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Why We Fall for Narcissists—the Devil’s Little Helper.

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The definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is uniquely unflattering:

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism. ~ Mayo Staff Clinic

If it’s true that narcissists are so…well, narcissistic…then why do we non-narcissists so often fall for them?

This is a question which anyone who has been involved with a narcissist must ask themselves, as the wreckage the relationship leaves in its wake will need to be cleaned up and examined for a long time postmortem.

How do I know? You guessed it—I was married to my very own narcissist for five years, a man who enjoyed humiliating me, who thought his needs were all encompassing and whose heart was cold and impermeable.

If those facts are true, which they are, how on earth did I fall for him, and why on earth did I stay?

Let me first clarify that I am discussing Narcissistic Personality Disorder, not just run-of-the-mill narcissism. We all have moments and ways in which we behave narcissistically—that’s part of being human. But when those traits become dominant and all encompassing, it’s a whole different ball game.

When we first meet a narcissist, or more exactly, someone with NPD, they are rarely what they seem to be. NPDs are highly skilled in concealing their true wants and needs, because—although they feel justified in wanting and needing them—they also know from experience that they won’t be well received.

To publicly counterbalance their socially inappropriate desires, and also to ultimately fulfill them, they work hard to create what I’ll call the NPD mask. This mask always looks essentially the same: cobbled together with charisma, confidence, accomplishments (real or false) and, most oddly, the impression that they understand us better than anyone else ever has.

(This last bit is the piece that trips the many people like me up: How can they be narcissistic/lack empathy if they can so easily perceive my emotions? The answer is, they can perceive them but they can’t or won’t relate to them. Instead, they use their understanding solely for the purpose of serving themselves.)

To the average, unsuspecting person, an NPD initially comes off as the most exciting, interesting, intelligent and compelling person they have ever met—impressions that quickly crumble one by one, but which are hard to entirely release. In this way, the NPD casts his net, and though holes begin to tear it apart soon enough, it often remains in tact enough to contain its prey.

The sooner we determine the difference between a legitimately magnetic and charismatic soul and an NPD, the sooner we will be able to determine whether we have stumbled upon greatness or are merely flirting with the devil’s little helper.

Following is a reliable list of traits for NPD.

In order for a person to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) they must meet five or more of the following  symptoms (from Psych Central):

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  • Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  • Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

If we find ourselves in a relationship which started out amazing—romance and whirlwinds and all night conversations and sexual marathons—but which then seems to have devolved into an isolated and painful affair in which we are constantly afraid of being attacked or doing something to set our partner off, we are probably dealing with an NPD.

Knowing this, we can also be sure—it’s not us, it’s them. And knowing that, we can give ourselves permission to pack our bags and get the hell out.

The thing about NPDs is they never change. Well, that’s not entirely true, they change, but it’s always for the worse. You can be sure that if you are involved romantically with this sort of person, things will go from great to bad to worse to even worse than you could ever possibly imagine.

I write these articles because I wish I had read something like them when I was with my ex. What I experienced was horrific—but also totally avoidable.

A few people have responded to my work by saying I am an NPD (I don’t really get that one, but okay), or that I was codependent (true), or that I’m just feeling sorry for myself or whatever other things that make me responsible for what happened—and I am responsible. I didn’t have enough guts to leave. But maybe I would have if I’d had some insight into my ex’s end game.

NPDs are, without exception, dangerous people. They are intent on destroying those that are close to them piece by piece so that they can feel better about themselves. The only thing that really shuts them down is walking away, and it’s better done sooner than later, before they take even that option away from us.

 

Bonus: For those of you looking for an Independent Love suited to a New Generation.

~

Relephant:

Sleeping with the Enemy.

~

Author: Erica Leibrandt

Editor: Travis May

Image: Flickr/Matthew Oliphant

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Erica Leibrandt

Erica Leibrandt is a licensed mental health clinician, certified yoga instructor, and mother to six heathens who masquerade as innocent children. If she occasionally finds herself with a fried egg on her plate or dancing until dawn, she asks that you not judge her. Life is short, she knows the chicken that laid the egg, and we can never dance too much. Connect with Erica on Facebook and Twitter. And visit her website.

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18 Responses to “Why We Fall for Narcissists—the Devil’s Little Helper.”

  1. spot on. I recently left my husband, a narcissist, after 14 years together. Was the best choice I have ever made. And while in still gathering my thoughts and can’t really write Intelligently about it yet, it’s been the best choice I have ever made. I am SO much happier. Thank you for bringing more awareness to this disorder, people need to know!!

