It’s easy to fall in love with narcissists. Their charm, talent, success, beauty, and charisma cast a spell, along with compliments, scintillating conversation, and even apparent interest in you. Perhaps you were embarrassed when your mate cut in front of the line or shuddered at the dismissive way he or she treated a waitress. Once hooked, you have to contend with their demands, criticisms, and self-centeredness. The relationship revolves around them, and you’re expected to meet their needs when needed, and are dismissed when not.
What it’s Like. In the beginning, you were delighted to be in the narcissist’s aura. Now you’re tense and drained from unpredictable tantrums, attacks, and unjustified indignation at imaginary slights. You begin to doubt yourself, worry what he or she will think, and become as pre-occupied with the narcissist, as he or she is with him or herself.
After a while, you start to lose self-confidence. Your self-esteem may have been intact when you met, but your partner finds you coming up short, and doesn’t fail to point it out. Most narcissists are perfectionists, and nothing you or others do is right or appreciated. Talking about your disappointment or hurt gets turned into your fault or another opportunity to put you down. They can dish it, but not take it, being highly sensitive to any perceived judgment.
Narcissists have no boundaries and see you as an extension of themselves, requiring that you’re on call to meet their needs – regardless of whether you’re ill or in pain. You might get caught-up in trying to please them. This is like trying to fill a bottomless pit. Their needs, whether for admiration, service, love, or purchases, are endless. You might go out of your way to fill their request only to have your efforts devalued because you didn’t read their mind. They expect you to know without having to ask. You end up in a double-blind – damned if you displease them and damned when you do. Narcissists don’t like to hear “No.” Setting boundaries threatens them. They’ll manipulate to get their way make sure you feel guilty if you’re bold enough to risk turning them down. You become afraid that if you don’t please them, you risk an onslaught of blame and punishment, love being withheld, and a rupture in the relationship. All too possible, because the narcissist’s relationship is with him or herself. You just have to fit in. Nevertheless, you stay in the relationship, because periodically the charm, excitement, and loving gestures that first enchanted you return.
Do Narcissists love? In public, narcissists switch on the charm that first drew you in. People gravitate towards them and are enlivened by their energy. You’re proud to bask in their glow, but at home, they’re totally different. They may privately denigrate the person they were just entertaining. You begin to wonder if they have an outward “as if” personality. Maybe you’re reassured of their love when they bestow complimentary and caring words and gestures, are madly possessive, or buy you expensive gifts, then doubt their sincerity and question whether they’re being manipulative or saying what’s appropriate.
Sometimes, you might think they love only themselves. That’s a common misconception. Actually, they dislike themselves immensely. Their inflated self-flattery, perfectionism, and arrogance are merely covers for the self-loathing they don’t admit – usually even to themselves. Instead, it’s projected outwards in their disdain for and criticism of others. This is why they don’t want to look at themselves. They’re too afraid, because they believe that the truth would be devastating. Actually, they don’t have much of a Self at all. Emotionally, they’re dead inside. (See Self-Love.)
Early Beginnings. It’s hard to be empathic with narcissists, but they didn’t choose to be that way. Their natural development was arrested as a toddler due to faulty, early parenting, usually by the mother who didn’t provide sufficient nurturing and opportunity for idealization. They’re left with an unrealistic view of themselves, and at time make you experience what it was like having had to feed the needs of a cold, invasive, or unavailable narcissistic parent. Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat had such an emotionally empty mother, who devotedly bonded with him to survive. The deprivation of real nurturing and lack of boundaries make narcissists dependent on others to feed their insatiable need for validation. Like the mythological Narcissus, they don’t know themselves, but only can love themselves as a reflection in the eyes of others. Poor Narcissus. The gods sentenced him to a life without human love. He fell in love with his reflection by a pool, and died by the water, hungering for a response from his reflection.
Diagnosis. All personality traits, including narcissism, exist on a continuum from mild to severe. Narcissism ranges from self-centeredness and some narcissistic traits to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (“NPD”). NPD wasn’t categorized as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until 1987, because it was felt that too many people shared some of the traits and it was difficult to diagnose. The summarized diagnosis is controversial and undergoing further change:
Someone with NPD is grandiose (sometimes only in fantasy), lacks empathy, and needs admiration from others, as indicated by five of these characteristics:
1. A grandiose sense of self-importance and exaggerates achievements and talents
2. Dreams of unlimited power, success, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3. Lacks empathy for the feelings and needs of others
4. Requires excessive admiration
5. Believes he or she is special and unique, and can only be understood by, or should associate with other special or of high-status people (or institutions)
6. Unreasonably expects special, favorable treatment or compliance with his or her wishes
7. Exploits and takes advantage of others to achieve personal ends
8. Envies others or believes they’re envious of him or her
9. Has “an attitude” of arrogance or acts that way
Of all the narcissists, beware of malignant narcissists, who are the most pernicious, hostile, and destructive. They take traits 6 & 7 to an extreme, and are vindictive and malicious. Avoid them before they destroy you.
Codependency. People with codependency lack a core Self, and define themselves based on others. This is true for all narcissists, whose Self is so weak and insecure, they need constant validation. Stereotypically, they’re not interested in taking care of others – but some narcissists are caretakers. Many narcissistic men do this with money, because it boosts their self-esteem.
When two narcissists get together, they’re miserable needing each other, yet fighting over whose needs come first and pushing away. On the other hand, it can be a perfect fit, albeit painful, for ordinary codependents, because their low self-esteem, is boosted by the narcissist’s attributes and aura of success. It also allows them to tolerate the narcissist’s emotional abuse. They feel needless and guilty asserting their needs and caring for a narcissist makes them feel valued. Because they feel undeserving of receiving love, they don’t expect to be loved for who they are – only for what they give or do.
Treatment. Narcissists don’t usually seek help unless a major loss shatters their illusions. But both narcissism and codependency can be healed with courage, time, and a commitment to yourself. Recovery entails improving boundaries and self-acceptance based upon real self-knowledge. Psychotherapy and joining a 12-Step program are beneficial ways to start.
© Darlene Lancer, 2011
For a free PDF on turning self-criticism to your self-esteem, see www.darlenelancer.com.
Darlene Lancer is writing the forthcoming, "Codependency for Dummies." She's a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and life coach with a broad range of experience, working with individuals and couples for more than twenty-four years. Her focus is on helping individuals overcome obstacles to leading fuller lives, and helping couples enhance their communication, intimacy, and passion. She is a speaker, freelance writer, and maintains private practice in Santa Monica, CA.