It is all about me—deal with it!
In our culture, narcissism has become endemic. Websites, Facebook groups, videos, blogs, books and articles abound on the subject. Narcissism is the individual and collective diagnosis of our times, one that is becoming overused, often to point a finger at anyone we do not like.
Still, narcissism deserves consideration in the context of betrayal and abandonment. The psychological manipulation and mind games that are a hallmark of this personality style are often cited as a primary cause of the devastation and trauma that abandonment and betrayal can bring.
Labeling itself can be self-serving; it is tempting to put someone in a conveniently labeled box in our mind, cut them out of our lives and shut them away there. But no one is defined entirely by a predominantly hurtful personality pattern: We are all larger and more majestic than any label we can apply.
However, understanding how destructive personality patterns operate can help to make sense of bewildering situations in which people act in deeply injurious ways. When someone’s behaviors hurt us, or the people around us, we have a right and responsibility to question, confront and challenge both their actions and our reactions. We have a right to name what we see if it helps us or someone else to make sense of and ultimately recover from the damage done.
We all have narcissistic parts of ourselves, places of wounding where our early needs for love, affection, attention and mirroring were neglected. As babies or young children, not getting our needs met registers in the brain as a life-threatening event. The developing psyche freezes around these threats to survival as a form of protection from the extreme pain. As our personalities grow, we defend against feeling these primal agonies by imagining we are special, entitled or different from other people.
We are touchy around our narcissistic wounds. Most often, when our early wounding gets mildly stimulated we automatically feel that we are somehow better or worse than other people. If we feel really hurt, we may react by wanting to cut the person who offended us out of our life, or to hurt them back in some way. Everyone experiences these feelings at times. But there is a big difference between having narcissistic tendencies or episodic reactions to life crises and narcissism as a rigid, all-pervasive way of life.
We can picture narcissism on a continuum from normal and mild to extreme and destructive. A deep-enough early wound to one’s sense of self-worth causes deep pain, unbearable shame. For the extreme, “malignant” narcissist I will be referring to here, fending off this pain by passing it on to others has become a virtually unconscious way of life.
Except for the most obvious, self-centered, grandiose types, narcissists can be difficult to detect; yet they can be intensely dangerous and destructive in intimate relationships. They are cunning and clever, and come in many different disguises. The more self-effacing ones that build you up and tend to treat you as the dominant personality can be the most damaging of all.
The Extreme Narcissist
Beware! Some people will sell you a dream and deliver a nightmare.—Anonymous
While both men and women can be narcissistic, it is estimated that 85 percent of extreme narcissists are males I use the male pronoun in this article, but all of the behaviors I describe are applicable to both men and women who have narcissistic personalities.The scary part is these people look completely normal, even more charismatic, charming and caring than the average person.
The defenses they develop to the wounds to their self-worth cut them off from any genuine feeling at an early age. They were not mirrored or properly attuned to as babies and children, so they never developed empathy. Instead, they formed a false self to protect them from this terrible pain and to be who they believed they needed to be to get the love they lacked.
Narcissistically wounded types know how to read people. They rank high on emotional intelligence; but they often use their gift, honed at an early age, to manipulate others to get what they want for themselves—primarily approval, affection and attention. They need other people to validate their self-image. Their extreme lack of empathy and need for control causes them to relate to people as objects. They are predatory, seeking out others to shear up their false self-image by idealizing or devaluing them. Otherwise, they have no interest in you.
They cannot help being master manipulators; it is how they survive in a world that terrifies them. They have mastered the art of deception and deceive themselves as well as others into believing in the persona they project. They live in the eyes of other people and do not do well alone. How others view them is highly important and they go to great extremes to maintain their self-image, adapting different personas for different people to give the desired effect. They work hard to cast themselves in the best possible light.
To get the attention and admiration they require for their equilibrium, narcissists have learned to be exceptionally talented actors, the smoothest con artists. While they are incapable of authentic relationship, they have learned to enact emotions, especially empathy and caring, which they sense they lack, from observing others. Their apparent sensitivity is uncanny—sometimes it doesn’t quite fit the situation and makes you wonder, but can still be highly disarming. They only reveal their true colors once you are already caught in their net of charm, seduction and manipulation.
