Before becoming a psychologist, I always thought narcissism was a disorder of excessive self-love. This premise was likely based on hazy recollections of high school readings of Greek mythology, where Narcissus, known for his youthful beauty, spurns nymph Echo’s love and instead becomes so enamored with his reflection that he perishes from the unrequited romance. Outside of the world of mythology, what happens to those who fall for a narcissist?Is it always this fatal?
Narcissism is a complicated phenomenon on a spectrum, ranging from healthy to unhealthy, from a few personality traits to a full-blown personality disorder. In a healthy early family environment, children engage in an ordinary pursuit of self-interest with adequate empathy and balanced positive regard. This allows for the development of a mature self, capable of having good self-esteem and meaningful relationships. In unhealthy environments, marked by early caregivers’ lack of empathy and aggression (on the other end of the spectrum, overindulgence), there is the possibility of developing a narcissistic disturbance. Studies indicate there may be a genetic component as well (particularly in the father-daughter dyad).
What is pathological narcissism? First and foremost, it is characterized by an “entitled sense of self-importance,” along with dependency on excessive admiration, belief that one requires special treatment, and a lack of empathy. The covert, vulnerable type is marked by over-sensitivity and insecurity, which can cover a hidden internal sense of self-importance. The overt, grandiose type is characterized by arrogance and dominance, which can cover deep inner emptiness or fragility. At the end of the pathological continuum is malignant narcissism,a form of psychopathy that includes paranoia, anti-social traits, and sadism. This is a particularly concerning combination, especially if a person is in a position of power.
Is it easy to fall for one? Most definitely. You’ve indeed met a few in your life and perhaps didn’t even know it. On the outside, individuals with narcissism can appear quite charming, commanding, and confident. After all, they thrive on being admired. In romantic relationships, they may have little trouble attracting partners, and at work, their confidence is initially impressive. Research shows that many become volatile romantic partners and poor organizational leaders, lacking in competence and ethics. Individuals with pathological narcissism are more prone to engage in anti-social behaviors like lying, cheating, stealing, and substance abuse. Beneath the public persona of surface charm, they may be hypersensitive to slights, quick to anger, lacking in the flexibility of perspective, unable to admit mistakes, and incapable of emotional intimacy.
Why do people stay in relationships with those who suffer from pathological narcissism? Some may not have a choice, mainly when dealing with a family member, a coworker, or a boss. Others may be taken in by gaslighting, an insidious and highly effective strategy of creating doubt in reality, which can fool even the brightest of individuals. Tools used to accomplish this include:
- Lying and then denying it, even with evidence
- Putting a wedge between the individual and their family/friends
- Telling the individual that everyone else is lying (family, friends, previously trusted sources of information)
- Switching between attacking, praising, and accusing
Why does this work? When feeling lost/confused, the human tendency is to trust the one who will (conveniently) help you feel more stable – the gaslighter.
Finally, there is the category of loyalists who will stand by someone with pathological narcissism, either because they benefit from the relationship in some transactional way or because they are co-dependent. Along with family members or spurned spouses, partners of the latter type are much more likely to be the ones to come in for therapy. They are often looking for support but are reluctant to leave the relationship as they may be struggling with life-long low self-esteem, lack of assertiveness, and reliance on caretaking/pleasing as a way of earning love.
Many who find themselves with a partner with pathological narcissism typically look to exit the relationship. Most people with healthy self-esteem who desire an empathic and fair relationship will struggle to find one here. Narcissism may be easy to fall for, but it’s tough to live with.
Lancer, D. (2014). Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Minnesota: Hazelden Foundation.
Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People – and Break Free – book by Stephanie Moulton Sarkis PhD
Wirtz, N., & Rigotti, T. (2020). When Grandiose Meets Vulnerable: Narcissism and Well-Being in the Organizational Context. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology.
Yakeley, J. (2018). Current Understanding of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Cambridge University Press, Volume 24 (issue 5).