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Narcissistic Stepfather

Question:

I was bullied and physically manhandled by my stepfather over 6 months ago so i left that night and have never returned to the house where my mother still lives. My narcissistic father has constantly tried to contact me and i have changed my mobile number twice so i don’t have any contact with him. I am studying at University (Children’s Services and Behavioural management) i wonder why?? But have had lots of anxiety since the situation with my stepfather. I fear seeing him at the shopping centre and found myself in a cold sweat when i saw his car at the supermarket the other day. Will he ever leave me alone or do i have to get a restraining order on him which would be very hard on my mother who i love very much. What should i do and how can i stand up to this man??

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Answer:

Your description of what happened between you and your stepfather is just a little vague, but it seems to me that you are describing physical and possibly sexual abuse. And clearly, you are frightened of this man, who is continuing to harass you even after you have fled from his easy control.

You have not asked, but in case you might be wondering, the fear you are reporting appears to me to be a normal and very healthy reaction to someone harassing and threatening you. This is exactly what the fear system is designed to do – force you to pay attention to and react to real, pressing threats to your safety. So – though the feelings are uncomfortable, they are also normal given the situation. If you find that this fear continues to bothers you or interferes with your life long after you get this situation with your stepfather under control, at that time the fear would have become a more dysfunctional anxiety issue unto itself and counseling might be in order. This is just information to keep in your pocket for the future, should it ever be useful.

Right now you want to know what you can do to get your stepfather to stop harassing you, hopefully in a manner that will not redirect his anger or control tendencies onto your mother who you wish to protect as best as you can. We can talk about this question from two angles, the first being, what motivates this continuing harassment? and the second being at what point do you need to involve the authorities because the threat is too much for you to manage on your own?

We don’t know your stepfather’s particular motives, but we can talk about the general situation, which is one where he is behaving in a particular way that you want to discourage. The general principle here, drawn from learning theory, is that people and animals are motivated to pursue courses of action which they find rewarding, and to avoid courses of action which they find punishing. People tend to think of the idea of reward as necessarily involving pleasure, and punishment as something which necessarily involve pain, but that’s not really it. More simply put, a reward is anything that encourages a behavior to occur, and a punishment is something that discourages a behavior from occurring Rewards can be pleasurable, but they don’t have to be. What you want to do, then, is to think carefully about what it is that your stepfather is finding rewarding about going after you, and stop doing those things. If you lessen his ability to be rewarded, you stand a chance of discouraging his further harassment

Bullies are often rewarded by the prospect of dominating and controlling their victims. It is a rush for them to see others act in ways that show they are afraid; it gets them off. So, if this is the case in your situation (every situation is unique so it isn’t necessarily the case that this is right for this one), you will want to look for ways that your behavior may signal to your stepfather that you are afraid of him, and stop acting that way. You might still feel afraid, but if you stop acting afraid, you might discourage him. For instance, if he gets off on the idea that you avoid going to a certain place, then you might stop avoiding that place. If he gets off on the idea that you do not look him in the eye when he looks at you, then you might stop diverting your gaze. In a phrase, you can start acting more assertively towards him, and this is likely to reinforce him less for his behavior. Obviously, this could be hard to do in practice, particularly if you are conflicted about it, or uncertain as to how to go about it, but the general principle is sound.

You need to gauge the level of threat to your person, or to your mother before you start doing this stuff. If the threat is real – if you or your mother run the risk of being assaulted, beaten or raped – then challenging him directly or ignoring him, or doing whatever it is that will stop “feeding” his motivation may not be wise. This is because as you stop “feeding” him, it is likely he will start to escalate his behavior and become more threatening, and more obnoxious. The principle here is that he has noticed that he is not getting “fed” or reinforced as much anymore, and, as he wants to continue to get reinforced, he strengthens his own behavior in an effort to bring things back into the old alignment. It’s kinda like when you step on the break of your car, if you find suddenly that the break isn’t working the way it normally does, your tendency will be to slam your foot down harder. If a little behavior usually gets you a particular reaction, then a bigger behavior ought to get you more of it.

If your stepfather is prone to actual violence, your change in behavior may provoke him to violence. If this is the case, then your hands are tied, and the practical option is to solicit as much protection from the law and other people around you who care about you and your mother as you can manage to obtain. If you expect that violence is a real possibility based on previous acts of violence, then get yourself down to the court and ask for that restraining order. At least, get on record that there is a credible threat against your person.

If you think that violence is not a real and present danger, then you can probably change your behavior so that it becomes less reinforcing for him. The thing to do would be to ignore him completely, do not engage him, do not show him fear, etc., and maintain this new way of being despite the fact that he escalates for a while. After he finds that escalation is not working, he is likely to give up his harassment of you and find someone new to pick on (hopefully not your mother). This process of his detaching from being motivated to harass you is called extinction. Just as you can extinguish a fire by removing its fuel, you can extinguish a behavior by removing that which reinforces the behavior.

This is a complicated business, and I don’t want to suggest to you otherwise. Not all of the things that motivate your stepfather to harass you are likely to be things you have control over. Also there may be very legitimate reasons for why you should be afraid. Also, even if you could safely not act in a fearful way (and get away with it), you may not be easily able to do that, simply because you are intimidated. Your control is limited at best. I’m only suggesting that it is there at least somewhat if you want to take advantage of it. Limited control over your fate is far better than no control.

A major complicating factor seems to be that you are worried about your mother’s safety or comfort, and that is influencing how you proceed. This is very much understandable, and speaks well of you as a person who has strong loyalties and attachments to other people. You are someone who is capable of love; a beautiful thing. I don’t know how to advise you here, except to say that despite your worthy loyalty to your mother, it is important to also keep in mind that your safety and comfort is important just as is the safety and comfort of your mother. It’s not necessarily the right thing to do to sacrifice yourself on the alter of your parent. You might think that you’d be being selfish by prioritizing your own safety over that of your parent, and yes that would be the case, but there are different kinds of selfishness in the world, and some of them are important for healthy adult people to cultivate. It’s not a good idea to let your mother’s bad choices force you into making bad choices of your own. You cannot protect her, ultimately, if she chooses to stay in a relationship with someone who abuses her. All you can do is to encourage her to defend herself appropriately, and to protect yourself.

Again, this is a terribly complicated emotional situation to be in without simple answers. This is the kind of situation where you will feel like no matter what you do, you lose. My suggestion is to recognize that this is complicated and without easy resolution, and to make your decision in such a way as to prioritize your own health and safety just slightly more than your loyalty to a parent who has made some bad decisions. You should not have to suffer because of mistakes that your mother has made.

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Comments
  • Mum

    I come upon this story on the Internet many years later. My daughter never told me she had asked for help at the time she left. I would like to say how proud I am of the strength it has taken to confront this issue of NPD and rise above the abuse she has endured over many years ... Your advise is very solid and I am now watching my daughter blossom into a beautiful woman. To my daughter who wrote this story ... I love and support your decisions always. Thank you for being a joy in my life.

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