Where does projective identification start and end?
November 1, 2021 1:00 PM   Subscribe

How do you know if you're just on the receiving end of projective identification, or if the traits the person is ascribing to you are actually true and things you need to address?

I have a conflict with somebody in my life. I noticed it because she had been giving me the silent treatment for a while and when I asked her about it, she refused to tell me what I had done wrong and on some level seemed to not even really be able to articulate what I had done wrong.

It feels like I am the worst person in the world when I speak to this person - like not only I am the worst, but I am so in a way that is totally unquestionable and immutable, like I'm inherently the worst and any given thing that I say or do could potentially be interpreted as further evidence that I am the worst. It is hard to describe how this happens, but it's just like this feeling washes over me when I talk to her. She's flat, terse, sarcastic, and diffusely low-key invalidating and that makes it difficult for me to experience warm, positive emotions with her even though I am trying so hard to be patient and understanding and positive.

I know that there have been moments in my life when I've been less than perfect, especially when I have been stressed out or feeling like I was in a competition with others (like in grad school). I have tried to openly reflect on this with her with the desire to share and make sense of my experience, but she has just curtly said, "yeah, because you're a bitch" instead of engaging in a conversation with me on it. I don't think I am inherently awful. I feel like I am just a normal human with some flaws and insecurities like everyone else. It feels like the message I am getting from her, though, is that I'm so terrible that I'm not worth having a relationship with and it's not even worth explaining to me the horrible depths of my character flaws because there's no way I will ever even understand them, let alone have a chance of addressing them.

I've tried to ask directly how I have hurt her, but she refuses to talk to me or give me any specific examples. She has instead dug conflicts up from years ago that I thought were had communicated directly about as those conflicts were occurring. I thought they had been resolved years ago. I (and others) am confused about why she is bringing up these conflicts now. The whole thing feels really unfair and unilateral.

I am left feeling hurt and confused about how to even proceed. I feel like the worst person in the world when I think about my relationship with her, except at the core, I know I'm not a bad person. But I'm also worried, like, what if I have been unwittingly embodying all these terrible things that she is complaining of about me? Like what if I am a deeply flawed person who hurts everyone in sight and I need a giant self-revision, and, worst of all, have no awareness that this is the case? I feel like... this can't possibly be true, I have good relationships with basically everyone else in my life, I have a great partner and great friends and colleagues, I'm happy with my life, but I guess it's just like... she's SO sure and SO dead-set on this characterization of me, and I want to take it seriously and I also totally understand that there were times when I have definitely been a jerk and messed up. I totally believe I could have hurt her in some way that I really should be apologizing to her for. But if I apologized to her at this point... it would also feel like a forced, empty apology because she isn't telling me specifically what I did wrong, and I'm in this bind, where the fact that I can't immediately, precisely identify my wrongdoing is taken as further evidence of how inherently and permanently terrible I am because I don't "get it", and lack of apology would also be interpreted the same way.

I can't tell where this begins and where this ends. I'm worried that this could somehow be coming from me. I really just want to get to a point where I can have a more honest conversation with her. I've tried really hard but it has been almost a year with me initiating the conversations, and it hasn't gotten anywhere. She even interestingly or confusingly mentioned that she thought that *I* was the one who was mad at her, even though I don't feel *mad* at her, I just feel confused and on eggshells. My therapist thinks that she is using projective identification with me. That does resonate with my experience. But I still worry that I'm bringing something into this and want to make it right and also be accountable for stuff that I could have brought into this dynamic.

What are some questions you would ask yourself to clarify what is really happening in this dynamic?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I noticed it because she had been giving me the silent treatment for a while and when I asked her about it, she refused to tell me what I had done wrong and on some level seemed to not even really be able to articulate what I had done wrong.

How old is this person? This is an absurd game to be playing much past adolescence. If she doesn't want to talk to you, then...let her not talk to you.
posted by praemunire at 1:19 PM on November 1, 2021 [25 favorites]


1. What does this person want that will make them feel better/safer/more secure going forward?
2. There is no #2.

It sounds to me like this person does not like you and does not want to interact with you, and you've been pushing and pushing trying to understand why, and they are not interested in having that conversation. So don't. If it's someone you can't avoid, then ask them how to make your interactions go more smoothly, if necessary, and just... get off their tits. You don't have to understand why, you don't have to fix anything if there's nothing to fix. If you don't need to interact with them, then stop interacting with them. It doesn't make you feel good! It doesn't make them feel good! They are never, ever, ever going to reassure you! So stop asking.

I don't mean to imply that you're causing this reaction in them - you're probably not, honestly. Maybe they have their own shit going on. Maybe you have eyebrows just like their ex's. You will probably never know - they may never know for sure - but it's very clear from your description that it's not a repairable situation, and trying to repair it is making you miserable and probably also making them kinda wish for death every time you bring the subject up again.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:20 PM on November 1, 2021 [26 favorites]


This person says you are a bitch and wants to rehash old conflicts--what is it that you get out of this relationship that makes you want to keep it?

