We often hear the term narcissist, but what does it mean? From my vantage point as a psychotherapist, I work with a lot of individuals who are leaving and healing from relationships, especially romantic ones, with narcissists. When I first heard the term narcissist as a graduate student, I had a hard time labeling someone with such a name. I pride myself on being a strengths-focused therapist, in direct opposition of any of such disempowering diagnostic nomenclature.
However, as time progressed, I found in my own psychotherapy practice that, indeed, there exist some individuals on this planet with narcissistic challenges. My clients educated me about the aftermath of what it is to heal from narcissistic abuse. I feel I owe it to my clients, and others who may be in similar circumstances, to assist with educating the public about narcissistic abuse, so that people can be informed and aware of how to protect themselves in the event they encounter people with narcissistic traits.
The following is an attempt at a primer on such individuals. For further study, please refer to the resources listed at the end of the article, as the subject is quite vast.
Identifying Individuals with Narcissism
So just what traits does someone with narcissism have, and what does that person look like in the early stages of dating? Studies say that 1% of the population (2-16% of psychiatric population) has narcissistic personality, while an even greater number exhibit typical traits of narcissism (Brown, 2013). In addition, although 75% of people with narcissism are found to be male, women can also be narcissists.
Narcissism is defined as: excessive sense of self-importance over and above the needs of others; grandiosity; arrogance; absence of ability to empathize and experience reciprocity in relationships; intense need for admiration/attention to fill very low self-esteem; impaired relationships resulting in parasitic/predatory behaviors designed to fill one’s self-esteem in the form of narcissistic supply (DSM-IV).
One could wonder, then, how someone would find such an individual, someone who embodies these characteristics, attractive. Well, studies show (Brown, 2013) that people with narcissism market themselves in attractive, deceptive packages. They may present with a swagger, intense eye contact, false bravado/charm, knock-your-socks-off seduction (often learned by neurolinguistic programming (NLP) programs or online seduction programs), swift pacing of rushing the relationship into commitment/cohabitation/marriage/business partnership, promising a future together (which is later discovered to be a lie), intense sexual chemistry, love-bombing (repetitive texting, emailing, phone calls), or romancing the target excessively (flowers, etc.).
People with narcissistic traits are known for targeting intelligent, self-sufficient, empathic individuals as partners. They tend to lack core identity (Brown, 2013), and need narcissistic supply to fill their empty psyches. Narcissistic supply comes mostly in the form of adulation, adoration, and attention, but any sort of feedback allows the individual with narcissistic qualities to feel alive (including negative attention). These individuals feel a sense of challenge in targeting highly successful, attractive individuals who may already be in other relationships and/or who express a sense of vulnerability (i.e. having grief or depression, or recently getting out of a relationship).
Characteristics of the Relationship
The literature on malignant narcissism is extensive, yet many are not informed about the dangers of being involved with someone whose character or actions tend toward narcissism. I find that clients who were entangled in relationships with such individuals have more healing to do from breaks in these relationships than if they had been in relationships with healthy individuals, because often these clients are manifesting symptoms of posttraumatic stress (PTSD).
Not only are they grieving the loss of the relationship, but they are also processing the unreality of a “fake relationship.” Furthermore, often psychological abuse (and sometimes physical and sexual abuse) has permeated the relationship. In order to heal, psychotherapy must focus on grief work and trauma recovery, in addition to understanding the elements of the toxic relationship, so that patterns are not repeated in the future.
Once the initial honeymoon wears off, partners of people with narcissistic traits go from feeling high on a pedestal (much like being on cocaine) to feeling devalued, discarded, and figuratively knocked off the pedestal. Their partners have successfully seduced and hooked them into relationships.
But suddenly, the individual with narcissism begins to reveal traits of lying, future-faking, and Dr. Jekyl /Mr. Hyde Personality. He or she may vanish for hours or days on end, or gaslight (confuses the reality of) a partner. This person becomes emotionally abusive and detaches from the partner, extracting narcissistic supply in the process.
The partner, then, is dropped/discarded, coming to the sudden and shocking realization that the other, the partner to has narcissistic qualities, is not capable of true intimacy/love, and really exhibits a limited capacity for emotional connectedness/bonding (Brown, 2013). The partner who has exhibited narcissistic personality traits, who was once a knight in shining armor, is now a mere fantasy, because he or she acted through mind control and brainwashing (Brown, 2013).
To Protect Yourself
So how does one avoid encountering someone with narcissism? I would suggest being particularly cautious with the pacing of dating. If you’re using a dating website, exercise extreme caution when meeting up with a dating partner for the first several dates until you feel you know the individual (i.e. meet in a public place).
If the dating partner attempts to rush the relationship, that is a red flag. An individual who respects your boundaries will work with you to slowly progress the relationship at a pace that is mutually agreed upon. Just because initially there is a highly seductive “zing” quality to the attraction does not mean that the dating partner is healthy. To protect yourself from someone who may end up behaving out of narcissism, it is best to allow the connection to unfold slowly and observe to see if actions and words are matching up.
Sexual chemistry is not the same thing as healthy bonding and attachment. A healthy person will want to get to know your personality, dreams, and interests, and slowly evolve the relationship. An individual with narcissistic tendencies may also want to know all about you, but then may fake being your soul mate by rushing you into consenting to a relationship/marriage/cohabitation/business arrangement (Hotchkiss, 2010).
If you have encountered an individual who seems to display these qualities, or are considering leaving a relationship with a similar person, it is in your best interests to get yourself out of the relationship as quickly as possible. People with narcissistic characteristics may be prone to causing harm by invading personal boundaries, lying about future possibilities in relationships, engaging in abuse, and exhibiting no empathy or remorse for emotional harm they have done.
Consult a licensed psychotherapist who is trained in narcissistic abuse recovery in addition to locating a qualified support group to help you through this time. You will recover. You will heal. But, it will take time and the assistance of qualified professionals who understand what you have endured and how to help you to reclaim your self-esteem.