We all know these people: they have a treasure trove of entertaining stories about their fabulous, adventurous lives. They often have larger-than-life personalities coupled with baffling displays of deep insecurity. They have extremely high demands of the people close to them, yet they often fail to keep their own promises or live up to adult responsibilities. They don’t think the rules everyone else abides by apply to them, and they feel that their “specialness” can only truly be understood by other exceptional people.
The official definition of “narcissistic personality disorder” from our friends at the Mayo Clinic is the following [emphasis added]:
Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
Being colleagues or close friends with a narcissist is hard enough. But what about if you’re actually in love with a narcissist? I myself have narcissistic tendencies, and can definitely point to at least one relationship where I was dating a toxic narcissist. In our “look at me, fan me, follow me” culture, it seems like everyone has a place in the spectrum of self-absorbed behavior that is narcissism. However, there’s an important difference between having narcissistic tendencies and being a toxic narcissist, someone’s whose behavior is so wildly destructive, oblivious of consequences, and inconsiderate of others’ feelings that it’s nearly impossible for them to be in an authentic relationship built on love, trust, and support.
In their book Help! I’m in Love with a Narcissist, authors Steven Carter and Julia Sokol gave ample examples of relationships featuring toxic narcissists and their clueless counterparts. To help those of you who might be reluctant to come to terms with the fact that you are in love with a narcissist, here is a checklist of what dating a narcissist feels like:
• You’ll feel like you’re doing most of the “work” in the relationship.
• Your partner will do things to sabotage the relationship from moving forward—but doesn’t want to completely let you go either.
• Your partner may have a long history of troubled relationships and addictions of all kinds.
• Your partner may have recurring episodes of infidelity—which he or she somehow makes your fault.
• You’ll feel emotionally drained by how hard you have to work to make your partner happy.
• The relationship will be organized primarily around your partner’s interests and activities.
• You’ll feel controlled or manipulated by your partner’s moods and ideas.
• You’ll often have to explain, apologize, or cover up for your partner’s bad behavior.
• Your partner will make unilateral decisions that impact your safety and well-being.
• You sometimes feel unsafe by the actions of your partner.
• Your partner will refuse to see your good intentions, always making you the “bad guy.”
• You find yourself desperately trying to get back to the “good ole days” of the early parts of the relationship when it seemed like you could do no wrong.
Did you recognize your relationship among any—or even several—of the qualities above? Though authors Carter and Sokol were adamant that “you are not going to be able to fix, change, cure, or heal the narcissists in your life,” they do offer several steps you can take to protect yourself against further exploitation or abuse from the narcissist that you love.
• Establish healthy boundaries: Like helpless newborn babies that are intimately connected to their mothers, narcissists often have nearly nonexistent boundaries with their partners, seemingly sucking the life energy out of the people that love them. By putting a limit on how much of your time, energy, patience, and understanding you will give to the narcissist in your life, you are teaching him or her that loving him or her does not equal letting them take over your life.
• Establish a firm sense of self-worth and self-knowledge: Narcissists feed off of other people’s attention, admiration, and loyalty. If you have a firm sense of who you are, your values, and what you truly enjoy doing, you will be less likely to get drawn into the narcissist’s all-consuming world.
• Get professional help: Though most narcissists will refuse to join you for couples’ counseling, you can and should seek professional help on your own. A professional can help you uncover why you are drawn toward narcissists, and how you can break out of that destructive pattern so that you can find true and lasting love.
Healing from a relationship with a toxic narcissist first takes a willingness to admit that you’re in a relationship with one. Though it’s painful to admit that the person we love might love themselves and their own interests way more than they actually love us, it’s better to be honest with ourselves so we can move on rather than continue to be the supporting actor in someone else’s drama.