From what you've written, my guess is that maybe you want to win this person over and get them to see your humanity? Prove to them you're not, as they say, awful?

Talking through this with a therapist could help you understand your own motivations and sort through the questions of projection and self-knowledge you mention.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:26 PM on November 1, 2021 [5 favorites]


Is this someone you need to have in your life? Because that thing where you were talking about something and they said "yeah, because you're a bitch" is MEGA-rude and I would have just peaced out on them right then.

Most likely you aren't doing anything wrong, they're just being a petty hosebeast, and you have my permission to walk away from them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:38 PM on November 1, 2021 [7 favorites]


You have this stranger's permission to stop picking at a scab that will never heal.
posted by Dashy at 1:54 PM on November 1, 2021 [6 favorites]


But I still worry that I'm bringing something into this

Chances are, if this is the one person you have this with, then it's more her than you. Even if you seem to be the only one she doesn't like (and considering how she behaves towards you, I don't think you'd actually have a good vantage point to know that's the case), the behavior you describe is, uh, unkind and would make me suspicious of her judgement. She doesn't have to like you, but she shouldn't call you names.

You mentioned a conflict in the past. No matter if you behaved perfectly then or did something wrong but then made amends, this person may be someone who doesn't move on from conflict. There's nothing you can really do about it. And picking at it probably just makes it worse. Also, I'm not sure what you mean by silent treatment. Does she not initiate contact? Maybe she's trying a slow fade, which you should just embrace (and if you've been deliberately ignoring a slow fade that's not great of you. But slow fades are also ambiguous, so if you haven't picked up that's what she's doing until just now, that's not on you). Does she blatantly ignore you when you bump into each other at a social event? Rude, but best just to shrug and move on, subtly try to steer clear when you can.

So nthing that you should probably just back off and accept she doesn't like you. She isn't the ultimate arbiter of who is good and who is bad, so obsessing over her perception of you isn't worth the anxiety. If you have to interact with her, just be polite and distant. If anyone asks what's going on between you, politely defer or say you two just don't click.
posted by ghost phoneme at 2:05 PM on November 1, 2021 [1 favorite]


My take is that you need to do two things:

1.) Move on from this relationship.
2.) Accept that you will likely never understand what happened and why and what she thinks about you.

You keep trying to connect with this person, but she is stonewalling you. You are making strong bids for connecting, but being vulnerable with her in the hopes that she will see that and open up herself. You are giving her so much power. You are exposing yourself and then she's smacking you down. It doesn't matter why she is doing this. The thing you need to do to protect yourself is to get away from her because she is showing you again and again that she's not open to connection and that she wants to keep hurting you. I think she tells you things like you hurt her as a power move, as a way to manipulate you into wanting to know.

The only response is to move on, to let go. And to do that, you need to accept that this relationship is unhealthy, that things went sour for reasons you don't understand, and that you will likely never know those reasons, and that's just a loss you need to accept to move on.

This is a woman who refuses to engage with you except to be mean, and you are giving her a lot of power to define you. If you are truly an all-bad terrible person, then other people would be telling you that too!

Her lack of approval of you doesn't mean you should keep seeking her approval. Rather, it means it's time to stop seeking it, or any interactions with her, and move on.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:30 PM on November 1, 2021 [9 favorites]


What are some questions you would ask yourself to clarify what is really happening in this dynamic?

I would ask myself
"Why does this woman's treatment of me cause me so much anxiety, that I find it impossible to let it go?"
"How can I learn to self soothe, so that my peace of mind does not depend on her opinion any more?
posted by Omnomnom at 2:45 PM on November 1, 2021 [10 favorites]


I’m guessing about 85% of the answers are going to blame you for this problem, because that is usually what happens when someone is in an abusive relationship (especially, as here, when with a person with strongly narcissistic traits). Most people re-victimize the victim because they lack context on how abuse actually works. It works to undermine your confidence in yourself; the person is doing everything they can to degrade your self-esteem so that they have more control over you. They’re preying on your natural, prosocial impulses, NOT your weakness.

You assume the narcissist is like you, and would only say such extreme things about your character if there was a very serious issue. Even when the evidence doesn’t line up, there’s a nagging doubt. It’s like moving to a small town where there are sirens every night and when you ask someone about it they say, “oh, they don’t mean anything. They just set them off every night. Why are you so on edge?” Learning to ignore sirens is not generally wise, no matter what the supposedly savvy might want you to believe.

