how to express their feelings but want their partner to see that they’re angry or upset. Many narcissists use this kind of silent treatment, but it’s not only a narcissistic behavior.
Punishment as a Catalyst for Silent Treatment
When someone uses silent treatment as a way to take control of you or to punish you, you’re dealing with emotional and psychological abuse. The “punishment” tactic is probably the narcissist’s favorite way to engage in the silent treatment. Unfortunately, narcissists also often use this type of silent treatment as part of an attempt to gaslight you.
‘Cold’ and ‘Milder’ Forms of Silent Treatment – Hostile Withholding
There are other forms of the silent treatment, of course. For example, according to Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D., sometimes people will not cut off communication completely, but they’ll change the way they’re interacting.
“Some abusers engage in what may appear to be a “milder” form of the silent treatment, in which they do not maintain total silence but still cut off their partners emotionally,” Aronson writes in a Psychology Today article.
“When angered by their partner, some people turn a little cold,” she says. “They may be ‘correct’ in their responses, not outwardly mean, but still treat their partner like someone they barely know, or like a neighbor or colleagues at work. This is crazy-making because when confronted, the person acting cold will deny it.”
The Psychology of the Silent Treatment
In general, silent treatment can be intentional or accidental. However, sometimes it is used as a form of social control. At other times, it may indicate that the person has no respect for your value as a person and regards you as less than human. Regardless of its intent, using silent treatment toward others can have devastating consequences. And when it comes to narcissists using this tactic – it is always about manipulation and/or punishment. So let’s discuss why narcissists are so prone to using silent treatment as a way to manipulate and punish you.
See, whether they recognize it consciously or not, narcissists are wired to sort of “push your buttons” to get what they want.
Now, you might wonder which button they’re trying to push when they go silent, right? You might be surprised to find out that it’s not about making you crazy from lack of communication or pure boredom – instead, it’s about playing on your own worst fears.
And, I’m betting, one of your worst fears is the fear of being alone in the world with no one to help or support or be there for you. Am I right? And I’m guessing that if you’re currently involved (or were previously involved) with a narcissist, you’re thinking of all kinds of little things the narcissist did to play on your fears.
The silent treatment works particularly well on sensitive, empathic people (who are often quite attractive to narcissists) because we are wired to respond to and attempt to soothe the emotions of the people around us, especially those we love. Do you feel me?
How Do You Beat the Narcissist’s Silent Treatment?
Okay, so how do you deal with this behavior without completely losing your mind? The good news? You don’t have to take it lying down, and there are ways you can beat the narcissist’s silent treatment.
If you’re staying in the relationship because you have no choice, you can play the game. In order to do this, make sure you take care of yourself and that you don’t allow yourself to become overly isolated.
Keep in mind that one of the narcissist’s playbook moves is to isolate you from others in your life – the silent treatment will make you want to oblige in some cases, and you might even end up isolating yourself.
Find something that you enjoy to engage you, and don’t be afraid to sort of enjoy the break from their drama, if at all possible.
But in the end, the best option is to leave, go no contact, and move forward.
With that said, we all know that sometimes it’s easier said than done – and we all have our reasons for the choices we make and for why we “don’t just leave already if it’s so bad.” So, as always, I want to say that if you are being physically abused, none of the following is relevant, and I want you to get help now – stop reading and start packing, sister.
Make No Mistake: The Silent Treatment IS Abuse
The fact is that the silent treatment is painful, and it makes you miserable. As someone likely codependent, you may feel that you need to fix whatever you did wrong to get the narcissist to be nice to you again. But the truth is that this is precisely what the narcissist wants – for you to bend over backward trying to appease them. All the while, the narcissist has no intention of allowing that to happen – they will only stop using the silent treatment when it is convenient for them, or they want or need something from you.
But if you work on your self-esteem, and you learn how to set proper boundaries, and you recognize that you are worthy of love and respect – you’re already on your way to learning how to disarm the narcissist‘s silent treatment. You don’t just have to accept it and carry around this false hope that the narcissist will change one day. (Chances are, they won’t.)
How to Disarm the Narcissist Who is Using Silent Treatment
Picture this. You’re getting the silent treatment again, a painful part of the discard phase that everyone who’s ever been in a narcissist’s cycle of abuse can recall. Maybe you’ve been accused of being selfish or of ignoring the narcissist’s emotional or physical needs, of being dishonest, arrogant, lazy, or any number of other insulting descriptives.
(But, for the record, what’s happening most of the time is projection—narcissists project their inadequacies onto their victims. So, as usual, it’s all about the narcissist, not about you.)
Assuming you’re going to play the game, this is what you do to cope with the silent treatment.
The next time you’re confronted with the icy, hateful silent treatment for yet another perceived infraction, please come back here and reread this article. And I want you to remember that this is a game of control – the narcissist believes he can control you with his lack of communication and concern.
The only way to take back the power here is to refuse to respond. Instead, you go on about your life as though he isn’t there, or you do whatever you’d typically do, and you blatantly ignore his behavior, no matter how pissed off he gets.
Do not send him texts trying to reason with him.
Do not post whiney crap on your Facebook page for all to see.
Do not allow him to know that he is affecting you in any way at all.
Do not give him what he wants when he behaves this way.
One last tip: when the narcissist decides the silent treatment is over, and they need your narcissistic supply again, they will do anything in their power to “suck you back in,” a move we call “the hoover maneuver.” Don’t fall for it – it’s not going to get better, and they’re not really planning to change. In fact, the moment you relent and allow the narcissist back into your heart and life – they’ll go right back to the same old behavior.
Angela Atkinson is a certified trauma counselor 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 personality disorder and narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships since 2006, she has a popular narcissistic abuse recovery YouTube channel. Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own.
Atkinson offers trauma-informed narcissistic abuse recovery coaching and has certifications in trauma counseling, 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.