How can you tell if you’re in a relationship with a narcissist?

Narcissists are people who initially are very nice, charming, charismatic, friendly, warm and interested in those around them. Behind this mask are actually problematic, selfish, extremely pretentious, emotionally fragile, insecure individuals who permanently need to be validated, appreciated and worshiped. Their exacerbated self-confidence and their arrogance mask feelings of emptiness, and although they seem to be invincible, an inappropriate word, a particular tone, or a little mistake can suddenly trigger their anger and emotionally destabilize them. For this reason, around them you can often find yourself in the situation where you have to choose very carefully your words and attitude, the feeling being that you have to handle them with kid gloves.

Narcissists despise weakness and the more you manifest this attribute towards them, the more you will infuriate them, fury caused by the fact that they see in you what they can’t accept about themselves. In a way, it can be about mirroring those aspects which they deny about themselves. For a narcissist it’s very important to maintain that image characterized by “omnipotence” and  invulnerability. For this reason they can detach from their own emotions and it can be very hard for them to accept other people’s emotions. To be human and to feel like everybody else is a sign of vulnerability. To keep your superiority, you have to be above others, to be different. To feel any emotion in front of others it means to be influenced in a certain way by that somebody. The fact that someone can influence you it means that you aren’t confident enough and what the narcissist fears the most is losing control.

Controlling the environment or those around can also represent a strategy through which the narcissist maintains this feeling of power - if he succeeds to manipulate others to get what he wants, he won’t have to ask. The moment you ask, you have to admit that this time you need help or you just need something from the outward, and that for a narcissist means weakness, an attribute that can’t find its place in the image they’ve built about themselves. If we make an analogy, we can think about the situation where the husband outbursts in rage because his partner didn’t put enough salt in the food (regardless of how exaggerated it may seem, these things happen) and we can read between the lines the true reason of his rage - recognising his dependence on his wife. You feed me, and that means that what I will eat and the food’s taste depends totally on you, and accepting this infuriates me because it reveals my “inability” to feed myself as I wish. A narcissist doesn’t stand the idea of depending on others and especially the idea of being rejected if they make a request. For this reason, manipulating others become the best strategy. The rage they occasionally manifest it’s only one of their strategies because frequently the techniques are more subtle. The constant, but subtle, disapproval and depreciation, which lead to a feeling of inadequacy, the difficulty you feel in expressing your preferences or being yourself, that is expressing yourself as you are, are other red flags which show the manners in which the narcissist tries to control you - they don’t really care about you, about what you want to express, they only want to meet their needs, even if this means annihilating your own personality.

The people around them are nothing more than tools through which they can achieve their goals and their relationships are simple business from which they seek to get as much as possible, without offering, if possible, anything if return. Not affectivity is important, but utility, seeking to subordinate others and turning them into pawns on the chessboard of their own life where they must always win. They expect others to put them first, to promptly meet their needs and interests regardless of costs. The relationships that narcissists have are often abusive, because they don’t take others into account, but only seek by any means to make them be part of their game.

Experts in manipulating, at first they’ll pretend that they’re truly interested in you and your wellbeing, they’ll treat you exemplarily to win your trust, they’ll give you what you need (or at least they’ll make you believe that they’re willing to support and help you), they’ll encourage you and then, after they’ll entangle you, they’ll gradually start to devalue you, to constantly criticize you under the pretext that they want what’s best for you, to make you become less confident and doubt yourself, to better control you, to exploit you for their personal interest.

The same person who at the beginning seemed to like and appreciate you with no condition, who cared about you, who offered you gifts or overwhelmed you with attention and care started to transform into a cold, critical, tough, abusive, disrespectful and moody person, who started to react unpredictable, to get annoyed and pissed. Under these circumstances, the first thought that comes to your mind is that you have a problem, that it’s your fault, that if you try more and you offer more, things will be like before and that he/she will return to better feelings. However, this is never the case. The more you offer, the more the narcissist will want more from you. For them it’s never enough and you will never feel truly appreciated and rewarded because they believe that they deserve whatever you do for them, that it’s your duty to serve them whenever and however they want, to make them happy. Why would you expect reciprocity when from the beginning you are just a pleasure provider, a tool whose purpose is to satisfy their claims? After they’ll have nothing else to take from you, after you’ll feel emotionally drained, they’ll turn their back on you without looking back. And if the relationship ends, be convinced that it’s your fault.

The narcissists "love" only when they have an interest. In fact, they are neither capable of love nor of empathy. But they manipulate, they emotionally blackmail or play the victim to accomplish their plans. They break your limits and don’t take into account your wishes. They treat you with indifference or they use the silent treatment and they often manifest passive-aggressive behaviors. If you draw their attention to an aspect that bothers you, don’t be surprised that they will make you feel guilty for it.

In the relationship with a narcissist, especially when the devaluation phase begins, the feeling that something is wrong is more and more present. You don’t know exactly what's wrong, but most of the times you feel guilty - guilty that you aren’t good, capable, understanding enough and so on; that you don’t do things well enough. In fact, the narcissist induces you these feelings of inadequacy because he is not able to take responsibility for his own insecurities, for his own inadequacy buried deep inside. They put everything on your shoulders, they project, look for excuses. It's like they’re saying "I don’t want to feel weak, unworthy, incapable ...  it’s better if  you feel this way in my place”.