Telling you “self soothe harder!!” and “don’t depend on other people’s opinions!!” feels good to the advice giver because it blames you for the negativity, rather than admitting that there are abusive, predatory people in the world who can target anyone, and that no one can be completely defended against a narcissist. It’s also absurd advice: of course you should learn to self-soothe (seems like you can) and have your own self-regard (you already do, you’re pretty sure the narcissist isn’t right about you), but people are social, interdependent creatures. “Don’t take other people’s thoughts and feelings into account, rely only on yourself” is a defense mechanism that will make you miserable, not the Magic, Responsible Way to be impervious to abuse. There is no such thing, which is why narcissists are very destructive.

It’s maladaptive to avoid other people’s influence or pretend human beings don’t ping off each other for information about how to behave and adjust. The problem with pinging off a narcissist is they will keep giving you the feedback that you need to adjust, and adjust, and adjust, and adjust. You will never be enough for them.

The one thing you CAN do, rather than pretending humans are not social creatures, is read up on narcissistic behavior/relationships (and family systems, if relevant) and learn how to understand this specific dynamic that is going on here, identify it early, and discount this specific ping back with the understanding that it is a reflection of the narcissist’s need for control and dominance rather than good faith relationship feedback. It does very much sound like projective identification.

Watching Dr. Ramani’s videos on YouTube might help. She’s clear that there is a difference between narcissistic behavior/narcissists and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is something that most people think is more significant than it really is. While you may never completely understand what is going on here, with some work you can understand it well enough to see it from a mile away.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:24 PM on November 1, 2021 [23 favorites]


at the core, I know I'm not a bad person. But I'm also worried, like, what if I have been unwittingly embodying all these terrible things that she is complaining of about me? Like what if I am a deeply flawed person who hurts everyone in sight and I need a giant self-revision,

There are lots of possibilities short of you "hurting everyone in sight".

I think it's often possible for a pair of people who are each absolutely fine with everyone else in town to be dreadful for each other. As recommended above, disengage.
posted by clew at 3:29 PM on November 1, 2021 [1 favorite]


A good rule of thumb in how to have excellent relationships with other people is to stay within your own skin and speak from your own true needs/feelings, rather than guess at the contents of the other person's mind or the validity of the other person's thoughts or emotions.

Dr. Harriet Lerner, who wrote an amazing series of books called The Dance Of... (e.g. The Dance of Anger, The Dance of Connection, etc.) terms this "self-focus". She says it's impossible to have authentic relationships unless you "lead from the self", meaning you start by asking yourself how you feel and what you need, and then communicate that to the other person.

Most people aren't taught/trained to do this, especially most women. Instead, we're taught to begin by asking ourselves what the other person might be feeling, and then, based on that guess, to respond to the situation in a way that we believe will help the other person have what (we think) they want, or what will make them get over their anger, or what might make them like us more, etc. Notice how our self doesn't even make an appearance in this transaction. We spend all our time thinking about the other person: either to guess at what they want or to guess at how best to elicit a certain reaction from them.

Other-focused responses poison relationships slowly but steadily. Your self doesn't tend to simply disappear just because you're not focusing on it! Your self is still there, with all its needs and wants and desires, feeling stifled and silenced every time you interact with the other person because you never pay any attention to it. Your self's feelings of being silenced and stifled during your interactions with the other person don't disappear either. These feelings can build up as resentment and explode out of you one fine day. These feelings may build up as judgment against the other person until one fine day you decide they are a toxic person and ghost them. The feelings may turn into self-hatred, where you convince yourself that you are a horrible person for feeling bad when you interact with the other person. The feelings may leak out of you as unconscious aggression, where you don't intend to hurt them but somehow you keep accidentally hurting them. The feelings may leak out in the form of passive-aggression, where you hurt them but cover up the hurtful action with a smile and a good rationale that often convinces even you.

In addition, these feelings almost always end up leaking out of us in the form of subtle control, an unspoken pressure on the other person to stop feeling their own true feelings and start feeling the way we need them to feel... a wordless but clearly communicated message of, "Stop being angry! Be companionable towards me again!" or "Stop being distant! Be close to me again!" or "Stop being sad about what happened between us! Have fun with me again!" or "Stop feeling contempt towards me! Think well of me again!" etc. The other person's anger or sadness or distance or contempt profoundly disturbs us so much that we simply cannot bear it. We neeeeeeed to elicit a different emotional response from them. And so we keep on frantically trying to get them to like us again, ruminating endlessly over them, bending ourselves into twisted shapes to make them happy with us.

If we were self-focused instead, we would be thinking, "That person is angry with me. It makes me feel upset and helpless. I will let them know how it makes me feel, and then I will give myself what I need to feel better." As long as we're focused on the other person's feelings and how to change *that*, we will continue to ignore how we're feeling and it just won't occur to us that our peace of mind / happiness/ emotional equilibrium does not depend on making them happy or making them like us.

Two magical things happen in our relationships when we become self-focused.

1. We start allowing the other person the freedom to feel exactly how they feel, which lessens the wordless unspoken pressure we have been putting on them to stop feeling their feelings.

2. We shed the burden of responsibility we have taken for resolving the other person's feelings, and set ourselves free to only manage our own.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------

What does this mean for you in concrete terms?