The Narcissist in Love
The one who loves the least, controls the relationship—Robert Anthony
If at all possible, you want to avoid getting into a romantic relationship with a narcissistically wounded person. They will likely wear down your dignity and self-worth, and they may hurt you very badly. When a narcissist focuses on you as a romantic partner, at first he launches a charm offensive.
He will play the magician who will persuade you how much he cares. Often, he shows up as an unbelievable dream match ready to move fast into partnership. He may lure you in by convincing you that you are everything he ever wanted—especially in comparison to his former partners. He will win you over and gain your trust by acting the doting lover and playing on your dreams and vulnerabilities. You will not believe how much you have in common.
Narcissists do this with some ease because of their ability to change chameleon-like into whoever you want them to be. Like Woody Allen’s character, Zelig, in the film by the same name, they have no enduring center in themselves and reflect back to you to play your dream man. In fact, if a narcissist has targeted you to fill the lover or partner role in his personal drama, you likely will feel that no one has ever “seen” or understood you so completely. He idealizes and passionately adores you in the beginning. He seems so proud to be with you, and he is, as you have been carefully selected—not because of his feelings for you, but for your qualities or resources that enhance his self-image.
Narcissists often employ a laser-like focus, studying you for your weaknesses—information they will eventually use against you. He appears to be so engrossed by all the details of your life and wants to know everything about you, hanging on your every word. Seeming curious, empathic and considerate, he will set apart times to pay special attention to asking many questions while he tracks your feelings in response to his words and actions.
He engages your trust and emotional dependence by playing on your own narcissism and weak spots. He tells you whatever it is he determines you want to hear in order to win you over. Your defenses will likely soften as your trust grows in light of so much praise, attention and interest. Since you appear to have so much in common, you will easily let him into your life, sharing your dreams and vulnerabilities and opening your heart. You may come to believe—perhaps too easily—in his love and devotion; it is natural to believe someone who tells you everything you have ever wanted to hear!
When you are this far in, should you hear reports about troubled previous relationships, even direct communications from former wives or lovers, you are likely to dismiss them because you have come to believe it will be different with you. You believe in the “specialness” of his love for you.
The Turn from Idealizing to Devaluing
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.—Elie Wiesel
After a narcissist has inflated his self-worth by convincing you of your specialness to him—and thereby his own for having won you over—the honeymoon phase passes. Once he has drawn you into his game, his interest drops precipitously, as now you are safely in place to provide him with attention when he needs it. The first thing you notice is that his availability has become dependent on his convenience and wishes, irrespective of your needs or wants.
When a narcissist reaches this point, he has begun the slow process of devaluing and destabilizing you. He cannot tolerate equality in relationship. He must always be one-up or one-down. His primary method of destabilizing emotional abuse is to use bait-and-switch, or seduce-and-abandon methods. He will run unpredictably hot and, alternating warm, loving care with cold indifference, anger or contempt to hurt and weaken you and increase your dependence on him.
He may begin to flirt with other women in front of you. This is the point where he will start to cheat on you, if that is his style. Or he could make a habit of walking out on you and then returning, keeping you guessing about his whereabouts, accusing you of possessiveness and jealousy if you are upset. Your hot Romeo may become someone barely interested in sex, as withholding himself sexually can be a potent tool in his control arsenal.
Now that he has learned your weaknesses, he will find a way to make you feel undesirable, insensitive, incompetent, unstable, forgetful or crazy—depending on your insecurities and which qualities of his own he cannot bear and is projecting on you. In addition to half-truths and revising history, he may tell you outright lies, withhold crucial information, or begin to blame and criticize you.
Of course, he will imply this is your fault. If you treated him properly, and he were not so wounded by you, perhaps he would have more interest. Narcissists often specialize in playing the victim—accusing you of what they are doing to you. He enjoys twisting reality to make you believe you are the problem. He uses half-truths to subtly revise past conversations or events to cast you in a bad light and avert responsibility for his actions. He will make you question your memories and perceptions about what is really going on—also known as gaslighting—to the point of undermining your confidence and, eventually, your sanity.
You may begin to notice you need to walk on eggshells not to upset him. If you do question his version of events, his hot and cold behavior—or the distorted self-images that he expects you to uphold, regardless of how much his behavior contradicts them—he may turn on you in an instant and attack or abandon you. You are, however, in most danger if you unconditionally commit to him and stop reacting to his destabilizing tactics. This is a sign to him that he is losing control.
