How Narcissists Feed on Your Vulnerabilities
Being vulnerable is important, but occasionally it can be a risk.
Posted Sep 28, 2020
Narcissism is insidious. It eats into self-worth, harms its victims, and extracts what's positive about relationships while leaving behind an empty husk. The world is consistently seeking out information on what creates a narcissist, how to spot them, and how to end relationships with them. But do we really understand how insidious and charmingly dangerous these relationships can be?
Narcissists thrive on exhorting others’ vulnerabilities. It is both their “love” language and their victory speech. If you are in any kind of relationship with a narcissist — and although most people think of narcissism as pertaining only to romantic relationships, it can spill into other domains as well — brace yourself to fight battles regarding your vulnerabilities.
We know that, on the surface, narcissists view relationships as a means to an end — people are to be used, and meaningful connections with others are fairly non-existent. There are numerous anecdotal, as well as research-based, reports detailing the various signs of when you could be engaging with a narcissist. The problem is how challenging it is to objectively quantify something as subjective as a relational interaction with another human.
It may surprise people to know that in some studies, narcissists have demonstrated basic insight into how others view them and their own narcissistic traits. They have been able to recognize that as relationships progress, other people often start to increase their negative views of them and do not assess them as positively as they do themselves. Much of the time, however, this insight about their own behaviors and others’ perceptions of those behaviors ends there.
While narcissists are not experts at understanding the true nature of how others view them, they are professionals at scanning, assessing, and categorizing other people into the different ways they can be used. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that in the beginning, everything was different until the stress got to them — narcissists start out relationships gauging what benefit they will get from them. When relationships are deemed as being too costly for the rewards, they typically find ways to end them.
Relationships are the basis of human interaction and necessary in some form for nearly everyone to reach optimum health and well-being. Humans are social creatures; from extroverts to introverts, we all desire some type of connection with others. Although this is a great strength for us in many ways, when it comes to narcissists it can easily transform into a vulnerability. Narcissists quickly sniff out your desire for connection and tend to innately recognize the individuals who will be easier to manipulate or use in some way than others.
It is flattering to be the center of a narcissist’s attention in the beginning. Initially, they are attentive, dependable, superficially considerate, and eager to please. Many people find it gratifying to be told they are the only one who understands, they are special and unique from others, they have always deserved better, or they are the answer that someone has been seeking for a long time. These first grooming steps of a narcissist have one common goal in mind: gaining trust to build dependence.
Vulnerability comes into play immediately when you start to interact with a narcissist. From the first few moments, they are working overtime to gain an understanding of where you are most vulnerable. They will instantly distinguish your loneliness, your lack of financial resources, your low self-esteem, and your anxiety. They'll insert themselves into this area of your life to become indispensable. Once they have gained your trust, the expectation of payback starts to be made clear.
The subjective nature of narcissism is part of what makes it so difficult to contain. It seems effortless for narcissists to exert their demands onto others in murky ways that are challenging when trying to quantify what is really happening. Shouldn’t you always give them what they want because that’s what you do for someone you love? Shouldn’t you be willing to sacrifice your own desires to make them happy, especially after all they have done for you? Is it really too much to ask that you put their needs first when you have received so much?
Narcissists are usually careful to cover their tracks when exerting demands. Most of the time, their entreaties are couched in reminders of the ways they have helped you, how you have victimized them, and what you owe them. This method of getting needs met by others effectively shuts down protests when those requests become outlandish — really, aren’t they just asking you to give back a little?
This is the danger of narcissism. By the time most people realize what they have truly gotten into, they are in too deep to escape unscathed. They have accepted help in areas of vulnerability, they have shown interest, they have even gone so far as to extend trust — all deadly moves when a narcissist is on the hunt.
There is no true way to win a battle with a narcissist. The best way to break free is to not play — drop the rope, walk away, and disengage. If the situation is impossible to escape altogether, turn your attention to strengthening your areas of vulnerability instead. Give yourself time to build up self-esteem, become more independent in achievable steps, and build social support outside of the narcissistic relationship.
The decimation of narcissism crosses all barriers and impacts all levels of relationships, increasing exponentially the more involved each relationship becomes. For individuals who have maintained long term relationships with narcissists, the damage typically causes lifelong scarring. Trust becomes an elusive concept, built on shaky foundations from the past that led only to pain. The paranoia of others’ motives is all too common, formed as a self-protective measure to guard against being used and hurt. The danger of narcissism prowls treacherously in its ability to alter the future long after the battle is over.
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Carlson, E. N., Vazire, S., & Oltmanns, T. F. (2011). You probably think this paper's about you: Narcissists' perceptions of their personality and reputation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(1), 185–201. https://doi.org/10.1037/a002378