During the campaign and presidency of former President Donald Trump, the word narcissism came up became something of a buzzword. And in recent years, the word has become popular on social media And in the press.
Resulting in social media and others online platforms are now full of insights, tips, stories and theories from life coaches, therapists, psychologists and self-professed narcissists about navigating relationships with narcissists or managing one’s own symptoms.
The term “narcissism” is often used to describe anyone who is selfish and self-centered. Someone who exhibits narcissistic traits may have a personality disorder known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Over the past decade, the rapid development of social networking sites has led to dramatic changes in the way people communicate and interact with each other. Social media websites such as Facebook, TikTok and Instagram can feel like a narcissistic field day. Within seconds one can share self-enhancing content – flattering photos, boastful statuses and enviable holidays – with a large audience and receive immediate feedback in the form of “likes” and reinforcing comments from followers.
Like a Certified Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in relationship problems related to attachment, I have worked with many couples with one partner who is on the narcissistic personality disorder spectrum. One of the reasons why the narcissistic partner is hard to deal with is that they are adept at convincing their partner that they are the dysfunctional one.
Dr Otto Kernberga psychiatrist specializing in personality disorders differentiates between normal and pathological narcissism using a framework that assesses a person’s ability to participate in satisfying romantic relationships.
Normal narcissism refers to a well-integrated sense of self that is generally for the greater good, such as a healthy sense of pride in oneself and one’s achievements. Pathological narcissism describes extreme fluctuations between feelings of inferiority and failure with a sense of superiority and grandeur.
Every person has a bit of normal narcissism in them. This can take the form of being confident and even a little straight, while still showing empathy and emotion. Research shows the role of healthy narcissism in subclinical levels in everyday populations and can help motivate people to better themselves and progress in life.
But when the pursuit of achievement or profit is coupled with an excessive desire for attention and approval and an outsized, grandiose sense of self, it no longer belongs to healthy narcissism.
A pathological narcissist sees everyone else as an extension of himself. Those in a narcissist’s life, especially in their inner circle, must always display perfection because they contribute to the narcissist’s own self-image. Like many personality disorders, narcissism manifests itself in intimate relationships through the cycle of idealization and devaluation, giving rise to the concept of the so-called toxic relationship.
Find a victim
A narcissist chooses their partners based on whether the partner affirms their grandiose sense of self. And since having that validation is the main driver of a narcissist’s relationship, they are generally not interested in learning much about the other person.
The things that attract narcissists are not the other person’s personal characteristics or even the connection that comes from the relationship. If the person has a reputable status in his eyes and he finds the person attractive, he is usually willing to make rapid progress in the relationship. Unfortunately, since a narcissist’s genuine interest in the other person is usually superficial, the narcissist often loses interest in the relationship as suddenly as he started it.
Narcissistic abuse is one form of extreme psychological and emotional abuse characterized by manipulative communication and deliberate deception for exploitation by a person who meets the criteria for pathological narcissism.
Forms of narcissism
Narcissistic abuse can be insidious and hard to spot. Because the signs of narcissistic abuse are not always obvious, it is important to identify and recognize them.
Gaslighting: The narcissist uses a manipulation strategy known as gaslighting to make the victim doubt his or her own ability to make a decision or take an action. People use this technique to control the other person’s sense of reality. When gaslighting occurs, victims feel doubtful and insecure, and some even have trouble recognizing that they are being lit. In some relationships, a codependency develops between the narcissist and the victim, with the victim accepting the narcissist’s position of authority.
Victim mentality: This mentality, which is common in people with narcissistic personality disorder, implies that everyone owes the narcissist something. In my clinical experience, I have often witnessed the narcissist create a false narrative about how they didn’t get what they should get in life because others wronged them. This story can make them feel entitled to anger and resentment towards everyone, especially towards people they consider successful.
Cycle of idealization and devaluation: Narcissists form polarized beliefs about themselves and others, meaning their views of themselves and others can be exceptionally positive or unrealistically negative.
During the idealization phase, the narcissist creates a sense of unbreakable bond with the victim. It doesn’t matter what kind of relationship it is – be it romantic, professional or familial – it moves fast and has an intense quality.
At some point, the narcissist’s partner will disappoint them in some way, usually not on purpose. In response, the narcissist will criticize their every move, jump to conclusions, and react dramatically to these perceived disappointments. The narcissist will begin to see their partner as flawed and accuse them of not being the perfect partner they should have been. This phase is characterized by verbal and physical abuse, humiliation, bullying and insults.
Feelings of emptiness: According to Kernberg, the psychiatrist mentioned above, narcissists’ inability to develop satisfying and lasting relationships results in a chronically empty inner world.
Patients with narcissistic personality disorder often wake up in their 40s, 50s, or 60s with a desperate sense of loss. The narcissist often struggles with feelings of emptiness that come from relying on a false grandiose sense of self that keeps them from being vulnerable. In turn, they project their feelings of emptiness onto the partner in a relationship. Many of these patients suffer from a loss of identity and a sense of helplessness and feeling alienated from the world.
Navigating relationships with a narcissist
Since the narcissist often develops controlling and manipulative relationships with the partner’s friends and family, the victim may feel hesitant to rely on their intimate circle for support. Finding a therapist who specializes in narcissistic abuse recovery is the first step in starting the healing process.
I’ve had many patients tell me that their therapists are unfamiliar with the term “pathological narcissism.” If not, I suggest that these patients, if possible, seek therapists who specialize in emotionally focused therapy or transference-oriented therapy. These therapies help identify destructive communication patterns that arise during a therapy session, rather than just focusing on interactions that arise outside of therapy.
From my perspective, relationships with a narcissistic partner are some of the hardest to deal with. The narcissistic partners are often unwilling to participate in therapy because they do not want to admit they need help and find it challenging to work with the therapist. Effective couples therapy is rare but not impossible and can only take place when the narcissistic partner recognizes that their expectations are unreasonable and destructive.