    • Erica says:

      Samantha, I am SO happy to hear that you left and are thriving, and also that my words resonated with you. When I write these pieces I am so afraid that people are going to lash out. It's nice when they have a positive impact. Thank you.

  2. Sonja says:

    Recently, I read something that really made me wake up. If you have dated a narcissist or keep ending up with one: the first question you should ask yourself is: WHY am or was I a perfect match for a narcissist? The one thing that a narcissist and the co-dependent partner have in common is low self-esteem. The only difference is that one is covering it up by pretending to be grandiose and special while the other one is showing the low self-esteem by putting him or herself into a "victim" role. Both are not healthy. These sort of relationships are not healthy. In order to not end up with the next narcissist we need to identify this pattern and ask what our role was in this. It is then that we identify narcissists "in time" (before getting involved with one again).

    • Erica says:

      Sonja, I agree 100%. The problem with low self esteem though (one of them) is that we don't always know we have it. If we end up with an NPD, it's a good bet that we do.

  3. Heather says:

    I echo the statement above. It was so hard for me to understand what was going in my marriage for the longest time. I had no idea. I really thought it was all in my head until more and more friends and family started affirming my feelings and viewpoint. Leaving was the hardest thing I've ever done and worth every painful and difficult moment. Thank you for your bravery and for the inspiration you offer others in similar situations to ours!

  4. Jessica says:

    I read this article and a few others. My gosh it’s my relationship to a tee. We started off with him perusing me, building me up telling me I was beautiful and that he had been in love with me for almost 10 years. We had worked together in the past and that’s where we met. I fell hook line and sinker for him. He was so kind always bringing me gifts and rubbing my feet. He told me how I was his perfect match and his best friend. Our love life was amazing, He was a very giving man in that aspect. He moved in with my son and I about a month into the relationship (he didn’t have anywhere else to go). I wanted to take care of him he had just had surgery and his marriage had fallen apart just before we stated to see each other. A few months in he started to get frustrated easily. He would yell at my son and myself. Nothing was right. He always wanted things the way he wanted them and if I didn’t bend to his will I was uncompromising. He would always threaten to leave, I would have to beg him to stop acting so irrational. I would constantly have to tell him I loved him and didn’t want him to go. About a year into our relationship my mother came to live with us because she had no where else to go. When that happened he really began to get hostile. He would blame every angry moment on my mom. His expectations of my then 7yr old child were ridiculously high. Every time my son would talk back or do something naughty (like most children do) my boyfriend would yell at me. Tell me how bad he was and that he needed discipline. He would say I coddled him and that he would grow up to be a “Punk” and I would be my fault. I thank god he never put hands on anyone but the verbal and emotional abuse was so hard to deal with. Then I caught him cheating. I forgave him brought him back and less than 2 months later he did it again with the same woman. The relationship ended then, but I found myself still wanting him in my life. He has since (within 3 weeks of our split) informed me that she was pregnant and that they had gotten married. She is his 3rd wife. I though all this time it was me. I thought I had done something to deserve the treatment and I felt like I had somehow failed the relationship like I wasn’t good enough for him. After reading this article I see that I was defiantly in a relationship with a Narcissist. The problem is I’ve been told I’m and Empath and that makes for a disastrous relationship. I’am starting to feel bad for the new woman he’s with now because I see him beginning the same cycle with her.

    • Erica says:

      Yep, that sound like a classic NPD alright. And though you may very well be an empath, which does make you more vulnerable to NPDs, you were also codependent (like me). These situations only happen when our self esteem is low enough to allow them to. I found the key for me was understanding that and really beginning to love and forgive myself.

    • Jami says:

      Two books that changed my life, both by Pia Mellody. Facing Codependence & Facing Live Addiction.

      Not in the realm of romantic relationship, I recently rented a house to a man with severe NPD, someone I had known for almost twenty years. I always thought he was somewhat eccentric. He always had some long drawn out story line excuse for why things weren’t going well with his business, his marriage etc.

      I felt compassion for his unbelievable predicament and rented to him to help him get out of the “whole”. Big mistake!!! I had to threaten him with an attorney and the police to get him out. Beware!!! They’re tricky!!

  5. Katia says:

    What you've written aligns so completely with my own experience that it serves as confirmation to me that I was indeed in a relationship with a clinical narcissist.

    We first met online when he commented on a blog I'd written and followed up with a personal email. I remember feeling put off by the way he glommed onto me and almost immediately started talking about the special connection we shared when we were still strangers. I shrugged and went on my merry way but he kept coming back and over time I began to let down my guard. He admitted to a drinking problem and I thought perhaps his strange familiarity was born of having had too much to drink.