In this situation, for you, it means you stop asking whether your friend is exhibiting projective identification or not. You stop wondering whether what SHE thinks of you and what SHE says about you is true or false. You stop managing her feelings or tiptoeing around them. You stop trying to elicit a certain type of response from her. You stop trying to crack the code of how to get her to like you again. You. Stop. Focusing. On. HER.

Here's what you do instead:

- Ask yourself, how am I feeling right now? What can I do for myself to make myself feel better? (A movie? Favorite takeout? A candle? Go bowling? Talk to another friend? Cuddle a kitty?)

- Ask yourself, how is this latest friction between me and my friend making me feel? Set a 30 minute timer and journal your thoughts. Write about your sadness, write about your anger, write about your confusion. Write about how it makes you feel worthless or like the worst person in the world. Write down the fact that you know this isn't true - because you do, intellectually, no matter how emotionally overwhelming the feeling of badness is your rational brain already knows the truth. Force your rational brain to speak up. It may not change your feelings, but it's important for your rational brain to speak up and say it. Once you have written all of it down, let it be. Move on to your next task - work or chores or cooking or exercise or socializing. You will make time to write down your feelings again tomorrow. They will keep.

- Ask yourself, what do I want from my friend right now? (You want her to speak to you and explain what is making her angry? You want her to apologize for giving you the silent treatment? You want her to be more affirming of you more frequently? You want her to confirm that she thinks highly of you? You want her to pretend nothing happened and watch a movie with you?) ---> Make it very specific. Don't say you want her to do better, be nicer, become a better friend, try harder, etc. Make a specific request and communicate it to her. Text, email, voicemail, whatever.

- Stop. Breathe. Do not give in to the temptation to explain, or cajole, or pester her for a response. Leave it be. You said what you needed from her. Your work is done. Remember to practice self-focus. Don't try to guess how she must feel about your request. Let it go. Gently remind yourself that her thoughts and feelings belong to her, you are not responsible for them, and she gets to react any way she likes and do whatever she pleases. What she does with your request is none of your concern, until she speaks to you about it.

- Get on with your life. It is very stressful to have a friend who is so upset with you that they aren't speaking to you, so be soft with yourself. Check in with yourself often. Ask what you need to feel better. Give yourself a loving holiday, free from self-criticism as much as possible. Connect with other people: family, friends, neighbors. Volunteer.

- If she responds, remember to keep your self focus. She might reject your overtures or not want to be your friend anymore - that's her business, you don't need to talk her out of it. IF SHE INVITES YOU TO, then express your honest feelings ("I feel like you shoud......." is not a feeling - "I feel angry" is!), state your honest needs, share your honest thoughts. Be brief - keep it to one sentence if possible. You aren't trying to convince her. Listen to what she says and give her your honest response without trying to get her to agree with you. She is allowed to disagree with what you say. She is allowed to feel upset by what you say. What she feels and what she thinks are not your concern. Stay in your own skin.

- If you feel that you do not want to continue the friendship, say so (briefly!) and move on with your life.

- Get therapy.
posted by MiraK at 3:31 PM on November 1, 2021 [23 favorites]


Unless this person is under 18 and living with you (eg daughter or stepdaughter etc), i would avoid any further contact for the time being.
I say this not because i believe you are at fault, but because i don't think that there is anything you can say or do. You tried very hard, but she seems closed to engage with you in a meaningful way and more important without hurting you. You don't deserve to be hurt by anyone.

If she is a minor, eg your daughter or stepdaughter living in your home, and only then, i would say get professional help/mediation.
posted by 15L06 at 3:38 PM on November 1, 2021 [8 favorites]


One explanation for why the narcissist wants you to feel like shit about yourself: the worse you feel, the more you’ll accept their feedback/advice, until you don’t trust yourself at all and rely on them exclusively for guidance. Then they can act out their own abandonment trauma by bossing you around, raging at you, and punishing you for abandoning them, as needed. You won’t leave, though, because they have effectively convinced you that you’re a bad person for having your own opinions, feelings, and struggles. So in a sense, they win— maybe their mother/father didn’t give them the attention they craved as a child, but now you will. But you can’t heal their abandonment trauma.

They generally have a great deal of inner tension they need to release and will find any trumped up reason to get it out. It actually feels good to them to call you a bitch, etc. They’re spoiling for a fight. They want someone to feel how they feel, because their formative experiences made them feel dreadfully alone. They don’t expect empathy from others, so they “create it,” by making you share their misery.

