“Every woman I’ve ever been with has known how to act right! Why do you have to ‘be polite’ to every guy who tries to talk to you?! I shouldn’t have to tell you to have my back!”
Danny’s words stung and stunned Kaitlyn into frozen silence even though this shame-storm was nothing new.
Coming home a little late, falling asleep without making a goodnight call, or having a night out with her friends were all opportunities for Danny to point out her shortcomings.
Her looks were also frequent targets–her new hair color was too dark, her dress too revealing, or her shoes all wrong for the event.
“You know what your problem is, Kaitlyn? You’re a narcissist!”
Kaitlyn thought about that one a long time. She knew Danny’s feelings were hurt. He wanted her to apologize for not anticipating and fulfilling his needs. She also knew she had neglected to set boundaries and stand up for herself and her own needs from the beginning. But she also realized Danny’s angry outbursts, breakup threats, name-calling, and cruel controlling ways pointed to one clear conclusion: Danny was the narcissist.
Does this sound familiar? Then you may be in a relationship with a narcissist. Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist in Santa Monica, California and expert on narcissism, sums up the common personality traits of a narcissist:
- Conflictual – they disagree about every little thing
- Rigid – they are set in their ways and resistant to change
- Antagonistic – they pick arguments
- Vulnerable – they play the victim
- Entitled – they expect others to anticipate and fulfill their needs
- Dysregulated – they have difficulty reacting appropriately to situations or emotional stimuli
All of these traits make dealing with a narcissist a challenge. One minute they are an arrogant overbearing bully, then they suddenly become a threatened insecure victim. This unpredictability keeps their partner off balance and easy to manipulate.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the manipulation. People like Danny can be charming sycophants, supportive, and full of praise and flattery. They are typically fun to be with, funny, outgoing, and great in bed. But take note, it’s only when they feel confident and in control.
As soon as Kaitlyn steps out of her rigidly defined role–changing her appearance, missing a phone call, or going out with friends–Doctor Jekyll turns into Mister Hyde. And be warned, narcissists don’t fight fair.
A narcissist will bring up past transgressions (real or imagined), inflating a perceived slight as evidence of a partner’s neglect and selfishness. This “gaslighting” eventually makes a partner question their perception of reality and may be a “grooming moment” to push the relationship from psychological to physical abuse.
The partner of a narcissist is often exhausted by the constant call for assurance and validation, but any attempt to pull away for personal time to rest and refuel increases the narcissist’s need for attention.
Why do narcissists act the way they do? Dr. Durvasula offers some possible contributing factors:
- Being over- or under-indulged by a parent or caretaker without an emotional presence or connection;
- Experiencing childhood trauma (abuse, neglect, or loss);
- Seeing destructive and difficult behavior modeled at home;
- Receiving love only conditionally based on performance and perfection;
- Being shielded from any disappointment or failure (hyper- or helicopter parenting);
All of these events inhibit the development of social skills and a healthy sense of self-worth. Acting from a core of insecurity and shame, the narcissist inflicts pain and abuse on others as they bump clumsily against others’ boundaries.
The partner of a narcissist is often exhausted by the constant call for assurance and validation, but any attempt to pull away for personal time to rest and refuel increases the narcissist’s need for attention. It is tempting to just to give in and get along.
A good way to deal with narcissistic behavior is outlined by the DEEP protocol: Don’t Defend, don’t over-Engage, don’t Explain yourself, and don’t Personalize their behavior.
Don’t Defend. Narcissists launch the attack and put you on the defensive because this puts them in control.
Don’t Engage. Narcissists will say or do anything to keep you in the dance. If you keep talking, you’re feeding their need for involvement.
Don’t Explain. They will never acknowledge your reasoning and will twist your words to use against you.
Don’t Personalize. It’s not about you. It’s about them.
These behaviors will be hard at first, especially if like Kaitlyn, you have not developed strong personal boundaries. That’s why we practice through therapy and coaching and develop a strong support system. That’s also why we give ourselves grace, patience, and forgiveness when we forget and do the “don’ts.”
Leaving a narcissist may feel like walking through barbed wire on fire. But that road leads to freedom, peace of mind, and new possibilities for a healthy, loving relationship.