Written by Shahida Arabi, MA
Have you heard about the abusive method known as countering? Countering is an abusive method where a toxic individual chronically opposes and expresses antagonism toward your thoughts, feelings, ideas, interests, opinions, perceptions, likes, dislikes, emotions and experiences you express either excitement or concern about.
When narcissistic individuals use countering to manipulate you, they do so not because they genuinely feel a certain way or strongly about any particular subject, but rather because they want you feeling perpetually off-kilter and on the defense. This leaves you exhausted and drained on a daily basis so that you are less able to fight back against ongoing abuse and manipulation, and less able to trust yourself.
When you are conditioned by frequent countering in an abusive relationship, you feel unable to express yourself. You are silenced, made to feel like you have to walk on eggshells just to have a right to exist, react, and respond genuinely to the world around you without this toxic individual nitpicking and criticizing your perspectives.
They will also move the goal posts frequently so their opinion changes based on what you feel and believe, just to oppose you.
Essentially when narcissists use countering as an abuse tactic, they’re programming you to ask for permission to be yourself.
Here are five insidious signs you may be experiencing countering:
1) You feel unsettled and disoriented around this person whenever you bring up happy news or an issue that matters to you.
Does the person you’re sharing good news with often respond with negging, minimizing remarks or covert put-downs that make you feel uncomfortable and deflated? According to research, both narcissistic and psychopathic traits are associated with “malicious envy.” This is the form of envy where the individual lashes out or sabotages the person they are envious of.
Whenever you share an achievement, a happy moment, or comment on something you enjoy, a toxic individual will usually try to “counter” it due to their own envy and insecurity. They may do this by dropping a fear-mongering or negative comment that emphasizes why you should not be enjoying your latest accomplishment or peaceful moment.
Example: Jessica is enjoying some pasta and wine for a celebratory dinner with her friends. She’s just had a great day at work, has received a promotion and wants to share this peaceful moment of happiness with her partner, Eric. She texts him about her day and asks how he is. Rather than being happy for her, Eric calls her and tells her that pasta is too heavy of a meal and tells her to “be careful” with the wine. He expresses an unenthusiastic congratulations at her promotion, only to follow up with asking whether or not it’s truly worth celebrating and questioning whether her company will really be paying her more.
Jessica feels unease, discomfort and a sense of betrayal at such a disappointing response, especially since she remembers celebrating Eric’s own promotion a few months ago with fervor and throwing him a party. Jessica is also confused about his hypercritical remarks about what she is eating and drinking, since she remembers that Eric once ate three bowls of pasta at a friend’s party and is known to drink full bottles of champagne.
When she confronts him on his double standards, Eric gaslights her and tells her she’s being too sensitive. She starts to realize that this is a reoccurring pattern of his: even if he has enjoyed the very things she brings up in the past, he makes it a point to go out of his way to ruin her good time when she’s the one enjoying them.
Narcissistic individuals do this so they can get you to associate your achievements and happy memories with their destructive feedback. This is a way to micromanage and control you, so that you rely on their validation, even when you’re creating happiness outside of them.
2) The toxic person always plays “devil’s advocate.” You feel like you have to overexplain yourself and justify why you feel or think the way you do, even when your experiences are completely valid.
While polite, respectful disagreement and occasional debate can be healthy, countering is quite different because the toxic individual will deliberately and frequently frame their perspective to oppose you, even if they expressed a different opinion of the same subject last week. They will change the goal posts as soon as you agree with them, just to nitpick on something else.
Narcissists who engage in chronic countering tend to target the issues they know will hurt you the most. This means that if you mention perspectives that touch on your innermost core moral values and impactful experiences, they will be sure to “debate” those in order to harm and invalidate you.
Example: Rebecca finds that her brother Liam is often antagonistic to her thoughts and opinions. However, when she’s visiting home for the holidays, Rebecca mentions to Liam how she’s concerned about domestic violence victims in her state. She feels like they’re not getting enough support from law enforcement. In the past, she has seen Liam be sympathetic to his girlfriends over such social justice issues, especially in the early stages of the relationship, so she assumes that this is one issue Liam and her might agree on.
However, to her surprise, Liam begins questioning Rebecca’s concern and begins a long rant challenging the credibility of abuse victims. Rebecca begins to defend herself and other victims, citing statistics, research, and the experiences of her friends. Liam remains stubborn and the conversation escalates into insults. By the end of the conversation, Rebecca is horrified and nauseated. She cannot understand how her brother’s opinion on a topic that is so “clear” to her could lead to such a crazymaking conversation, especially when Liam has expressed support for such issues in the past.
