Yes, narcissism has become a buzzword and the word “narc” seems to drop effortlessly from so many people’s lips but are these people really as bad as everyone says and, if they are, why aren’t they easier to identify? That’s the thing about people high in narcissistic traits: They are very good at mimicking caring behaviors, especially at first, so unless you’re really discerning, the chances are good you may totally miss the red flags. His apparent need to make you happy—yes, it’s called “love bombing”—and his full-court pursuit of you may make you giddy with excitement, never realizing that you’re actually not the object of his affection. In hindsight, the sad truth slowly emerges that he’s chosen you for a reason. (I’m using the male pronoun here to avoid a pronoun pile-up and men tend to dominate the far end of the narcissistic spectrum but women can be high in narcissistic traits too. Feel free to switch genders.)
How the narcissist sets his sights
It’s true enough that someone high in narcissistic traits is going to choose someone who does him proud; the chances are good that you are physically attractive, and perhaps even successful or accomplished. But ultimately those superficial qualities aren’t as important to him as what he intuits about you: That you’re hungry for love and attention, insecure about yourself deep down, and that you’re more likely to please or back down from conflict than to risk outright rejection. He’s looking for the hole in your heart he can fill because your attention and gratitude are really what he wants deep inside, and there’s nothing like self-doubt on your part to ease the way for him. People with an insecure attachment style—especially those with an anxious-preoccupied style—are more likely to swept off their feet by the narcissist’s charms.
Patterns of mimicry and other patterns that are easy to misread
Life would be a lot easier if the bad guys wore black hats and the good ones wore white ones as they did in old Hollywood Westerns but, alas, that’s not how it works, especially with someone high in narcissistic traits. He’s not just counting on you to misread his motivations—and, yes, he’s very skilled at that—but also depending on throwing you off-balance in numerous ways. He knows that will keep you buying tickets to the roller coaster he’s put you on until he’s ready to let you off.
I know that it’s popular to portray those who get involved and damaged by narcissists—and, yes, I was one of them—as “victims” but I honestly don’t think that’s a very good idea in the long run. This is not to deny that you were hurt, damaged, or even victimized, but as someone who’s neither a psychologist nor a therapist, I think it’s much more valuable to really understand the factors at play from both sides so that it never happens to you again. So I am making an effort to see this dyadically so that the dynamic becomes clear.
The first five are things he (or she) brings to the table; the second five are your contributions.
Understanding the narcissist’s motivation and behaviors
It’s thought by most experts, including Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism, and Dr. Joseph Burgo, author of The Narcissist You Know, that for all the outward braggadocio, swagger, and projected confidence, people high in narcissistic traits are deeply wounded emotionally and on the run from a deep sense of shame and inadequacy. While he won’t articulate his needs directly—that’s one of his hallmarks—his real motivations are always self-directed and have nothing to do with you. But that may only be obvious in retrospect.
- The need for adulation
The pace of a relationship with a narcissist is initially exciting and emotionally overwhelming; love bombing is meant to sweep you off your feet and have you thank your lucky stars. What’s not obvious is that he needs you to be enthralled and that the attention, extravagant gestures, and gifts he lavishes on you are more like a snare than not. As one woman recounted of her experience with someone who lived in another state,” After our first weekend together, I arrived home to flowers by the door and, the next morning, plane tickets to return the following weekend. I was absolutely thrilled by the romance of it all, as you might imagine. In retrospect, I should have started running for the hills, right then and there.”
- The need to think of well of himself
This is where it gets really confusing, especially if you think of narcissists as being obviously self-involved and uncaring because the narcissist works hard at impressing people and that includes all manner of nice gestures. You can count on him to lend his level to the neighbor fixing a shelf, offering to drive someone when their car is in the shop, buying the perfect gift. Remember that the deep shame of being wounded is the motivation here and, more than anything, the narcissist wants people to think well of him. Of course, all his nice gestures have to do with him, not anyone else. By the way, there’s another kind of narcissist, termed the communal narcissist; according to Dr. Malkin, these folks pride themselves on being the kindest and most giving of people. They do lots of volunteer work. Do you know any?
- The kiss-and-make-up without apology
You may not even notice that he never says “I’m sorry” out loud because of the flurry of nice things he does after a fight or the hot make-up sex but that’s his intent. He’s going to mimic what a true apology looks like without ever actually apologizing; of course, you’re not going to notice that until you look back with the power of hindsight.
