Recovering from Narcissistic Relationships
What is Narcissism and Why Is It So Common?
Defining narcissism faces difficulty from the outset because there is a vast distinction between narcissistic traits and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Almost everyone in society has a narcissistic moment, from time to time — but this is vastly different than displaying a virtually immutable mental illness.
This muddled terminology can lead to muddled statistics — and it can also leave people who are dealing with narcissism (in the form of narcissistic marriage or narcissism in relationships, generally) in a loop of ongoing confusion when trying to get a simple answer to the fundamental question, “What are the signs of Narcissism?”.
Signs of Narcissism
Many individuals may navigate society with an inflated sense of self, in an attempt to offset or counterbalance latent feelings of low self worth. They may be perceived as somewhat obnoxious, due to their propensity to hold a monopoly on conversations, to flaunt rules and social conventions, to fixate on their appearance, to demand unreasonable expectations and to disregard others entirely in their quest to secure praise, praise — and more praise.
Other signs of narcissism include an acute fear of abandonment and the inclination to believe that everything and anything is always someone else’s fault — but it’s in this latter characteristic of failure to take personal responsibility that discernment between “garden variety” narcissistic traits and pathological narcissism begins to emerge.
Most of us can concede that we have been guilty of oversharing, trivial vanity, seeking approval or fearing abandonment on certain occasions. So some signs of narcissism are just part and parcel of the human ego, and we try to stay attuned to ensure that they do not get out of hand — but for the pathological narcissist, this inflated sense of self is their only reality, and they are both incapable and unwilling to access the fractured psyche that lies below it.
Pathological narcissists exist in a persistent “bubble” of self-gratifying delusion which assumes that their feelings and needs are the only feelings and needs that exist. And we mean this literally, in that pathological narcissists do not meaningfully realize that other people’s feelings and needs exist, only to conclude that they do not matter — instead, they are not able to truly register on any emotionally cognizant level that people are more than mere objects.
They perceive all other parties, “players” and participants as being present solely for the purpose of bolstering their feelings and serving their needs — so they are intrinsically incapable of experiencing empathy for anyone other than themselves, and they are equally unequipped to formulate the personal accountability required for change. Essentially, people are just “chess pieces” that pathological narcissists move about the board to suit their incessant yet unconscious drive to be “filled up” by others.
Narcissism and Abuse
Narcissism is related to abuse in much the same way that addiction is related to abuse — not all narcissists or addicts are abusive, but there is definitely a disproportionately high correlation between these conditions.
Consider that chronic abusers — meaning abusers who have a history of harming others and will continue to harm others without any motivation to seek help — are pathological by nature, meaning that they are incapable of changing because they are equally incapable of recognizing the devastating impact of their behavior. For example, consider the term “pathological liar”. What makes a pathological liar so skilled at lying, is that they do not realize that they are lying! Indeed, if you ask a pathological liar to give you an earnest assessment of their own character, they will readily report that they are a very open, honest and sincere person — and they will mean this, wholeheartedly!
In the same way, pathological narcissists cannot conceive of anyone else’s feelings or needs, other than their own. And, they cannot conceive of the impact or devastation of their actions. It’s not that they see this and make a conscious decision not to care — it fundamentally does not register!
So if a pathological narcissist also happens to be an abuse survivor, themselves — the toxic and often lethal mixture of abusive patterns that they have developed combined with a psychological inability to formulate empathy or accountability means they can and will continue abusing with no internal mechanisms to stop them.
Essentially, an abusive pathological narcissist can “slam you into a wall” (whether emotionally or physically, since both emotional abuse and physical abuse disrupt the same pain centers within the brain) — and, then, wonder why you are crying. Furthermore, they can “slam you into a wall” and then expect you to take care of them and their feelings about the incident. In short, use of word pathological signifies that they will remain unaware of the “fallout” from their actions — just like a pathological liar remains hopelessly unaware of their deceitfulness.
What Causes Narcissism?
Inflated narcissistic traits can be caused by everything from over praising to lack of praising, during the formative years. In general, healthy families and healthy parenting techniques tend to run toward the “center of the road” rather than to the extremes. Of course, there is no such thing as a “perfect parent” and, gratefully, children do not need perfection from their parents. In fact, even if it were possible to provide a “perfect upbringing”, this would likely leave a child ill-prepared for an imperfect world — so rest assured that steadfast parental efforts toward protection and supportiveness will suffice to raise welladjusted children.
But as we have learned, pathological narcissism is radically different from the presence of basic, narcissistic traits. When we say pathological — we mean that the core problem is embedded within the brain.
Psychological studies have shown that individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder have diminished grey matter in the areas of the brain associated with empathy. Understanding this means that the root cause of pathological narcissism can vary within each individual because brain malformation or disruption can be caused by genetics, malnutrition, emotional trauma, physical trauma or injury — and a host of other variables.
Dealing with Narcissism
Many people first seek help for narcissistic marriage problems or narcissism in relationships of a romantic nature, by seeking some form of “narcissism relationship consultation” — a couples therapy session in which both parties are presenting as willing and wanting to get help.
But for pathological narcissists, any visit to a therapist or counselor is usually a sign of what is commonly known as Hoovering narcissistic abuse. Named after the vaccuum, Hoovering narcissistic abuse involves an abuser being motivated to display remorse and to seek help — solely for the purpose of “reeling” the victim back in, if they have attempted to exit the toxic relationship.
Again, by definition, narcissists are only compelled to act based upon what will serve their feelings and needs — so there is not a broad market for anything such as Narcissism Counseling or Therapy. Pathological narcissists will likely never show up to a counselor’s office, unless they are trying to either reassert dominion over a victim or satisfy a court order.
They do not realize that they have a problem! They think it’s all your fault! Trying to explain empathy and accountability to a pathological narcissist is much like trying to explain the concept of “air” to a fish — they simply have no point of reference for this, psychologically. “Water” (or in the case of the narcissist, “Self”) is their only reality.
So it is actually the victims of narcissists that are dealing with narcissism — because thenarcissist never will.
Narcissism Counseling and Help
When victims call in to seek couples sessions or “narcissism relationship consultation” for help with narcissistic marriage problems or narcissism in relationships with romantic “partners”, biological family members, friendships or coworkers — qualified counselors will soon be able to determine that only one party (the victim) is capable of the level of selfreflection, empathy and accountability required for internal transformation.
Pathological narcissists may rarely be able to make minimal, surface-level amendments to their behavior, but only if they are sufficiently driven by a self-serving agenda. For instance, a pathological narcissist who is also a violent alcoholic may on some occasions be able to attend a recovery program and stop drinking, but solely for the purpose of avoiding prison or maintaining their charming persona — they will never be motivated to seek help because of the pain that they have caused to others.
So recovering from narcissistic relationships starts with educating victims about the psychology of pathological narcissism — and helping them to gradually grieve and accept the reality, that the narcissist will never substantively change. Once this has been accomplished, healing from the damaging effects of narcissism, learning empowering emotional skills, cultivating healthy support systems and setting protective boundaries can begin. Boundaries are the most important factor in recovering from narcissistic relationships. The more toxic or abusive a narcissist is — the more definitive the boundaries must be.