People are easily charmed by a narcissist, especially codependents. Narcissists can be beguiling and charismatic. In fact, one study showed that their likable veneer was only penetrable after seven meetings. I’ve had a number of clients who claimed that the courtship with their narcissistic spouse was wonderful, and that abuse only began following the wedding. However, with greater insight, these clients admitted that there were signs that they’d overlooked.
Blind Spots when Dating a Narcissist
There are unconscious explanations why you might not spot a narcissist. Here are some reasons why you might not recognize a narcissist: more
Gaslighting is a malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality. Like all abuse, it based on the need for power, control, or concealment. Some people occasionally lie or use denial to avoid taking responsibility. They may forget or remember conversations and events differently than you, or they may have no recollection due to a blackout if they were drinking. These situations are sometimes called gaslighting, but the term actually refers to a deliberate pattern of manipulation calculated to make the victim trust the perpetrator and doubt his or her own perceptions or sanity, similar to brainwashing. (Read “How to Spot Manipulation.”) The
Pervasiveness revelations of sexual harassment and assault have surprised most men, but not women. However, both genders are largely unaware of the damaging impact that objectification of women can cause. It perpetuates a cycle of shame in both men and women. Even if never overtly harassed or assaulted, women experience the destructive effects of sexual objectification, including abuse and violence, eating disorders, body shame, depression, risky sexual behavior, and sexual dysfunction. Men don’t realize how sexual shame also harms them. Sexuality brings abundant opportunities to exaggerate both our vulnerability and shame, to feel pleasure and close, but also to feel unworthy, unacceptable, and unlovable.
Shame and Manhood
Boys must separate from their mothers to establish their masculinity. To accomplish this task, they look to their father. more
Our mother is our first love. She’s our introduction to life and to ourselves. She’s our lifeline to security. We initially learn about ourselves and our world through interactions with her. We naturally long for her physical and emotional sustenance, her touch, her smile, and her protection. Her empathetic reflection of our feelings, wants, and needs informs us who we are and that we have value. A narcissistic mother who cannot empathize damages her children’s healthy psychological development. Like Narcissus in the Greek myth, she sees only a reflection of herself. There is no boundary of separateness between her and her children, whom she cannot see as unique individuals worthy of love. Symptoms of narcissism that make up narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) vary in severity, but they inevitably compromise a narcissist’s ability to parent. more
Authenticity is the opposite of shame. It reveals our humanity and allows us to connect with others. Shame creates most all codependency symptoms – including hiding who we are, sacrificing our needs, and saying yes when we rather not – all to be accepted by someone else. It warps our communication and damages our relationships so that we control, patronize, criticize, blame, deny, withdraw, attack, and make empty promises to keep a relationship and reassure ourselves we’re okay even when we don’t believe it.
Hiding Who You Are
For most of us, our self-doubt and hiding has been going on so long that by adulthood, we’ve lost touch with who we truly are. We’ve grown accustomed to behaving in certain predictable roles that worked in our more or less troubled families, in school, and in our work. In the process, we sacrifice a degree of freedom, spontaneity, vulnerability, and parts of ourselves. When we marry, for most of us, our personality contracts further into the role of husband or wife, father or mother, and what is acceptable to maintain the marriage. more
Anger hurts. It’s a reaction to not getting what we want or need. Anger escalates to rage when we feel assaulted or threatened. It could be physical, emotional, or abstract, such as an attack on our reputation. When we react disproportionately to our present circumstance, it’s because we’re really reacting to something in our past event – often from childhood.
Codependents have problems with anger. They have a lot of it for good reason, and they don’t know how to express it effectively. They’re frequently in relationships with people who contribute less that they do, who break promises and commitments, violate their boundaries, or disappointment or betray them. They may feel trapped, burdened with relationships woes, responsibility for children, or with financial troubles. Many don’t see a way out yet still love their partner or feel too guilty to leave. more
Trust is a fragile. Secrets and lies jeopardize trust and can damage us and our relationships – sometimes irreparably.
We all tell “white lies.” We say “I’m fine,” when we’re not, compliment unwanted gifts, or even fib, “The check is in the mail.” But in an intimate relationship, emotional honesty includes allowing our partner to know who we are. Honesty is more than simply not lying. Deception includes making ambiguous or vague statements, telling half-truths, manipulating information through emphasis, exaggeration, or minimization, and withholding information or feelings that are important to someone who has a “right to know” because it affects the relationship and that person’s free choice. Although we may consider ourselves honest, few of us reveal all our negative thoughts and feelings about people we are close to. It requires the courage to be vulnerable and authentic. more
In recovery circles, being a “victim” is frowned upon. Decades ago, when I heard people say they were no longer a victim, I had no idea what they meant. Actually, a victim is an individual who has been fooled, hurt, or harmed, due to his or her own emotions or ignorance, an unfortunate event, or the actions of someone who deceived, cheated, injured, or killed him or her.
