The following are musings and insights on narcissistic relationships, the narcissistic mentality and relationship dynamics in general. They are not researched or sourced from anywhere unless otherwise stated. They are intended merely to promote thought on the topic of narcissism.
The child of narcissism, due to having limited psychological space to express their power, resorts to fantasy to avoid being faced with their despair. As a result, they see the world through rose-tinted glasses and will abstract much of their experiences to the point where they are ‘smoothed’ out. By disregarding details and envisioning people and situations as ideal, the target is shielded from the grim reality.
This trance-like state is what the narcissist looks for. If the narcissist is meeting a potential target, they will ask questions to gauge what their target idolises, and will cater to their unique fantasy. This is their entry strategy. The target’s fantasies are split off from consciousness. If the right buttons are pressed, these patterns can take on a life of their own.
For example, the employee with low self-esteem and high career aspirations will be promised a promotion by their narcissist boss if they work hard and cooperate, which of course rarely happens. The employee will work themselves to exhaustion while the narcissist continues piling up orders and manipulating the employee. In romantic relationships, the narcissist will be all their target desires in a partner – at first.
The child of narcissism tends to fall only for narcissists because only narcissists sell the illusion they are looking for. Because the target dwells in fantasy, they have an inflated belief of how much they can influence people and the world. They believe they can make the narcissist change. They believe they can find ways to get their needs met while maintaining a relationship with an emotionally unavailable person who is enabling their fantasies of the ideal relationship; without having to face up to their shame and their emotions.
To face our shame is to be born out into the world and moulded by it, and the child of narcissism was not allowed to do this. They are coerced into maintaining an existence based on rigid structure and oppression, which, of course, is one where someone else is always in charge.
Sharing vs dumping
Many people unknowingly transmit their repressed emotions in conversations. The more connected they begin to feel with someone, the more likely they are to drag that person in and force their feelings on them.
Empaths are affected by this the most. When a person who is mostly unconscious of their emotions speaks to an Empath and connection is achieved (as it easily is with an empath), they unconsciously sense a path to get their emotions out, and they take it.
What makes this dumping, and not sharing, is that the person is not conscious of it, and is not willing to admit and accept what they are actually feeling. What they are speaking about is used as a platform to deceive the listener as the emotional tone is how they convey the emotion, rather than their words and intention. It is covert and manipulative.
To spot dumping, pay attention to the feeling behind the words and the person’s facial expression. Is a person expressing their sadness while discussing something mundane? Does a person laugh while admitting something deeply painful? By speaking while remaining unaware of the emotion, the speaker forces the listener to read between the lines and to feel the emotion instead.
Another way to spot dumping is when somebody goes off on a rant or a monologue and gives you no space to influence their point of view. They express their emotion and do not want to pause to reflect or to listen to suggestions. Sharing entails maintaining responsibility; dumping does not.
The sharer communicates: “I have something inside me which I need to release and process, can you give me a hand working out what to do with it?”
The dumper communicates: “I have something I need to release, here, take it.”
Sharing is conscious and mature; dumping is unconscious and immature.
In a healthy relationship, both people reflect each other. If one person expresses sadness, the other person empathises and feels it also. When one person feels happiness, the other person shares in that happiness. To truly reflect another person, we need to allow them to impact our true self – our feeling self. Through this process, we deepen ourselves. Our relationships carve into our hearts and minds. We mature through such relationships. Also, when we are reflected, especially in an accurate and positive way, we can form a self-image. Most importantly, we form a positive self-image.
The narcissist avoids their true self and instead conjures up an alternative using their mind. By doing so, they expect other people to do the reflecting. They never do the emotional reflecting themselves. They don’t deepen their true self; they just keep feeding their false self using the reflections of others. In a relationship with a narcissist, the target is doing the reflection pretty much all the time. This has certain effects on the target:
- They become trained to always reflect others and to expect that they will never be reflected
- They feel shortchanged all the time
- Relationships with non-narcissists become lopsided due to their instant reflective position in interactions
In therapy and healthy friendships, you receive reflection, and so you can build a positive self-image. You also become trained in the art of expecting reflection, not just giving it. This is the first step to developing balanced, nurturing relationships.
Metaphors for contempt
The process of experiencing contempt for a narcissist can be likened to these two metaphors:
- Sports: When the game is being played live, the stakes feel much higher, and we become engrossed, becoming anxious and heavily influenced by every move. If we are instead watching the replay, our emotional engagement is cut off because we know what happened already, and we watch with a low level of interest, taking breaks to eat or check our phones.