Unbeknownst to her, Liam’s actual opinions don’t matter: his intention was to provoke Rebecca into an argument about something she feels passionate about. It gave Liam a secret sense of satisfaction that he could rile her up and make her feel disoriented and uncertain about something that is otherwise factually true, and cause her to run around in circles offering evidence.
3) You feel like your sense of identity has been eroded.
Countering can make victims on the receiving end feel helpless, since no amount of evidence is usually “enough” for the abuser to stop nitpicking or opposing them. If you choose to engage in these manufactured debates at all, the abuser will simply move onto other facets of the topic to make you continue proving yourself.
As a result, you may walk away from a countering conversation feeling uncertain of your own sense of self and what you’ve always known to be true about yourself and the world. For example, if you’re a successful person with a track record of achievements, a countering narcissist can make you feel ineffectual and defective by the end of an antagonistic conversation just by habitually opposing your right to feel good about yourself or by pointing out flaws that don’t exist. If you’re an optimistic person, a countering narcissist will “Debby-Downer” you into feeling miserable and pessimistic about what you’re hoping for in the future.
This identity erosion doesn’t take place just through one incident, but through numerous arguments and microaggressions over time that train you not to feel confident or assured.
4) You walk on eggshells about what you say, do or share around this person, lest it result in another argument.
Since countering conditions you to be fearful, anxious and uncertain, you learn to silence yourself around the narcissistic person. You fear disclosing good news or sharing an opinion that could potentially result in another debate where they’re callously undermining you.
This may even extend to other social interactions: because you fear how your abuser reacted to your perspectives and experiences, you may find yourself not disclosing good news or opinions to others for fear that they will react similarly. You may isolate yourself more and share less of yourself with the world.
5) You’re rarely emotionally validated, and the person countering you may punish you for expressing emotions at all.
The narcissistic individual who counters you is unable to extend empathy for your emotions or what you have gone through. This can be potentially retraumatizing, especially when countering “hits home” and opposes your strong feelings or valid experiences regarding a sensitive subject.
Yet even when countering occurs due to seemingly irrelevant matters, your feelings will still not be validated. Countering can cover something as large as opposing the idea that the sky is blue to something as small as your favorite choice of coffee.
Example: Mark and Raya are enjoying movie night at home. Raya laughs at a scene in the movie where a woman complains about the dating culture in her city. Mark suddenly turns to her coldly and tells her, “You think that’s funny?” Raya is confused, as she doesn’t understand why Mark is making such a big deal out of her laughing at a joke in the movie. Mark suddenly begins raging about how Raya’s sense of humor is deranged and asks if she would still be laughing if it were a man complaining about dating. The conversation becomes so irrational that Raya has to leave the room. Mark has disrupted yet another movie night by hyperfocusing on Raya’s emotional reactions to a simple film.
The reason narcissistic individuals oppose your emotions as well as your perspectives is that your emotions can be key to discerning manipulation and getting out an abusive relationship. For example, if the narcissist is able to control the sources of your joy, they’re able to make you depend on their validation rather than experience this self-confidence from within or see it reflected back to you from the outside world. If they’re able to mock or invalidate other emotional reactions like anger or the feeling of being supported and understood, you’re less able to connect to your outrage at the narcissist’s mistreatment or resist a sense of alienation.
That is why it is so important to reach out for support from empathic individuals if you are facing the emotional invalidation that comes with countering. “Reality checking” and disengaging from the narcissistic individual are essential when a toxic person is frequently countering you.
© Copyright 2022 Shahida Arabi. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Shahida Arabi, MA holds graduate degrees in psychology and sociology from Columbia University and Harvard University. At Harvard, she conducted one of the first large-scale research studies on partners with narcissistic and psychopathic traits. She is the bestselling author of Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare, which has been a #1 Amazon Bestseller for 12 consecutive months since its release. She is also the author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Dealing with Toxic People: Reclaiming Your Power from Narcissists and Other Manipulators, published by New Harbinger Publications and available in all major bookstores. You can check out her blog, Self-Care Haven, for topics related to mindfulness, mental health, narcissistic abuse, and recovery from emotional trauma, like her page on Facebook, and follow her on Instagram.
Interested in learning more about narcissistic abuse? Order my #1 Amazon bestselling book on narcissistic abuse, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself or my latest book available in all major bookstores, The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Dealing With Toxic People: Reclaiming Your Power from Narcissists and Other Manipulators.
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