Someone recently asked me to write a post to share my perspective on how to find a measure of balance in life, love, and relationships when you have a narcissist in your environment.
At the end of part 2 of How to Live with a Narcissist in your Environment, I said that the experience of having a narcissist in your life will change you, for the worse, for the better, for the better because you took a trip into the worst, and many variations in between. You may lose your ability to tell what is worse and what is better… you may have to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.
If you have a narcissist in your life, you already know that the experience has changed you. Those changes are often what prompts a person to search online for answers, sometimes to find a way to reverse the changes.
Since I’ve been blogging about narcissists, I’ve had many people share their experiences of relationships with narcissists with me. A significant number of people have started their stories with something along the lines of: “Before the narcissist came into my life I was beautiful/attractive, intelligent, successful, independent, confident, had good self-esteem, was happy, had fun, had hopes and dreams, had a great social life, had lots of friends…” After having a narcissist in their life they often say that they don’t know who they are anymore, they’re confused, depressed, anxious, afraid, feel as though they’ve lost everything they had and were and don’t know how to get it back, how to get back to who and where they once were.
For more on the effects of a narcissist on you and your life – Narcissistic Victim Syndrome: What the heck is that? – this article is written by and for mental health professionals, which makes it a particularly interesting read.
As a child of narcissists, I’ve never had a life or a ‘me’ before the narcissist. I did used to try to imagine what my life and I would be like if I had grown up with loving, caring, supportive parents, in a nurturing and nourishing, stable and safe environment. What would it be like to think and feel that I was beautiful/attractive, intelligent, successful, independent, confident, and had good self-esteem, was happy, had fun, had hopes and dreams, had a great social life, had lots of friends…
Occasionally I would feel beautiful/attractive – but if either of my parents noticed this, I would be immediately reminded of how ugly/unattractive I was. The parts of me which were allowed to be beautiful/attractive belonged to my parents – and when my parents were hating each other (which was most of the time) those features became a target to the parent they didn’t belong to. Shall I compare thee to… the person I hate the most right now, yes, I shall because it will make me feel better – who cares how it makes you feel!
Sometimes I would be required to be intelligent, so that my parents could ‘show off’ their ‘genius’ = look at how smart our child is, our child is smarter than yours, which means we’re superior parents. Most of the time being intelligent around my parents was a problem – How dare I make them look/feel stupid! Not being intelligent enough was also a problem.
I was not allowed to be successful unless my parents could take all the credit for it. Mostly I tried to avoid ‘winning’ at anything, standing out, because it immediately made me a target. My parents were highly competitive and always had to win – the sooner you lost, the sooner the torture ended. I was regularly told I was a failure in all of the millions of ways that you can be told that – one of the favourite ways narcissists like to do that is through comparison with someone else or themselves which = you’re not good enough because someone else, especially them, is better.
Independence is a very definite NO-NO with a narcissist in your life. They own you, you belong to them, they need you to be available 24/7 (25/8 to be more precise). They isolate you so that you have to depend on them – you will often be told that you’re a burden, that you depend too much on them, that you’re too clingy, you’re suffocating them, you’re draining their resources. If you go missing (you could be in an obvious place, like in plain sight, but they can’t see you/find you), find somewhere to hide (I loved those places), aren’t around when they need you, they will seek you out and accuse you of abandoning them at their time of need (I once hid in a closet just to have a moment to myself and BOOM suddenly my mother’s face appeared, peering at me, needing my attention).
Confidence, self-esteem – narcissists are obsessed with these concepts. They will scour the world to find the secrets to having and owning them. They will buy into every movement which promises to give those to them – they prefer the movements which offer them a quick way to get them, a magic pill, a miracle device, 3 easy steps to unlimited confidence and self-esteem, etc. They monitor people for signs of them.
If you happen to appear to have confidence, self-esteem, or anything similar, self-worth, self-respect, poise, etc, they will hone in on you and give you the third degree to find out how you came to have those things that they want so badly it hurts. Their third degree includes asking how someone as stupid, ugly, worthless, faulty as you could have confidence and self-esteem. You don’t deserve it but they do, give it to them, they’ll use it better than you do! Sometimes they’ll start off their third degree with compliments and flattery – omg you’re so amazing, smart, gorgeous, they admire you so much, they want to be just like you, how about (you proving how wonderful you are since they’ve told you how wonderful you are) sharing your secrets, tips and tricks with them! Don’t you want to help them, you’re a helpful person, right!
