Recent years have seen an explosion in the discussion of “narcissism” online. Overwhelmingly, this has been in terms of the devastating impact that abuse in childhood and the ongoing legacy of being an adult child of a Narcissistic parent can have upon a person’s psyche. From online forums, to YouTube channels and psychology articles; never before have those that have suffered in childhood had so many available resources to connect the dots between experiences of having been scape goated, the feeling of “waiting for the other shoe to drop” and parental narcissism.
Online support communities have enabled survivors to network and share coping strategies, thereby reducing the shame, damage and isolation that they may have previously experienced.
But how can the life long toxic residue that these experiences leave behind be explained to people from the other side. The people who have only ever known healthy loving, functional, boundaried family relationships? How can they be brought to life to educate others why a person with childhood C-PTSD can’t just get over it? Or how things like sharing a simple Facebook meme about a mother’s love will silently be experienced as a stab in the heart to a friend somewhere in their network?
I bring you to season 7 of the Walking Dead and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s depiction of Negan. This season, viewers have been picked up and dropped a world dominated by the inner workings of a man who is the personification of the dysfunction, terror, fear, guilt and obligation that malignant dark triad individuals leave in their wake.
The Walking Dead may be a post apocalyptic fictional world ravaged by zombies, but as we learnt many seasons ago, it is not about the zombies, who merely act as the dark force that has unravelled society. I strongly believe that throughout history story telling and fiction has had the ability to capture and explain truths about the human condition. Stories can act as poignant allegories for what we at times struggle to explain.
Negan may be a leering despot with a baseball bat wrapped in wire; but there is a universality in the tactics of narcissism. A narcissistically abusive person could be a suburban middle class housewife, an executive who has multiple affairs and bullies his family or in fact anyone from any social strata.
These are personalities characterised by an inflated sense of self-importance, an inability to reflect or admit fault, obsessive preoccupation with ones’ own needs. A fragile and insecure sense of self is masked by grandiose and often times bullying and coercive behaviours in inter personal relationships.
In a healthy family setting, a child is free to develop a unique, separate identity of his/her own; they are encouraged to be an individual with their own unique qualities and life view. Emotional warmth coupled with encouraging a child to develop their autonomy sets in place a solid and secure sense of self in preparation for adulthood. This is not so in the narcissistic family system. Narcissistic parents do not welcome boundaries between themselves and their children. Even as adults, the children of a narcissist are regarded as extensions of the parent.
In the Walking Dead, we see how Negan deliberately seeks to scrub away at a person’s identity, by any means necessary. This is how Negan remains in command and consolidates power over others. Daryl is subjected to solitary confinement and torture in East Street. Negan operates from what looks like a factory, that feels constructed to practically control people. In a bizarre fashion, his group the Saviours all answer “I am Negan” when asked their name or “we are all Negan”. They have abandoned their sense of self; Negan has become their sense of self.
Back to real life and what is often times the over-riding dynamic in a suburban narcissistically abusive family unit, is the spouse and other family members trying to keep the lid on the volcano and pandering to the narcissist. As a result, life is seen through the prism of the narcissistic parents needs’. People may not answer, “I am Negan” but on a subconscious level, this environment primes children for co-dependency later in life. Adult children of Narcissist’s frequently wake up to find that their sense of self is completely fractured. They do not know who they really are or where their thoughts and feelings start and end. They do not know how to set boundaries with others and are not consciously in touch with their own needs. As a result, by adolescence, they are often prime targets for those outside of the home looking to abuse or exploit them.
3.The role of the “Enablers”
Negan has presence, poise and a menacing whiff of psychopathy. But he does not have huge bulking muscles, he is not 7ft tall and he is not the terminator. In fact, if they united, his followers could easily take Lucielle off him and over power him.
He is able to murder, imprison, cajole, torture and dominate others all because of his army of enablers and facilitators. The Saviours have become so trauma bonded and lacking in sense of self, that they are willing to capitulate to him, whatever his demands. As the series has gone on, we have come to see how Dwight is less of a henchman and more a victim in his own right, just one that has decided his interests are best served by capitulating to Negan. Like the others, Dwight will go along with Negan and watch others be killed or have their face melted with an iron; just so long as he is no longer on the receiving end.
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
A Narcissist will often times pair up with a spouse that acts as an Enabler to their behaviours. The Narcissist is not looking for a meaningful or authentic relationship that is built on mutual trust and respect but rather somebody that will not call them out on their s***. The Enabler has decided that to call the Narcissist out on their verbal or violent outbursts, grandiose behaviour and inability to give and take is simply not worth the shattering of the family illusion. Typically, the Enabler may complain and commiserate with others about the situation and the Narcissist’s overt behaviours, but will then still sit at the dinner table with the Narcissist every Christmas or Thanksgiving to perpetuate the family illusion.