- Stonewalling and the end of discussion
Yes, every couple argues and fights but someone high in narcissistic traits approaches a dispute with a in-to-win-it mindset which has absolutely nothing to do with reaching a mutual compromise. Again, you might not register this immediately because the narcissist puts his knowledge of your deepest insecurities to good use; he’s usually very accomplished at turning the tables on you with either silence (stonewalling or a refusal to answer) or by gaslighting (insisting that whatever you’re complaining about never happened.) The chances are good that you’ll end up berating yourself for choosing the wrong time to bring it up or some other excuse you come up with. He knows how you’ll default to blaming yourself, and he plays it to the max.
- Curation and the web of lies
One of the hallmarks of the narcissist is that he curates the details of his life very carefully; he may seem reticent to share details at first which you may think testifies to his private nature but it’s actually about curation. You may hear about what a happy childhood he had, for example, but that may not jibe with other details he divulges over time or even your own observation of how he connects to members of his family of origin. One tip-off—usually only glimpsed is 20/20 hindsight—is the curation of past relationships which fall into predictable patterns; he is always the prince trying to please a lady who can’t be pleased. It won’t occur to you that he never takes responsibility for any failure, especially the break-down of an intimate relationship.
One of the things about the narcissist’s habit of lying that’s hard to understand is his utter belief in those lies even when they are clearly and patently false; ask anyone who’s been through a divorce with someone high in narcissistic traits and he or she will have lots of stories to tell you. As Joseph Burgo points out in The Narcissist You Know, “As hard as it may be for most of us to believe, the Extreme Narcissist who lies doesn’t always do so in a self-aware way, consciously attempting to disguise the truth. Rather, he tells lies to support a defensive identity he has come to see as synonymous with himself.”
Understanding your role
Most of us, crawling out from the wreckage after a run-in with a narcissist, don’t really understand how we managed to be so blind for so long and are tormented by the field of red flags that seems so obvious now but wasn’t then. The key is understanding what you brought to the party so you won’t make the same mistakes ever again.
- Your confusing strength with control
The chances are good, especially if you had a difficult childhood, that feeling safe and cared for in a relationship is paramount to you; alas, you are also likely mistake what if it feels like to be embraced by strong arms for the stealth control the narcissist exerts. In his book, Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin makes the point that the narcissist rarely makes his needs known and that he tends to use “stealth control” to keep you in place. That may become a pattern in your relationship early on but it may be hard to notice because the way the narcissist works is subtle; it may begin with changing up dinner or other plans you’ve already settled on to do something he calls “better” or “more glamorous.” He may isolate you from other people, including your friends who are critical of him, by “surprising you” with something else when you’re getting together with them. The point, Dr. Malkin notes, is for you to lose sight of your own needs and desires, bit by bit and piece by piece, without full awareness. Eventually, he’ll be running your life and you’ve become voiceless which is the way he likes it.
- Your confusing turbulence with passion
People high in narcissist traits play games—especially emotional ones—and use turning hot and then cold as a way of controlling you. These relationships may seem passionate because they’re so volatile, and the hot sex that accompanies a make-up period may make you forget that the way you’ve been treated has been abysmal. Alas, the cultural ideas of what constitutes romance—being swept off your feet, “losing yourself in love,” etc.—all feed into your acceptance of the roller-coaster ride.
- Your neediness and fear of rejection
This is a biggie and what permits the narcissist to stay in control and manipulate you like a puppeteer. Every time you try to talk to him, you’re countered by silence or his blame-shifting and that makes you defensive and afraid. He’s managed to convince you that you’re nothing without him and that insures your silence. Alas, you’ve turned into the weakest, most vulnerable version of yourself.
- Your habit of self-blame
Most women who didn’t get their emotional needs met in childhood and keenly felt that one parent or perhaps both didn’t love them blame themselves; as I explain in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, this is a default position which imbues the child with hope that the relationship can be fixed (if it’s her fault, she can figure out how to change so that her mother will love her) and also permits her to avoid confronting a more frightening possibility (that the person who’s supposed to love and care for you won’t). This unconscious behavior continues into adulthood and suits the purposes of the narcissist just fine because he’ll evade responsibility and owning his behaviors at all costs.
- Your normalizing verbal abuse (and making excuses)
Children who grow up marginalized and criticized normalize their childhood experiences; they believe that what goes on at their house—the put-downs, the mockery, even the screaming and yelling—happens everywhere. The comparison I always make is to the pile of boots and shoes by the front door that you eventually stop seeing because it’s insinuated itself to your view of the room; alas, that’s true of verbal abuse too.
So, along with your habit of self-blame (“I must have triggered his temper,” “I should have paid attention to how he was in a bad mood already,” “Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything”), your insensitivity to verbal abuse allows it to continue without protest. That too enables the narcissist’s agenda.
Recovering from an intimate relationship with a narcissist can be very difficult. The best way to assure it never happens again is to fully understand it.
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Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.