By Dana Morningstar
Gray rock is a technique used to minimize contact and damage from a narcissist by becoming as emotionally unreactive and boring as a “gray rock.” The goal with using the gray rock technique is to stay cool, calm, collected, uninterested, and uninteresting when around a narcissist so that they lose interest in abusing their target and stop. There is a saying out there that goes, “Violence is only enjoyable when there is suffering. Without suffering, it is a hollow act.” The goal with gray rock is to not let the abusive person see you suffer. By denying them this, you are cutting off the “supply of pleasure” they are getting from your pain.
This tactic flies in the face of most thinking behind conflict resolution, which is based around having open, honest, sincere, solutions-oriented communication. The reason this type of communication doesn’t work with a narcissist is that they are not looking for a solution—they are looking to bully their target. Let me be very clear: to let an abusive person know how much they are hurting you will only make the abuse worse, as they now know they are getting to you—and worse, they specifically know what buttons to push. It’s dangerous to treat an abusive relationship as though the issue has to do with communication issues between two people. It doesn’t. The issues are about power and control, and the abusive person is intentionally grinding their target down. They know damn well what they are doing, so don’t get caught up thinking that they don’t, or that if you could just somehow explain to them how much they are hurting you they would stop. Again, this will only make things worse.
It can be really difficult not to be reactive when an abusive person is actively bullying, harassing, and overall attacking you. But keep in mind that their abuse is all a game to them—and they play to win. Any reaction, no matter how small, can suck you back into their twisted and highly manipulative game. And they will often provoke their target until the target explodes—at which point they use the target’s reaction as proof that the target is crazy, mentally unbalanced, or abusive. If they can provoke their target into reacting in front of others or through text or email, then they can use their reaction to prove (to others and even a judge) how unbalanced the other person really is, thereby strengthening their (skewed) position that they are the victim of their target.
So why do they provoke and bully? They do this because it’s their way of trying to hold onto power and control over their target, because doing so makes them feel smug and superior.
This game is only fun for them if there is a reaction, and if the target does not respond or does not react in the way that the manipulator hopes, then they usually become bored and leave the target alone. However, if they bully you ten times, and you even respond once, it may be enough for them to keep at it.
The goal with gray rock is to shift from reacting to responding.
Becoming emotionally unreactive takes practice because emotional manipulators are really good at knocking people off balance—and that’s exactly what they are trying to do. The more you can anticipate what they might do and plan your responses ahead of time, the better off you will be. Manipulators know exactly what they are doing, even though they pretend not to. Continually pointing out to them how their actions are hurtful, angering, or crazy-making in an attempt to work towards improving communication or working towards a resolution is a mistake. They are not solutions oriented. They are looking to get and keep power and control over their target. Letting them know that they are hurting you will only add fuel to the fire.
Gray rock is used when a person must keep contact with a narcissist for whatever reason, but the ideal form of interaction with a narcissist is no interaction (which is called “no contact”), or minimal interaction (which is called “low contact”).
Gray rock is done by either ignoring a narcissist’s attacks completely, or if you must have contact with them, being brief, keeping the topic of the conversation at a surface level, and staying emotionally neutral—similar to how you might talk to a stranger in an elevator.
However, while gray rock works for most people, you and only you know your situation the best. If you feel that going gray rock is going to make things worse or put you in danger, then use some modified form of it, to keep yourself safe.
Example: Susan’s ex-boyfriend, Paul, had contacted her six months after they broke up asking for a paternity test for their child. Their court order stipulated that Paul was not to contact Susan directly but to go through her attorney. Paul’s email made Susan livid. Not only was he questioning the paternity of their child (especially since he had been the one cheating on her), but he was contacting her directly, which he wasn’t supposed to be doing. Susan knew that he was emailing her in order to provoke her to become angry and reactive. She initially wanted to respond with letting him know what an unbelievable jerk he was, and how he had been the one having sex with other people, and how dare he question the paternity of their son, or go against their court order, but she didn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her get upset. She also was half tempted to forward his email to her attorney so that they could line up a paternity test, but then decided to send it anyhow in order to document that he was contacting her.
Example: Kara had recently dumped John out of the blue (and in the most nonchalant way) after two years of dating. John was devastated, but his friends were thrilled she was gone, as she was nothing but drama—she was constantly trying to make John jealous and even going so far as to flirt with them or other guys at the bar in order to get John upset. To John, these nights out with her were so predictable and usually a no-win situation. Either she expected him to get into a fight with these men who were flirting with her—which would get him thrown out of the bar—or if he didn’t get into a fight, she’d get upset and claim that he didn’t care about her, and then freeze him out emotionally and physically.
Things between Kara and John’s friends were so bad that they refused to hang out with him if she was going to be around. Within two weeks of her ending things, Kara had plastered pictures of her getting engaged in Hawaii to her new boyfriend all over Facebook. It was a trip that she and John had planned! John couldn’t believe what he was seeing and that Kara could move on so fast—like what they’d had had never mattered, or even happened. He felt that on some level Kara had posted these pictures to hurt him, and he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction, so he didn’t say anything about it to any of their shared friends, as he knew it would get back to her. Instead, he vented to his therapist.
Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”