How Verbal Aikido Can Keep you Safe – Even with the Most Toxic Parents.
During the Holidays there are some people who go home and feel loved up, complemented, heard and appreciated. Their parents are open and loving. And then there is the other end of the spectrum where individuals go home and end up feeling drained, depressed or emotionally beat up. These parents might be narcissistic, alcoholic, anxious, wounded, immature or sometimes they are just plain mean.
For my clients who label their families as toxic, our work through December to get ready for a week with family. Our goal is to avoid the old, familiar dip in self-esteem or the inevitable arguments and to keep them emotionally safe during their time with family. I find that some of the most toxic families are where there is a Narcissistic parent.
A Narcissist parent, simply put, is a parent who forces the family and especially the children to consider the parent’s emotional needs before their own. Children who grow up in this environment sometimes forget they even are allowed to have needs and often have difficulty stating or knowing what they are feeling. These individuals are also uniquely attuned to their parent’s feelings, needs and wants.
In arguments, a Narcissistic parent has difficulty accepting that they are wrong; it is as if they are incapable of seeing that they have made a mistake. Instead of simply apologizing – they go on the attack. It is infuriating to be in conflict with a Narcissist: they are never wrong and you never get to feel heard. You are never “right.” If you are interested in learning more about Narcissism and its impact on children, a wonderful resource is “The Narcissistic Family, Diagnosis and Treatment” by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman.
One seemingly simple technique that will remove you from this Narcissistic conflict is called “owning the attribute.” You would use it when someone is picking a fight with you; insulting you; scapegoating you or gaslighting you. I could write an article for each of these family dynamics but I have found that this simple trick can keep you safe even in very difficult situations. It is easy to describe but can be very challenging to execute.
The trick is that when your family member suggests, implies or outright tells you that you are…insert trigger word (selfish, lazy, bossy, too much, spending too much money, greedy, penny pinching, etc) – you own it and just say yes. Please note that this “yes” is not you agreeing – it is not them “winning.” Let me give an example of “owning the attribute:”
Them: “You are so selfish!”
You: “That is something I really need to look at within myself.”
You: “OK, so what is for dinner.”
The old pattern may have included a suggestion of selfishness and then an hour of you arguing about how unselfish you truly have been and listing all of the times that you have been unselfish. The fight finally ends with them stating that simply your arguing proves how selfish you are. You can never win an argument with a Narcissist. The trick is to dodge the fight.
The best analogy that I have for “owning the attribute” is the difference between the fighting styles of boxing and Aikido. In boxing, whoever has the strongest punch wins. Narcissistic parents always have the strongest punch. First, they are parents and are therefore, in a position of power; and secondly, their Narcissistic stance of being unable to see your point of view makes them deaf to your argument.
In Aikido, a Japanese form of martial arts, you use your opponent’s strength against them. Rather than meeting a punch with a punch – you meet their punch by pulling their arm in the same direction of the punch. They are pulled off balance and fall. This strategy uses their own strength against them. A small Aikido fighter can easily defeat a larger opponent. This Aikido tool of “owning the attribute” allows you to use the Narcissist’s power against them. This means that you stay safe – their punches don’t land.
Let’s think again about the example of you being selfish. They imply you are selfish. You respond with a “yes” and then they have nothing to push against. They fall over because they have nothing to fight. By agreeing with them (and again you are not actually agreeing) you are moving under their radar; escaping the endless cycle of trying to get them to see your point of view; and staying safe.
I realize that this technique sounds simple but when confronted with a toxic family situation it can be difficult to remember how to get out of the fight. I always recommend practicing this tool with someone safe – role playing. Or write a note on your hand as a reminder. If you do have a toxic family the very best thing you can do is to find a skilled and trained therapist to work with you as you separate, differentiate and leave their drama behind.