When Miriam* started dating Harry, she sang his praises to her friends. “I told them he was handsome, charming, smart and funny,” she says. “But later I realized I had never said that he was generous or kind.”
That's because he wasn’t.
Before long, Miriam realized that Harry was instead easy to anger, self-centered, and controlling. When he began trying to tell her when she could talk to her friends—which was only in the increasingly rare moments when he did not need her to focus all of her attention on him—Miriam realized that something was wrong.
“We hadn’t been dating all that long—not even two months—when I realized I needed to end the relationship,” she says. But Harry was not ready to let go. “He threatened me. He told me he was going to destroy my life. And when I started to walk out of the door, he went crazy. He tried to grab me, and started screaming and throwing things. I’ve never been so frightened in my life.”
Not all narcissists are alike, and not all are pathological. It’s also important to recognize that some narcissism is actually necessary for psychological health, as psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut taught us many years ago. But, as people who have been in cults led by malignant narcissists have found out, sometimes breaking up with such a person can be downright terrifying.
Let’s start with what we mean when we talk about narcissism. On his blog on narcissism, my Psychology Today colleague Preston Ni writes:
“Narcissism is often interpreted in popular culture as a person who’s in love with him or herself. It is more accurate to characterize the pathological narcissist as someone who’s in love with an idealized self-image, which they project in order to avoid feeling (and being seen as) the real, disenfranchised, wounded self. Deep down, most pathological narcissists feel like the 'ugly duckling,' even if they painfully don’t want to admit it.”
My colleague Dan Shaw, a psychoanalyst and the author of Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, writes at The Huffington Post that certain kinds of narcissistic individuals, such as those who view themselves as “supreme leaders,” demand “total submission and compliance” from those who fall under their domain. Whether you are a girlfriend or a follower, it can be difficult to move out from that position, because by doing so you threaten not only the person’s basic beliefs about himself, but also an underlying vulnerability that he has hidden from himself and from the world.
Like Ni, Dan Shaw writes that this kind of pathological narcissism is an attempt to hide from underlying vulnerability: “His delusion of infallible omnipotence, however, is his way of completely denying how profoundly unstable his mind really is.”
Miriam says that Harry became like a living piece of shrapnel, exploding on everyone in his way. This kind of explosiveness can result when one's already shaky internal stability is threatened. And it usually happens when the admiration and attention that provides some kind of balance for the person has dried up.
It's often hard to tell whether someone is a pathological narcissist without getting to know them well, and even then you may not be able to tell if someone is going to explode when you stop being part of their admiring audience. But Shaw suggests these telltale signs of malignant narcissism:
- Someone who is “infinitely entitled and grateful to no one.”
- When telling the story of his life, he “leaves out any trace of his own significant misdeeds and failures.”
- Someone who “never hesitates to lie for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.”
- Someone who “blames others for his own errors and failures.”
- Someone who “is erratic, thin-skinned, belligerent, and constantly engaged in attacking and belittling perceived enemies.”
- And in the case of malignant narcissistic leaders of cults and political movements, Shaw says, “he persuades followers to see their lives before joining his group as wretched, and he claims exclusive possession of the power to transform followers’ lives in miraculous ways.”
They may seem off-kilter or off-the-mark, but in their worst form, these people can be abusive partners and dangerous leaders. Shaw writes:
"Fromm called such people 'malignant narcissists,' people out of touch with reality, who exhibit more and more extreme behaviors as the pressures of living up to their delusion of perfection mount, and as they inevitably become exposed to scrutiny and criticism. All too often, enraged by challenges to their fantasy of omnipotence, they lead their followers on to acts of violence, against others or even against themselves. In cults, we have the examples of this horrific violence in the Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, Jim Jones, and many, many others. When it comes to political leaders, the history of the 20th century, the extreme nationalistic narcissism that proclaims the exclusive validity of one nation and the right to deny life and freedom to members of another; the mass murders perpetrated by its dictators—this horrific, tragic history is still being written, and still being perpetrated."
People often laugh at the outrageous behavior and comments of a narcissist, but what you are actually seeing may be the unraveling of an unstable personality. As a narcissist further unravels, they can become more and more destructive, to themselves and to others. Shaw told me that this is one of the hardest things for people involved with such individuals to believe:
"People who have become enthralled by a narcissistic leader of a movement of some kind, whether it be religious, political, or even therapeutic, are often approached by family members or friends, desperate to persuade their loved one that they are worshipping a false prophet. But once this kind of attachment has been made, and a person has become a 'True Believer,' in Eric Hoffer's famous phrase, people will cling to the commitment they've made, no matter how crazy or destructive it would seem to others, as though their life depended on it."
But here’s the reality: When a narcissist moves along a path of potential self-destruction, they have no problem destroying anyone and everyone on that path with them.
Research shows that it is important to get professional help to deal with malignant narcissists. Below is a partial list of potential resources, but it's also crucial to speak with someone outside of your group or separate from life with this person.
Miriam got out of the situation with Harry early. She wasn’t physically harmed and she didn’t lose any of her property. Even so, Harry tried his best to be emotionally destructive. He called her friends and her boss, and made horrible comments about Miriam, screaming into the phone until they hung up. After Miriam’s boss told him that if he ever called again she would file a police report, he stopped—and eventually he disappeared from Miriam’s life.
* Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.
For further reading
- Preston Ni: Signs You're in a Relationship with a Narcissist
- Dan Shaw: The Insanity of Narcissism
- Dan Shaw: Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation