The phrase, “He’s a Narcissist” is one I’ve been hearing more and more lately. Usually, it’s followed by an account of a toxic relationship depicted by a person who has suffered at the hands of an intensely narcissistic partner, family member or friend. At this extreme, narcissism is a frightening and difficult to treat personality disorder. But, like most traits, narcissism exists on a spectrum from healthy narcissism to severe— narcissistic personality disorder. But what is a ‘narcissist’, and why are relationships with them very stressful, unhealthy, and even toxic? Let’s take a closer look.
What is Narcissism?
Narcissism comes from Greek Mythology and the story of Narcissus, a young hunter known for his distinguished beauty and incredible physique. Upon seeing his reflection in a pool of water, Narcissus falls hopelessly in love with the image and becomes fixated. When he realized that he could not obtain the object of his love, Narcissus died of grief by that same pool.
Colloquially, we use the term narcissist to characterize a person who is overly self-involved or excessively in love with themselves. But Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is much more than an over inflated ego. It is a collection of maladaptive behavioral patterns (symptoms) that are markedly different than what is accepted socially. These chronic symptoms cause significant personal, social, and occupational problems for themselves and for anyone in a relationship with them. Narcissists can be dangerously manipulative, exploitative, and abusive.
Check out the following tables where I have detailed the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) along with examples of how these symptoms might affect your relationship.
We’ve all been guilty of similar behaviors at some time in our life. But a pathological narcissist engages in extreme forms of most of these behaviors while remaining unaware and unconcerned with the effect of their actions on others.
While these symptoms are simple to understand, the intense and passionate start of a narcissistic relationship makes symptoms difficult to recognize. Narcissists’ true colors are temporarily masked by their charisma, attentiveness and charm. Learning to recognize early red flags can protect you before you’re too emotionally involved. Here are five of the earliest signs.
Idealization - Placing People on Pedestals
Narcissists often elevate their new partners to unrealistic levels and ‘place them on a pedestal’. This allows the narcissist to feel special by association. Their belief: ‘I must be pretty amazing if she is with me.’ This idealization or ‘love-bombing’ is one of the more difficult warning signs to accept. She wants to see him every night. He wants to move in after a month. The narcissist may claim you’re perfect for each other, that it was love at first sight, that you’re soul mates, and other romantic-sounding things. Unfortunately, the desirability of this behavior gives controlling narcissist the best opportunity to gain total control over the other partner’s schedule and life.
Smear Campaigns Against Prior Lovers During your “Honeymoon Period”
In an abusive relationship, the “honeymoon period” is the illusory calm before the storm. The narcissist holds themselves back until they gain their partner’s trust and love. They are on their best behavior which makes seeing their true colors much more difficult. Still, they are often more than willing to discuss their past relationships which can give you valuable insight and possible warning signs.
When talking about their history, narcissists often describe past lovers as “unstable”, “crazy” and or “abusive”. In addition, narcissists may even explain the “smear campaign” they waged against their former lover at the end of the relationships. Pay attention and listen for examples of triangulation or validations from the narcissist’s support network. Of course, they hide behind a cloak of feigned innocence as they explain their “genuine concern” for the well-being of past lovers. Pay attention to the how they talk about other relationships. You’ll be surprised at what you might learn.
Narcissistic Control through Imposed Isolation
Narcissists have a constant need to control and stay in charge. One way they can gain control over their partners is by isolating them. Imposed isolation begins with your partner criticizing, questioning, and making unwelcome your closest friends and social network. Abusers will try to make you feel guilty for wanting to spend time with friends and family. For example, a woman might avoid an evening out with her friends because she knows her partner is jealous and is afraid of his reaction afterward. To mask his jealousy, he’ll flip the conversation towards questioning her motives for wanting a night out.
Emotion Dodging \ Emotionally Unavailable
As things progress and get more serious, we see new signs developing. One is finding that your partner dodges emotions or is emotionally unavailable. Deep down, narcissists are very insecure and have tremendous difficulty with feelings of vulnerability. As a result, they dodge and avoid any expressions of insecurity, fear, and hurt. They avoid showing their vulnerability at all costs and often change the subject when feelings come up, especially their own. Even during an angry fit of rage, the narcissist may still try to deny their anger.
Because narcissists have difficulty coping with their emotions, they often try to rid themselves of negative emotions by claiming \ accusing others of having this experience. Narcissist not only project their negative feelings on their partners, they actively coerce, stir-up, and convince their partners that they are experiencing that feeling. For example, a narcissist may lash out and range at their partner, accusing them of always being angry. Then, they continue this tirade until their partner IS angry. Narcissists also say and do things to make their partners question (doubt) their attractiveness, intelligence, accomplishments, and competence. Doing so makes the narcissist feel like they can shine in comparison.
Observing any of these signs once doesn’t mean you should run for the hills. But if you’re seeing multiple warning signs or a progressive pattern develop, you should be concerned. Be wise, trust your instincts, and protect yourself. If something doesn’t sound or feel right, do what’s best for you and keep yourself safe.