Living with a narcissist... can it be done?
What is a narcissist? Is it someone who is very vain and thinks a little too highly of themselves. Of course, some people are vain and they get great pleasure from who they are, how they look and what they are about.
However, when we talk about someone with a narcissistic personality disorder, it is important to acknowledge, that this is a mental health disorder. The person in question will often be arrogant, manipulative, demanding and selfish; lacking empathy towards others. They will have an inflated idea of who they are and what they offer to the world. There will be a deep need for admiration/special treatment from those around them and to achieve this, they often create a facade of charm to ‘outsiders'.
A narcissist will enjoy taking risks in life, feeling that they are too clever or special to be found out and exhibit aggressive, defensive behaviours especially when someone points out their faults.
The story of Narcissus, a hunter and son of the river god Cephissus, comes from Greek mythology. He was handsome, admired and loved by those who met him but he felt contempt for others, paying them no interest. Whilst hunting, he was seen by a nymph called Echo, who immediately fell in love with him yet, when she tried to touch Narcissus, he rejected her. In her despair, she roamed the woods until there was nothing left of her but an echo. When Nemesis, the Goddess of retribution learnt what had happened, she decided to punish Narcissus by leading him to a pool, whereby he saw his own reflection and immediately fell in love with it! Initially, Narcissus did not realise it was just his own reflection but once he understood, he fell into a deep despair that this ‘love’ could never be realised and took his own life.
Whilst reading the above, there can almost be a ‘splitting’ of emotions towards Narcissus. On the one hand, you may feel anger, frustration, distaste for this beautiful man, who seems preoccupied with his own existence, unaware of how uncaring he is towards others. Yet, when Narcissus is punished for his behaviour, we can see his vulnerability and despair. Underneath the exterior, there was a person that could be affected by the loss of love and connection.
Perhaps we need to look underneath the behaviour of the narcissist to understand what is really going on within. This does not make living with this personality type any easier and it can truly be very difficult to maintain a congruent, loving relationship with this disorder. The exact cause of narcissism is not really known but when we look at the parent/child relationship and the years of development, the answers may lie there.
Parents or caregivers that put inflated expectations on their child, placing them up on a pedestal, expecting huge achievements, perhaps beyond their age and capabilities. Giving continual praise, either relating to the physical, psychological or both, can lead the child to develop an unrealistic view of themselves and therefore on others around them. There is also a huge pressure on them to always be beautiful, handsome, clever, better than others to be loved and accepted.
Of course, it is vital to nurture a child, to love and support them; helping them to develop a healthy ego and self-esteem. Unfortunately, there can be an imbalance and the ego can be unhealthily inflated. A developing child needs to experience failure and to have space for the imperfection that goes with being ‘human'.
Narcissism may also have developed through an experience of a very different type of upbringing. The child may have faced constant criticism and negative messages, neglect and abuse. This then may result in a personality that becomes self-contained and self-centred; a type of survival instinct. They become the most important person to themselves, developing an inflated idea of who they are as a defence against the trauma of abuse and the feeling of not being ‘good enough'.
Whatever the reason for the narcissistic behaviours, we can see that there is vulnerability underneath and we can also see that a healthy ego has not been allowed to develop. Living with someone with this disorder can be extremely demanding and distressing. Quite often, if you try to speak about your partner’s behaviour to others, they will become confused, as they see someone very different. You may find yourself describing to friends and family, a person who is controlling with bouts of rage and they may be experiencing a charming person who is great fun to be around.
It is easy to feel isolated and lonely in this type of relationship, especially if you have tried unsuccessfully reaching out and talking to those around you. Talking to a professional, who will listen with understanding and provide you with a supportive space, may possibly help.
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About Jayne Phillips
Jayne is a fully qualified, BACP registered psychotherapeutic counsellor, working in private practice and as a youth counsellor for Off the Record in Bath.