Those high in narcissistic traits often exhibit a self-absorption and grandiosity that’s pretty easy to see, unless, of course, you’ve temporarily been blinded by his or her charms. Narcissists –and I use the term loosely to refer to those who are high in narcissistic traits, though not necessarily diagnosable as having NPD—are well-known to curate their outward appearances and that, too, is pretty easy to spot. But there are more subtle ways a narcissist curates his or her image, and that is how she or he tells the story of the past. (For simplicity and because there are more men high in narcissistic traits, I will be using the male pronoun but feel free to switch up genders. Women do it too.)
But with any narcissist, stories of friendships and romances can be very telling.
Why the past gets reshaped and seeing the patterns
Wooing and wowing will get you to admire the narcissist but they won’t garner your empathy and that’s what the narcissist knows is necessary to get you on his team. Armored to the max under that slick exterior, the narcissist sees the world in black-and-white terms with people who are for or against him, helpful or harmful; there are no shades of gray. While he’ll own his accomplishments—no team player, he! —he is quick to redistribute failures and setbacks onto the shoulders of others.
And here’s where the pity party comes in—the ultimate test for those who have empathy.
It’s my party (and I’ll cry if I want to)
Perhaps the most tell-tale sign that you’re dealing with a narcissist is how he talks about past relationships. Is his ex-wife a bitch who’s just money-hungry and took him to court when he offered her a really fair settlement? Is she whining to everyone who will listen that he treated her badly when he tended to her for years and years? Or has he just been so unbelievably unlucky in love, with one ungrateful or dismissive woman after another? Or maybe he’s just a magnet for the needy, neurotic ones?
It’s not hard to be taken in, alas, when it seems as though someone is pouring out his heart, as one woman confided:
“He was quite circumspect about his past for the first few months. I’d been more open, telling him about the failure of my last long-term relationship and how it’d happened. Then he opened up about the last two hair-raising relationships he’d been in, and I was totally sucked in. The poor guy had been used and abused, or so I thought, by women who wanted nothing but an upgrade in life. His stories made me protective of him and when my friends starting complaining about how he monopolized my time and was controlling, I felt I had to protect him. Mistake, big mistake. But I didn’t see it for the longest while. Now, I highly doubt that a single story he told me was true”.
Gaming empathy and other games
The pity party puts you solidly in the bleachers, cheering him on. It is also, as one woman noted, incredibly flattering, because you get to be the girl version of the Knight-in-Shining-Armor he’s already shown himself to be:
“Part of the love bombing involved his great luck in finding me—the woman of his dreams, the one who really ‘got’ him and appreciated him. I was so flattered, and it was all so like the movie ‘Pretty Woman’ at the end and the way we each got to rescue each other from all of those thoughtless creeps. Of course, it was a game on his part because all the flattery masked the not-so-subtle ways he tried to change me. I would look better as a blonde. I should go on a diet so I could wear clingy dresses. Did I see it? Nope. I loved the story of us too much, with me as the star. Of course, I didn’t keep the starring role, you know, once I stopped saying ‘yes.’ Then I became just another woman who didn’t get him.”
People high in narcissistic traits use relationships for self-regulation, as a paper by W. Keith Campbell and others points out; they seek status and self-esteem, rather than intimacy or caring. Even more to the point, while they may be attracted to a partner, they always feel superior and game-playing is one way of maintaining superiority, on the one hand, and maintaining control, on the other. Curating their romantic history basically kills two birds with one stone.
Unmasking the narcissist
If a story sounds too black-and-white to be true, the chances are good that it isn’t; life tends to get messy and it’s really rare that one person alone behaves badly and torpedoes a relationship. Most people telling the story of a failed connection will mention mistakes made by both parties, and own the ones that are theirs. 95% of all divorces get settled out of court which makes the point another way.
Of course, rare doesn’t mean never, especially when you’re dealing with a narcissist, something I learned the hard way. I bought my own husband’s story of his divorce hook, line, and sinker; he’d been married more than twenty-five years and I believed him when he said he’d made his wife a fair offer and that suddenly, out of nowhere, she took him to court. Their marriage ended before he and I began our relationship and, frankly, there wasn’t any reason to doubt him. His divorce proceedings dragged on and on—which he attributed to her greed and recalcitrance and which, I am sorry to say, I believed too.
Of course, in hindsight, none of that was probably true. I learned that during our divorce, one that should have been settled in a nanosecond and reasonably. His narcissism was in full view—with lies and game-playing and, yes, the need to win at all costs.
So, listen up when someone fills you in on their past. How the story’s told may tell you more than the story itself.
Photograph by Gregory Hays. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Campbell, W. Keith, Craig A. Fogler, and Eli J. Finkel. “Does Self-Love Lead to Love for Others? A Story of Narcissistic Game Playing, “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2002), vol. 83, no. 2, 340-354.