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Why It's Hard to Leave Narcissists

07/22/2015 01:21pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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... What did you expect
Talons?
Oversize incisors?
Green saliva?
Madness?

All There is to Know About Adolph Eichmann

-- Leonard Cohen

Recently, I wrote an article about the dangers of trivializing "narcissist" and reducing the label to an empty pejorative. While I addressed the reality that there are some dangerous people in the world, many of them extremely narcissistic, I also pointed out that narcissism isn't always bad for us. That led to mixed reactions.

The general backlash came down to two questions:

  • Why not just call healthy narcissism "self-esteem" or "healthy self-regard"?
  • Doesn't suggesting a spectrum, including healthy narcissism, confuse already traumatized people into thinking there's hope when there isn't?
  • That's a big no to both.

    "Healthy self-regard" doesn't really capture the widespread, cross-cultural phenomenon of happy, healthy people seeing themselves through rose-colored glasses, slightly overestimating their abilities (until proven otherwise), emphasizing their positive (and downplaying their negative) qualities, enjoying grandiose dreams...the list goes on.

    "Self-esteem" doesn't define healthy narcissism either. Some narcissists are high in self-esteem and some are low. Narcissism of any kind is only weakly to moderately correlated with self-esteem (and even when it's found to be high in narcissists, it's hard to know what that means in a group of people who exaggerate their gifts).

    The truth is that the majority of healthy people feel more exceptional than they should based on reality. They "self-enhance." And it helps them. Self-enhancement appears to serve no direct purpose other than to help us feel good about ourselves. That's narcissism. It's just that when it's practiced in moderation -- not rigidly and reflexively, as in pathological narcissism -- it enriches our lives and relationships.

    As to objection number two -- a spectrum confuses things -- I can only say this: What I've seen as a therapist is that it's categorical thinking -- you're either a dangerous pathological narcissist or you're not a narcissist at all -- that muddies the waters hopelessly and makes it harder, not easier for people to leave bad relationships.

    For one thing it generally makes people so reactive and angry that they end up feeling guilty about their aggressive attacks on "a monster," heaping self-blame on themselves for their own hurtful actions instead of having the clarity to leave. Some of the most empathic people I've ever worked with become magnets for extreme narcissists because they're so adept -- practiced, in fact -- at seeing the good in everyone (except, sadly, themselves). And their guilt over their own missteps and mistakes, especially moments of rage, leaves them feeling paralyzed, convinced that they've simply been too hard on their partner or friend or family member.

    For another, people see moments of genuine empathy, caring, flashes of self-awareness, and genuine goodness in their partners and friends and conclude -- wrongly -- that they aren't as narcissistic as they thought. After all, all the videos and forums say they're dealing with a predatory villain. How can someone so evil be so kind? The usual answer is that the narcissist is faking kindness, but this doesn't help much either, because people start questioning their own perceptions -- am I exaggerating all this? -- instead of making a firm decision to leave.

    Worse, for those who deal with milder narcissists, who aren't abusive or especially entitled -- who don't gaslight or manipulate -- but seem aloof and superior much of the time, they're told their situation isn't that bad. "Oh, you're not really with a narcissist."

    But they still feel miserable -- alone, neglected, and unimportant. And now they have people invalidating their pain.

    The world isn't black and white. History proves that. Even war criminals, as Cohen reminds us, can be timid old men who once doted on their children.

    And narcissists, no matter how extreme, have both good and bad in them -- and sometimes the good shines through.

    ***

    So what's the way out of all this confusion?

    1) Accept that good and bad are a package deal. No one stays in a relationship for the painful experiences. They stay for hope. They stay for love. They stay because they believe with every fiber of their being that in the end the good will eclipse the bad.

    But it won't. Not unless your partners have the courage to look at themselves. They'll go on being kind, caring -- even wonderful.

    Sometimes.

    Because we're all a mix of good and bad. And since you have no control over someone else's bad behavior, when "bad" means really bad -- yelling, put downs, or hitting -- no amount of good can make up for that. And even if the bad is milder--dismissing your ideas, ignoring what you feel, defending instead of apologizing -- that, too, is in your partner's hands, and theirs alone, to change.

    2) Stop the self-blame: We can't ever control other people's choices. We can hope they care about what we feel -- enough that when they've been hurtful they apologize and hug us close. We can even hope that they're touched by our pain, that seeing the sting of it on our face softens them, pushing them towards change. But beyond that, we have little influence.

    It's your partner's choice to name-call or lie or have affairs. It's their choice to hurt you instead of telling you what they feel, whether they feel sad, or scared, or lonely, or neglected or ashamed (the usual culprits).

    Remind yourself that you didn't do anything to cause someone else's bad behavior.

    3) Empathize, but don't suffer. There's another species of black and white thinking that ties people in knots: Aren't we just excusing bad behavior when we acknowledge that narcissists have often been abused or hurt, crippled in their capacity for intimacy? Or that they, too, feel fragile, like any human being?

    Follow this one through to it's logical end. Imagine your elderly parent, horribly stricken with dementia, breaks out into frequent rages and kicks you or hurls plates at you. You'd leave the room. You'd feel horrible that they're so lost in their condition; you'd feel sad that the disease had so ravaged their capacity for love. But you'd still protect yourself.

    Recognizing the humanity, even the pain, behind narcissistic behavior, shouldn't take people off the hook. Our hope for a better relationship or an end to our confusion only comes when we hold everyone accountable, including ourselves, for recognizing that no matter how much good we see in someone, some pain isn't worth enduring.

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    Where do you fall in the narcissism spectrum? Too high or too low? Take the free, confidential narcissism test and find out, along with tips on how to cope.

    To learn more about dangerous narcissism, including specific, research-backed strategies to protect yourself from it, order Rethinking Narcissism today.

    Sign up for my newsletter, for more tips and advice, as well as information on my book, Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad -- And Surprising Good -- About Feeling Special, devoted to understanding and coping with narcissism in all its forms, in our friends, lovers, colleagues-and even ourselves. Harperwave and Harper UK, July 2015

    A version of this article originally appeared on Psychology Today.

    Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.