If you’ve ever known a narcissist—and chances are you probably share your DNA or your bed with one—you’re not in the minority. In fact, in case you haven’t noticed already, narcissists are everywhere. They’re often at the center of many dysfunctional relationships. Perhaps we didn’t recognize these narcissists at first because they’re often charming and intelligent, even kind and caring. If you’re dating them, you may initially believe you’ve won the lottery; if they’re family, they may appear to be the Golden Child. Unfortunately, it’s those who are closest to narcissists that are often the last ones to see them for who they really are.
It’s ALWAYS about them
Narcissists have to run the show. Even if they claim it’s not about them, usually they’re front and center expecting some or most of the credit because everything and everyone in their lives is an extension of them. If narcissists’ kids get straight A’s on a report card, it’s all because of the hard work they put in as a parent. If a narcissist makes you dinner for your birthday, you better believe you’re going to hear how fresh or special the ingredients are—like that yellowfin tuna caught off the coast of Mexico that very morning—and, of course, they certainly wouldn’t serve anything less.
Children of narcissists who don’t become one themselves often have a common coping mechanism to deal with this: capitulation and sublimation (perhaps not the healthiest but effective nevertheless). Give the narcissist what they want and then move on. It’s the path of least resistance, right? Except doing so has greater implications. Ultimately, it prevents these children from developing certain relationship boundaries as they get older. It’s not easy to do when they’re used to giving someone they “love” free reign to walk all over them. Narcissistic parents do not just disempower their children, they rob them entirely of their power, often leading them to seek extremely co-dependent relationships.
The unhealed wound of the child of a narcissist can also create a vacuum all too easily filled by another narcissist in their lives, often in their friendships. Since they’ve learned not to be bothered by their parents’ narcissistic and self-absorbed behaviors, they subconsciously draw narcissists to them. And narcissists, who are so adept at recognizing pressure points and how far to push boundaries, will engage in the same kind of push/pull dynamic that had been normalized during the person’s childhood. Behaviors that may seem disrespectful might very well be excused in a friend because like the parent, “that’s just how they are.”
Perhaps you’re a child of a narcissist or know someone who is. One of the most common characteristics is how indecisive they can be. Small decisions can be painful; and if you date one, often you’re the one who bears the burden of deciding everything in the relationship from what movie to watch to what to eat. They are so used to “going with the flow” that it can be painful for their partners who want more input. Asserting their preferences doesn’t come naturally since they didn’t grow up negotiating within their family unit to get what they wanted. Rather it’s about giving more and often taking less.
That’s not to say that they aren’t capable of asserting themselves in relationship. Some will have very strong boundaries in intimate relationships where they feel safe. If their emotional needs are being met—which can take a lot because they didn’t receive much emotional fulfillment as children—the stability they find when they feel deeply and unconditionally loved gives them the space to empower themselves. In order to achieve this, it often takes separating from the source of their pain, namely their parent, which is a very difficult thing to do because they are so used to feeling bound to the narcissist who is often good at using guilt and shame to manipulate their loved ones to stay in their lives. Perhaps they lay on the guilt of having “sacrificed” or given everything to their child or they might even turn around and threaten to cut the child out of their lives for some perceived betrayal. And to a narcissist, merely disagreeing with them can seem like a betrayal because it’s always about them.
Narcissistic love is always conditional
Relationships with a narcissist are never about partnership because the nature of narcissistic love is a one-sided, mental and/or physical connection that dictates the emotional terms of the relationship. In romantic relationships, they may use scripted “romantic” gestures or words to express their “love”. Sex will often dominate the relationship. They will “do” more than “feel” in a relationship because they have limited emotional range. Take a narcissist as a lover (although really they’re the ones choosing you) and you may find your entire reality turned upside down. It’s easy to fall in love with one and not realize what hit you. They charm you and come off responsible and in control. On the surface, they seem like the “whole package.”
We’re socialized to look for a lot of attributes that narcissists possess. Romance books are filled with narcissistic men who are beautiful, possessive, jealous, and financially successful. Like every fairy tale or vapid romantic comedy, these books prop up this fantasy male who wants only the female character and will stop at nothing until he has her. His love will make her feel special, chosen, and even saved. And, in turn, she will surrender her entire self to him, allowing obsession to become possession.
This archetype is in large measure one of the things that has led us down the path of failed relationships and internal crises. We have been programmed to love the narcissist and forsake our self-respect, our identities, and our power in the process. Nothing matters except to serve and placate this person to whom we are indebted for their “love”, even if their love comes from a dark and twisted place. And rarely do we see how dark it is because narcissists are great at getting us to ignore our instincts and to see only what they want us to see.
To be loved by a narcissist can be a real high. It makes us feel that someone whom others (and, in reality, the narcissist himself) hold in high esteem sees something good in us. In turn, we reflect back what they ultimately want to see and believe about themselves, which is that they’re a really—fill in the blank—amazing, wonderful, incredible, generous, all around ideal person. It can compensate for our own esteem issues to appear so cared for (note it’s all about appearances), to be with someone who has it “together” and provides. It’s a cycle, and once you’re in it, it feels really good. Until it doesn’t.