Anyone who is calling you a bitch to your face, giving you the silent treatment, and digging up multiple wrongs from the past doesn’t simply dislike you or they’d walk away. Most people, if they think someone is a bitch, simply avoid that person (maybe in private saying, “man, what a bitch!”). They are working something out, using you as the punching bag.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:53 PM on November 1, 2021 [9 favorites]


I am left feeling hurt and confused about how to even proceed. I feel like the worst person in the world when I think about my relationship with her, except at the core, I know I'm not a bad person. But I'm also worried, like, what if I have been unwittingly embodying all these terrible things that she is complaining of about me? Like what if I am a deeply flawed person who hurts everyone in sight and I need a giant self-revision, and, worst of all, have no awareness that this is the case? I feel like... this can't possibly be true, I have good relationships with basically everyone else in my life, I have a great partner and great friends and colleagues, I'm happy with my life, but I guess it's just like... she's SO sure and SO dead-set on this characterization of me, and I want to take it seriously and I also totally understand that there were times when I have definitely been a jerk and messed up. I totally believe I could have hurt her in some way that I really should be apologizing to her for. But if I apologized to her at this point... it would also feel like a forced, empty apology because she isn't telling me specifically what I did wrong, and I'm in this bind, where the fact that I can't immediately, precisely identify my wrongdoing is taken as further evidence of how inherently and permanently terrible I am because I don't "get it", and lack of apology would also be interpreted the same way.

I think this anxiety that you have about this person's judgement, and your confusion about what exactly you did is the seat of your problem here--you want to take criticism seriously, you want to take it to heart, and you want to understand this situation in terms of a thing you did wrong and can then fix. I empathize strongly with this tendency; it's very much how I work, too. It can be very comforting to think of every conflict in your life as something that relates back to some faulty behavior in you, because if you are just Secretly Being The Worst... then you can control that. You can fix it. You can find out what to do to fix the problem, and then you can do it, and you can be reassured that you are a good person and a good friend or whatever your relationship to this person is.

Unfortunately for you, you are sending a whole bunch of calming signals that are being ignored. At this point, the situation is not within your control. Her judgement of you is not, in fact, you. Interacting with her seems to cause you a lot of stress, anxiety, hurt, and fear--you repeatedly mention that you feel really awful even thinking about her. Okay. What if you just started avoiding her or at least minimizing your interactions with her? That might help you emotionally withdraw from her judgements of you long enough to move on from your fixation on her approval.
posted by sciatrix at 4:43 PM on November 1, 2021 [7 favorites]


Friendships sometimes fall apart - and they can't be fixed without cooperation. You are not getting cooperation.

Step back, and don't blame yourself for how someone else feels or how they arrived at that feeling when you can't possibly know - because they simply aren't telling you.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 4:58 PM on November 1, 2021 [1 favorite]


What is it about this person that makes her opinion so important to you? Has she shown great judgment in other situations? Do you admire her very much?

In general, someone's opinion of you is their business. People are entitled to their own opinions of you. You're entitled to your opinions of them.

If this is someone whom you admire, and if they were capable of articulating this in a useful way, I'd say it might be worth considering their input.

But even if the first is true, the second is not.

If this tailspin is a matter of hours, then let it ride out and leave it behind. None of us likes to feel disliked and it can feel very unpleasant. Feel your feelings and move on. If this tailspin is a matter of days or weeks, then I think you deserve, for your own sake, to look deeper inside.

I would focus more on you. This can't be about her problem with you (her business), it has to be about your problem with her. Clearly there is something either about her or about the situation that is getting under your skin. Shift the focus there.

Are there areas in your life *you* think you could be doing better? Do you have a history of emotionally abuse in your childhood or past that is making you vulnerable to her opinion of you? Is there something about her in particular that you are drawn to or compelled by? Exploring this is your best chance at building a firm and healthy self-image that can take helpful input and leave unhelpful input.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:58 PM on November 1, 2021 [4 favorites]


But I'm also worried, like, what if I have been unwittingly embodying all these terrible things that she is complaining of about me? Like what if I am a deeply flawed person who hurts everyone in sight and I need a giant self-revision, and, worst of all, have no awareness that this is the case? I feel like... this can't possibly be true, I have good relationships with basically everyone else in my life, I have a great partner and great friends and colleagues, I'm happy with my life, but I guess it's just like... she's SO sure and SO dead-set on this characterization of me, and I want to take it seriously

you are constructing an airtight universe where she is not logically permitted to dislike you unless she has divine authority to pass ultimate judgment on you or else is crazy. she obviously doesn't have that divine authority, and doesn't need it. nobody is required to prove their case before the throne of god before their dislike can be processed by the angels and allowed to flourish. you can believe that she is sincere and mentally well, even if not nice (not a "narcissist" and all that) without believing that she is right about you, whatever that would mean.

or if this is not true, if you are not able to believe both things at once -- which is what it sounds like the trouble is -- that is a bigger problem than how she feels about you or whether she's right. and I would throw in a token phrase about how it's unlikely she's right, except her feelings about what you're like (versus specific things she thinks you have done) isn't really something to be right or wrong about.

