Narcissists love the silent treatment. It’s their secret weapon when they want to manipulate and hurt in a big way. Using the silent treatment is a way to 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 does. Narcissists instinctively know that this manipulative technique is extremely hurtful. It’s traumatic to those it’s inflicted upon (Eisenberger et al. 2004).
Because I write about narcissistic mothers, I’ll note here that a narcissistic mother gets her sense of self through her children. She needs to protect her self-image and her reputation as a loving, caring mother, so her children are a necessary part of her identity. This is why the silent treatment is so meaningful to her. To a narcissistic mother, when she uses the silent treatment, it’s as if she’s cutting off a very displeasing part of herself and, at the same time, understands how painful it feels to the person she’s shunning. I’ve heard others remark that my mother was the kind of person who would cut off her nose to spite her face. Win at any cost, right?
The silent treatment is a punishment that consists of “hurt and rescue.” It can continue for months or even years and is often used to teach a lesson or to manipulate behavior (Eisenberger et al. 2004). For those of us 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 given me 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 with her. She would not make eye contact with me. 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. The message was loud and clear that she was not finished punishing me, and my attempts were not going to have an effect. It was as if I was invisible. I remember needing affirmation from others that they could see me and that I existed. I felt like I was heading into insanity.
One day, as mysteriously as the silent treatment had started, it ended. When 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 or anger my mother, to cause her to take such 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.
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 study 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. With each, 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, aren’t we?
The narcissistic mom likes knowing how hurt we are by her silent treatment. Our pain demonstrates to her that she is all-powerful and can devastate us if and when she chooses. It’s a great form of narcissistic supply.
Every time we go through the silent treatment, we’re diminished. Each time we endure active ignoring, we question our self-worth. Our self-esteem and self-image are further eroded, and our fear of abandonment escalates. Despite our accomplishments, acknowledgments, or friendships, we find ourselves desperate for our mother’s approval, which is, of course, always out of reach. We may come close, but we never quite make it.
We eventually accept that we aren’t worthy of her love or attention. We settle for any crumbs of affection or attention we can get from her. 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” and is another example of the powerful emotional bonds created between abuser and abused. Over time, trauma bonds become very resistant to change, contributing to the development of a codependent relationship.
Understand the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Learn about codependency
Let go of what you can’t control using loving-detachment
Learn about 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 own thoughts, actions, and behavior. We can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice. When we take responsibility for getting our needs met, instead of waiting for someone to change or meet our needs for us, we are healing.
Lemon Moms: Resources to guide you in healing from childhood trauma, abuse or neglect. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. (Kindle, Audiobook and paperback format.)
About the author
Diane Metcalf earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology in 1982 and a Master of Science in Information Technology in 2013.
She has held Social Worker, Counselor and Managerial Positions in the fields of Domestic Violence and Abuse, Geriatric Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Reproductive Health. She is an experienced Advocate and Speaker on the topics of Domestic Violence and Abuse and has been a guest on Lockport Community Television (LCTV), sharing her knowledge and experience regarding Domestic Abuse with the local community. In addition, she experienced Maternal Narcissistic Abuse and has been involved in other toxic relationships. She purposefully learned (and continues to learn) appropriate coping skills and strategies to live happily. She shares those insights here.
Her books and articles are the results of her education, knowledge, and personal insight regarding her own abusive experiences and subsequent recovery work. She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager or Advocate, nor is she or has she ever been a licensed psychologist.
Currently, Diane runs her own website design company, Image and Aspect, and writes articles and tutorials for Tips and Snips, her inspirational blog for creative people. She continues to learn and write about emotional healing and has authored three books in the “Lemon Moms” series. Visit her author’s website here.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.