The Pocket Guide to Narcissism: Nourishing Recovery from Crazymakers (or Becky’s Kitchen Table Therapy)Posted: October 30, 2014
Nourishing Yourself When Recovering From Crazy-making Relationships
As the title of our first book says, sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cook, sometimes we cry. Today, I (Becky) sit at my virtual kitchen table, and turn a face of compassion and empathy to those who cry, particularly to those who’ve been a part of a crazy-making relationship with someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
I spent some time this past week with several sweet souls who’d become entwined with a person who exuded what felt like genuine warmth and charm; then they woke one day to realize they had been discarded, maligned or emotionally abused by this very same friend, lover, spouse or relative. So this particular brand of pain is deep on my heart this morning. If you or someone you know has been hit and run-over by someone with NPD, this post is for you. I’ve put the kettle on, and offer you the kitchen sink: all I’ve learned and gleaned on the subject.
The fall from a Narcissist’s pedestal is often shocking, sudden, disorienting, and excruciating. If the relationship was long-term or involved a close relative, it is not an easy recovery, and nearly always leaves the victim with some form of post-traumatic stress. (It isn’t called a “crazymaking disorder” for nothing. You may question your sanity and sense of reality for awhile. Which is often the unstated goal of an NPD. )
The healing path will involve a lot of self-nourishing: surrounding yourself with the love, affirmation, caring, and space to be human as you recover. If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you may feel as though your head is in a blender, and need help unraveling truth from fiction, reality from their fantasy.
Below is a list of NPD traits to help you get clarity whenever you feel caught in the whirl of their “special kind of logic” — in fact, you may want to print out this list and keep it handy when you need to extract yourself from their convoluted web. The list is long, but in my experience, those who are in recovery from this brand of dysfunctional relationship are hungry for all the information they can get. So here’s the whole enchilada.
1, The Narcissist’s Image is the most important thing to them.They do not have a true sense of self, only the self that appears when “on stage,” receiving fresh applause or “narcissistic fixes.” These hits of praise, from increasingly new sources are the food that keeps a narcissist alive. (Often referred to as Narcissistic Supply.)
2. They lack true empathy. However, they can mimic it when it serves their purposes for a period of time, usually while they are courting your attention. The smarter they are, the better they are at mimicking things like caring, authenticity, warmth and even vulnerability. However, they can’t keep up the act forever, and when they’ve gotten all the narcissistic supply they can squeeze from you, you’ll a) be dropped while they search for new sources of admiration or b) treat you as an “object of contempt” and possibly actively seek ways to hurt, disparage and belittle you.
3. You may notice a lack of congruency in their facial expressions and words. They may be saying, “I’m so sorry for what you are going through…” but their body language doesn’t line up. No tears in eyes, no touching, no emotive natural expression of empathy. No deep listening. Their delivery can be oddly detached. You have a feeling in your gut that you are not being truly seen or heard. (Unless it is a performance at the beginning of the courtship dance, or an act for the benefit of on-lookers.) You may feel as though they are pushing you into a mold of their own making, an image that does not resonate with the way you and others see you.
4. They value people they perceive as cool, special, successful or attractive and spend lots of time winning their notice, seeking their approval. People who they perceive to be leaders of influence, or a little hard-to-get are prime targets. They hope to gain significance by association in order to validate their own fragile sense of worth.
5. NPDs eventually show contempt for people who actually love and show authentic empathy for them. Their unconscious internal dialogue goes something like this, “If you love and accept me and treat me well, you obviously don’t know who I really am. I now despise your lack of true insight.”
6. If you make the mistake of giving unsolicited advice, or don’t believe and express that everything they do is flawless, or they perceive you as slighting them or preferring another person in any small way, you can trigger an internal “shame response” in them that is unbearable for them. (There is a lot written about narcissists and their responses to “perceived slights” and shame-based world views.) Your dismissal from their favor will thus be fast and furious.
7. You cannot win with a narcissist. Love them unconditionally and they will eventually despise and feel contempt for you. Reveal who they are (human beings with flaws), try to draw boundaries, and they will retaliate or move on to fresh sources of narcissistic supply. They hate it when their “image” is uncovered. They will do desperate, manipulative things to try to prop their image back up, and tear you down.
8. Intimacy is impossible. Intimacy requires mutual giving and receiving. Mutual caring. Mutual understanding and forgiving. You cannot create intimacy when only one person in a relationship is giving, caring, listening, admiring, understanding and patient.
