“Enough about me, tell me more about me.” Anonymous narcissist
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a condition in which a person’s fragile self-esteem and sensitivity to criticism is expressed through:
an inflated sense of their own importance
a deep need for excessive attention and admiration
and a lack of empathy for others
While this condition is found in 1% or less of the population, narcissistic traits and accompanying behaviors are much more common and can have an outsized impact on the people in a narcissist’s life.
Understanding narcissistic abuse and how to heal from it is one of my speciality areas, and goes hand in hand with working on boundaries and developing and nurturing healthy relationships. Therapy can be a helpful tool in addressing narcissistic abuse from parents/family, romantic relationships, or to work on healing after separating from these relationships. Each of these scenarios provides a different set of challenges to be considered, but navigating all of these experiences can be overwhelming, leaving you feeling trapped and depleted.
Types of Narcissistic Abuse
Narcissistic parenting is an incredibly complex and painful experience, as the abuse is coming from the person who should be your primary attachment figure. Children, and adult children, of narcissistic parents often feel invalidated, in a constant search for approval, or trapped in a cycle of emotional manipulation, which can lead to anxiety, people-pleasing, low self-esteem, and depression. Gaslighting, a common feature of narcissistic abuse, is a disorienting experience for anyone, but for a child can damage one’s sense of self and identity. When considering long-term impacts, research connects childhood trauma to chronic health conditions and higher rates of autoimmune disease. The experience can, quite literally, make us sick.
The footprint of narcissistic abuse often becomes evident when experiencing a struggle to form healthy emotional attachments in romantic relationships or friendships. It’s difficult to create something that hasn’t been modeled for you, and low self-esteem makes it challenging to know how to hold appropriate boundaries and set the expectation of how you want to be treated with a partner. Working through these issues in a therapeutic space can offer an opportunity to establish a deeper understanding of these wounds, begin the healing journey, learn the tools and skills to reconnect with your needs, and create the emotionally-secure relationships with others that we all deserve.
Romantic relationships with narcissists can be profoundly painful experiences that leave a partner feeling disoriented and unconnected to their own needs and wishes. A narcissistic partner takes up such a tremendous amount of emotional and psychological space that it can take an outsized effort to find the energy to address your own care. Often, by the time someone realizes that there is something wrong with their relationship, it is difficult to leave without a prolonged battle, and partners caught in this abusive dynamic can experience guilt for “abandoning” their abuser. Healing may involve difficult choices, including whether to stay in the relationship or sever ties.
Therapeutic work can help by providing a space to gain clarity and receive support to make decisions that align with your well-being and future happiness. The aftermath of these relationships is a time of rebuilding one’s sense of self. Many former partners of narcissists find themselves left with questions: “How did I miss the signs?” “What made me vulnerable to this person’s manipulation?” “How do I avoid repeating this type of relationship in the future?” Working through the answers to these questions can make the difference in where you grow from there. This is a time to gain an understanding of your role in the relationship, cultivate self-compassion and resilience, and develop boundaries that feel more sustainable moving forward.
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Excerpts from "How to Spot the Signs of a Narcissist. . . ":
Like Narcissus, “a narcissist is a person who needs a constant reflecting pool,” explains Gina Polesetsky, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in California who specializes in narcissistic abuse recovery. “They’re constantly looking to have themselves affirmed and validated.”
And while narcissists usually present as being very confident, “the root of narcissism is actually a lack of self-esteem,” says Polesetsky. “It’s actually the hollowness this person feels that is causing these big grandiose behaviors.” You might think of it as “fake it until you make it” personified.
Narcissists need your love (like seriously need it). “They need it because that’s the fuel that keeps them going,” says Polesetsky. “When it’s pulled away, that’s when you see a lot of problems in these relationships.” Read: Lashing out, threats, stalking behaviors, petty accusations, and gaslighting.
As a result, narcissists will often look for partners who won’t notice they’re a reflecting pool and can’t perceive the hollowness of the relationship. Someone who’s hungry for love and is willing to overlook red flags, for example, is often a target. So when this person says, “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you,” after going on a few dates, an alarm doesn’t go off in their brain that’s like, “Gosh, that’s kind of weird because I barely even know this person,” explains Polesetsky.
Excerpts from "How to Spot a Covert Narcissist. . . ":
Unlike an overt narcissist, a covert narcissist is often less grandiose, centered on being “the victim,” and uses passive aggressive behaviors to manipulate the people around them into giving them what they want, adds Gina Polesetsky, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California who specializes in narcissistic abuse recovery.
“Covert narcissists believe they are constantly being victimized, defamed, persecuted, and treated unfairly by anyone around them that isn’t bending to their every will,” says Polesetsky.
In traditional narcissistic fashion, they can’t accept fault for their own problems so they have to find fault in others. They’re also quite often pathological liars, which is simply a necessary adaptation to keep themselves playing the role of the victim and gaining the help and attention of those around them, Polesetsky adds.
Covert narcissists have a hard time maintaining meaningful relationships. That makes sense, considering other factors (i.e. being manipulative and passive aggressive). They may become enamored very quickly. But as soon as they tire of the person or the person catches onto their toxic tendencies, they’ll quickly move onto the next, says Polesetsky. Despite moving on though, they hold terrible grudges.
As someone who’s constantly losing jobs and friends left and right, you can imagine that a covert narcissist doesn’t stick with anything for too long. “It’s both a consequence of boredom, and also they burn so many bridges that they just have to keep going,” explains Polesetsky.
The partner of a covert narcissist is often doing a lot of the emotional labor, says Polesetsky. And while a covert narcissist is often better than an overt narcissist at the performative aspects of maintaining a relationship, “they still lack empathy, and so there’s a certain hollowness to their gestures.”
“They are the master of chaos, and if they aren’t creating it naturally through their own behavior, they often will manufacture drama to feed their need for attention,” says Polesetsky.