At the time, I really was a victim. I was in a relationship where I experienced systematic, emotional abuse, but due to my ignorance, I didn’t know it. Many people, particularly codependents, are in relationships with addicts or abusers, including relationships with partners or parents who have mental illness, such as a bipolar mood disorder or borderline, sociopathic, or narcissistic personality disorders. They suffer from frequent and often malicious verbal and sometimes physical attacks, betrayal, manipulation, and other forms of abuse that can alter their perception, self-image, and ability to protect themselves. Many victims in abusive relationships don’t recognize it as such, because it’s reminiscent of the shame, neglect, or other mistreatment they experienced in their families of origin. As children they were unprotected victims; hence, they didn’t develop adequate self-worth or learn how to stand up to abuse. more
Forgiveness can sometimes feel impossible or even undesirable. Other times, we forgive only to be hurt again and conclude that forgiving was foolish. Both situations arise from confusion about what forgiveness really means. Forgiveness doesn’t require that we forget or condone another’s actions or the harm caused. In fact, for self-protection rather than anger, we may decide to never see the person again. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we justify or play down the hurt caused. Often, codependents forgive AND forget, and continue to put themselves in harms’ way. They forgive and then rationalize or minimize their loved one’s abuse or addiction. This is their denial. They may even contribute to it by enabling. more
You can make significant strides in overcoming codependency by developing new attitudes, skills, and behavior. But deeper recovery may involve healing trauma, usually that began in childhood. Trauma can be emotional, physical, or environmental, and can range from experiencing a fire to emotional neglect. Childhood events had a greater impact on you then than they would today, because you didn’t have coping skills that an adult would have. As a consequence of growing up in a dysfunctional family environment, codependents often suffer further trauma due to relationships with other people who may be abandoning, abusive, addicted or have mental illness. more
Narcissists don’t really love themselves. Actually, they’re driven by shame. It’s the idealized image of themselves, which they convince themselves they embody, that they admire. But deep down, narcissists feel the gap between the façade they show the world and their shame-based self. They work hard to avoid feeling that shame. This gap is true for other codependents, as well, but a narcissist uses destructive defense mechanisms that damage relationships and cause and their loved ones’ self-esteem. (Learn the traits required to diagnose a narcissistic personality disorder, “NPD.”)
Many of the narcissist’s coping mechanisms are abusive–hence the term, “narcissistic abuse.” However, someone can be abusive, but not be a narcissist. Addicts and people with other mental illnesses, such as bi-polar disorder and anti-social personality disorder (sociopathy) and borderline personality disorders are also abusive, as are many codependents without a mental illness. Abuse is abuse, no matter what is the abuser’s diagnosis. If you’re a victim of abuse, the main challenges for you are: more
Since writing Codependency for Dummies, countless people contact me about their unhappiness and difficulties in dealing with a difficult loved one, frequently a narcissistic partner or parent who is uncooperative, selfish, cold, and often abusive. Partners of narcissists feel torn between their love and their pain, between staying and leaving, but they can’t seem to do either. They feel ignored, uncared about, and unimportant. As the narcissist’s criticism, demands, and emotional unavailability increase, their confidence and self-esteem decrease. Despite their pleas and efforts, the narcissist appears to lack consideration for their feelings and needs. Over time, they become deeply hurt and frustrated. When the narcissist is a parent, by the time their children reach adulthood, the emotional abandonment, control, and criticism that they experienced growing up has negatively affected their self-esteem and capacity for achieving success or sustaining loving, intimate relationships. more
There are three million cases of domestic violence reported each year. Many more go unreported. Emotional abuse precedes violence, but is rarely discussed. Although both men and women may abuse others, an enormous number of women are subjected to emotional abuse. Unfortunately, many don’t even know it.
Why is Emotional Abuse Hard to Recognize?
Emotional abuse may be hard to recognize, because it can be subtle, and abusers often blame their victims. more
Anxiety is apprehension of experiencing fear in the future. The danger feared isn’t imminent and may not even be known or realistic. In contrast, fear is an emotional and physical reaction to a present, known threat. Anxiety is typically characterized by obsessive worry and an inability to concentrate that may affect our sleep.
