Woman looking at her partner exhibiting narcissism

Narcissists have a bad reputation. It has become a “bad word” in our society. Master manipulator, gaslighting, self-absorbed, arrogant, selfish, vain and god-complex are often the usual words used to describe them. Narcissists are known for causing a lot of hurt to others and being emotionally immature in a way that those around them are not able to correct the hurt they cause. Narcissists are also feeling a lot of pain and hurt within themselves as well. It’s important to take a look at the root issue of what causes narcissism so we can better understand when we are in a relationship with someone who is a narcissist, as well as see those red flags to prevent us from being hurt by one. 

So what is narcissism and how is it formed as a mental health disorder? One of the primary groups of narcissists are infants. We are all born with high narcissistic traits as this is important for our survival. As an infant we are not able to care for our own basic needs and in order to survive and to obtain those needs infants need to rely solely on their primary attachment figures or parents to provide this, so they need to be focused on themselves and do not focus on the needs of others. While this is essential for infants to develop, it is also important for their parents to be attune to their emotions to help them grow and develop out of the narcissistic traits so they learn to focus on community and society and work as a team with those in their lives. Children become stuck in the narcissistic traits when they do not have a parent who is attune to their emotions, which can occur both through neglect or helicopter parenting when children are given everything they want without any emotional connection. The child then learns to focus on themselves both as a way to survive the neglect or because they have not learned from a parent how to be selfless when they are given everything they want and in turn they are conditioned into being selfish. Alternatively, narcissism occurs when a child is exposed to a trauma prior to the age of 5 years old. They focus solely on themselves because their body and mind is trying to keep them alive and survive the trauma. Without proper guidance and support though, the child is then stuck in that survival mode and this can create high levels of selfishness, control and emotional immaturity and very low levels of self-esteem. Essentially, narcissists are in so much pain from within from trauma in their childhood that they are not able to acknowledge they are broken because it hurts them so much and instead they wear the mask of perfectionism so they can avoid the pain they feel that is very deeply rooted.

Narcissism is viewed on a spectrum. The trait is normally distributed in the population, with most people scoring near the middle, and a few at either extremes. Essentially, we all have traits of narcissism and some of these traits can be used in a positive way, which creates strong leaders and in a lot of ways individuals who score lower on the spectrum are often really good at being supportive of others as they understand the pain it causes to have no support. It is only those individuals who score somewhat higher on the spectrum that may be perceived as exceedingly charming, especially on the first encounter, but eventually come across as vain, arrogant, selfish and turn to unhealthy coping skills of manipulation, gaslighting and control. Such individuals may have awkward or stressful personal encounters but still have a fundamentally healthy personality.

Traits of Narcissism

Narcissism does not necessarily represent a surplus of self-esteem or of insecurity; more accurately, it encompasses a hunger for appreciation or admiration, a desire to be the center of attention, and an expectation of special treatment reflecting perceived higher status. Interestingly, research finds many highly narcissistic people often readily admit to an awareness that they are more self-centered. A high level of narcissism, not surprisingly, can be damaging in romantic, familial, or professional relationships. Narcissism is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, a need for excessive admiration and the belief that one is unique and deserving of special treatment. If you encounter someone who consistently exhibits these behaviours you may be dealing with a highly narcissistic individual.

Relationship with a Narcissist

Navigating a relationship with a narcissist can be deeply frustrating and distressing. In their quest for control and admiration, narcissistic people may manipulate and exploit others, damaging their self-esteem and even aiming to alter their sense of reality. Arguing with a narcissist about their action often proves fruitless. A more successful solution is to establish boundaries and emotionally distance yourself. Recognize that you may not be able to control your feelings about a person, but you can control how you respond to them. Cutting ties with a narcissistic partner, family member, or boss may eventually be the best if not the only solution. In that process, it’s helpful to reflect on the characteristics of the individual to avoid finding oneself in similar scenarios in the future. For children of a narcissistic parent, it is essential for them to maintain strong boundaries and for the other parent to have awareness of when the narcissist is using the child as a pawn to manipulate or hurt the other parent. If you are forced to maintain a relationship with a narcissist such as having to co-parent after a divorce, it is important to only focus on the needs of the children and to limit all communication and interactions to be about the children and to not engage in anything else . A narcissist’s desire to elicit admiration and praise, especially from potential romantic partners, often makes them charming and charismatic, traits that can rapidly ignite a romance. But their inherent deficit of empathy may prevent them from understanding a partner’s inner world and establishing a fulfilling long-term relationship.

It’s nearly impossible for people with narcissistic personality disorder to truly fall in love and build a trusting, equal partnership. Such an individual may seek to establish strict rules in a relationship and attempt to isolate a new partner from friends and family, among other disturbing behaviors.

Most of all, it is critical to remember to protect your emotional well-being and the emotional health of your children. Breaking free of a relationship from a narcissist is going to take a lot of strength and organization. You need to form a team of people that you can depend upon, including your friends, family, therapist, and support groups. The very best way to protect yourself from experiencing any of the above is to recognize the signs of mental illness before you enter a relationship.

If you or someone you know is in need of support and guidance in a narcissistic relationship please contact Evolve Counselling Services and we will be here to help.

Jackie LeBeau

Jackie LeBeau

Registered Psychotherapist,Certified Clinical Trauma Specialist at Evölve Counselling Services