4.Violation, Violence, Gaslighting and ” the rules”
Negan operates via rules that he repeats several times and sticks to, creating the illusion that there is a fairness and predictability to his behaviour. In real life narcissistically abuse family units, it may not be attacks with a barbed wire baseball bat; but verbal abuse, violence and threatening communications that make it clear that challenging the family “rules” laid down by the Narcissist will not be tolerated. For example, terse, emotionally manipulative phone calls if you have other plans for Christmas.Raging anger from the parent when seemingly their needs are not placed centre stage and sometimes outright threats if you attempt to cut contact. Respect for the adult child’s boundaries and autonomy as an individual are disregarded, as interfering in relationships, coercion and rabid verbal attacks can all become fair game.
“Gaslighting”, is a form of psychological abuse designed to confuse and disoriented a victim to the extent that they do not trust their own memory and perceptions. If a an adult child of a narcissist challenges the unspoken rules and demands fairness, the narcissist will deny, minimise and reconstruct entire conversations. For example, “I only said it as a joke”, “that wasnt what was meant at all” “in fact, you are the one that ought to be apologising !” (after they have verbal abused or insulted you). The enablers will support whatever madness is put out to defend the family “system” and illusion of togetherness. Demanding subservience from scape goat members are the key dynamics of narcissistic families.
5.Flip-Flopping Between Rage and Charm
Negan is unpredictable. He will keep you off-balance and one minute react with rage; on other occasions with charm. As he says to Carl “its more productive to break you, more fun to”. The whole sequence with Rick being tricked into thinking he had to cut off Carl’s arm was nothing but a game intended to break Rick.
He has no boundaries and confuses victims by alternating from one mood and tactic to another. For example, degrading and insulting Carl at how disgusting his eye socket looks, then flipping the script and telling Carl that he that should be proud. This rage/charm dynamic is what so frequently charactrises interactions with narcissistic personalities in real life. Far from being completely out of control, Narcissitic personalities often have the capabilities to behave very different in public to put on a false “mask” of respectability. The Narcissitic parent may also flip between telling a child or an adult child that want them to succeed and be a high achievers, but then also use abuse and put downs such as “you’ll never amount to anything” and “your ugly”. This creates a level of cognitive dissonance and perpetuates a dynamic of being kept continually off balance. Plus, you are having to continually try and protect your self worth from the verbal equilivant of precision bombing raids.
Cutting Ties: Game Over
Many people who have survived a narcissistically abusive family unit and healed from the damage will testify that this has only happened after going “no contact.” Going no contact is decision that is not taken lightly. In many cases it means cutting all ties with other family members still under the Narcissist’s influence, being written out of wills, or any financial inheritance losing access to nieces/nephews and/or grand parents for their children as well fulling confronting the loss of the happy family illusion that never was.
But the role that “no contact” plays in healing can be tremendous. Exposure to the damaging verbal attacks, gas lighting and toxic, intrusive dynamics is immediately reduced. Indeed in his renowned and outstanding book on the topic Complex PTSD, From Surviving to Thriving, Trauma Therapist Pete Walker identifies that many of his adult clients were only able to stop living in a flight/fight/fawn triggered response state when contact with the source of their developmental trauma was removed. Just like how we see Negan wanting to continue the status quo of his reign at all costs, attempts to go no contact are not understood or welcomed by the family unit. Adult children of Narcissists can encounter a level of harassment or a smear campaign that combined with their previous trauma, can trigger acute anxiety responses.
In the episode Swear, Tara becomes separated from Heath and ends up at Oceanside, a female only community. It is only when she tries to escape that one of the women reveals the full scale of their suffering at the hands of Negan and the Saviours; all of the men and boys over 12 were murdered .
But then one night, the women left, got away and and slowly rebuilt their lives, building a community from the ground up. They are prepared to pay any price necessary for Negan not to find them again.
Without over dramatizing or trivializing experiences of abuse, this scene on one level serves as a powerful allegory for how many survivors feel having broken away from the abusive dynamics and having reclaimed their lives and sense of self after going No contact.
The Walking Dead has been extremely uncomfortable to watch at times this season and there has been a notable drop in the ratings. I believe that this is in part, reflective of not just slower paced story lines, but how psychologically challenging it has been for audiences to watch the damage to people’s psyche’s that Negan inflicts and the frustrations of how everyone around him capitulates.