The ugly face of narcissism
I often overhear the word “narcissist” in conversations. In my opinion the word is often misused, or at least overused. The word “narcissistic” is used as a substitute for words like “selfish, ego-centric and self- centred”. Not all selfish people are narcissists, though…. It is possible for people to have narcissistic traits without being full-blown narcissists. It can be said that disorders exist along a continuum. At the one extreme of narcissism one finds people with one or two narcissistic traits, and at the other extreme, full blown narcissism, known as narcissistic personality disorder. People with narcissistic personality disorder portrays an enduring pattern of grandiose beliefs and arrogant behaviour as well as an overwhelming need for admiration and a lack of empathy for and exploitation of others. They also show excessive self-love, egocentrism, exhibitionism, an excessive need for attention, and sensitivity to criticism (although they love criticising others). It therefore comes as no surprise that those who are closely related to narcissists, usually obtain deep emotional wounds. Narcissists tend to leave a trail of deeply scarred victims behind.
The stories or lived experiences of others help us to make sense of our own world. A patient of mine, to whom I will refer to as John (pseudonym), was brave enough to share his experience with us – courageous enough to own his story, a story which begins with John’s experience of being the son of a narcissistic father. Later in his life, he also found himself in a romantic relationship with a narcissistic girlfriend – an experience which enabled him to better understand his childhood pain. As part of his journey towards healing, John did a fair amount of reading on the topic. Herewith part 1 of John’s story about his personal encounters with narcissism:
John’s story – Part 1
Written by John
Surviving a Narcissistic Parent
Having a narcissistic parent (or parents) can be a frightening experience. Damage done during the formative years of a child can be a lifelong curse. I am over 50, yet I still struggle in dealing with my narcissistic father. This is an outline of my journey through narcissistic abuse recovery. It revolves around four key issues:
- Accepting that narcissism exists.
- Accepting that one of my parents is a narcissist.
- Understanding the effect of a narcissistic parent on me, the child.
- How do I as an adult cope with my narcissistic parent?
This sounds so obvious. How can accepting that narcissism exists be an issue to deal with? Well, at first I just couldn’t accept that not all people are inherently loving and kind. I first had to deal with the reality that there truly are people in this world who are ‘evil’ – as M Scott Peck label them in his book “People of the Lie“. ‘Evil’ may be a harsh word to describe all narcissists, since narcissism lies on a continuum. Towards the end of the continuum however, lie sociopaths and psychopaths – and surely they are not loving and kind at their core.
Scott Peck argued that there should be a psychological classification for personality types that are inherently evil. Although the narcissistic personality disordered, sociopaths and psychopaths lie on the extreme, their existence is real. Evil in personalities is real. It exists opposite loving and caring. And so does narcissism in its milder forms.
My first awareness of narcissism was during a relationship I had with a – what seemed to be – wonderful lady. At first we had a long- distance relationship. After two years she moved to my city and we moved in together. In the beginning it seemed like a fairy tale. Only later would I find out that this initial period of a relationship with a narcissist is called the “love bombing” phase. During this phase of a relationship the narcissist pulls out all the stops in order to hook the person they have set their sights on. Just after we moved in together the love bombing stopped and her real (narcissistic) colours started showing.
To understand the main characteristics of a narcissist it is useful to think of the triple E’s personality traits as suggested by Harvard psychologist Dr Craig Malkin. They are Entitlement, Exploitation and Empathy.
- Entitlement: Narcissists claim excessive entitlement for themselves as their whole world evolve around them and their ego. It is as if they are constantly in the “me” mode. How would this affect me? What can I get out of this? Why are you not helping me etc.
- Exploitation: This is manipulation of people to serve the narcissistic self. A narcissist will stop at nothing and nobody to feed their ego.
- Empathy: Or a lack thereof. A narcissist cannot put themselves in others ‘s shoes or feel their pain.
My girlfriend was entitled, exploitative and showed a lack of empathy. She felt entitled to my money and we ran up debts which I am still struggling to settle years later. She manipulated our relationship to serve her needs and exploited me around every corner. At first it started with me doing the dishes (nothing wrong with that yet), but then I had to do all the cooking too and later do the shopping as well. This was over and above seeing to the garden and everything else. Emotionally she would manipulate me to see things her way and to do what she wanted me to do.
One day I came home from dropping my kids from my first marriage at their mother’s house. I was a bit sad as we had a lovely weekend together and it was going to be two weeks before I would see them again. My girlfriend couldn’t tolerate me being sad. Instead of having empathy with me and comforting me, she flew into a rage. She accused me of having been manipulated by my children and not really being “over” my divorce. She was intensely jealous of my children receiving anything from love to a toy. In essence, she wanted me for herself and her needs only and my children was interfering with that.
It took me a while to catch on and to understand what was happening in our relationship. We even went to couples therapy as I wanted to end the relationship a number of times. However, since she is a narcissist, she manipulated the sessions and the therapist with her cunning charm. Every time I was the one who had to work harder at the relationship and she was just expecting more of me. Her idea of compromise was actually just me giving in and doing it her way. It was as if there was a big black hole on her side into which all good disappeared without any reciprocity.
Eventually I left after she quit her job and expected me to financially take care of both her and her child – which was impossible without a second income. According to her she experienced debilitating back ache, hence quitting her job. All the medical tests could not really confirm a diagnosis and until today I am not sure how much of her “illness” was manufactured and how much was real.
For me to leave, I had to acknowledge her narcissism and it’s debilitating effect on our relationship. When we started dating I knew narcissism existed but had no idea of how it actually looked in a relationship. Not only did I have to accept narcissism as real, but accept that it happened to me. Accepting narcissism on an intellectual level is not difficult. This is the same level on which one accepts sociopathy and psychopathy. However, when you’re in a relationship with a narcissist and things start happening that is unreal and exploitative, one tends to want to find fault within oneself. What must I do to make this relationship work? It took me a while to accept that it was not me, but that my partner (whom I wanted to love) is a narcissist. Her narcissism made it impossible to have a functional relationship. The hole in her personality was just too big for me to fill. The emotional cost and cost to my health was just too high. So I left.
After leaving and ending all communication with her, my therapist was overjoyed. Becoming trapped in a narcissistic relationship where one continues to give and give without any reciprocity leaves one devoid of any emotional resources, a place where one doubts one’s self-worth and loses one’s identity. My therapist knew this and was very concerned about my psychological wellness when it became clear that I was in a romantic relationship with a narcissist.
Terminating this relationship was the right thing for me to do. It taught me that narcissism is real. That it can hurt you. However, this was just the prelude to a much more challenging part of my journey – accepting that one of my parents is a narcissist.
To be continued…
Part 2 of John’s journey with narcissism to follow soon!