At this point, when things start to seem a little rocky with your dream man, couples counseling may seem like an attractive option. However, that is a big mistake. He is likely to charm the therapist with his theatrics and leave you on the defensive. The more psychologically sophisticated types especially love this game. And he will not be able to keep from using the knowledge of your emotional wounds that he gains there to target your vulnerabilities and tear you down.
The truth is, a extremely wounded person like this cannot tolerate their own pain and manage their lives by having someone to control in order to project their own inner torments. They infiltrate your energy body with the substance of their fake affection and disowned shame, and confuse you with their mind games. In time, this treatment is likely to drain and destroy your self-worth. The worst is, it is so insidious, you may not realize what is happening to you.
This is likely not conscious behavior, it is simply the way they have learned to feel stable and alive—by manipulating and destabilizing those closest to them. The people they select as intimate partners often become victims of this predatory psychic and emotional vampirism. They attach to you originally for your perceived strengths, which they lack. Being with you enhances their self-image, but also stirs deep envy and rage, that eventually will cause them to tear you down.
As your insecurity and self-doubt grows, your confusion and pain acts like an addictive drug, a painkiller that helps them hold themselves together. This may seem like an extremely dark depiction and if you haven’t experienced this firsthand you may wonder if I’m not simply writing through the biased filter of my own hurt. But if you have read this far, you likely know from experience what I am writing about. Unfortunately, this scenario I describe is all too common.
At the first moment your narcissist feels threatened, either by your demands for increased intimacy or signs that you may be on to him, he will turn on you. If he senses you backing away, however, he reverts to charm and seduction again to keep you at an optimal distance, where he can use you if and when he chooses—to devalue you or have you shore him up. If he cheats on you and you find out, or you try to leave him, he will manipulate your feelings, full of apologies, swearing reform in order to pull you in again. He cannot tolerate rejection or abandonment himself.
If you suspect you are in a relationship like this, I suggest you begin to keep a careful, written record of what happens between you and what is actually said in order to have a touchstone for your sanity as he begins to erode and dismantle your reality. Once an abusive narcissist has penetrated your defenses and insinuated himself in your psyche, it is very difficult to pull out the hooks. He may stay with you a week or twenty years, taking what he needs from you, as you grow weaker and weaker in his atmosphere.
When a Narcissist Leaves
He will teach you about love by showing that you cannot tell a sinister enchantment from a divine light.—Alison Nappi
If he decides to leave you, most likely he will do so without warning, in a rage, to punish you for a perceived intolerable injury to his self-image. On the other hand, he may draw the process out with a long series of threats—like a cat playing with a mouse. Or he may just disappear. By this time, he has managed to devalue and destabilize you so thoroughly that he cannot imagine how he could possibly still be associated with such damaged goods.
Most likely he will leave you without explanation or consideration. Why should he waste his energy explaining, when he no longer has any use for you? You have likely been thoroughly discredited in his eyes, so anything you might have to say—if he is even willing to give you a few minutes of his precious time—will be disregarded anyway.
He needs to garner his resources for his next conquest. He may throw you away like yesterday’s garbage and nonchalantly replace you with a shinier, new partner who can provide him with the admiration he imagines he deserves. You will be stunned by his radical personality change—the callous indifference of your formerly ardent admirer and lover will leave you spinning. He now treats you as if you do not, and never did, exist. And to him, you do not—you were simply an object he used up and is now finished with. He is finally showing you his true colors: He does not care and never did actually care for you personally.
But you have been left with a lasting legacy of broken dreams, trauma and devastation as you begin to realize the truth. And It may take a long time to sink in for someone who is capable of honesty and empathy to believe that someone else is not be put together in the same way. It may help to realize that when narcissism develops to this degree, as a way of life, it is a kind of mental illness. We do not easily comprehend such an imbalance is possible in someone who seems so normal in other ways.
This is one of the reasons destructive narcissists so often get away with their behavior; they are adept at hiding what they do, and the destruction they inflict happens only one intimate relationship at a time. To the rest of the world, they come off as entirely normal, even more charming, generous, caring and concerned than average.
The truth is narcissists typically have no shame, conscience, or empathy for you or anyone else, and will often stop at nothing, including attacking your credibility, to preserve their frail self-image.They are practiced at disavowing any responsibility for the harm they cause and deflecting the blame onto you. Remember they specialize in innuendo and half-truth and will not hesitate to discredit you and assassinate your character if it is necessary.
