Understanding the Silent Treatment: Manipulation and Punishment Through Communication Avoidance
The silent treatment can inflict deep emotional pain.
It is a form of emotional abuse where someone intentionally ignores or avoids communication with you as a means of punishment and control. It can be used by anyone who wants to exert power or manipulate a situation.
Did you know that narcissists love the silent treatment? It’s their secret weapon when they want to manipulate and inflict pain without causing visible evidence.
Research shows that when we ignore or exclude someone, it activates the same part of their brain as physical pain. Narcissists instinctively know that this is extremely hurtful and traumatizes those it’s used on (Eisenberger et al. 2004).
Emotional Abuse: Exerting Power and Control
The silent treatment punishment consists of a hurt and rescue cycle. It may continue for months, even years, and is often used to teach a lesson or manipulate behavior (Eisenberger et al. 2004). For those who’ve been subjected to this form of abuse, it kept us anxious by triggering our fear of abandonment. (Saeed, K. 2019).
When I was seventeen, I endured my mother’s silent treatment for a little over three months. She had used the silent treatment before, and she would again, but this instance lasted the longest. For the entire three months, I was met with stony silence any time I attempted to interact. She would not make eye contact, and there was no acknowledgment that I existed whatsoever.
I broke our silent relationship now and again, testing to see if she would respond, and each time, I was met with cold rejection. She was not finished punishing me, and my attempts would not have an effect. It was as if I was invisible.
One day, as mysteriously as it started, my mother broke the silence and spoke to me; it was some little unimportant phrase that had no real significance, but it indicated the shunning was over.
I couldn’t figure out what I had done to offend and anger my mother, to cause her to take such an extreme action as the silent treatment. I spent an excessive amount of time obsessing about it, replaying scenarios and conversations repeatedly, looking for the cause. I never found it, and of course, we never discussed what happened. If I was supposed to learn a lesson, I never knew what it was. Maybe the whole thing was nothing more than a show of power meant to demoralize and unsettle me. It remains a mystery to this day.
The Cold Shoulder: How the Silent Treatment Can Cause Fear and Anxiety
When a person is actively ignored, it causes such psychological and emotional anguish that it can actually be seen on brain scans (Pune Mirror 2019). The silent treatment triggers a fear of abandonment, which is very frightening, but for children like me who’d already been abandoned by one parent, it is unbearable. I was obsessed with thoughts like, “Who will take care of me?” “Will I ever matter?” “Will I ever be safe?” “Will anyone ever love me?”
The fear of abandonment causes anxiety, worry, sleep loss, and inability to concentrate. Imagine trying to learn in school or studying for tests while being actively ignored and rejected by a parent. With every silent treatment, we go deeper into survival mode, and we can experience panic attacks, appetite loss, binge eating, racing heartbeat, nightmares, depression, confusion, and obsessive thinking. Each time, we learn to focus more on our mother’s behavior and her needs. We learn to provide what she needs and wants because we fear we’ll be emotionally or physically abandoned again. The need to please and appease her becomes overblown.
A narcissistic mom understands that she’ll get away with rejecting and shunning because, as children, we have no choice but to welcome her back when she decides to return to our lives. We need her, after all, and she knows it. When she’s ready to acknowledge us again, we’re so happy.
The narcissistic mom likes knowing how much we are hurt by her emotional abandonment. Our pain demonstrates to her that she is all-powerful and can devastate us if she chooses. Our pain is a great form of narcissistic supply.
Each time we endure active ignoring, we’re diminished, and we question our self-worth, and our self-esteem and self-image are further eroded. Our fear of abandonment escalates. We find ourselves desperate for our mother’s approval, which is, of course, always out of reach.
We may eventually accept that we aren’t worthy of her love or attention. We’ll settle for crumbs of affection or attention. We learn that we’re somehow inferior and will never be able to please her, although we should continue trying.
This repeated process is called “trauma bonding,” a powerful emotional bond created between abuser and abused. Over time, trauma bonds become extremely resistant to change and contribute to the development of a codependent relationship.
More Tools for Healing
Set some boundaries
Understand the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Find out if you’re codependent
Let go of what you can’t control with loving-detachment
Ditch your expectations
Conscious awareness: Be aware and make conscious choices before acting. Self-awareness releases us from making impulsive and potentially damaging decisions.