This is a very detailed and intriguing story – Single White Female Syndrome: Dealing With Online Imitators and Blog Copycats – I had something similar happen awhile ago, someone plagiarised one of my posts. I know it was plagiarised rather than just shared because the person claimed in the comments of ‘their’ post that they had written it. It pissed me off, but other than rant about it a few times on my blog I did nothing about it. What’s that saying – pick your battles wisely – that is a good piece of advice.
If you have a narcissist in your environment and they admire/envy you, you may find that over the course of your relationship they will gradually (or sometimes suddenly) absorb many of your traits, behaviours, mannerisms, expressions, etc. At first you may feel flattered to be their role model, it could even feel as though you’re a celebrity. They may copy your fashion style, get the same hair style, go to all the places you go, buy all the things you buy, decorate their home like yours, listen to the same music, read the same books, like the same things – you’re an ‘influencer’, an inspiration, an object of their affection and attention. They want to know what you think and feel about everything, why you think and feel that way, how you do it – no one has ever made you feel this important, interesting, fascinating, and useful.
But over time it may begin to be creepy – it’s like they’re you but they’re not you… don’t they have a them? Who are they?
They may insinuate themselves into every aspect of your life. Becoming friends with your friends (and doing to your friends what they did with you, until your friends are utterly captivated and ensnared by them). Getting to know your significant other if you have one – they just love how in love the two of you are, they wish they could have an intimate relationship like yours, the two of you are so perfect, they want a perfect love like yours, no one has ever loved them like your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife loves you. Spending time with your family – what a great family you have, your parents are so different from theirs, they wish they had parents like yours, isn’t your sister beautiful and smart, your brother is so handsome and successful, they just feel so welcome and wanted when they’re with your family, it’s like your family is their family!
At some point you may feel as though they’ve stolen your identity, and you’re being pushed out of your own life, of your social circle, your relationships, your family… this person seems to be taking over and everyone seems to be letting them do it. Everyone seems to like this person more than they like you. No one seems to have noticed… what you’re now only beginning to notice yourself. You should say something, warn people, but if you say anything, they’ll all think you’re jealous, petty, being silly, crazy, even you suspect yourself of being jealous, petty, silly, crazy… are you crazy?
How do you return to normal?
Once you’ve been changed by your experience of having a relationship with a narcissist, how do you undo the changes?
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,― Omar Khayyám
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
The thing about change… you usually can’t undo it once you’ve changed.
I’ve recently pressed ‘activate’ on a new WordPress editor. At the moment it’s in its trial/test phase – you have to choose to change to it. The change is a voluntary option. If you want to, you can press ‘deactivate’ and undo the change, return to the old editor (which may mess up the formatting of the posts I’ve written using the new one). At some point in the future it will be enabled by default – it will be changed whether you want it to or not. There may be an option to use the old editor, or there may not. I’ve also recently deactivated my Twitter, DeviantArt, Pinterest, and awhile ago I deactivated my tumblr – Why? I hadn’t used them in a long time, and I’ve changed (they’ve changed too).
Change is a complex experience. When you want to change it can be nigh on impossible to do it. It’s hard work, requires focus, self-control, and often feels like a never-ending struggle between you and yourself (which is a tough match, and may seem like a Death Match, or a Boss Fight). When you think you’ve done it, succeeded in finally changing yourself, and allow yourself a moment to celebrate, to relax… why did you relax!?! When you don’t want to change because you like yourself and things as they are, it’s comfortable, safe… BAM! It happens out of the blue (although it’s usually not as sudden as it seems).
Sometimes with change – you do change, but you still repeat old patterns. I tend to view it as a chance to observe the difference the change has made. I didn’t always see it that way – my attitude changed over time as I realised how much it impacted my experience of change.
This is a great tale of how a change of attitude can change your experience of life and relationships – How Expectations Undermine Our Relationships and Happiness
One of the biggest problems in finding a measure of balance in life, love, and relationships when you have a narcissist in your environment, is the matter of where your focus is directed.
