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Narcissists & The Silent Treatment

Updated on March 9, 2018
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The silent treatment. Death by rejection. It's very common behavior with narcissistic people. They don't all engage in the silent treatment, but many of them do and it can be very upsetting for people who may not even understand what the problem is or what the narcissist thinks they've done wrong.

The silent treatment refers to someone who does not speak to you. Often they don't even acknowledge you. They might talk around you, or to others as if you are not there, but if you speak to them they will ignore you. They may not answer text messages or phone calls. They basically pretend you don't exist, even when they are in the same place you are.

The silent treatment is used as both a passive-aggressive form of expressing anger and as a way to control other people. For example, you need the narcissist to do something that only they can do, such as call the bank to make sure there is enough money to buy groceries, or make the payment on a utility bill that is in their name. They ignore your repeated requests and do not do what you are asking. Therefore groceries cannot be purchased or the bill cannot be paid. This causes stress for the other people in the home and if it goes on long enough can result in people going without things they need. In this way, narcissists use the silent treatment to punish and control the entire household until they are given what they want. What that might be can vary, but they almost always want something.

They may also use it as a means to control things by not answering, even if they are not angry. For example, let's say your narcissistic ex spouse has custody of your children. You message or call them early in the week, asking when is a good time to pick the children up for visitation, but they don't answer you. You continue to call or message every day but they never answer. Finally, on the day of visitation they answer, saying that the children already have plans or there is some other reason you cannot see them. Alternately, they might berate you for coming to pick them up too late or too early, even though you asked repeatedly. It is all about control, and any situation where they can assert control, nine times out of 10 they will.

The silent treatment can take a few different forms. The person may behave normally in all ways except that they are ignoring you completely. Other times they may sulk and pout, they may lie around appearing depressed, they may go through the house slamming things and making a lot of noise... but when you ask them what's wrong, they don't reply. They ignore your questions but continue to behave in ways that communicate clearly that something is wrong. This makes many people very uncomfortable and creates an anxious atmosphere. This is passive-aggressive because the person is clearly angry or upset but they are refusing to confront their feelings or address it directly. Narcissists often have trouble acknowledging their feelings in general and though they are probably most known for being overtly or directly aggressive, they can be extremely passive-aggressive as well.

So why the silent treatment? Well, to the narcissist, being ignored is the worst thing that could possibly happen. Most people in general find it very hurtful and unpleasant. It's a primitive need to belong and be cared about. Even small children understand this, which is why when they are angry at their friend or cannot get their way, they say things like, "I'm ignoring you because I don't like you anymore." The intent is to control the situation and cause hurt in the other person by sending a clear message that they are no longer important or liked.

Pathologically narcissistic people are by design very self-involved and very self-absorbed. Their perception of reality is very lopsided, as it is with children. They cannot separate their own experience from anything, and the only thing they can see is how something affects them. They see everything as flowing to and from themselves. The only reason you exist is to be of service to them, remember, which is exactly the way children experience things. Small children don't see other people such as their parents as individuals with their own lives or needs. They see parents as existing to be their caregivers. That is the only context in which they can understand or justify the parent's existence. The parent's existence is defined by the child's need. This is exactly the way pathologically narcissistic people see others. Therefore, if they remove their attention from you, in their estimation this should be the most painful thing that has ever happened to you. Your reason for existing has been removed. Now you have nothing. Now you are nothing. The hope is that you suffer as much as you are causing them to suffer - and more.

There is also something called ghosting, which is when the narcissistic person just disappears from your life. Ghosting is often confused with the silent treatment, but the intention behind ghosting is not to hurt or control the other person. The intent behind ghosting is to erase the other person. When a narcissist is giving someone the silent treatment, they are pretending the person does not matter anymore, but it's obvious that the person and their reactions still matter very much to the narcissist or they wouldn't even bother. When a narcissist has ghosted someone, they are not pretending. This person no longer matters and has been erased from existence.

Unless they need you again for something, that is.

People dealing with the silent treatment often experience feelings of worthlessness and confusion. They may not understand what the problem is, or why it is such a big a deal. Being treated as if you don't exist - especially over something trivial - is very hurtful. The silent treatment is freezing somebody out with cold silence. It is intentionally used to make someone feel rejected and unimportant - which is of course, exactly how narcissists feel.

It should be said here that there are times when people are just angry and don't feel like talking. However, the appropriate way to handle that would be to say, "I'm angry and don't want to speak with you right now," instead of just acting like the person talking is invisible.

Dealing with the silent treatment can be difficult when dealing with narcissists because they are very controlling and many take pleasure in being contrary and vindictive. With a non-personality disordered person, you could try reasoning with them kindly and there is a decent chance that they'll break the silence and engage you so that things can be sorted out. With pathologically narcissistic people, nothing is going to be sorted out - ever. The more you want them to talk, the more control and power they can claim by not doing so. The more upset the silent treatment makes you, the more power they have over you and the better they feel about themselves. You cannot reason with someone like that and it is pointless to try. All you're doing is playing their game and it's one you can't possibly win.

The narcissist in your life has worked their way into a position where they are calling the shots for everybody. As long as that is true, things will be at their mercy, which means miserable. But you can change that, and the way you do that is by taking the power back. Let them have their silent treatment if that's what they want to do. Your value is not dictated by them and how other people feel about you does not determine your worth. Let them throw up their roadblocks to progress if that's the only thing they can do to make themselves feel powerful. You can find other ways to do what needs to be done that don't include them. Once you can truly internalize these things, you will find that emotional manipulation and psychological strong-arming no longer work on you. These kinds of manipulations only work because people have allowed the narcissist to have power and control over their feelings. You can take that back just as easily as you've given it. All you have to do is realize that you've had it all along.

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