not much amplifies an irrational feeling of aversion like the object of that aversion insisting on, as you say, taking it seriously, when you were trying to avoid discussing it at all. such that if I had infinite patience and wanted to revenge myself on someone for upsetting me, yours is the course I would take. self-awareness sounds like a good idea, but it isn't possible past a certain point and is a classic defensive technique too: just as people often reassure themselves that they aren't crazy, because crazy people never wonder if they're crazy (untrue, but people say it in books), people often reassure themselves that they aren't wrong or bad because would a wrong or bad person tear themselves apart this to get to the bottom of their flaws? No! Except yes, they do, all the time. so there is no point and no profit in going down that endless spiral of self-interrogation to prove your own goodness to yourself.

you already have everything you need to verify that you are an acceptable person in the world: loyal partner, friends, colleagues. you are able to attract and keep human company with the self you have got. making this one person your one judge, in all the world, who must be either persuaded or proven wrong, whose opinion cannot be tolerated or left alone but must be lobbied, argued with, changed, seems from one angle to be putting her on a pedestal, but from another angle, seems like unbearable anxious obsession.

I say all this assuming this is a close relative. but no matter who they are to you, this person has a right to be left alone, to not have her disinterest in talking to you re-characterized into "silent treatment", not to be pressed for a full accounting of what she thinks your faults are. if contact is reciprocal, you have a right to be left alone by her as well.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:02 PM on November 1, 2021 [7 favorites]


You asked how you have hurt her and she brought up old conflicts. You and others are confused by/disagree with these examples but that is her answer. These conflicts were a bigger deal to her than you and others think they ought to be. But I wouldn’t dismiss this because it obviously exemplifies something for her. I’m not saying she’s reasonable! Just, don’t brush it off as a non-response—it’s as close as you’ve gotten to an answer.

I know “just jealous” is a cliche, but do you have something she feels she deserves and doesn’t have? That can really make someone fixate negatively on you. I got a promotion at work over someone who felt it was his birthright and hoo boy, does he HATE me. The kind of hate that, if I didn’t know the genesis, would make me worry I’d done something seriously wrong and there’s something badly wrong with me.
posted by kapers at 6:22 PM on November 1, 2021 [3 favorites]


Looking back at your question, “what kinds of questions” should you ask yourself— what do you mean by “silent treatment”? If you mean she just hasn’t been reaching out, that’s not necessarily silent treatment, that may just very well be someone who doesn’t like you trying to ghost, which is her right.

On the other hand, if this is someone who is making a point of you knowing that she’s giving you the silent treatment— trying to get you to do XYZ by withholding communication until you do what they want— yes, that can be a form of emotional/narcissistic abuse.

A mother who refuses to speak to her son or daughter until they apologize for the time they “humiliated” her by refusing to go to their high school graduation is a lot different from a coworker who just doesn’t want to talk to or hang out with their boss outside of work hours is a lot different from a wife who won’t speak to you until you admit that it was selfish of you to make plans this Sunday because you should have predicted that she might want to go to the movies that night, even though she never mentioned it.

So it’s worth reflecting on the details of what the other person is actually doing— if they’re largely just avoiding you, not trying to cajole you into a particular behavior (doing what they want, reading their mind, keeping your schedule wide open in the off chance they might need you), it’s probably best to chalk it up to incompatibility. If it’s the latter, they are dangerous.
posted by stoneandstar at 6:28 PM on November 1, 2021 [3 favorites]


I think it's probably impossible for commenters to avoid projecting our own stuff on the relationship situation you describe. So, hey, I'll throw my troubled relationship with my sister in the ring.

You say she gave you "the silent treatment" and she's "flat, terse, sarcastic, and diffusely low-key invalidating," and somehow other commenters have deduced from that that this person is a narcissist. I don't see that from what you've written, only that you have here a person who doesn't want to talk to you. That's OK, right? Don't we all have the right to be left alone?

You say that when you were talking about a time you'd "been less than perfect," she called you a bitch. I don't know about you, but I'm "less than perfect" ALL of the time; were you maybe minimizing a time you'd done something wrong? Something that hurt someone? Hurt her? Might be worth exploring.

You said that you've "tried to ask directly how I have hurt her, but she refuses to talk to me or give me any specific examples. She has instead dug conflicts up from years ago that I thought were had communicated directly about as those conflicts were occurring." So you ask her how you hurt her, she tells you, and you say, what? That's water under the bridge? Is there a statute of limitations on emotional pain? Clearly, for her, these conflicts still resonate. Have you ever apologized or made amends for your role in those conflicts from years ago?

You say the way she treats you makes you "feel like the worst person in the world", like you are "a deeply flawed person who hurts everyone in sight," but you are quick to explain that those things aren't actually true. So, since they aren't true, it's very bad of her to make you feel as bad as that, right? Well, tell me this: if you just walked away, would she chase you down and persecute you? I'm guessing no, from what you've written. So she's not really doing anything to you, is she?