Q: What or who are you focusing on or focused upon?
Are you focused on them, on what’s wrong with them, on what they’re not doing or what they are doing which is stressing you out and distressing you? Are you thinking about what they need to change about themselves to make things better for you?
If your narcissist has Narcissistic Personality Disorder – they will never change, unless it is to get increasingly worse with age. They can’t change even if they want to, and they may really want to because it’s hell inside, but they’re stuck, and you can’t pull them out of where they’re stuck (I’ve tried, I did it for years with my mother – the moment I stopped pulling, she’d fall right back into the same place).
They can appear to change – they haven’t changed, they’ve simply found a new person to copy, a new movement to follow, a new love love love which is going to magically and miraculously solve all of their problems. They’re going through the honeymoon phase/golden period of their relationship with something or someone. They’re repeating a pattern. The longer you know them, the more familiar you’ll become with the pattern, and the more you’ll realise that the more things change the more they stay the same, history is repeating.
If your narcissist doesn’t have NPD but is a very narcissistic person – they can change, but the change usually requires a shock to their system, a catalyst, which makes them decide to change, forces them to change.
Or are you focusing on yourself, on what’s wrong with you, on what you’re not doing or what you are doing which is stressing them out and distressing them? Are you thinking about what you need to change about yourself to make things better for them?
This kind of focus will wear you down and out. This is an abyss, a bottomless pit. This is how someone who was once Before the narcissist … beautiful/attractive, intelligent, successful, independent, confident, had good self-esteem, was happy, had fun, had hopes and dreams, had a great social life, had lots of friends…” becomes confused, depressed, anxious, afraid, feels as though they’ve lost everything they had and were and don’t who they are, how to get it back, how to get back to who and where they once were.
If that’s where you are, give up… on that focal point. You’ve been there, done that, and know that it only leads to more of that. It’s a vicious cycle, a spiral down into the depths of internal hell. You know that you need and want to get out of it. But how do you do that?
Since that place was my home for a significant portion of my life, I’ve tried a lot of methods to get out of hell. I’m going to share the ones which have worked for me.
1 – Please keep in mind that what has worked for me may or may not work for you – this is one of the things which has worked for me. I’ve read a lot of books, articles, information, attended workshops, etc, in my quest to recover, heal, deal with narcissists, difficult people, myself, etc. Where I went wrong was thinking that others knew better than I did what was right for me, what I should be doing, how and who I should be, etc. Where I went right was to eventually learn, remember and remind myself that I’m the expert on myself even when I’ve lost track of who myself is. You will always know yourself better than anyone else – there is always more to discover, learn, know about yourself, get to know yourself more and more – some of it will scare you until you realise it’s scary because it is scared.
Some of the people doling out advice about what works, who you should be and what you should be doing, etc, are narcissists. They love to be gurus and tell people who to be and what to do while maintaining a superior to you position. If you have a narcissist in your life, they’ll view themselves as the expert on you – you don’t know shit about yourself, but they know all your shit and they’re going to use it against you, to keep you in line, to help you be a better person for them. When a narcissist is talking about you – they’re talking about themselves. Even when they say something about ‘you’ which is totally you – how did they know that!?! They must really know you – they’re excellent cold readers, they’re obsessed with appearances and tend to use yours to read you, they’ve studied what people like to hear and what they fear to hear, they say everything and anything until you react, and then they know they’ve hit on something which you identify with as being ‘you’. Now, they know you! They don’t. They just think they do, and appear to you as though they do.
So everything we see is one big illusion?
Amanda Gefter interviewing cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman via Quanta Magazine: The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality
We’ve been shaped to have perceptions that keep us alive, so we have to take them seriously. If I see something that I think of as a snake, I don’t pick it up. If I see a train, I don’t step in front of it. I’ve evolved these symbols to keep me alive, so I have to take them seriously. But it’s a logical flaw to think that if we have to take it seriously, we also have to take it literally.