    In any case, I didn't want to be unkind and he was incredibly bright and articulate, and that caught my attention. Whenever I would step back from contact he would step back, too, creating a feeling of safety for me. He wasn't pushing past my boundaries nor was he disappearing. He seemed to truly want to nurture a connection with me.

    Fast forward a few years when we finally met face-to-face. Looking back, I can see that he carefully cultivated my trust and played on my empathy. He had patiently waited for me to reveal myself and he took note of everything about me and mirrored it back to me, calling himself my "anam cara" or soul mate. It wasn't even a concept I believed in but I began to wonder if maybe I was wrong. I felt such growing resonance with him and he was even more charming and attentive in person; I felt cherished by him in a way I'd never felt before with anyone.

    It wasn't long before cracks began to show. He revealed an intermittently explosive temper and seemed to avoid taking responsibility for anything. Everyone in his life, especially his ex-wife, was "crazy". He was a victim, he implied. And he needed me to be different, to help heal his soul. And I wanted to. When he called me crazy, too, I began to question myself. Was I crazy for questioning obvious lies and unfaithfulness? I thought perhaps I was.

    I discovered a long history of shattered relationships. A married woman – another "crazy" who'd confessed in church to having an affair with him, a sibling who was "irrational" and "prideful" and had abused him growing up but seemed to be well liked by everyone else I met. Like that.

    I tried to end it with him but I couldn't seem to stick with my resolution to be finished. He would revert back to the charming, intelligent, kind guy I'd fallen in love with and I kept going to him, even though the relationship was clearly on a downward spiral. His appetite for attention, admiration and affirmation was voracious. Everywhere we went he was overly friendly with women, over solicitous, and incredibly flirtatious. I was appalled and stunned but thought I could reason with him.

    He dismissed the time he threatened to kill me and threw a glass at my head. Didn't he have a right to express his anger? And really, he'd missed my head by a mile; if he'd wanted to hit me he wouldn't have missed, he said.

    I'm ashamed that I kept going back. And then he went too far, even for me, and revealed himself so nakedly that it was finally easy to walk away, to shut and lock the door and throw away the key.

    And now he's a victim of me, I hear. And he's so very angry. Rejection has always provoked fury in him.

    People tried to warn me but I didn't listen. I so badly wanted him to be the person he pretended to me. I now feel lucky to be free. I believe he's dangerous and without conscience.

    While he immediately leaped into another romantic relationship with another sudden soul mate, I took a step back in order to examine my own heart, and I discovered a huge void inside that I'd been seeking to fill outside myself. I wasn't a victim of him, I make myself a victim by allowing him in against my own best judgement. So here I am, learning to love myself and treat myself well, and I'm grateful for the lessons I learned through that relationship.

    Now, I try to serve as a conduit to help others escape abusive relationships or better still, stop themselves from engaging narcissists.

    Thank you for this well written article and for sharing your personal experience. It helps me tremendously to know I'm not alone in my experience.

    • Erica says:

      Thank you for sharing your story. I'm so glad you are free and I'm inspired that you now choose to help others suffering as we have. Keep up the good work!

  6. jennifer says:

    I dated a narcissist for 14 months. Interesting looking back, like a textbook version on how he gained my trust and got me to fall in love with him. Then, he suddenly changed and every time I asked what was happening, it was all my fault. I was his “supply” and he drained me till I had nothing left to give. I was someone who felt like I had to earn love, a people pleaser. I was someone who was easy to put guilt on. I started to point out to him, that he twisted everything to make me the “bad guy”. He use to get so upset, I think to shut me up. I told him, what he really needed was a dog, someone who did everything for him and couldn’t talk back. After our break-up, I had to learn to value myself. I was dating at age 50 and there’s a lot of men out there with these tendencies. Eventually found someone I deserved.

  7. broken soul says:

    I dated a woman with bipolar/borderline personality disorder and I think NPD ( at least her mother has told me she believes that to be the case. However being with this woman for 2 years and having it end has crippled me. In the end of the relationship she began to accuse me of having NPD. She said I was selfish and unaware of my own behavior and wants. Next thing you know I am being hammered with insults, accusations for the last 6 months of the relationship in which we were practically not together. I went to counseling for help. I went to go see if I was indeed NPD; took tests and had many discussions about my up bringing, empathy, and my values…the verdict here was that I was NOT an NPD even tbough my bipolar/borderline ex told me I was. She told her therapist about me and what I was supposedly like and her therapist told her I was NPD without every communicating with me. Little did her therapist I did everything for this woman that I possibly could. I cut hang out time with my own friends to spend more time with her, I would go out of my way to do things for her, to make her feel loved only to be yelled at when things weren't perfect. I gave this woman free rent, paid for the groceries, spent practically all of my free time with her.