9. They spend large amounts of time fantasizing about their attractiveness, power or success, significance or coolness. (Image polishing.) They construct their world to feed these fantasies
10. If you are a spouse or a child you’ll often feel as if you are walking on eggshells. Some Narcissists make surprisingly good parents to small children, because little ones can be manipulated to give almost unending supplies of affection that feed a narcissists’ need to be constantly adored. But when children grow and become independent or show affection for others, the problems begin. Narcissists see their kids as extensions of themselves, and take personal pride and kudos when their children do well or become a “mini me”. But they may over-react with contemptuous behaviors when their children show flaws, independent thinking, love others in widening circles and no longer supply the parent with unconditional admiration.
11. They are always right and fail to recognize how their actions, words and behaviors impact others. Don’t even try to argue, to explain your viewpoint or your feelings. Your feelings and impressions do not exist or matter in their world. A waste of your precious limited energy.
12. They are often articulate and sound logical, but when you step away from their conversation you realize that they are not following normal reasoning. You must “follow what they DO” and not “what they SAY” or you’ll feel lost in their alligator roll.
13. Narcissists vary in tactics but their underlying core needs are the same: to keep their image constantly propped up. Sometimes, narcissists were treated as the center of their parents’ universe. But more often they were abused, shamed or neglected as a child and got emotionally stuck there… (known as “the narcissistic or pyschic wound”). They may have begun life with an open tender heart. Therefore shame from the abuse or neglect was so painful they went emotionally numb, losing a sense of identity.Their internal life is about seeking intense feelings that help erase that sense of numbness or lack of a clear sense of self. Praise from fresh sources, or anything that gives them a rush of adrenalin, helps ease this internal state of pain or worse: no-feeling.
14. NPDs tend see politics and religion in black and white extremes. There is rarely middle ground. They can become addicted to the power-rush provided by extreme political views in media or extreme-exclusivity in their religion. They tend toward viewpoints that allow them to look down in superiority on large groups of others who don’t believe exactly as they do. Feeling superior is a big adrenalin hit to their psyche.
15. NPDs often shine in careers that put them in a one-up position. They are drawn to professions of power, are often lawyers, doctors, actors. They do best when they don’t have to submit to authority; so they are often entrepreneurs or bosses. They can also be clergy (as long as they can escape real accountability) who prefer pontificating to the masses over one-on-one ministry Some thrive in helping professions because this allows them to prop up the image of being a benevolent, though condescending, savior.
16. Some narcissists are openly grandiose. Others, usually those who are brighter, may actually know how to put on an act of humility… but watch their actions, not their words and you’ll see they are seeking a constant, nonstop flow of praise; or be attempting associate with others who they perceive as being popular, beautiful, smart and successful – as props to their own ego. (You may have once been their “trophy spouse” or “trophy friend” or “trophy child”…) Those who have often loved and given them the most often find themselves suddenly the object of their contempt.
17. They will often treat you one way in public (with an audience), another in private. They tend to be nicer to you when you are down than when you are up and happy. In fact, they will often “bring you down” when you are happy or feeling good about a job well done, in order help bring you up once you are decimated or depressed by their condescending or critical responses. Pay attention to the pattern of them “bringing you down” (putting you in your place) so they can “bring you up” (be the rescuer-hero)… happening in regular cycles.
18. Conversations tend to wind up being about them, listening to their opinions and stories and angst and insight. “That’s enough about me. Now, let’s talk about what YOU think about me.” You’ll be expected to give 100% whenever they need you. But you must not have any expectations of them.
19. Jealousy and envy are prime emotions. They are either actively jealous of others or wanting to make others envious of them.
20. Their need to always be right makes it impossible for them to step back and do self-evaluation or take an internal inventory. Therapy is seldom successful since they do not see themselves as needing any kind of real help, with such a strong need to appear already perfect.
21. Emotional Grenades — NPDs are masters at diversion. When you get close to the truth about them, they’ll throw an emotional bomb (perhaps with a hint of truth) by bringing up you’ve done in the past, or a flaw you are sensitive to, and get you to stop looking at them and start self-examining. This is a powerful technique to keep all prying eyes off of them.
22. Accusations — they will most often accuse you of doing the negative things they are actually doing. In fact, if you want to know what a narcissist is up to, ask yourself, “What bizarre thing are they accusing me of?” Therein lies what they are doing.
23. Lying is as common as breathing for many NPDs. Though they will guard their “lie” as the “truth” to the very end. Because “their truth” is THE truth. (Think Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, or Ric hard Nixon’s interviews with David Frost.)
