Itâs 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 youâre expected to meet their needs when needed, and are dismissed when not.
What itâs Like. In the beginning, you were delighted to be in the narcissistâs aura. Now youâre 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 doesnât 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 youâre on call to meet their needs â regardless of whether youâre 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 didnât read their mind. They expect you to know without having to ask. You end up in a double-blind â damned if you displease them and damned when you do. Narcissists donât like to hear âNo.â Setting boundaries threatens them. Theyâll manipulate to get their way make sure you feel guilty if youâre bold enough to risk turning them down. You become afraid that if you donât please them, you risk an onslaught of blame and punishment, love being withheld, and a rupture in the relationship. All too possible, because the narcissistâs 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. Youâre proud to bask in their glow, but at home, theyâre totally different. They may privately denigrate the person they were just entertaining. You begin to wonder if they have an outward âas ifâ personality. Maybe youâre 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 theyâre being manipulative or saying whatâs appropriate.
Sometimes, you might think they love only themselves. Thatâs a common misconception. Actually, they dislike themselves immensely. Their inflated self-flattery, perfectionism, and arrogance are merely covers for the self-loathing they donât admit â usually even to themselves. Instead, itâs projected outwards in their disdain for and criticism of others. This is why they donât want to look at themselves. Theyâre too afraid, because they believe that the truth would be devastating. Actually, they donât have much of a Self at all. Emotionally, theyâre dead inside. (See Self-Love.)
Early Beginnings. Itâs hard to be empathic with narcissists, but they didnât choose to be that way. Their natural development was arrested as a toddler due to faulty, early parenting, usually by the mother who didnât provide sufficient nurturing and opportunity for idealization. Theyâre 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 Riceâs 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 donât 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 (âNPDâ). NPD wasnât 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 theyâre envious of him or her
9. Has âan attitudeâ 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, theyâre not interested in taking care of others â but some narcissists are caretakers. Many narcissistic men do this with money, because it boosts their self-esteem.
When two narcissists get together, theyâre 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 narcissistâs attributes and aura of success. It also allows them to tolerate the narcissistâs 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 donât expect to be loved for who they are â only for what they give or do.
Treatment. Narcissists donât 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.
Â© 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.