Self-care: We are in control of ourselves and no one is responsible for us but us. We can only choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves; our thoughts, actions, and behavior. We change with patience, persistence, and practice.
More Resources for You~
If you are on a healing journey from a narcissistic mother, allow me to introduce you to Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism.
For as long as I can remember, there was something “different” about my mother. She wasn’t like other mothers.
My mom didn’t hug or kiss, smile at, spend time with, or play with me. She never seemed happy to see me. She didn’t ask about my school day and wasn’t interested in knowing my friends. She seemed to have no interest in me or anything that I did. My mom called me hurtful names and obscenities, and at times, she ignored me, not speaking to me for days, weeks, or even months. When she felt sad I was expected to emotionally care-take her. When she didn’t feel like parenting, I was responsible for my siblings. When she lost her temper, she hit. When I was disobedient, there were bizarre punishments.
I was not allowed to express feelings, ask questions, or show initiative or curiosity. My feelings were discounted, minimized, or invalidated. She re-wrote my memories, and I was expected to believe her version. I was to obey, stay quiet, and not question.
If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. If there is manipulation, power struggles, or cruelty in your relationship, this book can help. If you second-guess your memory, doubt your judgment or sanity, or continually seek your mother’s withheld affection, attention, approval, or love, this book can explain why.
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YOUR CRASH COURSE IN RELATIONSHIP SELF DEFENSE
In a world where love and companionship are highly valued and sought, it becomes necessary to navigate our relationships cautiously. Understanding relationship warning signs can be helpful in your relationships with family members, friends, and colleagues too. By recognizing potentially harmful patterns of interaction or behavior, you can take proactive measures to avoid toxic dynamics and nurture positive connections with those who share your values and aspirations.
In this book, I delve into concepts of personality quirks and idiosyncrasies, relationship dynamics, and the definitions and differences in what is meant by toxicity, dysfunction, mental health, and abuse. You’ll learn how to guard against emotional, physical, or psychological harm that can arise from unhealthy relationships. By honing your ability to discern the warning signs, you can enjoy more satisfying relationship experiences!
I hope you join me on this transformative expedition as we delve into the intricate tapestry of human interactions and the delicate balance between connection and self-preservation. Together, we will navigate the sometimes-hazardous realm of relationships, armed with information that can guide us toward more fulfilling relationships. We will uncover the hidden patterns and subconscious biases that can lead us astray and we’ll empower ourselves to make informed choices that align with our true desires and values. This journey of self-discovery will illuminate the path toward healthier relationships and serve as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and its capacity for growth and transformation. So, get ready to embark on an odyssey of awareness, self-discovery, and empowerment as we leave past missteps behind and embrace a future filled with love, authenticity, fulfillment, and a constant feeling of safety and security.
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Feel empowered to rescue, protect and heal yourself from their mistreatment or abuse
The TOOLBOX (Recover from Toxic People) App is a great portable way to feel supported and validated as you experience personal growth. It’s for anyone affected by past and present toxic, hurtful, non-nurturing or neglectful relationships.
Healing begins with awareness, understanding, and action. Take back your power and move forward.
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I AM: A Guided Journey to Your Authentic Self, Workbook and Journal, by Diane Metcalf
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About the Author
Diane Metcalf is an experienced advocate, speaker, and author specializing in abuse and family dynamics.
She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology. Her professional portfolio is diverse, encompassing fields such as Domestic and Partner Abuse Counseling, Geriatric Care Management, Developmental Disability Services, Vocational Rehabilitation, Information Technology Management, and Education.
Through her personal healing journey from physical and emotional abuse and neglect, and with ongoing self-improvement practices, she has developed effective tools that she happily shares with others seeking growth in their own recovery. Her focus is on healing relational trauma through awareness, intention, and introspection, combined with healthy coping strategies and tools.
She is the author of the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series, an emotionally supportive collection that dives into the effects of growing up with mothers having narcissistic traits. This compassionate trilogy provides valuable insights and guidance for coming to terms with past traumas to initiate the healing process.
Learn more about the Lemon Moms series: Lemon Moms
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.