[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
“Narcissists,” my therapist said, “often gravitate toward caring and compassionate people. It’s not your fault that you ran into another one, but it isn’t inevitable either. Now that you know what types of people to avoid, you should find it much easier to not experience another iteration of the same situation.”
I heard what he was saying, but I was annoyed nonetheless, not at him, but at myself. I had been in a years-long relationship with a man who was manipulative and insecure and deeply flawed. After the breakup I sought therapy and at my initial intake, the psychiatrist looked hard at me and said, “You know, you were emotionally abused.” She gave me a list of behaviors and told me to check off each one that applied to my ex. I checked 18 of 20 and felt the world cave in beneath me. She referred me to a psychologist who taught me about narcissism. We explored the depths of my need for approval, my all-or-nothing mentality, my deep desire for excitement and adrenaline rushes, and my propensity to set aside my own desires to accommodate the desires of my partner. Unsavory behavior, but true. I didn’t date anyone exclusively for months, in an effort to not make the same mistake a second time. Then, I met someone interesting and charming and attractive. I slowly let go of my ties to other men and we became exclusive, although we never really talked about it.
People often think that narcissists are in love with themselves or have too much confidence, but it’s more accurate to characterize a narcissist as someone with an idealized self-image that they project in order to avoid feeling anything bad. Deep down, most narcissists are intensely wounded, although they would never admit it. In hindsight, narcissist #2 was a lot like narcissist #1. But hindsight is 20/20, right? I’ve compiled a list of 8 narcissistic behaviors to look out for. Learn from me, so you don’t have to experience this yourself.
1. His actions told me I wasn’t important.
He never explicitly said he didn’t care about me, but he showed me in a few different ways. We lived about an hour apart and 90% of the time, he wanted me to come to him. He never made plans, and when I asked him to go to a show with me, he simply said, “Why would I do that?” He also had a way of checking out when I would speak, and I could feel him not listening. When he talked about the future it was always in the first person singular (“I”) and he didn’t seem to care about any of my interests. In short, he left me feeling small, unimportant, and irrelevant.
2. He was excessively charming.
In the beginning, he was responsive to my text messages and phone calls, was an engaging conversationalist, and showered me with compliments. He was very charming, but that's an enduring trait of narcissists. Once he lost interested (or became bored), his charm took a definite and irreversible nose dive. He could be very engaging, but only on his own terms.
3. Became easily offended and was overly sensitive.
Narcissists are highly reactive to criticism or anything they interpret as negatively evaluating their personality or performance. When I asked him questions that required him to admit some vulnerability, deficiency, or culpability, he would change the subject or simply not respond. The fallacy of narcissism is that narcissists portray a strong sense of self, but it’s actually quite weak. Being easily offended indicates a very weak ego and a weak sense of self, the reality of which is so threatening to a narcissist that they double down on their false ego, rendering them unempathetic and inauthentic.
4. Loved to talk but was a bad listener.
On one of our early dates, we sat in a restaurant at a tiny, two-person table and he talked at me for longer than makes sense. It dawned on me that he would have talked at anybody, he just wanted an audience. On the flip side, he was a terrible listener, and would often let his eyes wander or check his phone as I was speaking. He had his mind made up about most things, and instead of really listening, he was simply waiting to speak.
5. Had a deep desire to be rich.
This is an obvious but somewhat confusing sign, because money, to a certain extent, makes life better and easier. His desire for wealth likely wasn’t grounded in security but rather in feeling important and powerful. He had a tangible desire to be desirable, and money was just once piece of the desirability puzzle. He once asked me to leave his house because he was working on a way to hack the lottery and needed to concentrate. Instead of pointing out the idiocy of this effort, I just left, and that was kind of the beginning of the end.
6. Disappeared instead of addressing problems.
Once, I expressed that I felt unimportant to him because he hadn’t communicated with me in days. Instead of engaging in a healthy dialogue about my feelings or his actions, he simply said he was busy with work and I was distracting him. Instead of having a short conversation and smoothing things over, he disappeared for a few more days, effectively undermining me and asserting himself as the-only-person-he-was-capable-of-caring-about.
7. Hated talking about emotions.
Harvard Medical School psychologist Craig Malkin said, “the very fact of having a feeling in the presence of another person suggests you can be touched emotionally by friends, family, partners, and even the occasional tragedy or failure." Feelings render us vulnerable, which is why narcissists abhor them. So, he would change the topic when feelings came up, and leaned hard into the hyper-masculine narrative that showing emotions is a sign of weakness. His alpha-male posturing was especially misguided, given that real alpha males are not even a little bit afraid of or dissuaded by vulnerability or tough conversations. In his plight to be hyper-masculine, he was sadly, the opposite.
8. Needed to be in control.
Just as narcissists hate to talk about their feelings, they also don’t like to be at the mercy of other people’s preferences. In romantic relationships, narcissists control people with disapproval (via words or nonverbal cues), changing plans last minute, chronic lateness, and sporadic communication. This allows them to maintain their sense of autonomy, which they desperately need. My ex once called himself an “army of one,” which of course he wasn’t because nobody is. We all depend on hundreds of people every day whether we notice it or not. But his illusion of being self-sufficient satisfied his desire to be in total control of his life.
You might be thinking, gosh he sounds horrible. Sometimes, he was, but the rest of the time he was charming and lovely. If he hadn’t had some good qualities too, I never would have dated him. I was heartbroken when our relationship ended, but the heartbreak was fairly short-lived. I realized his actions toward me were slowly eroding my confidence. About a week after the breakup, I told my therapist, "I feel like myself again, and I'm so much happier."
P.S. If you think you're with a narcissist who's abusive, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE. To learn more about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, go HERE. For comprehensive resources on dealing with narcissism, go HERE.