Inevitably, as with any relationship, there will be opportunities for growth, or bumps in the road as the saying goes. But with a narcissist, they’re rarely bumps. They are landmines and suddenly you find yourself in a minefield they laid out for you that you didn’t even realize you were walking into until it’s too late. One misstep and they go into a narcissistic rage. Some are very nasty and say mean things that can cut us to our core. Others can be overly critical, spouting out criticisms about co-workers or family members—things often dismissed or excused as the result of their just being tired, hungry, stressed out, or having a really bad day—until one day you become the person they’re criticizing.
The longer we’re in a relationship with a narcissist, the worse it becomes. We may find ourselves internalizing the criticism to the point where we really believe everything that bothers or upsets him or her is our fault. We may not have much room for our friends because dealing with a narcissist can be so time and energy-consuming, or they may not want to share us with our friends. Whatever the reason, it’s the shame/guilt cycle that many may not even realize until much later because many have accepted it as a normal relationship dynamic. Over time we may find ourselves walking on eggshells around them, ensuring we don’t say or do the wrong thing to embarrass or trigger them.
It’s Always Our Fault
A recent experience with a close family member who’s a narcissist (I failed to recognize the warning signs) woke me up to this. Although we hadn’t spent much time together in years, this didn’t seem to change his view of me (and probably only made it worse). My coming around seemed to trigger old issues of jealousy that he felt were my fault. What I had assumed was a thoughtful and considerate gesture was interpreted as rude and selfish. Not realizing what was going on, I had unwittingly stepped into something and found myself instantly believing what he wanted me to, which is that I am to blame. I immediately questioned and replayed everything in my head. I’d assessed my words, texts and actions, feeling guilty that I’d somehow hurt him and equally shamed by his nastiness. That’s always the rub with narcissists: we hurt them; it’s never the other way around unless we deserved it. But we do end up feeling we deserved it. That’s the guilt. We are made to feel we perpetrated the wrong, and we are thereby doomed to feel shame over it.
When I confronted him about the passive/aggressive way I was being treated, he denied he was being passive/aggressive. When I asked him what his issue was with me and what I’d done, he denied having any issue and asked me what my issue was. When I offered to talk about his feelings, he said there was nothing to discuss. Despite every sign, word, texts about me to mutual friends to the contrary, I was being accused of reading everything wrong and told that the problem wasn’t him, it was me and the way I was misjudging his actions, which in his view are always kind, generous and noble. Narcissists are good at making us believe that we’re the problem and they are never, ever wrong. They are always the victims. The more they deny it’s them, and manipulate us in the process into agreeing with them, the more we start to question our sanity and internalize the blame. Rarely do I fall into this trap, but I did this time because this person is a close family member, and I was too blinded by my own loyalty to be objective. I allowed myself to go down the road of feeling I had betrayed him and was at fault because, for the moment, it’s easier than the alternative, which is to cut him out of my life.
The Deeper Truth
One of the most difficult things about dealing with the guilt of being in relationship with a narcissist is realizing that if we want to save ourselves from the relationship then we have to let it go. And really, if one is in a relationship with a narcissist, often the best solution is to get out—unless you share children and that’s a whole other issue altogether. I shed my tears when my very wise friend pointed out that this person as I knew him is lost to me. I still cry about it. It tears me up to think about it. No one wants to lose someone they care about this deeply. But the reality is that I lost him a long time ago, and I never really saw it.
I struggled with how and why it came to be. My friend also explained that I was incorrectly assuming a narcissist is a rational or explicable person. She’s right. I can pinpoint the moments of pain and trauma that may have contributed and shaped his psyche, but it’s not for me to have to fix it. The reality is that it can only be fixed if the narcissist wants to change—usually only when compelled by the people they love and whose love they want in return. It takes a willingness on their part to self-assess, to deal with the fears and hurt they’ve long buried. At this point, I am not loved by him, I’m merely a reminder of his pain, so I can only do what I can, which is to step aside.
My friend further reminded me that narcissists serve a tremendous purpose. Through my tears, she explained to me that they connect us to our own pain and suffering, force us to sit with and understand those parts of us that hurt and need healing. It’s when we can do this that we are able to bring the damaged part of ourselves into love. So, after all, there is something a narcissist can certainly take credit for.
In the end, we, including narcissists, all want the same thing: we deeply and profoundly want and desire love. It’s how we set about giving and receiving that defines who we are and our relationships. It may not feel good to lose someone we love, but we have to recognize that we must first love ourselves wholly and completely, and that requires having great compassion and unconditional love for ourselves, even the parts that make us uncomfortable. That’s what narcissists struggle with the most—loving and accepting themselves unconditionally.