Since the article I wrote, “The Toxic Attraction between an Empath & a Narcissist,” went viral three years ago, there has been an immense amount of attention focused on narcissists, and in particular, why people remain in relationships with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder given the emotional, mental, and sometimes physical damage and destruction they cause.
Prior to my article reaching over 10 million people, there wasn’t a great deal of information readily available on the subject. Now, it seems to be a buzzword, and is often used to describe relationships that are dysfunctional—but not necessarily narcissistic.
In fact, there was so little talk about narcissists that I felt extremely vulnerable writing about my experience, as I genuinely felt as though I was the only one who had experienced such insanity within a relationship. I felt too ashamed to talk freely about it, as I felt no one could possibly understand why I went through all that I did—and still stayed.
It didn’t take long to realise the vastness of this insidious personality disorder, and how millions of people have been subjected to the often silent and invisible abuse.
Fortunately, narcissist abuse is no longer swept under the carpet as much, or perceived as something to feel ashamed about. There are support networks, both online and in the physical world, that people can turn to to talk through their experiences with others who know exactly what it feels like to live with, and love, someone who is playing a carefully contrived and constructed manipulative game.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of misunderstanding surrounding narcissistic abuse, and many people loosely use the word without fully comprehending the core traits and characteristics of someone who has this disorder. This has led to many people being wrongfully accused of being a narcissist, as well as many slipping through the cracks, as it’s not easily diagnosed or recognised.
If there is a term that sums up the impact narcissist abuse can have, I would say it has to be “invisible wounds,” which is no doubt why the World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Organisation has chosen the hashtag #ifmywoundswerevisible to promote their campaign.
Although many narcissists are physically violent, they are more often covert in their actions, so the abuse is hidden behind closed doors, where even the person on the receiving end doesn’t always recognise the depth of their self-serving intentions and malignant ways.
One of the most bewildering and destabilizing things about being close to a narcissist is that certain people around them fail to see the devastation they cause. This is because they exist behind shiny armor put in place to distinguish and hide their true selves. Narcissists will pick and choose who sees particular sides depending on what it is they wish to gain.
Narcissists know exactly who they can weave their web of dysfunction around and who they can’t. This is simply to make it look as though the other person is delusional so they can keep up their manipulative behavior without being questioned. This can make it difficult to seek support as others may struggle to grasp the situation.
As the narcissistic awareness abuse cause outlines, rather than being outwardly aggressive, violent, angry, and volatile, those with narcissistic personality disorder are categorised by their need for constant admiration, their arrogance, egotistical behavior, self-absorption, sense of entitlement and superiority, and obsession with beauty and/or success. They are also known for their inflated sense of self-importance.
Narcissists have a strong desire for wealth, possessions, prestige, control, and power. They function from their ego and display vanity, arrogance, pride, righteousness, and grandiosity. They have a desperate need to impress, receive praise, and to be admired for their mental or physical attributes.
They also lack the ability to empathise genuinely with other people, which is the part of their personality that causes the most harm and destruction. Their desire for self-gain and validation means they will do anything and destroy anyone to have their needs met, without caring who gets hurt in the process.
Narcissistic personality disorder often gets confused with other disorders such as antisocial personality disorder, which has similarities. However, the main traits of antisocial personality disorder are quite different, for example, persistent lying, stealing, aggression, violence, reckless and impulsive behaviour, lack of remorse, and failure to take responsibility. Also, there is blatant disregard for other people’s needs or feelings.
People with the above disorders either have no concern—or are unaware—of how their behaviour affects other people. If someone tries to reason with them they move into self-defence mode where they refuse to take accountability and are quickly able to turn tables so they appear innocent and all blame lies with others.
They become infuriated when people have boundaries and expect that those around them are there to pander to their wants and needs. The moment someone refuses, they switch between a variety of tactics to manipulate, charm, coerce, threaten, or seduce people into doing what they want.
One of the biggest myths I have found surrounding narcissistic personality disorder, is that people often think that narcissists are wounded characters who have had terribly abusive childhoods, so much so, that they become victims of circumstances themselves. However, this belief could not be further from the truth, as all too often narcissistic people are those who have been highly pampered throughout their childhood, and who have been led to believe they are elite, special, and more precious and deserving than other people.