Maybe she's an abusive narcissist, I don't know. But what you've written would equally fit a situation where you hurt her many times over the years, have never been willing to admit fault, and when she finally declines to have a close relationship with you, you go "Ow! Ow! Stop hurting me!" I write all this out not to give you a hard time, but to give you a different perspective, since you seem to want a closer relationship with her, and you're asking "What are some questions you would ask yourself to clarify what is really happening in this dynamic?" Well, I would ask myself, "Am I the asshole?" Maybe you're not, but it can't hurt to take a "searching and fearless moral inventory" to make sure, right? And if you do find that you've done anything wrong in your relationship with her, you could tell her so. It can't hurt. Might help.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 6:29 PM on November 1, 2021 [12 favorites]


I don't want to go into all of the gory details, but let's just say this is something I've been over and over and over and OVER in therapy. Here are a few things that have helped me.

1. Pretend that you have a good friend who is in the role you are. If they told you the whole story, in your compassionate-but-fair attitude towards your friend, what would you say? Be that friend to yourself.

2. Ask yourself what evidence you would accept as indicating for sure either that you were as terrible as you fear, or were not as terrible as you fear. In my case I did this and quickly realised that I'd constructed an impossible-to-disprove world where no matter what happened and no matter what anybody said, I could spin that to be proof that I was actually secretly super terrible. That exercise was a sign to me that something deeper was going on -- for me, the "I am secretly terrible" was an old script I'd built up in childhood, and I only made progress by working on that in therapy. For you it might be something different but based on how you've written it here I strongly suspect that you too have created this impossible-to-disprove world for yourself.

3. Realise that there is a lot here that is out of your control. Again, in a similar situation, I found this very difficult to accept, because the way I cope with things is by controlling the shit out of them. But the only way to get past this is to let go. This person may always feel like you are the worst person in the world. That sucks, it's unfair, etc., but she has the right to her own feelings and opinions (whether they are right or not) and there is probably nothing you can do about it and the more you try, the worse you're making it for everyone. Similarly, if you did do something wrong in the past, well, you don't have a time machine and you can't make it better now because she is not open to you making it better and there might not be a way to do so anyway. The only thing you can control is your actions now and to me it sounds like the best thing for you to do now is walk away from this relationship and focus on the many other good things in your life.

4. As far as the larger picture of whether you're secretly terrible in all of the rest of life? Here is what helped me, though it took a long time and I still backslide. You have to trust other people. You have to trust that if you were terrible, they would tell you or give some indication somehow. They are agents too, and they cannot expect you to be a mind-reader. As long as you create a situation where a reasonable person wouldn't fear abuse or retribution if they communicate freely with you -- and as long as you listen if they do raise issues -- then that is literally all you can do. It is up to them to then communicate if they have issues. And if they don't communicate and don't take responsibility for their own actions and then get hurt by something you did, well, that's not on you. It's on them, and if they get hurt it is not because you are secretly terrible. It is because you are human and imperfect. As are they. As are we all.
posted by contrapositive at 8:23 PM on November 1, 2021 [4 favorites]


Just chiming in to say that I have experienced this exact situation twice -- someone who I thought had a friendly relationship with me started exhibiting these behaviours towards me, to the confusion of people who knew us. I also went around in mental circles trying to understand if I was the problem. Ultimately, the thing that helped was to give up asking questions about what was really happening, and just accept that it was happening. I now enjoy talking to various friends and family who do actually like me and feeling light-heartedly baffled together that there is someone out there who truly thinks I am a sociopath architecting their misfortune, or whatever.
posted by Pwoink at 10:06 PM on November 1, 2021 [5 favorites]


I am left feeling hurt and confused about how to even proceed.

Consider just letting her be wrong about you.
posted by danceswithlight at 10:07 PM on November 1, 2021 [6 favorites]


Also consider telling her that if there’s some specific type of support she needs from you, you’re open to having that conversation. You only get to do this once, though. After that, the ball is in her court and you can hold your head high and move on (with letting her be wrong about you).
posted by danceswithlight at 10:17 PM on November 1, 2021 [2 favorites]


This is a toxic person. She is not good for you. And you need to cut her off from your life. The never speak to her again sort of cutting off.
It really doesn’t matter whether she’s using projective identification or not. Just stop being anywhere near this toxic person.

You are fine.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:15 AM on November 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


This person adds nothing to your life.

You sound like a kind, self aware, empathetic person who deserves to interact with people who bring something to their life. I would personally love to have more friends like you.

This person called you a bitch. I do not interact with people who casually call me cruel names, whatever their self-righteous justifications are for doing so. I recommend you do the same.

While you tie yourself into a pretzel trying to figure out exactly what this passive aggressive jerk’s problem is, I really do not think this person is thinking about you much, if at all. They are not interested in having the kind of open, honest conversation you want to have that will allow you both to work together to identify the problems and accompanying solutions that will move your relationship forward. Maybe the reason for that is that they don’t have enough spoons. Maybe they have a different communication style. Maybe something is going on with them.

