About 20 years ago, I asked a client when was it she finally realised her partner was narcissistic. Her reply has stayed with me to this day.

“Before I met my boyfriend, sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong. After I met him, he was always right, I was always wrong.”

Narcissists are everywhere and we all have someone in our life (partner, friend, parent, co-worker, boss) who is narcissistic.

Narcissists are incredibly charming at first and really into you. You have something they want.

They make you feel like a king/queen, but as you get closer, you find less charm and more criticism until eventually they are the king/queen and you are feeding their ego, not the other way around.

It’s all about power. Your sole purpose is to fill a gap in their self-esteem that they can’t fill themselves.

As your relationship develops, it’s all about their needs, never yours.

When you try to correct this imbalance and have your needs met, they use manipulation tactics to convince you that there’s something wrong with you for having needs or if you get angry with them (ie when they abuse you).

You eventually start to believe that the way they treat you is normal. You feel guilty for having needs.

You put your own needs aside and focus more and more on their needs. They convince you this is normal. If you only treated them better, then all would be OK.

But it’s like filling a bottomless pit. No matter how much you give, you can never fill their void.

Because they have you believing that you are always to blame, your self-esteem gets lower and lower.

You become more and more dependent on them to validate you.

But their validation is always qualified and rationed. You only get it when you are “good” and have temporarily satisfied their demand. It is their way of keeping you so they can keep abusing you.

Tactics narcissists use to keep you

They use fear, shame and guilt to control you.

  • Fear: How will you cope without them?
  • Shame: You are bad for challenging them.
  • Guilt: It is your fault for not being able to satisfy their demands.
  • This is why it’s so difficult to get out of a narcissistic relationship. You know you are being emotionally abused but you can’t escape because you are drowning in these three emotions.

    When they have you believing that you are solely responsible for their issues, they have the upper hand.

    When you try to talk to them after, they accuse you of bringing up the past. They want you to forget about their abusive behaviour.

    By telling you to move on, they are telling you that there is something wrong with you for wanting clarity.

    If you try to stand up for yourself, or disagree with them, they will complain about your attitude.

    In doing so, they are avoiding accountability and telling you that there is something wrong with you for feeling the way you do.

    The narcissist’s creed

  • That didn’t happen. (They will deny everything).
  • And if it did, it wasn’t that bad. (You’re overreacting).
  • And if it was, then I didn’t mean it. (Denying responsibility).
  • And if I did, you deserved it. (You are bad for having challenged me).
  • How can I deal with a narcissistic parent?

    These parents try to live vicariously through their children, expecting excellence and being critical of, needy towards, envious of and competitive of the child. The most common factor is that the parent’s needs always come before the child’s.

    The child takes responsibility for the parent’s emotions/needs instead of visa versa. This leads to co-dependency (the flip side of narcissism). Children learn to deny their own feelings to appease their parent.

    Adult children of narcissistic parents learn to dismiss their own needs and feelings. They will go into relationships with other narcissistic people to feed their own negative beliefs about themselves as they believe that this is normal.

    Selfishness, unworthiness and attention seeking. The parent disowns these traits in themselves and shames their children for having them.

    They compete with, envy, criticise or compare negatively with their child. They can be caring and empathic, but this quickly turns to shaming if you don’t give them what they want.

    Children then learn that they are inadequate or incompetent because they can’t live up to the expectations of the parent, that it’s unsafe to trust or be vulnerable

    They will never admit to being narcissistic, even on their deathbed. So don’t go looking for them to own up, ever.

    What can I do?

    There is no reasoning with a narcissist. Ever! Your only option is to get out. Sticking around hoping they will change is a total waste of time.

    Getting out will involve challenging what you have been conditioned into believing by the narcissist. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to break up from an abusive relationship.

    After you leave, you will question your sense of self. You will fight the narcissist’s voice in your head that you are the evil one.

    It’s all your fault that this happened. You believe that you are unlovable or unable to be in a relationship with anyone again or work anywhere again.

    Challenging these false beliefs are the key to escape.

    If you can’t get out: Grey rock strategy

    Start setting boundaries. Keep to these and don’t react when they try to push them. Any reaction is food for them. While they will never accept that they are in the wrong, they can be trained to accept your boundary.

    They will never give up their demands as long as there is any chance that they can get what they want. So be consistent, consistent, consistent. Every time you give in, you reset back to zero.

    What will they do if I break up?

    Their ego can’t handle it. They will deny or lie that it happened or accuse you of having done something. They will victim blame you, ie “It was your fault that caused us to break up”.

    They have lost their power over you. Smear campaigns may be intense, making up stories, calling in Tusla, filing false police reports. They will come after whatever is important to you. So, protect yourself. Don’t respond in any way that can be maliciously misconstrued. Remember, grey rock strategy.

    What kind of person is most vulnerable to a narcissist?

    In a world where there are more takers than givers, we value the more “self-less” people. They can be valued to the extent where their generosity and kindness is still praised even if their sacrifice is at the cost of their own wellbeing.

    This can become a very unhealthy expectation if there aren’t any good boundaries in place. Co-dependants are the flip side of the relationship and are magnets to narcissists. You are not dealing with someone who is struggling to overcome their demons. You are dealing with someone who is committed to concealing them.

    Final thought

    Narcissists are incapable of self-reflection. So, if you read this and thought: “Am I a narcissist?” Remember this. Because you considered it, you are not the narcissist in the relationship.

    Enda Murphy is a psychotherapist and the director of SeeMe.ie

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