(Read time: 3-4 mins)
“Some sensations … take up all the extent of the mind like a fog, don’t let us think, don’t let us act, don’t let us live clearly.” – Fernando Pessoa
“Keep on moving forward. The fog will lift, a fresh wind will heal your mind, you will see clearly, and you will be free.” – Grace
FOG is an acronym that is used in the narcissistic abuse community for Fear, Obligation and Guilt. The narcissist uses FOG in relationships to manipulate and control his partner during, and even after the relationship is over. Fear, obligation, and guilt provoke intense feelings, and the narcissist knows how to use them very effectively against his partner to exert control.
Fear is a powerful manipulative force. Narcissists are vindictive, which becomes evident over the course of the relationship. The narcissist harbors a constant “You hurt me, I’ll hurt you!” mentality, and makes sure his partner knows this. His abuse, explosive rages, temper tantrums, and hostility increase his partner’s undercurrent of fear, and walking on eggshells anxiety that generally becomes chronic.
Many partners of narcissists experience a gut instinct that the narcissist is capable of doing anything, and has no limits when it comes to exacting revenge if he feels he’s been wronged. Because of this, the partner “stays in line” out of fear of what the narcissist might do in retaliation. The partner becomes fearful of being herself, of feeling her feelings, of speaking her mind, and having her own opinions. The narcissist is so critical and devaluing of the partner that she begins to restrain her own personality, her own self, because she is fearful of the narcissist’s reaction.
Physical abuse, which occurs in a number of narcissistic relationships, and the mental, verbal, and emotional abuse the narcissist inflicts on his partner, further suppresses her inclination to stand up for herself, defend herself, and often prevents her from leaving the relationship. And, if the partner manages to leave the relationship, she is often fearful of the repercussions, which can include stalking, defamation of her character, potential violence, and other cruel and vengeful acts.
Obligation is a very potent form of manipulation. The narcissist starts to cultivate obligation in the lovebombing stage of the relationship. He leads his partner to believe she is the only star in his universe, she is the only one who truly understands him, his soulmate. He leads her to believe that she is the only woman in the world who can satisfy his needs. He combines this with “woe-is-me” stories from his past, depicting himself as the tragic victim. This plays on the partner’s compassion, and her desire to be the one who can make everything better for him. And, the physical intimacy that narcissist typically – and successfully – rushes his partner into, reinforces the partner’s feelings of intense bonding, and her desire to be the one who can make him happy, and feel true love.
The result is that the partner, intoxicated by lovebombing, and emotionally manipulated by the narcissist, feels that she, and she alone, truly understands the narcissist, and that she is uniquely qualified to give the narcissist the kind of love he needs, to heal him of his suffering. The narcissist plays on this repeatedly until the partner’s sense of obligation to, and compassion for, him are hardwired into her brain.
Her feeling of obligation becomes hardwired from the lovebombing bonding biochemicals that her brain releases during this phase of the relationship. The frequency, and amount of oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins released during the lovebombing phase with a narcissist are in much higher amounts, and with much greater frequency than would ever happen in a healthy relationship. So, while the partner is being groomed and manipulated into feeling obligated to the narcissist, her brain is releasing, at the same time, a flood of very strong bonding biochemicals. The result? The partner becomes biochemically bonded to feeling obligated to the narcissist.
Guilt is one of the strongest forces of control and manipulation that exists. Narcissists are experts at inducing guilt in their partners through projection, blameshifting, self-victimization, and being punitive. The narcissist will provoke situations with the sole purpose of upsetting his partner, blameshift onto her, and cause her to feel guilty. When she reacts to the narcissist’s provocations, he aggressively pushes back, invalidates her feelings, and punishes her, accusing her of hurting him. He will call her uncaring and self-centered. He will pout and give her the silent treatment, leave – anything that causes her to feel guilty and ashamed of her feelings. And, the powerful stress biochemicals, adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine flow in her brain. When the partner capitulates to the narcissist, and apologizes, he will show his approval with lovebombing gestures, affection, approval, even physical intimacy. And, the powerful love bonding chemicals flow in her brain.
This toxic abuse cycle spins like a wheel, repeating itself over and over and over. Every time it does, the partner’s brain becomes more biochemically hardwired to the abuse cycle, and FOG dynamic that keeps partners trapped in relationships with narcissists, and ties ex-partners to the narcissist after the relationship has ended.
The narcissist’s manipulation of fear, obligation, and guilt causes the partner to become psychologically and emotionally conditioned to:
- Fear retribution for being herself, and standing up for herself
- Feel deeply obligated to care about the narcissist’s feelings and put his well being above her own, and
- Feel guilty and ashamed of her feelings, and her reactions to the narcissist
The FOG Will Clear
The good news is, leaving the abusive relationship with narcissist, establishing safety, maintaining No Contact, and focusing on self care and healing, will clear the FOG. It will take time. It is important to be patient with yourself, and the healing process.
Tips to clear the FOG:
1. Don’t allow the FOG to victimize you. Take ownership, and validate the feelings of fear, obligation, and guilt. Accept that they are normal feelings to have in these circumstances – but they are not permanent. *If you fear for your safety, are being stalked, harassed, and/or threatened, always contact the authorities, and take the steps you need to stay safe.
2. Tell yourself the truth: feelings of FOG are a conditioned response to a toxic, abusive relationship. It is a conditioned response, it is temporary, and it will pass.
3. Surround yourself with support: There are a number of online support groups for narcissistic abuse survivors where you can receive the validation, understanding, and encouragement you need to keep you moving forward. Life coaching is very helpful, and therapy by a licensed professional counselor who has experience in treating victims of narcissistic abuse is very helpful, and often necessary – given the level, and complexity of trauma that victims endure.
4. Engage in activities that make you happy and give you peace: have you ever wanted to learn to paint with watercolors, raise orchids, knit, crochet, volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter, learn to play the violin, work a 1,500 piece jigsaw puzzle, join a book club, write a novel, take a cooking class, do yoga, train for a marathon? Reach out and explore your interests, you may discover a gift and talent you never knew you had!
5. And, most importantly, take care of you, and be kind and compassionate to yourself: celebrate your strength, celebrate the wisdom and resilience you have shown by getting out of the abusive relationship, and staying out. Be encouraged, knowing that you can use your experience to help and empower others someday – that you can be a force of beautiful strength to help other abuse victims move forward and thrive in their lives.
Articles are written with the use of masculine pronouns to describe the narcissist, and feminine pronouns to describe the partner. This is solely due to my own experience, and not meant to imply that men are not also victims of narcissistic abuse.