At some level, it’s a lot like an Animal Planet kind of thing—all about predators and prey. Just imagine the voice-over with a British accent: “Here we are on the veldt and the gazelle leaps gracefully, not knowing, not sensing that the lion lies in wait.” We steel ourselves for the inevitable outcome.
Well, Gazelles, it’s not precisely that but it’s close. Many of us will fall for a narcissist—in love and in friendship—and here’s why. Mind you, the narcissist’s charms are evident to all—he cares about appearances, cultivates his charm, and his sense of entitlement comes across as strong and capable—as one German study showed. The task was to send men into the streets and get them to approach random women and get as much personal information as possible—her name, her cell phone, a promise to meet for coffee or a drink. The higher the guys scored in narcissistic traits, the more successful they were at snowing total strangers.
That said, even with the initial charm, securely attached women are more likely to catch on more quickly to what makes the narcissist tick. They distinguish between strength and braggadocio, stability and control, because they trust their own judgment, are comfortable with close connections, and know what a healthy relationship looks like. This just isn’t true of the insecurely attached daughter whose own emotional needs weren’t met in childhood and who doesn’t have that inner base that helps her see the difference between a solid guy with good intentions and a man who’s only in it for his own needs.
Of the three kinds of insecure attachment—anxious/preoccupied, fearful avoidant, and dismissive avoidant—the anxiously attached and fearful avoidant daughters are more likely to be ensnared in the narcissist’s trap. The anxious daughter is a bundle of neediness, on the one hand, and in a perpetual state of high alert, on the other. She’s hypervigilant about being disappointed or betrayed so she’s always testing to see if her lover really loves her. She’s a roller-coaster of emotion—seguing from need to panic and anger—and extremely vulnerable. The fearful avoidant has a low opinion of herself and a high opinion of others and she’s prone to self-armoring, pushing off when she thinks she needs to protect herself, even though she wants and craves closeness.
Both of these types are attractive to a narcissist because their behaviors feed into his own needs and desires. Here’s a short list of why they’re so likely to focus on the insecure types to begin with. To extricate herself from a relationship with a narcissist, the daughter has to recognize she’s actually a gazelle. (Please note: My posts are directed at women but you are free to switch up the pronouns if you like, from masculine to feminine and vice versa, keeping in mind that while women are narcissists too, twice as many men are on the far end of the spectrum.)
1.Your neediness makes him feel powerful
The narcissist likes calling the shots and the rush that controlling someone gives him and your neediness gives him lots of opportunities for both. Because you’re so hungry for love and connection—and still trying to fill the hole in your heart left by an unloving mother—you’re likely not to notice how he amps the volume and drama. You stay focused on the make-up sex and the warm feelings of reassurance you feel when he tells you not to worry. The sad truth? It’s about him, not you.
2. You’re used to manipulation and control
This is alas true if your mother was high in narcissistic traits, controlling, or combative; you’ve come to expect this behavior from people and, unconsciously, think it’s pretty normal in fact. You’re more likely not to notice the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which he exerts control over you than you are to pay attention. You may also misread his gestures as being about care-taking or thoughtfulness when they’re all about control.
3. Your anger gives him a platform
Feelings of anger and jealousy can easily be triggered in an anxious person by the threat of separation or a perceived slight; the narcissist in your life knows this about you and he’s likely to play this reactivity to his advantage. Narcissists are expert at projecting their feelings onto you; it’s what Dr. Craig Malkin calls playing “emotional hot potato” in his book Rethinking Narcissism. When you spin out of control—leaving successive text messages when he hasn’t responded or making threats in email—he’ll play your bluff and tell you it’s your problem, not his, and he’ll threaten you right back. And that too increases his sense of control over you and, additionally, makes him feel invincible.
4. You’re tone-deaf to verbal abuse
Many unloved daughters experienced put-downs, disparagement, and verbal aggression in their childhoods and all too often, they have either internalized these messages as true or have somehow come to think of them as “normal.” This is especially true if the daughter is still actively working on somehow salvaging or repairing her relationship to her mother. Your inability to recognize emotional toxicity, alas, gives the narcissist a stronger foothold in your life than he otherwise would and also permits him to use additional weapons to cow, bully, and control you without your protesting. It’s another thing he likes about you.
5.You mistake game-playing for passion
Studies show that narcissists love playing games in relationships and the roller-coaster you find yourself on, made possible by both your behaviors and his, is often mistaken for the exciting and all-consuming romance promoted as true love in our culture. The sad truth is that in their quest for that passion, many insecure women who have impaired working models of what a healthy relationship looks like are likely to reject a suitor who’s predictable and emotionally stable as “boring” for someone high in narcissist traits who seems “thrilling.” This famously was the plot line for both the Bridget Jones books and movies: the dull and predictable Mr. Darcy vs. that charming rake Daniel Cleaver.
Understanding why you appeal to the narcissist and addressing your behaviors and reactivity will help you from making the same mistake again. That, fellow Gazelles, is a good thing. It’s just too hard to rebound and recover from these encounters.
Read my new book to learn more: Daughter Detox: Recovering From an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Photograph by Joshua Ness. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com
Dufner, Michael, John F, Rauthmann, Anna Z, Czarna, and Jaap J.A. Denissen, “Are Narcissists Sexy? Zeroing in on the Effect of Narcissism on Short-term Male Appeal,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2013), 39 (7), 870-882.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.