There is lots of discussion in popular media about narcissism and narcissists. What is a narcissist? In a nutshell, they are somebody who can be very manipulative, cold (though act warm and charming as part of their manipulation), calculating, controlling, and lacking empathy. Inherently they are very unhealthy within themselves but do not see this and, rather, blame their problems on the people and world around them. Narcissists can be very seemingly successful in life-having good jobs and careers, families, hobbies and activities, but they can create a lot of destruction to those who come into their stratosphere (think of a tornado-the closer you get, the more hurt you are).
For those who are close to narcissists, there can be a lot of guilt and shame. Once they finally see the narcissist for who they really are, the common thoughts are, “How did I put up with this? How come I didn’t see this sooner?” I would like to take this blog post to speak to those individuals and remind them of how come they entered and stayed for as long as they did. This can also apply to individuals in other types of abusive relationships. There are lots of reasons that people stay: People’s own psychology and vulnerabilities, history of trauma, and addiction and mental health issues to name a few. Today, though, I want to talk about the allure of being on the inside with a narcissist and how that feeling, on top of any other personal vulnerabilities you might have, can lead to staying and not seeing the situation for what it is.
In the early days of meeting a narcissist, typically you are meeting someone who is appealing because they seem different. They are usually quite intelligent and have interesting and unusual thoughts about the world. Their perspective seems refreshing and interesting. You are hooked because you want to learn more. It also feels good for the ego that someone that intelligent and interesting has shown interest in you. That, I believe, is the number one attraction. This situation can happen anywhere, not just in personal relationships. Professionally, it often looks like someone who really believes in you and your talents, they show a special interest in having you work with or for them and that feels nice. It feels nice to be wanted.
As time progresses, you may have some red flags pop up. You may see the narcissist have issues with others but often the thought is, “Well I’m glad that’s not me” and fueled by the belief, “That’ll never happen to me.” This reinforces the unique feeling of ‘special’ in the relationship. You feel on top of the world because someone who dislikes or has issues with so many others, doesn’t with you. You feel special.
This can continue for a long time. It is that feeling of being in the inner circle, the popular group in the high school lunch room that most of us craved so desperately in our younger years. We have finally attained it and it feels great. We are different, even feeling better than, others. You ride the high for as long as you can. This leads to the ignoring of signs that it will not last forever and is rooted in pathology and dysfunction rather than your unique individual special-ness. Of course, you are unique and individual and special, but this is not what the narcissist believes. They view you as a pawn, a tool to use in their ongoing game of manipulation and control because that is how they see life. They are not regarding you as you, they are seeing what value you hold for them.
That is when it changes. When they get bored and you no longer hold value for them, your world comes crashing down around you. Now you see them align with someone else, disregard you, perhaps even mock and belittle the parts of you they used to say they valued. This is such a confusing and distressing time. You cannot understand how the things that used to impress the narcissist are now put down or devalued. In personal relationships, they may start making derisive comments on the parts of your body and personality they know you are insecure about. If it is a professional relationship, they will start questioning your work and performance even though they may have once touted you as an all-star. Everything changes and, seemingly, for no reason. The reason is that they are bored and now need a new target and new stimulus to keep them occupied.
If you are in or have exited out of a relationship of any kind with a narcissist, you likely feel shattered. You feel increased self-doubt, confusion, and may be experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and more. It is important to know you are not crazy, you are not alone, and you are a strong person despite what happened to you. You did not choose this to happen, you could not have seen it coming, and you are human for going towards where you felt what you thought was love and acceptance.
Moving forward, look after yourself. Engage in extreme self-care. Be rigorous about your relationships and who you surround yourself with. Go towards people where it is authentic, mutually vulnerable, and unconditionally supportive. Looking back at the relationship with the narcissist, you will realize that you never knew much about them or saw them be vulnerable, they always had the upper hand and were cool, calm, and collected. Perhaps you saw them angry, but you never saw them truly sad, insecure, or scared. You may want to seek out support groups with people who have been where you are. Check out providers in your local area and see what’s available. Search online. Go wherever you need to go to feel safe and secure. More then anything, believe in yourself. Remember your worth and value. You are a strong person with great strength and diverse talents. That is all true and nobody can take that away from you.
By Paige Abbott
Paige is a Registered Psychologist in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.