You will want to defend yourself and may find yourself wanting to turn on them. But you will never beat them at their game, so do not even try. They can be vicious when it comes to maintaining their self-image, as it is their lifeline to survival. They will not tolerate exposure of who they really are and will knife you in the back in a heartbeat if you speak the truth of what you know about them. They will not hesitate to turn people against you, including your own children, in order convince as many people as possible that they were the victim of your nefarious behaviors. Prepare yourself, and try to remember that manipulation, charm and lying are the only ways they know to manage their lives.
However, you will more than likely continue for some time to make excuses for him and refuse to believe that he could possibly have behaved so ruthlessly and heartlessly and take no responsibility for his behavior. The part of you he seduced will want to believe in the promise, in the person he pretended to be. You may not be able to absorb the extent of his inauthenticity for a long time.
It is traumatic and utterly shattering to realize you have been living a lie in the department of your most vulnerable feelings. It is devastating to realize you have been drawn in and given your heart to a charade.
Recovering From Narcissistic Abuse
An insincere and evil friend is more to be feared than a wild beast; a wild beast may wound your body, but an evil friend will wound your soul.—The Buddha
You may never find “closure” with those suffering from deep narcissistic wounding. Their inability to face their own shame makes them shameless; hence they have no true remorse for what they have done. In fact, the more they hurt you, the more they will justify their actions by blaming you and casting themselves as the victim.
They are, however, likely to come back to you between conquests or when they need a hit of attention or power. Beware, you are easy prey now for their mind games. Should you believe their entreaties, or try to sort out the bewilderment they left you with, after being drawn in, you will be treated to barely-veiled disdain and contempt, or magnanimous condescension on a good day.
Every interaction you have with them will only destabilize you further. It is the most difficult thing to do, but cutting off all contact will help you most to eventually get their parasitic energies out of your system. The apologies or promises to change you are hoping and praying for will only add insult to the injury. With a person like this, his words mean nothing, while his actions speak the truth of who he is and what he thinks of you and other people. Believe in what he does, not what he says.
Any regrets he decides to express will likely turn out to be all about him—empty, disguised statements of blame or explanations for failing to hold his image together—and zero about what his behaviors have done to your life. You may find him also using his regrets to further craft his self-image as a caring or responsible person, with no true concern for you and no follow through.
Most people who have fallen for a destructive narcissist will tell you that when you do, you hand yourself over to be cut open to your core. The legacy of narcissistic abuse is to find yourself traumatized and left alone to pick up the pieces of your shattered reality, often with a severe case of PTSD. Their games can rip your heart out and poison your soul and it can take months, even years to recover your self.
If you suspect you have been or are in relationship with such a deeply wounded narcissistic person, you will likely need help to get away or to deal with the poisonous aftermath. It takes love and care to extricate the ghost that lives on in you. Your nervous system will need recalibrating, and you will need to revise your life story to account for the deceptions you lived. I strongly recommend you get into trauma therapy (EMDR or Somatic Experiencing) as quickly as possible.
Finding a circle of others who have had the same experience can be helpful to validate your experience. Because of the shame associated with having fallen for these games and manipulations, the emotional rape really of your most delicate nature, it takes courage to speak up about it to anyone, especially someone who hasn’t been through it themselves.
The grieving will likely be long and hard, but can take you to new depths of love, compassion and soulfulness. To recover, you will have to undergo a painful encounter with your own narcissistic wounding and early trauma— the hooks your narcissistic partner found in you. But it will strengthen you to shed that painful skin and to find a deeper source of authenticity and love in yourself. It may destroy a part of you—think of it as dead wood, a former self that is ready for radical revitalization—but eventually liberate you to realize that the behavior of your narcissistic partner was stunningly predictable. His behavior was not about you at all, but about a profound inner emptiness and suffering he could not endure.
As you absorb the hard truth about your partnership, you may notice waves of compassion for the predicament of this person you loved—closed off as they are from their heart, their authentic self and the chance of true relationship with anyone. It can help your heart to heal to pray for the same for them.
With support, grace and determination, tending your own tenderized, broken heart, you will come to realize your own preciousness and value, regardless of how you were treated. Your love, though misdirected, cannot be tainted by whether or not it was received. That love remains in you. In time your pain, held in tenderness, becomes a prayer that leads to a greater love abiding in your own heart.
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