"The mask slipped. When it did, and I called him on his abuse, he couldn't stand it. He turned on me like a cornered animal. Watching it unfold was truly enlightening, and frightening at the same time. I was shocked at how rapidly his verbal abuse escalated, and by how little it took to 'trigger' it. "~WoN Forum Member
The Jekyl-Hyde Split
“Man is not truly one, but truly two.” ~Dr. Jekyll
It is a beautiful afternoon. You are strolling through a park, watching passersby who had also stolen a few minutes from work to appreciate a wintry day. You reach over to intimately squeeze your partner’s hand. He pushes your arm aside and seethes, “How DARE you!”
Now you are facing a madman who is accusing you of preposterous things for having spontaneously caressed his arm. You make the assumption there is an explanation for his anger and frantically search for a probable cause. You attempt to calm him down but your ministrations are perceived as trivializing. He doesn't need to be coddled by you, he insists, you are the problem! He accuses you of controlling him. You embarrass him with your clinging behavior, "can’t-you-won’t-you-will-you please grow up?" And besides, he accuses, you ALWAYS make a fool of him in front of other people. You ALWAYS act as though he's your possession, a plaything you can maul at your pleasure, he says. You are dumbfounded and maybe even scared but you're still looking a reason.
When the narcissist is raging, most people assume there is a rational antecedent but they underestimate the degree of irrationality they are dealing with. This is because narcissists use "primitive or immature defenses” preserving their inflated self-esteem, their perceptions of power, and their desperate need for control. Defenses are unconscious and there are several mechanisms triggering the rapid switch from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. Maybe your surprise touch represented his loss of control. Instead of querying himself about his need for control, he accuses you of controlling him. When the narcissist sees in others what he cannot tolerate in himself, this is called Projection. Other defense mechanisms commonly used by the narcissistic personality are: denial, fantasy, idealization, even delusional projection. However, the defense that is particularly confusing is called Splitting. Splitting is a psychological mechanism that splits reality by dividing people (including the self) into All Bad or All Good extremes. There are no shades of gray. Reality is black or white, right or wrong. People are powerful or powerless; and reductively: winners or losers.
Splitting is a primitive defense. You can think of it in relation to an infant. The undeveloped baby cannot integrate both good and bad behaviors in one person. Seeing other people as both good and bad is complex, requiring psychological maturity. Until the child has accomplished this developmental task, baby will see mama as ideal (all good) or devalued (all bad). This is exactly what happens when the narcissist splits reality, seeing his partner-the-arm-toucher as an engulfing, rejecting, frightening object he must punish or control because she is BAD; and only later, after he has restored his equilibrium, praising her as a forgiving, perfect, empathetic and ideal woman for not having knocked his fool head off.
In addition to splitting, the narcissist’s lack of empathy means he does not understand your feelings. His sense of entitlement and exploitation means he can rage without remorse. He will not feel terrible about his rage because it makes him feel powerful. Besides, you must have deserved it. For narcissists, raging is Ego-Syntonic (they are comfortable with their behavior) which means, Dr. Hyde will never be denied visit.
So back to our January stroll through the park: When the narcissist has evacuated sufficiently and you have been sufficiently chastised, he vows never to repeat his monstrous performance. He apologizes not because he is taking responsibility for the harm he has caused, but because he is fearful you will leave---and he’s not ready for you to leave. Narcissists fear being abandoned by their ‘narcissistic supply object’, which means he will promise the moon to get you to stay. And you, having invested your heart and soul in this relationship, relent on your threat to leave. You feel sorry for him. Besides, you love the guy and like he said, maybe you were too needy, and too demonstrative in public, and now that you understand him better, you will work on being more considerate. This is the beginning of a dangerous pattern leading to the cycle of violence/abuse.
Yes, maybe you started walking with the kind and sensitive Dr. Jekyll but you ended up sharing your afternoon with Mr. Hyde, the unpredictable third party in every narcissistic relationship. Nearly every person writing about living with a narcissist has commented on the Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde split. The quick switch from professed love to undying hatred is crazy-making for anyone in the narcissist’s circle of associates, friends, and family. Still, the brunt of the narcissist's archaic rage is focused on his partner who is subjected to star performances by both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s amazing she isn't accused of bigamy.