24. Gas Lighting — this phrase comes from an old movie where a husband tricks his wife into believing she has lost her mind. If you feel your grasp on sanity is becoming more fragile when around this person, they could be “gas lighting” you. (I.E Tell you that you did not see something you saw, hear something you heard, etc. There is a book by this name that could prove helpful is this is happening to you.)
25. Intermittent Abuse/Affection – psychiatrists have found that some of the most damaging abuse is emotional abuse, where there appears to be no real pattern or rhyme or reason to someone’s sudden 180% turn away from you after a time of great affection. The carrot of your expected performance is always moving, shifting, without warning or reason. This is truly crazy-making. Lab animals can go insane or into despair when they cannot figure out a pattern to avoid mistreatment and to receive rewards. It can also make people form “trauma bonds” to their intermittent abuser. (See “Stockholm Syndrome”)
Loving a narcissistic is a tragedy for all involved. You may get windows, or glimpses of the NPDs original wound and feel deep empathy for what you see there, and put up with all manner of neglect or abuse hoping to help or save them. The tragedy is that a narcissist is often called “unfixable” because they cannot be helped by even the most loving, consistent, patient and insightful of people. The pattern is too deeply embedded and even the most skilled psychiatrists admit that these are the most hopeless of cases, psychologically speaking.
Relationships with true NPDs can be managed, but they cannot be healed. They can function in certain scenarios better than others, they may do better with some personality types than others, and they may even mellow with time. (NPD men may see lessening of anger and impulsive behaviors as testosterone wanes in later years.) They CAN show love and feel affection, but it is within strong limits. (They love you as much as they can, but it may still come very short of what a normal person needs.) Medication can be helpful to ease some of the depression and agitation that often go with the disorder, but few narcissists will seek it out or take it, as this is an assault to the pride. (Though self-medicating with drugs or alcohol is okay somehow.) Most professionals agree that, as of now, there is no known cure for someone with true Narcissistic Personality Disorder. (There is, however, improvement possible for people with narcissistic traits who don’t have a full-blown disorder.)
As a Christian, this has been a hard truth to swallow, but I believe some invisible wounds to the brain and psyche, like losing a limb, will not be restored until heaven. Loving someone who has NPD, keeping realistic expectations of their limitations (psychological handicap) and their inability to love normally, is actually freeing. You can love them with detachment; but you have to remember they cannot love you back in return, not in all the true meanings of the word “love.”
If you recognize an NPD early and can simply avoid and “Run, Forrest, Run”… do so. If they are someone you are close to, and can’t escape from, expect all of the above scenarios, and guard yourself. Stay smart with your heart. Minimize time with them if you can and most of all, minimize their influence over you.
Then surround yourself with normal, healthy, upbeat, stable people who are able to show real give and take caring and true authentic emotion. If you must be in regular contact with a narcissist be sure to get regular support from a therapist or support group trained in dealing with NPD to help you remain clear, at peace, and out of the alligator roll.
And may I just say, with all the empathy and compassion in my heart: I am so sorry for the hurt and bewilderment you’ve experienced in this relationship. You did not and you do not deserve this treatment. What you do deserve is lots of self-care as you recover from it. You did nothing wrong, the true colors of someone with NPD often don’t show themselves until you are in some sort of committed relationship. If you’d never heard of Narcissism and its traits, there is no way you could have done any better than you did to survive at the time. We do the best with what we know to do, we do better as we know more.
Three basic steps to healing from a crazymaking relationship are:
1) Educate yourself on NPDs and the effect they have on others (and techniques to minimize this effect). There are many wonderful books, but the one I recommend most is titled When the Object of Their Affection is Their Reflection.
2) Detach and minimize contact as much as possible (Al-anon literature is fabulous for this,whether or not your NPD has addiction issues. Learning how to detach-with-love is an emotional life saver. You may also find help from books on co-dependency, though sometimes these can be a bit condescending and that’s the last thing a person in recovery from NPD needs. I always recommend the book, Why Does He Do That? to women who have been severely emotionally and physically abused by a dangerous narcissist. After you heal, you will have very little if any tolerance for the slightest forms of belittling, because it can trigger painful past experiences of helplessness. (And you won’t be helpless anymore!)
3) Prioritize your own emotional nourishment; make your well-being at the top of your list. (I often recommend Lucille Zimmerman’s book, Renewed, to women who need to call a time-out and learn the art of self-care. If you can find and afford a therapist who is familiar with NPD and how to help those recovering from it, it will be a huge investment in your well-being. )
Please pass along this blog post to anyone you know who is caught in this web. It may be “Ah-ha” revelation that leads to the “Ahhhhh….” of a more healthy, happy, nourished life.