It’s easy to fall in love with narcissists. Their charm, talent, success, and charisma cast a spell, along with their 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. But once hooked, you have to contend with their demands, criticisms, and self-centeredness. The relationship revolves around them; 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. Many narcissists are perfectionists, for whom 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, because it's 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 if you do. Narcissists don’t like to hear “No": Setting boundaries threatens them. They’ll manipulate to get their way, and 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 — which is all too possible, because the narcissist’s true 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. This relationship can be toxic and damaging to your self-esteem. (See How to Raise Your Self-Esteem)
Do Narcissists Love?
In public, narcissists may switch on the charm that first drew you in. People gravitate toward 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, but 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; they actually dislike themselves immensely. Their inflated self-flattery, perfectionism, and arrogance are covers for the self-loathing they don’t admit – usually even to themselves. Instead, it’s projected outwards in disdain for and criticism of others. This is why they don’t want to examine themselves: They’re too afraid, because they believe that the truth would be devastating: They don’t have much of a self at all, but are, emotionally, dead inside. (See Self-Love.)
It’s hard to have empathy for narcissists, but they didn’t choose to be this way. Often, their natural development was arrested as a toddler from not receiving sufficient nurturing and opportunity for idealization. Although more research is required, twin studies have revealed a 64 percent correlation of narcissistic behaviors, suggesting a genetic component. (Livesley, et al., 1993) Some theorists believe the cause lies in extreme closeness with an indulgent mother, while others attribute it to parental harshness or criticism. These children are left with an unrealistic view of themselves, and at times 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.
All personality traits, including narcissism, exist on a continuum from mild to severe. Narcissism ranges from mild self-centeredness and some narcissistic traits all the way 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 possessing five of these characteristics:
1. Has 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 those on the spectrum, so-called malignant narcissists are the most pernicious, hostile, and destructive. They take traits 6 and 7, above, to an extreme, and become vindictive and malicious.
People with codependency lack a core self, and define themselves based on others. This is true for narcissists, whose self is so weak and insecure that they need constant validation. Stereotypically, they’re not interested in taking care of others – although some narcissists are caretakers; some narcissistic men may 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, for ordinary codependents, it can be a perfect fit, albeit painful, 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. (See Codependency for Dummies.)
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 commitment. Recovery entails improving boundaries and self-acceptance based upon real self-knowledge. Psychotherapy and joining a 12-step program are beneficial ways to start, as are building awareness and following exercises and strategies such as those in Dealing with a Narcissist – 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People.
You can email me for a “Checklist of Narcissistic Behaviors.”
© Darlene Lancer, 2011
"Genetic and environmental contributions to dimensions of personality disorder," Livesley, Jang, Jackson, & Vernon (Am J Psychiatry. 1993 Dec;150(12):1826-31.) See also "A Behavioral Genetic Study of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Dimensions of Narcissism," Yu L. L. Luo