You know how when you’re reading a blog post like this one which is really long… you skim, skip, can’t be bothered to read that… do that when a narcissist is talking to you about you – unless you’re interested in picking up on the shit swirling around in their psyche, but to do that you need…
2 – Detachment. According to buddhist philosophy, the first rule of suffering is attachment (actually it’s the second rule of suffering). You don’t have to be interested in buddhism to see the logic in this especially if you have a narcissist in your environment – anything you’re attached to can and will be used against you, will be attacked and destroyed, stolen, cause you suffering.
Where I went wrong: Early on in my life I dealt with this tendency of narcissists to search out what you cared about and destroy it or steal it (which is the same thing) by having ‘fake’ attachments = things I let the narcissists think I was attached to but which were things I didn’t care about. The things I did care about I hid from them. This worked really well, but I became increasingly paranoid, and mistrusting of myself, and therefore I eventually started to hide what I cared about from myself too. I went through a long period of not knowing what I cared about and caring about things I didn’t care about just to care about something (sometimes I ended up only caring about things my narcissists cared about, that was an intense mind-f because… this, why this!?!). You can really mess yourself up when you’re trying to deal with narcissists in your life.
Where I went right: Later on I realised that I could openly care about the things I cared about even with narcissists in my life, and that doing so was healthy for me. What I needed to learn to do, which took some time, many trial runs, lots of mistakes and suffering… and learning not to get too attached to the suffering… is to detach from the provocations of a narcissist.
When I’m in the company of someone I suspect or know is a narcissist, I enable what I sometimes call – sociopath mode. If that alarms you, let me explain. Sociopaths are considered to be detached from the emotional/feeling centres. They don’t feel or experience emotions/feelings in a way which other humans (who consider themselves to be normal) consider to be normal which is why they can be ruthless, cold, etc. If you have to interact with narcissists, who tend to prod, provoke, trigger emotional reactions in others (because they get narcissistic supply/fuel from it – and they’re often doing to you what they’re afraid of having done to them because it has been done to them and they still haven’t figured out how to deal with emotions, hurt feelings, suffering other than to pass it on like it was passed onto them, perhaps hoping someone will reveal the secret of how to be immune to it or deal with it without falling to pieces), and regularly leave those around them with hurt feelings. Shutting off your feelings/emotions, or at least the impulsive/compulsive reactions which are provoked by a narcissist’s machinations, prodding, poking, triggering, etc, around a narcissist can help you to keep calm, cool, and collected.
Bottom line – What you really need to detach from isn’t your feelings/emotions/what you care about but your expectations that others (a narcissist, in particular) will respect them. You create respect for those things and for yourself by being a cool badass (think Samuel Jackson or if you need a female think Maya Angelou) when someone disrespects those things and you.
3 – Insensitivity. Stop being so sensitive!!! – you’ve probably heard that from the narcissist in your life. It’s so unfair, isn’t it? They’re allowed to be a hyper-sensitive nightmare who has made you very aware of what the saying – walking on eggshells – means. It’s not only eggshells you’re walking on, but hot coals and broken glass when you have a super-sensitive about themselves and completely insensitive about others narcissist in your environment.
Sometimes the narcissist in your environment will give you good advice – stop being so sensitive – just don’t take it the way they mean it, take it another way. What way is that?
If you have a narcissist in your environment, the first thing you need to do is to adjust your expectations about your relationship with them. This one is going to have you shouting – That’s not fair! on a regular basis. Why should you do all the work? Why should they get the cake and eat it all? Why should you give such and such up when they’re not giving anything up!?! You did X, Y, Z for them therefore they should do Z, Y, X for you!
Q: How has that approach to your relationship with a narcissist worked out for you thus far?
A relationship with a narcissist is all about them. What they want, need, lack, etc. What makes them afraid or safe. What improves their self-esteem and what injures it. What nourishes, nurtures or harms and distresses them. What makes them feel accepted or rejected. What bothers or soothes them. What they expect. What disappoints them. And so on. It’s all about them, and that includes you if they’ve decided you’re part of them and/or part of their environment.
