Narcissism is another word that gets thrown around pretty commonly, and not always accurately. But the nature of this disorder makes its impact singularly devastating to the person in whom it manifests as well as to the people in their life. Narcissistic abuse leaves us mentally and emotionally wounded, and also utterly perplexed. Understanding the root of the Narcissistic Personality is important in making sense of this mess.
Why are They Like That?
As you may know, the disorder of Narcissism is named for a character in Greek mythology who was so beautiful he fell in love with his own reflection. And the narcissistic person really does seem to adore themselves, but what can be hard to see is that, deep down, the opposite is true.
We all, to some degree, construct what’s called a “False Self”—a persona designed to portray the admirable qualities we aspire to have while protecting the insecurities and perceived deficiencies we wish to hide. Challenging, risky, or triggering situations can make us more likely to retreat into this False Self, and when we do we can neglect to be truly present with others. We're too occupied with propping up the persona. So, in a very basic way, we all sometimes display a bit of narcissism.
For the person with a truly Narcissistic Personality, however, that insecurity is deeply rooted in a particularly unbearable self-loathing and shame that's usually the result of chronic, multifaceted abuse and neglect. It's likely that this characterized most of their early life. Since this core of shame is so potent and painful, it requires a grandiose and overpowering False Self to match. This person feels the need to convince themselves they are the smartest, bravest, most desirable person in any room they walk into. They cannot tolerate any challenge to this façade because that would threaten to expose the utterly rejected hidden self, a prospect too terrifying to allow.
This sets them up to exhibit a host of toxic relational behaviors: self-absorption that leaves no room for empathy or connection, ruthless manipulation, surrounding themselves with adorers willing to excuse everything they do. They will gravitate towards people who may not have solid boundaries, who allow their domineering behavior. They seek out vocations that give them an air of authority, and enable them to exercise power over others.
But they are not truly “in love with themselves”; it is all a defense mechanism that protects a grievously wounded soul.
Is It Happening to You?
It’s important to understand the person with Narcissism, but that understanding and even compassion does not require that we excuse or tolerate their abusive behavior. It’s often hard for people to know they are caught up in a Narcissistic web, because people in this condition are so good at convincing you that you’re the problem.
You are probably dealing with a person with Narcissism if they:
have an inflated sense of their intelligence, prowess, and accomplishments
have exceedingly high expectations of respect, affection, or reward
feel slighted when they aren’t adequately adored or obeyed
demand perfection from you but don’t tolerate criticism
will not tolerate being told “no”
are resentful of your needs
constantly play victim (but probably claim to despise “victim mentality”)
denigrate or humiliate you in front of others
seek to control your choices, activities, and even thoughts
erode your self-esteem with insults and constant criticism
only become affectionate when you are beaten down
always find a way to make you feel at fault for the pain caused by their choices
refuse to seek help or accept that they need it
These are the trademarks of Narcissistic Abuse, and the effects are devastating. People who fall under the umbrella of Narcissistic Personality Disorder can heal and grow and find more authentic, fulfilling ways to live their life—but that isn’t accomplished by our enduring their harmful actions.
What makes it so hard is that they will rarely genuinely seek healing. It is more likely they will acquiesce when faced with an ultimatum that holds serious consequences. They'll go through the motions in order to placate the partner, employer, or friend who is calling them out, but just go back to their old ways once all the boxes have been checked.
If you are waiting and hoping for someone like this to change, make sure you have thoughtfully chosen your expectations and boundaries--and stick to them. You'll need help with this, so get some.
Ultimately, what's most important to understand is that you don’t own their inability to truly see, choose, and love you. Their dissatisfaction—which they’ve probably expressed ad nauseam—would have been present no matter who they zeroed in on. It’s all due to the strength and insistency of their dysfunction, which is in turn a reflection of the depth and darkness of their pain. It’s not about you.
And it’s okay to break free.
Mike Ensley is a nationally board-certified professional counselor in Loveland, CO, and specializes in helping people recover from toxic relationships.