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Eve was deceived!
I defended her with the zeal of an attorney, even though I was only in high school and writing about paradise lost. I’ve long since forgotten the poem, but I recall how that wrathful God bothered me. So did blaming Eve—the original victim of deception. She needed compassion and tools, not punishment.
I was raised by honest, responsible people who modeled and taught right from wrong. My conscience won’t let me get away with much. As a child, I’d confess things my parents didn’t even want to know. I identified with the chubby kid in Goonies, whose captors threatened, “tell us everything,” so he did, literally, stolen cookies and all. As a parent, I once gasped so loudly after mindlessly running a stop sign, that I seared it in my daughter’s memory. She was three and repeated my words for weeks, telling everyone that I “blew through a stop sign.”
I’m a pleaser. I got lots of A’s in school. I failed repeatedly in the school of hard knocks though. I’d reel in shock over others’ shady behavior, and my ex-husband would say “not everyone is like you.”
An old professor once said I was too nice, clarifying it was not a compliment. My integrity has been naïve, lacking knowledge of other ways of being in the world. Necessary lesson learned, finally, I hope, though I have no diploma to show for it. Not everyone is wired the same way that I am.
Dishonesty abounds. Experts can detect a liar 90 percent of the time; non-experts about 54 percent.
To the remaining 46 percent, I say, you’re my hope for a more honest world. Your mission: Guard your soft, trusting heart. Don’t enable deceivers. Don’t be narcissist bait. Leave their lures dangling in the water.
Deception and narcissism are close, incestuous cousins. It’s no coincidence both are on the rise. For a narcissist, deception is like breathing. Lacking self-awareness, they deceive themselves, too. Their faults are in their blind spot.
One telltale question, according to Richard Gannon, Spartan Life Coach, is this: “Is there any area of your life in which you need to grow or change?” It’s likely to stump, irritate, or shut them down. Narcissists are masters at reading others though, so the more you let them in, the more harm they can do.
Wait. Let me first acknowledge the obvious. Spotting narcissism is a national pastime, like you-might-be-a-redneck if, but without the humor. My aim is not finger-pointing, it’s your psychological safety. That requires self-awareness too, especially on online dating sites, where narcissists are over represented. Fantasies about ideal love are one of the diagnostic criteria for narcissism, after all, and virtual environments appeal to the way they wear masks.
If I’m going to use the N word (Narcissism), I need to be clear what I mean. In my experience, narcissists use words to slyly imply things that aren’t substantiated by facts. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is listed in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and shares some features with other personality disorders. However, formally diagnosing any of them is far beyond the scope of this article.
Therefore, I will use narcissism as an adjective, a descriptor of a personality style. Ramani Durvasula takes this pragmatic approach because the diagnosis can “medicalize” bad behavior. Also, like any personality style or trait, narcissism exists on a continuum. I’ll highlight two features that are particularly damaging in relationships: lack of empathy, and a tendency to manipulate and exploit others.
In her TED Talk, Pamela Meyer clarifies that lying is a cooperative act, citing Henry Oberlander, who admitted in an interview that he sought what others were “hungry for,” in order to specifically target and exploit that.
So, what are you hungry for? Identify it, allow yourself to want it, but don’t accept an imitation.
If you’re hungry for love, be careful online. Narcissists are emotional con men or women, wolves in sheep’s clothing, nice holograms disguising hidden agendas. They specialize in imitating love because it’s a deep hunger. Love bombing is the vernacular for the excessive positive attention and near-constant communication a narcissist offers in the beginning of a relationship. It feels like love, but in drag, exaggerated. It’s strategic love with one agenda: supply.
Narcissists never show their cards, so allow me to tip their collective hand. I realize I’m generalizing, but most do think alike. They have a consumer mentality, seeing others as tools to use, resources to tap. Don’t reveal what resources you possess too soon.
A narcissist will happily help you get your groove back, Stella, if you’re wealthy, but it’s not about you. Dana Morningstar, in her “Red Flags of a Narcissist,” YouTube series, provides some examples of what might be supply: status, money, food, clothing, sex, shelter, reassurance, attention, or admiration. An empathic person with depth and sensitivity is essentially a supply jackpot—with many emotions to manipulate. To think like a narcissist, you have to set aside your depth and go shallow. Your genuineness, for instance, upgrades their mask.
What’s special about you? Don’t be humble. Claim it for two reasons. First, a narcissist will want to use it to boost his image. Second, a healthy ego is great protection against deception.
Grandiosity and codependency, or narcissists and the “echoists” who love them, are flip sides of a similar coin, ways of coping with shame. A sense of not enough or not belonging often fuels their respective compulsions: feeding their egos or pleasing others. Feeding a narcissist who’s never pleased, and doesn’t reciprocate, just leaves you empty.
What’s the alternative, you ask? Connecting with your actual feelings and needs, believing they matter, and acting like you mean it. That’s challenging, if Ross Rosenberg’s way of reframing codependency as a self-love deficit disorder fits for you as much as it does for me.