Always projecting on you their negative attributes, they may end up resenting or hating you. They don’t see you the way you really are, but they see you how they’ve built you in their mind. You become a fictional character made by their own thoughts. You become the scapegoat of their own "sins" or dark parts. What they don’t actually accept is their own person reflected in others. Deep down, the unhappiness and lack of fulfillment governs their being, and they will continue to project upon others this feeling.

It’s like anything they do, they can’t feel satisfied, at least not in the long run, as if they were always looking for something, “something” they can’t never find. Even if you distance yourself from them, the narcissist will seek another person to start this pathological game. Because without such persons treated as tools, as “columns” to support their self-image, the narcissist’s whole world will collapse, he as a human being becoming null . The narcissist feeds on others, and when the pawns or "suppliers" disappear, the feeling is that he lost his self-worth, he became defeated and null.

How can we explain this? First, we need to understand the factors that have contributed to the development of narcissistic personality disorder. In childhood, they might have been neglected, ignored, humiliated, criticized, underestimated, offended, they might have felt unwanted, unimportant, unable to meet the standards imposed by their parents, feeling they weren’t good enough as they were. The fact that they didn’t receive the acceptance and validation they needed could have led to building in their mind an ideal self or ego, that version of them which could finally be accepted, appreciated and even adored by their parents. This ideal self or grandiose image that narcissists show can be seen as a way to compensate those feelings of inadequacy, shame, rejection and "smallness" that they experienced in childhood and, in most cases, still exist behind the mask they wear. For this reason, it’s possible that they’ve focused all their attention and energy into succeeding in life, into becoming successful people, thus concentrating entirely on one's own self and becoming egocentric. They feel the need to accumulate more, to have as many things as possible, this being the manner through which they validate their importance and superiority, but also because regardless of how much they gain, it will never be enough because nothing material can really fill that inner void, which will make them want even more.

Their lack of empathy and responsiveness towards others’ feelings and needs can be explained by the fact that in their childhood, being so caught up in their own feelings and concerned with their own unsatisfied needs, they have failed to develop these qualities sufficiently.

In their relationships, perhaps even without realizing, they seek to gain the appreciation, validation, acceptance and support that they didn’t have in their childhood. But the defense mechanisms they have built to avoid ever having to face those feelings of abandonment, rejection, humiliation, insecurity, or vulnerability again, create insurmountable walls between themselves and others. This way, even if unconsciously they want intimacy, they can’t really get closer to others or allow others to get too close to them.

They accept criticism with great difficulty because it’s very difficult for them to accept that they might be wrong, and how could a person who is always right be wrong? Clinging to a sense of self defined by an exacerbated ego, they reject whatever comes in contradiction with the image they have created about themselves. At the core, is the fear of not being accepted, therefore they are always on guard and careful not to be questioned, because others’ disapproval or criticism make them doubt themselves, triggering their own insecurities. Instead, they criticize others very much.

The narcissist is and has to be perfect, why can’t you see that you’re the “bad” one, the one who has to change?  They need to see themselves as perfect because anything less than that would bring to life their parent’s critical voice that still exists somewhere in their mind. A narcissist often disregards others or break their spirit because this way he feels good. By comparison, if a person around you has no chance to evolve in any way, but on the contrary, he/she becomes more and more lost, boring or less good than you, you are the one who will still shine, who will stand out. You’ll remain under the spotlight, which will confirm that the way you are and the way you live is ok. If others are better than you, how can you support your belief that you are the best? To defend this faith, you will choose not to notice their qualities or simply underestimate them.

The narcissists love to be in the spotlight and they react negatively if they have to share the spotlight with someone else, becoming deeply bothered if another person "steals" their moment and draws attention. They also have the belief that others envy them. Of course, anyone has felt at a certain point in their life envy from others, but the narcissist firmly believes that everyone envies him and he often thinks that other people behave badly because of that.

If by reading the above I made you think and you’ve found many of these elements in your relationship, I wish not to be very harsh on yourself, not to blame yourself. The victim of narcissistic abuse always thinks that she/he is to blame and, caught up in the relationship like in a vicious circle, she/he can’t get out if she/he doesn’t see and accept the true face of the person with whom she/he is in a relationship.  Tormented by intrapsychic conflicts, she/he can’t understand how the nice and understanding person who once was, could turn into today's manipulator and abuser. She/he thinks that it’s all in their mind, she/he tries to find explanations or excuses, she/he wonders if she/he has lost their mind and what’s wrong with them. Actually there’s nothing wrong. When you realize that you’re in a toxic relationship, when you realize that you have changed, but not in a positive way, that you have isolated yourself from your friends or family, gravitating around your partner, when you feel worse and worse, stop wondering, just get out of that relationship. You can’t change the person, stop believing this illusion. Close all the doors and don’t look back. Allow yourself to feel angry, to release all that energy you repressed - if you've been used, it's normal to feel that way. Accept your loss - the moment you invest in a relationship is normal when it ends to feel a loss. Make peace with the past and teach the precious lessons that this experience has given you. If you feel that you need some time for yourself, to integrate this experience and move on, give yourself that time. But don’t isolate yourself for long periods of time and don’t blame yourself. Learn to take care of yourself more and to respect yourself more. Regain your inner strength and release yourself from the strings that have kept you captive in your own life so far.

You have the right to live as you wish, you have the right to be respected and loved, you have the right to be who you are and to express yourself completely. Stop accepting being used by people who have not found yet the harmony of living! This is not your purpose. Don’t be content with secondary roles, but be the main actor in your own life.

Choose wisely!

Dr. Ursula Sandner



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