Who cares at this point. You’ve already spent a year trying to figure it out, while most of what you have learned about this person in that time is that you’re not suited to each other. They’re not giving you the tools you need to know what’s really going on with them. They’re not even reciprocating your desire to be emotionally close. Life is too short for all the effort you’re expending on this person.

Just think - if you decide to cut out this person today, you are one day closer to having the distance and time that you will require to eventually no longer care what they think of you. Give that gift to yourself. I think you deserve it.

And the opinions of your partner and all the other friends and family who love and value you are what you should be paying attention to - this other person, who is basically chronically unkind to you? She’s just white noise. Tune it, and her, out.
posted by oywiththepoodles at 6:23 PM on November 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


If you were my friend, I would ask you very firmly but lovingly to stop talking to this person.

It can be really easy to fall into the trap of seeking validation from withholding or even cruel people, to feel like their validation is worth more than that of people who love you and are kind to you, but this is indeed a real trap. One of the best things I ever did for myself was to decide I was going to surround myself with people who actually like and respect me and treat me kindly. This doesn't mean they never give me feedback but when they do, it comes from a place of wanting to preserve the relationship (ie, this thing you did hurt my feelings), or genuine concern about me. Once you start doing that, so much of this draining and poisoning relationship/friendship drama is just gone from your life.

The benefits of cultivating these kinds of relationships is that you will get a resolution to your initial question. 1. Good friends will tell you when you're being shitty. 2. You will be less inclined to behave in shitty ways because there will just generally be less conflict in your relationships.

And even taking the most generous view of both you and this person, assuming that you are both just trying your best: it doesn't sound like either of you benefit from this relationship. It seems bad for BOTH of you. So just let this person go.

(That assumes this person is a friend. If they are a family member or coworker who you still need to interact with on a regular basis, just go the polite-but-not-warm route. Be cordial but don't try to be close, and don't seek their approval or feedback. If they start telling you how awful you are, end the conversation. They'll learn.)
posted by lunasol at 2:17 PM on November 3, 2021 [3 favorites]


Some people are just nuts. Cut her out of your life and move on.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:21 PM on November 4, 2021 [2 favorites]


>she has just curtly said, "yeah, because you're a bitch"

This response is deliberately hurtful, and it's not constructive. It sounds like someone who doesn't want to solve things, who wants to "get you back", and who feels disempowered overall so they're taking back this particular small, mean, needling kind of power.

Depending on what happened to upset this other person, you may or may not "deserve" this type of response. Some situations actually DO "deserve" this kind of response, but it's impossible to tell from this question if this one does. What's clear is that this person is not interested in reaching a resolution with you at this moment in time. I think there are four ways to go:

1. Say something equally mean and dismissive to hurt her back.
Benefits: you feel powerful.
Harms: You torpedo the relationship, and if you did do something to hurt/disrespect her, you've now done so twice.

2. Keep trying to make her like you again
Benefits: you communicate your care to her.
Harms: You annoy her or make her feel pressured or unsafe.
It's a form of centering yourself, so that can decenter HER problems, thus disrespecting her more.

3. Ghost / Slink away silently
Benefits: The mess stops sooner.
For people who are uncomfortable with conflict, this leaves plausible deniability that there even WAS a conflict, so they can pretend it never happened later.
Harms: The mess isn't cleaned up.
This conflict DID happen so any later "resolution" that doesn't address it will always feel hollow.

4. Say something to end this phase of the interaction but leave the door open for more later, And then you back off.
For instance:

"I'm getting a clear message that you don't want to resolve this with me, which of course is your right. I want you to know that:

(a) How you feel about her overall - ie, I care about you, you're really important to me, I would never want to harm you and feel frantic that I did, and I want to treat you with respect not only because I miss you and feel bad - but more importantly because you deserve respect and ease. Or whatever.

(b) How you feel about this conflict - ie, I'm really sorry and sad that we're having this conflict and I want you to know that I wish we could resolve it. I don't know exactly what happened. I want you to know that if I understood exactly what I had done, I would be apologizing and trying to make amends with you. That doesn't mean it's your responsibility to engage with me or tell me. But I do want you to know that if you chose to do so, I would listen and take accountability and try to fix it.

(c) What you'd like to do going forward - ie, I'm getting the message that you'd like space apart right now, so I will respectfully back off, but I want you to know that if at any point you do want to talk more about this situation, I would be open to hearing it and genuinely trying to make amends and solve the issue.

Harms - It's vulnerable so it feels scary, and opens you up to criticism that may hurt your feelings, or may not be fair criticism.
Benefits - It's vulnerable so it allows space for authenticity, it centres her, proposes solutions, respects her needs, respects YOUR needs too.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 12:28 PM on November 6, 2021 [3 favorites]


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