    After we moved to a new state together my new job consumed me, I took on projects that took away time from her and she told me I was selfish. I didn't spend enough time with her, my work was more important than her she said. Everything I did was wrong. She asks me to do things a certain way, then the next day I do them and I get yelled at telling me I need to do things complete opposite of what shesaid the day before. It was like she had distorted reality and forgetfulness but would then blame me for being selfish and not listening.

    I went to yet another therapist to see if I was the problem; to see if had NPD. After more "testing" and questions I was told yet again I am not NPD. I was told sometime as humans we can be selfish but there is adifference between being selfish sometimes and being NPD. I do have somewhat low self esteem and like to have attention but i often think about others and do things to help other people; but yet I am claimed to be NPD by my ex. Everything that went wrong was my fault, I wasn't a good enough listener, I supposedly put my self first in every situation, accused of so many things. I was basically gaslighted into believing I was NPD…so I went to see another therapist.

    So I guess what I am trying to say is how can someone claim someone else is NPD because of their own perception of reality ? I have read a lot on Bipolar /borderline and itseems that illness causes distorted reality, projects their own feelings onto others. After speaking to her mother for hours and hours I was told that everyone in her family has believed her to have NPD. How can someone claim that another is NPD though (my ex to me) and believe it to be so true.

    I have gone to multiple therapists for depression of this breakup with my ex because of everything that was slammed into me. All to say that I am not NPD. Yet I still fear I could be because of what this ex has slammed into me. The last time we spoke I am told you should be thankful someone showed you how selfish and unaware you are in your interactions with people.

    Everytime I have a relationship it seems to fall apart in the end at age 27/28 I am now scared I will never find anyone. I am told I am NPD by this one woman and I seem to find so much truth and validation in it; yet all my therapists I went to for depression told me i am not and to not place value on what a mentally ill person claims. This woman is highly intelligent though, thoughtful, but so unstable and she takes medication and sees a therapist. I never had to go totherapy for stuff like this until she gaslighted me into believing this craziness.

    I feel so lost and broken as human now because of what happened. I read about NPD and I get scared because in the back of my mind I wonder if I am NPD; evenafter the therapy and different opinions. I view myself as equal to all others, I try to feel for other peoples' feelings and interests. I don't think I am entitled to anything. What scares me is what this one person claims me to be because she knew the best, the closest person to me. She claimed I messed with her and took her energy away, broke her heart, when in fact she took all my energy away. Slept with other men while trying to make thingswork. Physically attacked me on 3 occasions and told me I was the problem. Blamed me for her behavior and how I make her a worse person. Which the first 16 months of the relationship I was the first man to help her reach goals and a better person, all according to her. Then it flip flops.

    My post might not make much sense, as I have been depressed and have so many thoughts and questions. This woman was my world and everything has come crashing down. So much guilt for what sheclaims me to be.

    • jenny R says:

      Hi . I wanted to tell you what you just wrote is exactly what has happened to me . I too have been to 3 therapists , because my ex has accused me of being a narcissist and I too questioned this because he knows me so much better than anyone else . Please Google cognitive disassociance. That might help you explain how you go back and forth in questioning yourself

  8. Erica says:

    I'm so sorry all of this happened to you. If you were really an NPD, you wouldn't be so worried about being one, or suspect that you are. NPD's DON'T think they are NPD. Your girlfriend was messing with your head because of her disorder (NPD), you let her because of yours, which–as you said– is low self esteem. Keep seeking therapy, and don't get into another relationship until you're on more solid emotional ground. Good luck to you.

  9. Kristina says:

    I could write a short(ish) story about my decade-long experience with the narcissist in my life, but I won't. Suffice to say that once I finally cut him loose I felt released, like from a chain. I never felt so free in my life! I know he will never accept that I don't want him in my life any more but the pride I feel in myself for finally saying, "No more!" is so validating. I know how hard it is to escape the clutches of a narcissist but believe me, it can be done.

  10. Moana says:

    I too have had a narcissist in my life more than once, i wont get into the in and outs because those of us that have experienced a Narc know only too well the end results. I do however want to say i spent far to much time beating myself up … yes i stayed, yes i stuck up for him and made excuses for his behavior, yes i did everything for him and justified my actions every minute of the day until…. i looked at myself truly deeply and realised i had asked the universe for this and other experiences so i could evolve into who i am today. Beating myself up is no longer in my world, it has no place here. I embrace and give thanks for every experience light or dark, i have learnt true forgiveness of others after first forgiving myself.I give thanks and gratitude for those who have been part of my journey to me – I give and receive love and am truly blessed.

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