The above depiction of Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde is a classic interpretation of splitting as an unconscious defense mechanism. It is not a conscious manipulation terrifying victims into submission. When the narcissist is raging, making false accusations that have no basis in truth, and HE knows it, this is not unconscious splitting.
As Dr. Dr. George Simon writes, "Unfortunately, the term splitting has been used to denote the very conscious tactic of pitting one entity against another."
“An offense is not a defense.”
Rage as a BULLY Tactic
"I read somewhere that when a narcissist starts raging, you can stop it cold by mirroring that behavior back at them. I decided to try it when my N starting raging at me because I told him he sounded groggy. I called when he was taking a nap, he was groggy and cranky so I suggested calling him later. He exploded at me, raging that I was calling him a liar (he told me he was not groggy) and that I must not really love him if I think he is a liar. So I raged right back at him, accused him of calling me a liar and therefore he must not really love me. It was like flipping a switch. He stopped immediately and began speaking in a normal tone about normal conversational things, as if the rage episode had never happened. It was the weirdest thing I'd ever seen. It only took another week or so to convince me to go No Contact." ~WoN Forum Member
Narcissists use anger deliberately. Raging becomes a narcissist’s means to an end, reassuring their dominance. Thus, narcissists may be in control even when others perceive them as being out-of-control. We fear (and not unrealistically) that their out-of-context raging will lead to punishing retaliation or violence. As rational beings, we back down, take a more submissive stance, and the narcissist gets what he wants: power and control. Overtime, the aggressive narcissist becomes extremely adept at terrorizing people into submission because Dr. Hyde performs to the narcissist’s bidding. When Dr. Jekyll needs to 'put people back in their place', Dr. Hyde makes an appearance. At a certain point, after repeated performances, people are so well-trained the narcissist need only suggest he's displeased and other people alter their behavior.
When the aggressive narcissist is raging with criticism, insults and accusations that YOU are the devil's handmaiden, his extremist perceptions may appear to be defensive ‘splitting’. It is not. It is a deliberate fear tactic intended to disorient his victim(s). The more disoriented the victim, the more damage the narcissist inflicts. The more vulnerable his targeted victim, the more powerful and dominant the narcissist feels. Contrary to how most people feel when they hurt another person, the aggressive narcissist begins towering when his victim is cowering. In other words: the narcissist's need for power exceeds normal people’s relational need for intimacy.
The walk in the park is a good example of unconscious splitting versus anger as a manipulation tactic. The pathological narcissist might want to shout halfway through your stroll but he will wait until he has cornered you in a private place without witnesses. He will wait until the car ride home. Then he will turn on the rage spigot, showering you with criticisms so he can manipulate you into submission. Splitting, in the true definition of the term, is not consciously controlled. And a normal person cannot turn their anger off and on like a water faucet.
Whether unconsciously splitting reality or consciously pitting one person against another, you may get a hearts and roses apology afterwards. You will know if the narcissist's apology is sincere by his next choice. Does he seek treatment because his victims are afraid of him? Does he ‘admit to’ and ‘take responsibility for’ fixing his problem? If not, please accept the fact that he is comfortable with his behavior because it gets him what he wants: power; control; domination; an inflation of his self-esteem. In other words: He feels good when you feel bad.
Anyone for whom terrorizing others is Ego-Syntonic, is not a person with whom you can develop trustworthy intimacy. Unfortunately, by the time you question the health of your relationship, you will be so disoriented and beaten down that you won’t even believe you deserve better. You do. Anyone who is kind enough to care, who sticks around in the belief s/he can help her partner, deserves nothing but the very best.
I wrote this article for The WoN Connection, published in February 2011.
The artwork on this essay is the result of my PHOTOSHOP class this winter. I love Photoshop. If you haven't Photoshopped yet, you may want to give it a try. It's a marvelous way to spend your lonely nights and solitary weekends AND, you won't even miss the narcissist. Say, let's consider Photoshop to be a method for sticking to No Contact. Photoshop your way to mental health and spiritual peace. That should be the title of my next essay! ha!