It can trigger a full-blown fight-flight-or-freeze response of our sympathetic nervous system that prepares us to meet real danger; however, a big difference between fear and anxiety is that because anxiety is an emotional response to something that hasn’t occurred, there is nothing to fight or flee. Therefore, tension builds up inside our body, but there is no action we can take to release it. Instead, our mind goes round and round, replaying possibilities and scenarios. more
Sons of narcissistic fathers are driven by lack of confidence. Raised by a self-centered, competitive, arrogant father, they feel like they can never measure up or are enough to garner their father’s approval. Their father may be absent or critical and controlling. He may belittle and shame his son’s mistakes, vulnerability, failures, or limitations, yet brag about him to his friends. He may boast about inflated versions of his achievements, while disparaging those of his son. A narcissistic father may ruthlessly bully or compete with his son in games, even when the boy is a less-capable child. Similarly, he may be jealous of his wife’s attention to the boy, compete with him, and flirt with his girlfriends or later wife.
Lack of empathy is typical of narcissists. Many narcissistic fathers are authoritarian and rigid about how things should be done, the correctness of their opinions, and getting their way, portrayed by Robert Duval in the movie The Great Santini. (Pratt & Carlino, 1979) Franz Kakfa articulately describes a literary example of such an imposing intolerance in Letter to His Father: more
Has setting limits not worked? Despite your efforts, are your boundaries often ignored? It’s frustrating, but it’s not always the other person’s fault. Here’s why and what to do.
There are several reasons why boundaries don’t work. As I wrote in Codependency for Dummies and How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits, assertiveness is a prerequisite to setting effective boundaries, and it isn’t easy.
“Setting boundaries is an advanced form of assertiveness. It involves risk and entails taking a position about who you are, what you’re willing to do or not do, and how you want to be treated and respected in your relationships. It first requires awareness of your values, feelings, and needs, plus some practice in making “I” statements about them.” From How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits. more
When shame becomes toxic, it can ruin our lives. Everyone experiences shame at one time another. It’s an emotion with physical symptoms like any other that comes and goes, but when it’s severe, it can be extremely painful. Strong feelings of shame stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, causing a fight/flight/freeze reaction. We feel exposed and want to hide or react with rage, while feeling profoundly alienated from others and good parts of ourselves. We may not be able to think or talk clearly and be consumed with self-loathing, which is made worse because we’re unable to be rid of ourselves. more
Caring about someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) tosses you on a roller coaster ride from being loved and lauded to abandoned and bashed. Being a borderline (having BPD) is no picnic, either. You live in unbearable psychic pain most of the time and in severe cases on the border between reality and psychosis. Your illness distorts your perceptions causing antagonistic behavior and making the world a perilous place. The pain and terror of abandonment and feeling unwanted can be so great that suicide feels like a better choice.
If you like drama, excitement, and intensity, enjoy the ride, because things will never be calm. Following a passionate and immediate beginning, expect a stormy relationship that includes accusations and anger, jealousy, bullying, control, and break-ups due to the borderline’s insecurity. Nothing is grey or gradual. For borderlines, things are black and white. They have the quintessential Jekyll and Hyde personality. Fluctuating dramatically between idealizing and devaluing you, they may suddenly and sporadically shift throughout the day. You never know what or whom to expect. more
Donald Trump has grown an empire of wealth and power, but is it enough? He admits that it isn’t the money that motivates him. (The Art of the Deal, 1987) What drives narcissists are their fears of feeling weak, vulnerable, or inferior. Consequently, for male narcissists in particular, achieving power is their highest value – at any cost. Trump is “certain about what he wants and sets out to get it, no holds barred.” (Trump on Trump)
There is great disparity between what narcissists show the world and what goes on inside. Despite their big egos, they’re frightened and fragile – just the opposite of their grandiose, powerful façade. They must work hard to keep up their image, not only for others, but for themselves. In fact, their immodesty and exaggerated self-importance are commensurate with their hidden shame. “Me thinks you protest too much,” defines them. Shame is paradoxical in that it hides behind false pride. Its defenses of arrogance and contempt, envy and aggression, and denial and projection all serve to inflate and compensate for a weak, immature self. Like all bullies, the greater their defensive aggression, the greater is their insecurity. more
It’s easy to fall in love with narcissists. Their charm, talent, success, beauty, and charisma cast a spell, along with compliments, scintillating conversation, and even apparent interest in you. Perhaps you were embarrassed when your mate cut in front of the line or shuddered at the dismissive way he or she treated a waitress. Once hooked, you have to contend with their demands, criticisms, and self-centeredness. The relationship revolves around them, and you’re expected to meet their needs when needed, and are dismissed when not. more