Anyone who hasn’t been in a relationship with a person suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder, will not be able to appreciate its depth and complexity. One moment you are in a whirlwind romance of your dreams, where the other person appears to share the same aspirations. The next you are being hurled across a room because you didn’t turn off the light when they asked you too. Of course, not at first. Initially, the pathological narcissist is on their best behaviour.
From a distance, this behaviour is stunning. Watching someone become dangerously enraged and then regress into a childlike tantrum, refusing to acknowledge the facts of reality, is quite a show. It’s one for the books on what is possible in the realm pseudo normal behaviour.
Pseudo normal behaviour because for the most part society seems to turn a blind eye to it. We warn our children not to take candy from strangers but we don’t warn them about strangers suffering from signs of narcissistic disorder. We teach them how to be kind but we don’t teach them how to draw healthy boundaries in front of people who are emotionally harmful and toxic. Why is that?
Perhaps because we acknowledge that some narcissistic traits are healthy and essential for our personal development. And they are. According to Heinz Kohut – an Austrian-born American psychoanalyst best known for his development of self-psychology – healthy narcissistic traits include an ability to admire and accept the admiration of others, having a solid sense of self-esteem and self-worth, a healthy sense of pride in one’s accomplishments and an appreciation of the needs of others – even if they differ from our own – along with the ability to empathise with them.
All personality disorders sit on a spectrum of acceptable behaviour that makes them initially harder to detect. A pathological narcissist’s intense need for adulation makes them sensitive to the same needs in others so they can integrate themselves but always with a hidden motif. They are only interested in relationships that feed their sense of self-importance.
We can agree that the term ‘narcissist’ has been thrown around to insult anyone that shows a bit more self-interest than we would like. Especially by boyfriends and girlfriends who feel discarded by their lovers and are looking to make themselves feel better. It is easier to play the victim than to pick up your bags and move on to greener, safer pastures.
But there is a difference between people who exhibit narcissistic traits and those that are pathological narcissists. The more severe form on the spectrum is so insidious that the person involved may not even realise that they are in a narcissistic relationship in the first place. They make allowances for this person because they genuinely love them and believe that whatever negative traits they have, are because of some other adverse experience or, worse because they have done something wrong themselves. They are not aware of the tactics that are being used by the pathological narcissist to keep them in place and they begin to behave accordingly as a means of surviving the abuse.
It was only about two weeks ago that I started to feel good about the women I saw in the mirror. Nothing much on the outside had changed but I hadn’t felt this way about myself in years. I could recognise the woman looking back at me and there was no disconnect. No aching feelings. No avoidance. No doubt. It took me three years to get to this point and in the meantime I had changed my life, remarried and settled into my career with a new resolve while still trying to heal myself.
For me, healing from trauma was like walking through a hall of mirrors looking for a true reflection of myself. I had to train myself to be disciplined and to see each distorted refection for what it was – a reflection of my experience of being in a narcissistic abusive marriage- and not directly of me.
When I got remarried, for a long time I felt like I was living a parallel life. There was a part of me still stuck in the underworld, germinating and healing from what was, while other parts of me were very much coming alive in the world.
My husband gave me all the space I needed to regain a sense of self, while remains a companion on my journey. Trauma was something he understood very well, having lost his home and his mother and grandmother to the Syrian war. He didn’t know what I was going through but he understood that it would take time for me to adjust to a normal relationship and to a reality not fraught with aggression and danger.
By the time that I realised that I was in an unhealthy relationship with a man who I will call U, I was already living with him in another country, far away from my family and friends. And even though it was only meant to be temporary, the years I spent with him left me feeling continuously vulnerable. I began to depend on this support and this is when things took a turn for the worse.
The problem is, pathological narcissists are not able to emphasis with emotions that don’t mimic their own. They rely on a tactic called mirroring to lure the other into the relationship, making it seem as if a true relationship exists. What they are really doing is taking stock of their partners dreams and fears so they can then use it against them in a moment of rage or manipulation.
In my case, there were other triggers like any slight tapping noise while he was studying for his CFA exams, or the need to always have me greet him at the door when he came home. He then started telling me what I could and couldn’t wear and where I could and couldn’t sit when we were at a cafe or restaurant. The first time he flew into a rage, he called me names that I had never heard him use before and it caused such shock that I thought he must be beside himself. It must be all the stress he has at work as a financial analyst, I thought. But the condescending remarks and constant increasing need to be catered to only increased.
What surprises me the most now is just how oblivious he was to his own hypocritical behaviour. There was one set of rules for me and another for him. When he said that he was going to Georgia on a business trip, it really meant that he was going to Kyiv to visit his Ukrainian girlfriend Marina. He professed to be secular in the Turkish sense but on the night of the coup, he was out demonstrating with the religious pro-government supporters because he wanted to know what it felt like. When I asked if I could show my mother the gold necklace that his mother had bought for me, he admitted that he had sold it and pocketed the money. And the list goes on but you get the point.
Looking back, finding the strength to leave this man was the best thing I could have ever done for myself. It forced me to reflect on where I went wrong and why. I was the victim but I wasn’t about to play the victim nor would I allow this experience to damage my life and my sense of self. For me, he was a catalyst for deep inner change.
But just because the experience changed me, I knew that it wouldn’t change him. That he would continue in his ways and that soon the woman he would choose to replace me would be showing up at my door searching for answers. So for them, I wrote a book.
Sure enough, a few months later I was contacted by a woman in Amsterdam who he was seeing, and a woman from London, where he now lives. As I listened to her tell her story, I wasn’t shocked to find out how similar it was to mine. We have since become good friends.
Speaking with these women and listening to their story, confirmed the fact that pathological narcissist follows a very particular pattern fuelled by what is called a curative fantasy. According to Dr. Paul Ornstein, a psychiatrist at the University of Cincinnati, a pathological narcissist has a certain idea, both conscious and unconscious of what will cure them. This curative fantasy is what makes them very hard to treat as patients but they also bring this curative fantasy into their everyday life where it has a particular prominence.
They believe that if only they could get this job, or their wife would treat them in a certain way, or whatever, then their problems would be solved. This thinking then takes on the pattern of self-defeating habits such as drug-taking and promiscuity, which are both signs of their curative fantasy. That if only they could find the right person, drug or thing, it would cure them. What these things really are, are failed attempts at self-healing at the expense of others.
Photograph by Karolina Grabowska