- Shopping: When a kind of garment is in fashion, we feel that we must have it, and we willingly spend our cash on it, almost without a choice. When the garment is replaced by something else, we lose interest in the previous ‘in fashion’ garment immediately. It loses all value to us.
So it is with narcissists. They try to convince you that they are ‘in fashion’ and that the ‘stakes are high’ when in a relationship with them, to use the metaphors. To be ‘in fashion’, they convince you of their grandiosity and high status, and to ‘raise the stakes’, they press your emotional buttons and engage your fears.
Contempt is to realise that there is no game except for what the narcissist creates in our mind, and there is no fashion, the narcissist has only painted that picture. Once we see these two things, our level of engagement and our capacity to be manipulated falls flat. What the narcissist says feels like a dull replay, and who the narcissist represents loses its lustre. We are left seeing the flawed human being in front of us.
The scale game/fishing for weakness
The narcissist fishes for signs of weakness. An admission of inferiority, a stutter, waking up late compared to the narcissist etc.
They condition their target to admit weakness. When the target acts grandiose or achieves something, the narcissist shuts it down. When the target admits weakness or a failure, the narcissist grows amused and supports it.
The shame/grandiosity continuum is a paradigm, a set of psychological glasses which affect how we see the world. When we meet someone, they may exhibit a set of behaviours that create the impression of high status, such as posture, emotional restraint or how they treat us. Somebody else may tell us that this person is famous or talented at something. As a result, we might designate that person as being ‘better’ than us. This is commonly referred to as the ‘halo effect’. If someone self-deprecates before us or is clearly lacking in confidence, we might start seeing ourselves as ‘better’ than them. This is a standard ego function, used to help the mind determine who is of higher status and therefore helps us determine how they can be useful to our survival.
A narcissist places exaggerated importance on this scale in their life. They categorise every person they meet based on two criteria:
1. Are they higher or lower status?
2. Is there anything they can offer me?
Their reaction and their treatment of others depend entirely on how they perceive the person, based on a combination of the above criteria:
- Lower status/Offers something: This is ideal. The narcissist will work to keep that person as low on the continuum as possible while drawing narcissistic/ego supply from them. When a person of lower status cuts off supply by disengaging, the narcissist will use rage, charm, a wall of silence, guilt or shame the target into re-engaging.
- Lower status/Offers nothing: This is a no-brainer. The narcissist will discard that person immediately. A person of perceived lower status can move between being useful and not useful, especially when they are an acquaintance, although significant partners are not immune to being discarded either.
- Higher status/Offers something: This can be useful. They may try to push that person down the scale by shaming them, but if the person is privy to the narcissist’s tricks and cannot be manipulated, the narcissist will appease and charm that person with the hope of gaining status, position or resources. This is commonly seen in companies, where a malicious, manipulative, narcissistic boss becomes suddenly placid and cooperative in the face of a person of higher status in the company.
- Higher status/Offers nothing: This is the worst possible case. The narcissist will envy and despise that person from a distance.
Anybody who unconsciously adopts this paradigm in their life is susceptible to both being a victim of narcissism or of acting out narcissism. The funny thing is that even narcissists are capable of being victims of other narcissists. This better than/less than scale is a trap of the unconscious ego which we can all fall into, the difference being that narcissists try to use it to their advantage, whereas a normal person will have their shame, guilt and morality to keep it in check.
By viewing somebody as higher status and believing they can offer us something, we get sucked in and become susceptible to that person’s whims. If we meet somebody who we perceive as lower status, we may unconsciously play out how we’ve seen other narcissists behave by shamelessly putting down that person or trying to control them, just to get an ego boost.
Seeing others as only higher or lower status is a recipe for disaster. We cannot turn off our ego functions, but we can control how we act. It is important that we never sacrifice our sense of self and dignity in service of a person of perceived higher status and it is equally important that we do not shame others who find themselves further down the scale than us. In any relationship, the key is shared shame; to find intersecting ways to dwell on the same position of the shame/grandiosity continuum, to connect on shared experience instead of creating separation based on differences.
To better understand the dynamics of narcissism and begin healing from a narcissistic relationship, check out my book, How To Kill A Narcissist. In the follow-up, How To Bury A Narcissist, I delve deeper into the narcissistic family and Self-actualising after narcissistic abuse. If you need support in cultivating healthy, empowered relationships, then Transformational Life Coaching might also be helpful.