” The way you looked into my eyes, I felt like I was finally seen. Until I realized you were just using my eyes as a mirror, looking for your own reflection ”
– Franzén Psykologi
What is narcissism
Daily we hear people use the word narcissist. Often in a negative way, as an insult, a way of describing someone as conceited. ”What is narcissism?” is actually one of the fastest growing search terms on google. So what does narcissism mean?
Narcissism can be explained as an individuals self-centeredness, conceitedness, and exaggerated belief in his/her own ability. Research suggests that narcissistic personality traits has increased at the same rate as obesity since the 1980s. However, it is important to distinguish narcissistic personality traits from a fully developed narcissistic personality disorder. According to DSM-5 the prevalence for narcissistic personality disorder is estimated to 6 % of the population, with greater rates for men.
A certain degree of narcissism is considered necessary for a healthy self-image. You are probably familiar with the saying; you need to be able to love yourself to be able to love others. Small children are naturally selfish. It is a normal part of their development. They strive to get their needs met and can’t understand other people’s needs and desires. Narcissism tends to peak in adolescence and decline with age. As we all know, teenagers are pretty pre-occupied with them selves, not seldom experiencing it as the whole world is focusing on them. As the teenager grows older this self-centeredness should gradually decline and be replaced by a healthy level of self-esteem and a shift of focus to people around them. But for some people this shift never occurs. They go through life placing them selves first, at the expense of other peoples needs. This is when narcissism becomes unhealthy. As mentioned above scoring high on narcissism is not the same as suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. But, having a higher number of narcissistic traits can still be problematic for the individual causing a lot of damage when it comes to relationships.
Pathological narcissism is characterized by an inflated and grandiose self-concept. Narcissists are preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, brilliance and beauty. Holding a belief that they are special, unique and should be associated with successful, high-status people. Narcissists maintain this self-image by seeking admiration and protect themselves from criticism. These are the symptoms of pathological narcissism. What’s causing these symptoms is a diminished capacity of adaptive self-regulation. They fail to regulate their self-esteem and self-image. Narcissists also lack empathy and are more or less unable to recognize or identify with other peoples feelings and needs.
Different types of Narcissism
There are two different types of narcissism: grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism. They branch from different kinds of childhood experiences and causes different types of behavior. The grandiose narcissist tends to grow up in a surrounding were they were treated as they were superior to others. With the consequence that they go trough life expecting people to keep treating them this way. You recognize a grandiose narcissist by the high levels of grandiosity, aggression and dominance. They are confident and brag about how great they are. When it comes to relationships it is not uncommon with infidelity. They also tend to go from relationship to relationship, leaving as soon as they don’t get the admiration or treatment they feel entitled to.
The vulnerable narcissist is far more sensitive, using grandiosity as a shield to protect a low self-esteem. They alter between feeling superior and inferior. If not treated as special they feel anxious or victimized. This type of narcissism develops in early childhood. It usually starts as a cooping strategy to deal with neglect and abuse. In a relationship they can act possessive and jealous, worrying about if they are good enough and what their partner think of them.
What causes NPD?
Researchers still argue about the origin of NPD. Some claim that individuals are shaped into narcissists, not born as narcissists. Others claim that genes play a part in it as well. I believe it’s safe to say that the rise of narcissism is a complicated mix between nature and nurture. Speaking about nurturing, there has been a lot of focus on the connection between certain parenting styles and narcissism. According to this theory there are two types of parenting styles that seem to lead to the development of narcissism in children. Parental overvaluation is connected to an inflated self while controlling, intrusive and inconsistent parenting is linked to vulnerable narcissism. But, the amount of research on this theory is limited.
Narcissism and romantic relationships
Narcissistic relationships are formed when one or both partners struggle with a narcissistic personality. It is very challenging to be in a relationship with a narcissist, some people would even say it is impossible. A narcissist is in need of a partner for different reasons than someone who doesn’t suffer from narcissism. Their self-esteem and self-worth is dependent on the admiration of others. They tend to see their partner in terms of how they fulfill their needs. The partner becomes a tool that is thrown away as soon as it no longer fulfills the narcissists needs, and the narcissist will continue his/her hunt for admiration and respect, moving on to the next love object.
The narcissist has great success when it comes to short-term romantic contexts, for example dating, sexual affairs or early stages of romantic relationships. According to studies, the narcissist claims it is easy for him/her to meet romantic partners. Furthermore, they report less rejections and a greater desire for casual sex. Attractive, confident and with little fear of rejection the narcissist approaches the love interest with success. It is when it comes to long-term relationships they show poor skills. The narcissist has his palmy days in the initial phase of a relationship, but as soon as the relationship deepens the problems arise.
There are several possible reasons for the narcissists failure when it comes to long-term relationships. First of all, their lack of interest in forming close relationships. Second, people scoring high in narcissism have certain behaviors that are known to have a negative effect on long-term relationships. They tend to be selfish, lack empathy, respect and tolerance for others. Furthermore, they are extremely sensitive to criticism and blame their mistakes on others. Studies have also shown that individuals high in narcissism, who were involved in long-term relationships, showed lower levels of commitment, were prone to infidelity and experienced a larger number of divorces than people lower in narcissism.
The 3 phases
A relationship with a person scoring high on narcissism can be divided in to three phases.
The over-evaluation phase
When a narcissist picks a partner they typically choose someone beautiful, attractive, successful, adventures, talented and/or rich. The narcissist envisions the target as being the one for them, the one that is gonna fill up the empty space within them, the one that will change their way of living, the one that will make them change their view of marriage, making forever after sound like music to their ears.
In the beginning the narcissist is excessively caring, loving and attentive, putting you on a pedestal, drenching you with attention, compliments and affection. During this time, the narcissist him/her self is high on all the attention and admiration from their partner. The narcissist is feeling ecstatic, thinking about you and calling you constantly, giving you exactly what you have been looking for in a partner. This phase is as close as a narcissist ever comes to falling in love, probably experiencing it as falling in love. They are therefor very quick to commit but have a really hard time sustaining the commitment. So while you are falling in love, your narcissistic partner is feeling infatuated by you, confusing the feeling with love.
The devaluation phase
As soon as the narcissist is confident in having the partners love and devotion the narcissistic relationship goes in to the second phase. The shift usually happens after a couple of weeks or month, however, it could happen instantly or gradually. Gone is the constant attention and affirmation. All the sudden your phone is quiet. The texts from your partner goes from enthusiastic and loving to obligatory, mechanical and eventually non-existing. When you try to reach them they don’t answer or return your calls. And there you are, hurt and confused, wondering what happened and what you did wrong
You din’t do anything wrong. Remember, the narcissist is great at short-term relationships, but they fail when it comes to committing and maintaining a long-term relationship. As soon as you fall in love with the narcissist you become a conquest. As you know by now, narcissists have an extremely fragile self-esteem, feeling unworthy and inferior deep down. They can’t regulate their self-image and need the admiration of high status people to do that. But paradoxically, by winning the high status love object over, the object looses its status. And the admiration from the love object in question all the sudden became devalued. It no longer feeds the narcissists cravings, which makes a long-term, exclusive relationship impossible. Now is the time when the narcissist moves on to conquer new love objects. An inexhaustible hunt for something that, by being reached, will loose its value.
If they, against all odds, stick around you will see the narcissistic partner become moody and agitated. He/she will blame you for everything, making you feel like you are the reason it doesn’t work out. The narcissist is not capable of forming healthy attachment, which is one of the reasons they don’t suffer from detachment. They simply never attached in the first place. Moreover, they lack the ability to feel empathy and won’t be able to understand your feelings and how they hurt you. You will try hard to see the person you fell in love with, but sadly that person never existed. It was just your hopes and wishes projected on your partner and skillfully manifested by the narcissist.
A natural reaction when someone withdraws is to become more clingy and beg for the partners attention and confirmation. This type of behavior just makes the narcissistic partner pull away even more. Sooner than later they will leave the relationship. And your misery and heartache feeds the narcissists ego just as much as your love and admiration once did.
The Discard Phase
This is the phase were you either get dumped over a new love object, or decides to put an end to this painful impersonation of a love story. Getting dumped rarely means the end of the story. Yes, the narcissist is temporary obsessed with what he/she thinks is the new potential life partner, and will therefor merely give you a thought, much less try to contact you. You will feel discarded, crushed, used and betrayed. But beware! The narcissist never leaves a potential supply of admiration. They will use you as a reserve tank and therefore continue to enter and exit your life, totally oblivious to the pain he/she is causing. The narcissist makes this possible by giving you just enough attention to keep your love and admiration alive. And they are phenomenal at knowing exactly when you are about to divest emotionally. And just like a bank account running out of money, they put in the exact right amount at the right time, making it possible to do transactions. And there you are, overjoyed about him/her finally reaching out, hoping he/she has come to his/her senses. But the truth is, you are being manipulated, trapped in the narcissists net, once again feeding his/her ego. Another way they keep you in their net i by inducing jealousy. According to research the narcissist makes you jealous by talking about other partners. This is a way to acquire power and control and/or a way of compensating for a low self esteem. The only way to get out of the grip of a narcissist is to take control and end the relationship. It is probably not enough to end it once. You need to stand by your decision every time the narcissist reaches out to you. When you can do that you are finally free.
Pathological narcissism is a disorder
What you need to keep in mind when reading this text is that pathological narcissism is a disorder and they don’t choose this way of relating. They are a product of nature and nurture. Hence, they don’t behave the way they do to purposely hurt you. At least not without a purpose, which always is to make them feel better about them selves. You are just the means in which they regulate their self-image. And you getting hurt is an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of this mandatory, indispensable process of protecting their inflated self-image. But, it is important to know that the narcissist is hurting too. Not by the same reason as you, but in the sense that it is extremely hard to live a high qualitative and fulfilling life when suffering from pathological narcissism. Research has shown pathological narcissism to be associated with significant impairment and distress including substance use, other mental disorders and increased suicide risk. So, yes, it is extremely painful to be involved with a narcissist. But, when it all comes to an end, you are the one who has the ability to engage in long-term relationship, to attach and commit and enjoy the gift of real intimacy. And that is the key to a happy and fulfilling life.
What you can do if you are in a narcissistic relationship
You would think, in light of whats described above, that people in general would avoid narcissistic relationships, and put an end to them when they realize they are in one. But, thats not the case. One reason is the incredible charm that the narcissist possesses. Another reason is a general lack of knowledge about the subject. Most people dealing with a narcissistic partner don’t know the symptoms of a narcissistic relationship, thus cant see that they are in one. They usually put the blame on them selves, assuming they were just not good enough. But it is hard to deal with a narcissist, even for a person with great awareness of the subject. Compare it to knowledge about nutrition. Even if we know its better to eat an apple then a chocolate cake, most of us still go for the cake. Its just too tempting and too tasty. But the pleasure has a bitter after taste – the insight that it is toxic in the long run.
So, if you suspect that you are in a narcissistic relationship, you need to read up on the subject and you need to understand your role in the narcissistic relationship. Is it a pattern that you repeat or is this the first time? Why are you drawn to a narcissitic person? Some people prefer to be in a relationship with someone that takes the control. Others experience a sense of worth, a temporary increase of self esteem, from being connected to such an amazing and confident person. It is not unusual to think: ”he/she picked me, out of all the people in the world”. That must mean I am pretty good looking/smart/successful and so on.
Many people who fall in love with narcissists have issues around co-dependency. They lack self esteem, don’t want to be by them selves and will therefor put up with a certain amount of abuse. Some may have bad experiences of relationships which has resulted in the impression that they deserve the narcissistic partners criticism and superior attitude.
Understanding your role in the narcissistic relationship is crucial if you want a change. By changing the way you relate to your partner you will challenge your partner to change his/her way of interacting in the relationship. If both you and your partner are ready to do the work you might be able to develop an equal, healthy relationship. But if your partner completely lacks insight in his/her problematic way of relating you might be better of ending the relationship.
Can narcissists ever change?
As you know by now, narcissistic personality disorder is a spectrum disorder, meaning there are different levels of narcissism. The higher a person scores on narcissism the harder it is to evoke change. Mainly because of the narcissists lack of insight in his /her disorder. Usually narcissists are forced to seek psychological treatment under threat by a desperate partner. Since one of the characteristics of pathological narcissism is putting the blame on others, treatment is challenging and might take time. There is a risk that the narcissist uses the time in therapy projecting the dysfunctional way of relating on their partner or even the therapist.
Psychotherapy with narcissists focuses on learning to relate to others in a healthier way. Maintaining relationships over time, understand and regulate feelings, tolerate criticisms and failures and take responsibility for their actions. Minimizing their desire to attain unrealistic goals and ideal conditions is also an important part of treatment.
They are normally offered individual therapy, however, family therapy, group therapy and couples therapy are other options. But, there is still a lack of knowledge when it comes to the effectiveness of manualised treatments for NPD and more research is called for.
To be able to be in a good long-term relationship with a narcissist the narcissist must overcome his/her self-centered and negative traits. The narcissist needs to grow a real and healthy self-esteem. When they manage to do that they will be free from their addiction to the admiration of others. Furthermore, the narcissist needs to focus on developing the ability to show empathy with others. They need to learn to shift focus from themselves to others. By doing this they can start caring and investing in others. Since the treatment is focused on personality traits, which are pretty steady over time, this process may take a long time. So, if you are in a relationship with a narcissist hoping for a change, don’t hold your breath. But if you are dedicated and have decided to follow through and work on your relationship, remind your self that this is a disorder and find a way to feel empathy with the narcissist.
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