If they get a papercut it’s an emergency. If you get a papercut, stop being such a drama queen, it’s only a papercut (but you can’t say that to them that way). If they managed to change a light bulb, time for champagne and applause. If you changed a light bulb, the dishes need washing, the carpet needs vacuuming, the shelves need dusting because the narcissist is allergic to dust, that wall won’t paint itself y’know and its present state is affecting their ability to function, it’s depressing. If they can’t find their keys, panic stations, drop everything and help them find them – if they were found in their pocket, just act pleased they were found. Yay, you found them! If you can’t find your keys, omg how stupid, incompetent, and pointless are you!? If they are sad the end of the world is nigh, the storm clouds will produce rain and will flood the land, but if you’re sad, cheer up, snap out of it, and don’t bring them down with your mood (what’s with your black moods, ugh!). If they made a mistake, ignore it, blame someone else, take the blame, then forget about it. If you made a mistake be prepared to have this rubbed in your face, advertised in the news, go viral because they shared it with their online best friends forever, it was sooo funny (you need to get a sense of humour, sheesh!), and held against you for eternity, brought up whenever you’re feeling a little too good about yourself for their comfort, and used as leverage.
A certain type of narcissist prides themselves on their extremely high levels of empathy – higher than normal mortals. This type has taken all the online tests to prove they’re an ’empath’, so don’t try to argue with them. This type will bore you to death with everything they’ve read about being an ’empath’ – the negative stuff about the burden of being an empath is of particular interest to them as this will become their excuse for just about anything and everything, and their reason for why you have to walk on eggshells around them. If they feel sad, mad, bad = this isn’t them, this is you they’re picking up on (= they’ve transferred, projected, dumped all of their emotional shit into you and it’s yours now, please stop it, get rid of it, control it, etc), stop disturbing them with your sad, mad, bad emotional vibes (what was once theirs but is yours now).
If you are a genuine ’empath’, very empathic, highly sensitive – you have probably come across those theories about narcissists being attracted to empaths/highly empathic people, and have probably read up on all those methods which are regularly being sold to you to protect yourself, improve your boundaries, etc, – you do need to do that ASAP. Find a technique which actually works for you, invent one yourself if you have to – this is actually a better option. A few tips – make sure you know the difference between empathy and sympathy, they’re very similar and it’s confusing, and if at all possible (which it totally is) train your natural empathy to become less ’emotional’ and more ‘cognitive’ which will allow you to shut your empathy down around a narcissist when necessary or use it more productively and less destructively for you.
Where I went wrong: Long list, how to do I shorten it? I allowed the narcissists in my life to convince me that I was insensitive, unemotional, unempathic, unsympathic, etc = I was still occasionally aware that I had needs too and that my life wasn’t all about fulfilling their needs. How selfish of me! Selfishness is very bad (no, it is not always that at all). Problem was, I was actually very sensitive towards others and empathic in the wrong way – if others were hurting in any way at all, I felt responsible for it. I’ve always been a bit stilted where sympathy is concerned because I correlate it with feeling sorry for people, pitying them (something narcissists love to do), and that would require that I felt superior to others (another thing narcissists love) which is something rather foreign to me. I was also overly sensitive about myself too which made me very defensive and guarded. Everything hurt me, no one else cared if I was hurting, I had to protect myself in all the wrong ways. I went through this phase where I hated cut flowers because I could hear them screaming. I still haven’t forgiven myself for accidentally boiling a frog alive – it had crawled into the bathtub outlet pipe and I was cleaning the bath with scalding water. Nuff said.
Where I went right: I realised that I needed to grow a thicker skin in a different way than the way I already had one. I had to figure out how to be sensitive and insensitive at the same time. Feel/sense things and people without letting that take over cognitive functions. Being compassionate and considerate both towards myself and others – while not overdoing it either way.
Being compassionate and considerate towards your narcissist when they have a papercut, or some other emotionally traumatic for them experience can be helpful and ease the situation. Allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by their constant emotional turmoil and turbulence will drown you. Think of them as a toddler who hasn’t yet learned the difference between an emergency and not an emergency – you need to be the adult/parent who calms and soothes them. Lets them know they’ll survive this and aren’t they a brave boy/girl = to keep things calm for yourself.
If they scream and that triggers you to scream too… the screaming will keep building and going and going.