Another myth is that people think narcissism is rare, and that those who claim they’ve been in a relationship with one are just jumping on a trend, which in effect can turn to victim blaming, especially when it comes from people who have no idea what they’ve been through, or how soul-destroying these relationships are. This is why it is vital to understand and recognise the traits of narcissism before becoming emotionally involved with one.
We can all carry some traits of narcissism, especially when we aren’t willing to accept our faults, or we aren’t accountable for our thoughts, feelings, emotions, or expressions. Like with most things, there is a spectrum.
Some people have just a few milder symptoms, while others may align with all of the above, and identify strongly. When we learn as much as feasibly possible about this personality disorder, we can then easily identify those who display the traits and consciously choose how we interact with them.
Knowledge helps us gain a depth of understanding so we can protect ourselves, and possibly those around us, who may also experience this type of dynamic.
An easy way to recognize narcissism is to ask if we are willing to gain what we need, whether emotionally or otherwise, by doing the necessary work ourselves. Or, do we expect other people to lift our moods, comfort us, tend to our needs, resolve our issues, take responsibility for our emotions, make us feel secure emotionally, compliment us on our physical attributes, take care of us financially, while feeling as though we are entitled to it? Do we expect them to maintain our lives with no regard for them, and no consideration for their suffering, general well-being, or their time, care, and effort?
If we cause suffering to others without consideration or regret, and if we cannot see, or do not care, about what other people go through so long as we are okay, then we will very likely have narcissistic tendencies.
As it is widely believed that narcissism is a learned behavior, it is also believed that it can be unlearned.
The difficulty here is that before any change takes place, the person displaying the behavior must be willing to acknowledge that their narcissistic traits exist.
Unfortunately, this is not common, as one of the strongest characteristics of narcissism is the belief that they do not do anything “wrong.” They cannot always see, or admit, that their behavior could be harmful to others. So, expecting they will be held accountable, or start to peel away the layers and begin the work of unlearning everything they have believed to be true, is highly unlikely.
The chance of a narcissist changing is unlikely, although it is possible, and they are also unlikely to be reasonable during the process. If a narcissist wants to change, then they will make the changes and we will see them. No one else can open a narcissist’s eyes or heart for them; they can only do it themselves.
It is not that narcissists aren’t comfortable with looking at themselves; they often genuinely don’t see they are wrong, and those narcissists who do see their behavior as harmful have such a high sense of entitlement and care far more for themselves than anyone around them. This is the main reason that it is difficult for narcissists to get treatment or to change their behavior; because to change they must first see the original cause and the eventual effect of what they are doing.
Unfortunately, people with this type of personality disorder usually only think only themselves. When interacting with them, it is essential for our emotional and mental health that we do the same. We can still show compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and love, but we must also show these things to ourselves.
If a relationship is already underway with someone with narcissistic personality disorder, it is never too late to seek help, seek understanding, search for knowledge, and to dig deep into our soul and recognize our own strengths and capabilities. We can then do everything possible to build awareness, courage, and confidence, so that we can get access to support, and so that we are able to walk away…if we choose to.
Although labels can be detrimental, gaining a diagnosis or having a framework that helps us understand either ourselves, or other people, on a deeper level can be beneficial for all involved, especially if the person with the personality disorder is willing to work on changing, or if they wish to seek support and guidance.
I would recommend seeking advice from a counselor or therapist, whether together or separately. If the person with the personality disorder is willing to take measures to work on the relationship and take accountability for their behavior, this in itself is a major step, and as long as it is genuine and not done just for temporary relief in the relationship, or to gain in any way, there is a chance that the relationship can thrive.
The difficulty with dealing with someone with a personality disorder is that unless we are a mental health professional, it is not our place to diagnose anyone, nor do we need to be judgmental or put someone down who we believe to have a cluster B (characterized by dramatic, overly emotional, or unpredictable thinking or behavior) personality. Neither is it our place to “fix” someone, because unless they want to change, there will be very little we can do.
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing is that most true narcissists will never admit to being narcissistic. They have no idea that their behavior is destructive, so the chance of them contemplating whether they are narcissistic and facing up to themselves is extremely low.
After exchanges with narcissists, education and regular affirmations to reinforce how far we have come, and our value as individuals is empowering and important. Therapy and support from others who have gone through similar experiences can also help through the recovery process.
For more information visit the Narcissistic Abuse Awareness website.
Author: Alex Myles
Image: Fares Hamouche/Unsplash
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron