We hear the word “narcissist” a lot these days. What most people think of when they hear the word is someone who is vain and self-absorbed. That’s what it’s come to mean in popular culture – but the personality disorder that is narcissism runs a whole lot deeper than that.
True narcissists actually lack the ability to truly empathise with the feelings and needs of others. In fact many narcissists even lack the ability to truly see anyone else as a separate human with their own feelings and needs. To them, people – and especially romantic partners –are just sources of “narcissistic supply”. Which, in short, is whatever makes them feel good, and might be some combination of attention, admiration, free labour, sex and/or money. They are, in other words, not capable of truly caring about their partner because when it comes down to it, they are all about themselves and their needs. Narcissism has many different “faces”, but those traits are always at its core.
We all, at times, behave narcissistically. It’s only when this goes above a certain level that it becomes problematic. A person who consistently shows a high degree of narcissism is said to be suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). But those to whom this diagnosis applies are highly unlikely ever to get it from a professional. By definition, narcissists are unable to see they have a problem, extremely resistant to any suggestion they do, and extremely unlikely to seek treatment. Also – and this is crucial – if your partner has narcissistic traits they don’t have be at the NPD level for them to be extremely damaging to you.
At the core of narcissism is a profound unconsciousness. Narcissism comes from damage in childhood – either being excessively indulged by parents/caregivers, or, more commonly, experiencing serious neglect or abuse. So we can have deep compassion for narcissists. But this doesn’t mean they belong in our lives – especially as a partner.
In fact, narcissists are so dangerous that being in a relationship with one can cause anxiety, depression, PTSD, and (especially if a partner is subjected to narcissistic abuse for years) even severe physical illness and/or a complete mental-emotional breakdown. And the more sensitive you are by nature, the more vulnerable you are to any narcissist you allow into your life.
But narcissist-empath pairings in relationships are actually very common. Why? The narcissist wants a partner because the right partner is a grade-A source of narcissistic supply for them, and empaths – beautiful souls with such a lot to give – fit that bill perfectly. We are kind and empathetic. We will often sense the narcissist’s unconscious pain, and feel great compassion for it. So while the narcissist takes and takes, we continue to give and give, believing that that is the enlightened thing to do. And that if we just keep coming from that enlightened, high-energy place of giving and showing them love, they will “meet” us there.
But they won’t. They will just continue to take, while they emotionally abuse us to boot, and while we get more and more depleted – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and very often financially too.
Not all sensitives and empaths are susceptible to being taken advantage of by a narcissist. It all depends on how good our self-esteem is and how strong our boundaries are. An empath or sensitive who received enough emotional validation in childhood that they grew up with their self-esteem intact will often be repelled by any narcissist who comes into their orbit because their intuition will immediately tell them something is “off”, even if they can’t put their finger on what.
But empaths/sensitives who grew up without sufficient validation are extremely vulnerable to narcissists. Here’s why… First, no child needs validation more than the sensitive child, and growing up without it (and until enough healing work has been done) leaves them with a validation deficit, and an absolute hunger to be seen and validated.
Second, narcissists have a sixth sense which enables them to subconsciously sense this need. In the early days of a romantic relationship, a narcissist will engage in something called “love bombing”. If you’ve ever been in a relationship with a narcissist you’ll know only too well what I’m talking about… They’ll bombard you with text messages and calls. They’ll want to see you constantly. They’ll quickly (usually within a few weeks, and sometimes even within days – this happened to me) tell you not only that they love you, but that they’ve never loved anyone else as much, that you were destined to meet, and that they will love you forever.
If you grew up never, or only rarely, being told you were loved, or beautiful – and if you heard a lot more criticism of your nature than you did validation of it – make no mistake: you are very vulnerable to this.
Now, just because someone does this in the early stages of dating doesn’t mean they are a narcissist. But it’s a red flag for it. The narcissist might keep this mask on for weeks or months, and sometimes even a year or more. But sooner or later the relationship will enter the devaluation phase, where the narcissistic partner begins to engage in narcissistic abuse in order to control their partner, aka source of “supply”. Here are some examples of what you might be experiencing if you’re in an intimate relationship with a narcissist:
- Attempting to explain your basic needs to them, and the basics of treating one’s partner with genuine love and respect, is like talking to a five-year-old. You explain over and over what you should never have to in the first place, yet you never end the conversation feeling that you got anywhere (or if you do, they soon show you otherwise by their behaviour)
- They will always have excuses. Narcs are pathological liars who won’t hesitate to say whatever you need to hear so they can get what they want from you
- They won’t hesitate to let you down in the above way over and over again. And if you’re in a relationship with a narc and don’t realise it, they will have so warped your sense of reality you’ll allow this cycle to continue, each time hoping that this time will be different (even as your gut instinct tells you more and more loudly that it never will)
- On the occasions when you call them on their broken promises they will never respond with genuine accountability – i.e. showing you they’re a caring, trustworthy partner by doing what they said
- When you really put them on the spot they are very likely to try and use emotional abuse to shut you down (examples in the bullets below…)
- You initiate a talk to express a legitimate need. Next thing you know, without having remotely addressed what you said they are attacking you for something, painting themselves as the injured party, and asking you how you could be so selfish as to bring this up when they do so much for you / are dealing with ______ [insert excuse here]. Instead of having a discussion about the issue you need to be resolved, you find yourself feeling guilty and defending yourself against their accusations. This happens over and over
- If this doesn’t shut you down and you attempt to call them to account they won’t hesitate to use the greatest vulnerabilities you’ve confided in them against you, hoping to hurt, shame and belittle you into silence. They’ll often succeed, and soon this will seem normal – you’ll have forgotten that it is absolutely never okay for a partner to treat you like this
- They engage in what’s known as the hurt-rescue cycle. If they feel the need to get you back into line (or even just to let off steam) they will say things like the above to wound you and knock the wind out of you – then pick you up off the floor with a big show of love that might involve exactly the words they know you want to hear and/or telling you to lie down while they make dinner, and other gestures to make you (when you are at your most vulnerable) feel that they are your greatest source of love and support
- A narcissistic partner will systematically destroy your self-esteem and manage your expectations down until you are willing (albeit unhappily) to live without genuine respect, honesty or accountability from them, and to put up with emotional abuse. And they do this so covertly and also so fully that it might be years before you realise you’re being emotionally abused
- Their abuse WILL take a toll on you. You’re likely to become anxious, depressed and/or withdrawn, your health may suffer too, and this will cause other problems in your life. Perhaps you will overeat, drink too much, not perform well at work. They, of course, will be absolutely unable to see those things as inevitable effects of their behaviour and convinced that they are the stable, long-suffering partner. What you might hear from them: “If you weren’t so depressed/overweight/unstable we wouldn’t have these problems in our relationship” “Look at all I put up with and how I’ve stood by you with all your problems [that you never had before you met them]. No one else would ever put up with you! No one else would ever love you the way I do.”
- 50% of narcissists have substance abuse problems. Also: active addicts behave like narcissists even if they’re not (denying, lying, breaking promises, projecting blame, stone-walling, otherwise emotionally abusing). If your partner is an addict they only way you can know for sure that they’re NOT a narcissist is if they go sober and when they do, the above behaviours stop and it starts to become possible to resolve issues between you.