Part of Kathy’s new series “Healing Your Heart”
There’s one communication behavior that I’ve seen over and over in my own life and relationships, and now I’m hearing about it often from my clients, friends and from members of my courses and programs. I learn of it frequently too from adult children of narcissists or folks who’ve grown up with emotional manipulation and pain in their families.
It’s a rampant communication behavior, yet most people don’t talk about it openly, or even know what’s happened when it hits them. They’re stunned, saddened, and hurt, but can’t sort out why it’s occurred.
But I can tell you from experience that if you display this communication trait, you’re hurting people, making life-long enemies, damaging others’ self-esteem, and burning bridges. And you’re revealing a great deal about you that’s unflattering, negative and hurtful, that you’ll most likely want to revise.
I call this trait “knife-in-the-wound reactivity.”
Here’s an example:
Carol is sitting with her friend Emily who’s struggling deeply in parenting her daughter whose behavior is out of control. Carol listens for a long time, hours even, trying to be helpful and empathic, and be a good friend. Finally, in an effort to show empathy for Emily and validate that she isn’t alone in her parenting struggles, Carol reveals something vulnerable about her own life and parenting, saying, “I really know what you mean. When my son was that age, he was so difficult to discipline – he’d react terribly when I tried to set important rules, and he’d fight back hard.”
Instead of being comforted, Emily reacts harshly by stabbing a knife through Carol’s vulnerability, rubbing salt in the old wound. Emily lets rip a hurtful comment, something like this: “Yeah, I remember that – when your son was a complete horror. I thought ‘Wow, he’s out really of control.’”
Carol feels devastated. First, she’s stunned because, in response to her efforts to comfort and console Emily, she’s slammed down by her friend. Then, she learns something hurtful that she never knew her friend felt about her in the first place. Thirdly, she’s left wondering why this happened – why, in an effort to be kind, she is attacked.
What’s going on here?
As a therapist, I’ve see this pattern often in couples who are struggling and enraged with each other. As a career coach, I’ve seen this too among friends, parents and children, and siblings, colleagues and bosses as well. The trait that I’m referring to here is present in individuals who are suffering from faltering self-esteem, and internal rage and resentment at how their life and relationships have unfolded. They’re seething with jealousy of others, and they’re secretly angry at everyone. They feel like their life is a disaster compared to their friends and family members who seem to have it “better” and “easier.” They feel Facebook, for instance, is so very hard because everyone’s life looks better, happier and easier than theirs.
Here’s what I know about individuals who engage chronically in “knife-in-the-wound reactivity:”
- They want to lash back at others and the world, and can’t help themselves from hurting others the way they feel hurt.
- They’re highly anxious, and haven’t yet gained the capability and skill to manage and regulate their anxiety or emotions.
- Their self-esteem is fragile and even broken. and they’re working so hard not to let that show, but it bleeds out.
- They feel that efforts from others to be helpful only puts salt in their own wounds, because they feel “less than” once again when someone is trying to help.
- Finally, they never really feel “good enough,” ever.
It’s probable that each of us on the planet has reacted in this way at one point or another in our lives. But if we’re healthy, in touch with our feelings, and our self-esteem is intact, we recognize when we’ve hurt others, and we feel badly about it. And then we do something concrete to address the problem, and make amends.
But if this describes the way you habitually behave, it’s time to do something about it. Most humans are aware of when they’re hurting others, but narcissists and other emotional manipulators aren’t as aware. They’re so fragile themselves that they can’t help (or don’t even care) that they’re leaving body parts in their wake.
If you’ve displayed this behavior frequently – either in the far past or recently – it’s time to take some bold action to repair it. Brave up and be stronger, and take control. Apologize from the heart and soul. Get in touch with why you feel you need to lash back at people who are trying to help. And look at why you feel so angry and resentful of others, and the world. Then own up to it.
Get some help to shift and heal your pain, and start on the critical process of healing and recovery. You can do it, and you’ll see a difference in your life and relationships immediately when you do.