Bottom line is – if someone else is an adult, while you can offer your help, assistance, empathy, compassion, and be sensitive towards them and what they’re experiencing, going through, etc, if they’re an adult, even if they’re a child in an adult body, they’re responsible for themselves. You’re not responsible for them no matter how well they pitch to you the idea that you should be responsible for them. You’re responsible for you – no one else is responsible for you except you. Sometimes you have to be insensitive towards others because you need to be sensitive towards yourself and what you can and can’t do for others.
A thought-provoking opinion on empathy – Against Empathy
4 – Acceptance. Don’t we feel so much better about ourselves around a person who accepts us as we are? Don’t we immediately love people who think our quirks are charming rather than problems which need to be changed? Aren’t those moments great when we accept ourselves as we are, messy, messed-up, warts, flaws, faults, etc, and all? If you have a narcissist in your life, you’ll never be allowed to accept yourself as you are or as they think and have decided you are… because they can’t accept themselves as they are – who is that exactly?
If you have a narcissist in your environment you will most likely go through all the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – the last one is the hardest to… accept. But once you do accept it, it can be very liberating and change how you experience the narcissist, maybe even all narcissists who come in and out of your life, and yourself.
Your narcissist is a narcissist. Accept it.
You don’t want to. Accept that.
Your narcissist doesn’t accept you. Accept that.
You can’t change your narcissist. Accept it.
Your narcissist has changed you. Accept it and get to know those changes, not just the negative side of them with which you are far too familiar but the flip side – there is a positive side to those changes! What are they?
You tell me what they are – think about it, really flex those muscles, I know you can do it and you know you can do it too. What are they?
One thing that is guaranteed about having a narcissist in your environment is – you will be forced to face hell on earth and inside of yourself, and by going through that hell on earth and inside of yourself you’ll find out just how strong, resourceful, stubborn, determined, persevering, and in touch with primal survival skills you are. Plus a lot of other things which you didn’t know about yourself until you had to learn them about yourself.
The most important nugget of gold information you’ll find as you sift through the wreckage apres-narcissist is – you are not defined by all those things you previously thought defined you. And if those things don’t define you… that means they don’t define others either. You’ll get a new perspective on yourself and on everyone around you.
All those people whom perhaps you dismissed before your narcissist – you may view them differently for many different reasons. All those things you thought weren’t important to notice because they didn’t concern you, you couldn’t relate to them – they might seem important to notice because they do concern you and you can relate to them now.
And all those people and things which you thought were so important to impress and to have- they may be not as important now.
It depends on you – it’s up to you what you do with the changes which have happened to you, which you’ve experienced since living with a narcissist in your environment. You have more personal power than you’re allowing yourself to know that you have – what are you going to do with it?
“If other people do not understand our behavior—so what? Their request that we must only do what they understand is an attempt to dictate to us. If this is being “asocial” or “irrational” in their eyes, so be it. Mostly they resent our freedom and our courage to be ourselves. We owe nobody an explanation or an accounting, as long as our acts do not hurt or infringe on them. How many lives have been ruined by this need to “explain,” which usually implies that the explanation be “understood,” i.e. approved. Let your deeds be judged, and from your deeds, your real intentions, but know that a free person owes an explanation only to himself—to his reason and his conscience—and to the few who may have a justified claim for explanation.”― Erich Fromm, The Art of Being
Okay, that’s it, I’m out of power to keep this post/series going now. It’s been… it’s been and now it’s gone.
This draws a line for me. It’s a bit squiggly and crooked…
I’m sure there’ll be things that I wished I had done differently with these posts. Things I forgot to say. Things I wished I had said but didn’t. Things I said which I wished I hadn’t. Quotes, images, links I come across or remember later which would have been better, or… whatever. I could always edit these posts, update them… or write new ones perhaps as add-ons.
Sometimes you just got to keep going and see where you end up, without being so focused on having a plan.
“There is no good reason why we should not develop and change until the last day we live.”― Karen Horney
Over to you…
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Thank you for sharing!
press ‘publish’ now, Ursula… stop dithering, just do it… don’t rush me… I’m not rushing you, I’m gently coaxing you… you don’t need to read it again, you’re going more cross-eyed than you already are – you weren’t wearing your glasses today… shhh… I forgot… shhh… love you… love you too…