My favorite supply metaphor is the “strange and unusual plant” in the film Little Shop of Horrors, which feeds on Seymour’s blood, thus becoming huge and insatiable. Narcissists feed publicly on your strengths, and privately on your vulnerabilities. If you’re pouring your heart out to a narcissist, he may seem to be moved, but it’s more likely he’s just salivating for supply he’s already counted on getting from you. When he says “Feed me Seymour” you can just say no.
At this point, I’d like to introduce the Faux Beau. He’s a blend of narcissistic men I met online. He was tall and fit with dark skin, close to my age, within driving distance, had a creative career he loved, and he liked romantic movies. I clicked the heart icon, he reciprocated and initiated some conversation. I couldn’t tell if I was having a hot flash, a panic response, or found him attractive. Narcissists are like replicants in the film Blade Runner. It’s hard to know real from imitation. I was hungry for connection and romance, but could I trust my instincts?
Now, not everyone I dated after my divorce was narcissistic. With some men, one or the other of us realized we didn’t want more than friendship, and said so. It’s only humane not to lead someone on, once you realize they have more interest than you can reciprocate. Narcissists don’t operate from their humanity that way; leading people on is their M.O.
“My profile is as real as I am, no B.S.” he said in his first message. “I am an extremely romantic guy and have pretty well expressed my true self in my profile,” he said in the next. Emphasizing his honesty so soon might be a preemptive defense as described by Shahida Arabi, in “20 Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists Sociopaths and Psychopaths Use to Silence You.” The talk of romance hooked me a bit, even though I know narcissists are prone to rushing that part, like a bubble full of nothing that’s bound to burst. I expressed my resolve to focus on friendship first and see what grows from there. He ignored that.
He picked up on the word integrity I’d used twice in my profile, claiming it was one of the most important qualities he has and looks for in others. Nice. He hadn’t just looked at my pictures. Still, he might have been mirroring. That’s a deliberate tactic of mimicking someone, like a chameleon, pretending to be similar, in order to create a fast—but false—sense of connection. His language was a bit formal too, sometimes an indicator of lying, but maybe it was a cultural thing.
When I broached the subject of children, he said I was lucky to have them, he was sad he didn’t. His ex-wife didn’t want any but didn’t say so until after they married. His response was too perfect, almost scripted. My profile said I was looking for someone I could eventually trust to be a part of my kids’ lives. I was also alert to the possibility of projection in the way he described his ex-wife, implying some dishonesty that emerged after they were married. He might have been giving himself away.
Projection is a defense mechanism we all use unconsciously, seeing qualities in others that aren’t there, qualities that are really ours, or those of people from our past. Most of us, through self-reflection, project less over time. Narcissists don’t grow that way. They project their negative qualities onto others to protect their grandiose self-image, without which they feel empty, worthless, depressed, and anxious, according to Sam Vaknin, a self-proclaimed narcissist who speaks and writes extensively about the personality disorder.
The precise negative qualities they dislike in others might actually be true of them. They often depict their exes as bipolar, controlling, selfish, unethical, or even—narcissistic. Their projections create a real house of mirrors.
Projection operates differently for those of us who are naïve to deception, and like to believe, like Anne Frank, that everyone is good at heart. So I’ve made the mistake of projecting positive qualities—sensitivity, empathy, or a conscience—when it’s just not there, or maybe buried deeply beneath layers of defenses.
My Faux Beau asked what kind of movies I liked, so I shared what I liked about the last two I saw: The Matrix, and I Feel Pretty. He didn’t respond. He might have been playing the I-want-you-to-trust-me game Les Carter speaks about, enticing openness without reciprocating.
Not all narcissists are obviously grandiose. Some are covert, and they’re good listeners but not because they care. They’re collecting data, particularly for flaws they can later use against you. Like Neo in The Matrix, I knew I might be in a blue versus red pill situation. I could take the blue pill for a romantic illusion or a red pill for the truth that would set me free.
I met Faux Beau for coffee. He listened a lot, and wasn’t subtle about sniffing out my vulnerabilities. He asked directly what my greatest fear was. I answered—rejection. But, I’d re-written my rejection story as a lesson in nonattachment. He poked around for other unspoken weaknesses, like the isolation I had after my divorce. After I shared some of that story, he paused, looked away, then back at me with glossy eyes. I’d heard narcissists can fake tears. Is that what he’s doing? Faux Beau even wrote me a love song, but he left my name out of it, probably recycling it with his next target.
Faux Beau’s mask slipped in a few ways. I once caught a discrepancy in his messages, innocently inquired, and he deflected that. Another time, he expressed a sudden burst of strong emotion, another indicator Les Carter described. He was angry about not getting enough of my time as a single mom. The intensity left me fearful, uneasy, and angry. I had to hustle to make time for dating; if that wasn’t enough, too bad. His mask went right back on, but I began backing away at that point.
A relationship with a narcissist usually ends terribly. Awareness of how it presents can help you end it before it starts in the first place.
In my experience, the mind games only intensify when you began to see red flags add up, when you question discrepancies, or push for truthfulness. My advice at that point is to trust your perceptions, trust your gut, get out sooner than later, don’t explain, and re-invest in yourself again.