Are you in a relationship with somebody who constantly puts you down and belittles you?
Do you have friends who always prioritise their own needs above yours?
Is your parent only interested in you if you make them look good?
Does your boss criticise your work in front of others, but take credit for the things you have done?
Do you feel that a person who is meant to love and care for you, actually really dislikes you?
If you have answered yes to any of the questions above, it is possible that you are dealing with somebody who has narcissistic traits. Narcissism is defined as an excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance (Oxford English Dictionary) but also involves extreme selfishness, a craving for admiration and approval and an overly positive and unrealistic view of one’s own abilities or attributes.
Echo and Narcissus
The word narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus. Very briefly, the story is about Echo, a wood nymph who fell in love with the handsome Narcissus. Narcissus had many admirers but he did not love any of them as he did not consider them to be worthy of him, or equal to his own greatness. Echo met her own sad end but it is Narcissus who we are interested in here. He treated his admirers very badly and the gods became angry with him, cursing him so he would know what it felt like to love somebody and never be loved back. He was walking by a stream one day and looked down to see his own reflection in the water. He was immediately in love, yet when he bent down to kiss the object of his love, the water moved and his vision was gone. He repeated this often, and every time, his loved-one disappeared. Eventually he was so scared of losing his loved-one that he simply gazed at the beautiful vision with sadness, longing and frustration. He did not eat or drink and eventually his handsome features withered away and he died. A flower grew in place of his body, which stayed by the stream forever.
The story of narcissus is full of psychological themes of suffering, erosion of identity, fear, frustration and confusion and it is these characteristics that are important in understanding the narcissist. Importantly, people need the love and support of other people. However, due to many reasons, narcissists reject this love in favour of loving themselves. They can only form a view of themselves through the adoring eyes of other people.
It’s all about me
Perhaps one of the most important things to remember when dealing with somebody with narcissistic traits is that they are only people, not evil monsters. Although many narcissists act in really damaging ways that hurt those closest to them, often an acceptance that they are simply flawed individuals helps us to cope better with their behaviour. This is because, when we think of them as evil dictators, powerful monsters or deviant psychopaths we give them power and status over us which maintains the problem and makes it easier for them to hurt us.
Alternatively, when we understand that their behaviour is the result of a vulnerable, fragmented personality, often from a position of shame, constant parental criticism, abuse and a history of very poor treatment themselves, we can see them for who they really are. This is helpful for people who want to remain in relationships with narcissists, as well as useful for those who have been harmed by them.
So, when we can understand the origins of their behaviour, what then? Understanding them absolutely does not mean excusing the way they treat us. Not at all. On the contrary, people often remain in damaging relationships for years if they feel sorry for their narcissistic partner as a result of things that happened to their partner as a child. Sadly, in some cases, this empathic understanding is used by the narcissist to further victimise and control their partner. I have had some clients tell me that they play a “little boy lost” card if they feel their partner is close to leaving them, knowing she will stay because she feels sorry for them and wants to ‘heal’ them.
It is crucial to understand if your buttons are being pressed in this way.
Firstly, and most importantly, you must leave an abusive relationship, especially if you have children in your home. Domestic abuse is not only being hit or kicked, but there are also very subtle forms of abuse including emotional manipulation and financial abuse – research these areas further and seek support to leave a damaging relationship as soon as possible.
Secondly, you cannot ‘heal’ a narcissist just by understanding and loving them more. They are likely to have been extremely damaged in their past and they need to accept for themselves that they treat other people badly. They need to at least be willing to talk to somebody about the way they treat people and to accept support to change in this area. They can seek help through talking to a therapist or a psychologist who has experience in working with narcissists. It will not be easy for them to take a long, hard look at themselves but there is a chance that they can change their behaviour for the better. Narcissistic clients tell me that it is a relief to finally be able to be vulnerable in relationships and to know they won’t die as a result – instead that they will be loved and cared for by someone they also want to learn to love back.
Many people do want to continue their relationships and when we can develop a sense of pity for the narcissist, we can cope better with their behaviour. This is as long as we have identified the problem early enough and both partners want to improve their relationship. Otherwise, after many years of ill-treatment, it is understandable that this can lead to anger in relationships which then gets in the way of understanding the narcissistic partner. In therapy sessions, if relationships have ended, the aim is often to assist those who have suffered ill-treatment by narcissists to get to the position of detached indifference towards the narcissist. It is important to know that this will only work if the relationship with them has ended (if romantic) or is extremely well managed (if a family member). If they still have the ability to make you feel furious or terrified, even after you have ended the relationship, then they are still in control of your life which has to stop. You can be helped to develop clear boundaries to keep yourself safe in future.
How to cope?
1 Knowledge is power, so simply understanding the origins of these traits can help you feel more in control. Remember it’s not about you, it’s about them. For example, at work, accurately assess the situation – is your work poor? Seek others views who you value, such as the HR department or another manager. Ask for specific feedback from people on what exactly they think you have done wrong. Seek this to make sure you are clear that any responsibility you have for changing the situation is taken. In reality, by the time people suspect they are dealing with a narcissist, they have already done this self-reflection and are quite clear that it is about the other person.
2 Then you need to take action to swiftly get a grip of the situation before your own self-esteem is depleted, otherwise you will have less strength to deal with it. Discuss what is happening with an honest friend and ask their point of view. Do they agree you are being treated unfairly? It might help to find a therapist who has experience in supporting people who have been affected by narcissists to invest in your own mental health and recovery. Therapy should include strategies to practically support you to leave a damaging situation and to safeguard you against similar situations in future.
3 Leave an abusive relationship. If this is straightforward, seek personal and professional support wherever necessary to leave. If it is harder to leave, perhaps because you want to try to save a marriage or to remain in contact with an elderly parent, then make steps to take control in the relationship by insisting that they seek professional help. Be aware that when challenged, a narcissist may become very aggressive so keep yourself safe by challenging them in the presence of other people. Never underestimate the level of rage that they might direct towards you – keep yourself safe at all times and don’t be afraid of ringing the police.
4 Stop entering into power plays with them – life is often a game of tug-of war and one upmanship with them so don’t participate in the game. Simply put down the rope or choose to hold it more loosely. Pick your battles and let minor things go. Don’t feel that you need to have the last word – it really isn’t that important. If a relationship has ended and they continue to try to contact you, change your number, do not respond to them and keep yourself safe.
5 If you want to remain in the relationship, strategies will depend on the type of relationship you have. However, it is important that in any relationship with a narcissist, you strictly manage your own boundaries and refuse to accept poor, disrespectful or demanding treatment. How this works in practice will depend on whether you have a narcissistic partner, parent, boss, friend etc.
6 Take time to heal. It might be that you realise you’ve been damaged by a neglectful parent, or have left an abusive relationship or boss after many years. You need to come to terms with your experiences before starting another relationship or ideally, another job although this depends on the practicalities of taking time off. It will help to seek support and understanding from wider family members if the narcissist is a parent.
7 Finally, remember that you have the power to change your own life. You are in control of how you respond to situations, even if other people seem to have the power to create the situations.
Contact me for more information or support.
All names and identifying details of clients have been changed to protect confidentiality