I first came into contact with narcissistic personality disorder in my clinical work as a psychologist while working for some of the world’s most exclusive treatment centres. It is not uncommon to see traits of narcissism — arrogance, sense of entitlement, little if any respect for boundaries, selfishness, self-importance, haughty and belittling behaviours and grandiosity — among high-status individuals. That’s not to say all the wealthy and famous are narcissistic, but overt narcissists are brazenly drawn to power, fame, money and status.
When I returned to private practice in London about five years ago, I witnessed a disturbing emerging trend. With the rise of narcissism there is a rise of the particular kind of abuse narcissists subject their unsuspecting partners to. I regularly met both female and male clients seeking therapy because of concerns about stress or burnout, anxiety, alcohol or drug use, workaholism, fatigue or depression, regardless of wealth or status.
Interestingly, this is often alongside a tendency to be extremely driven and self-punitive. Such issues usually have an underlying belief of “not good enough”. On exploration it became apparent that their partners would, in various ways, support this sense of discontent and “never enough” belief, largely because this would somehow serve their own selfish needs. When people are anxious, fearful, overworked, overstressed and exhausted they are easier to control.
In narcissistic abuse, partners find themselves in a position where they are desperately attempting to appease a difficult partner — trying to keep them happy and avoid fallout, punishment or confrontation. It is this futile mission that drives people to their edge. Trying to please a narcissistic partner is futile because, for a narcissist, nothing is enough.
Narcissistic personalities effectively mask a deep and unconscious self-loathing. To counter feelings of shame, narcissists will project their own issues on to everybody else. They blame others, insist it’s everybody else’s fault, portray themselves as victims and rarely apologise or take responsibility for themselves or their actions.
Feeling that whatever you do or say is not right or enough in your partner’s eyes, or that any difficulties between the two of you are your fault or your responsibility, are key warning signs you may be in a relationship with a narcissist.
Being subjected to narcissistic abuse will, over time, negatively affect your mental health and wellbeing, not to mention your physical health.
Narcissistic abuse can be difficult to identify because very often in the early stages of the relationship we are overloaded with romance, compliments and gifts. Narcissists are usually intense and passionate — they are on and off, up and down. Over time, there are more and more unpleasant comments, criticisms, selfish behaviours, manipulation or lies.
Because the beginning has been so wonderful or intense, the darker moments seem hard to comprehend. The extremes can leave you feeling confused. Being with a narcissist feels a lot like being on an emotional rollercoaster — and if you stay on for long enough, it will leave you sick.
Those drawn to narcissists tend to have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and, instead of stating their boundaries about what is not okay in the relationship, assume they have misheard, misunderstood or that it is their fault. Narcissistic partners will tell you “you’re being sensitive”, “you’re overreacting”, “you’re imagining things”, or even “you’re crazy”.
Often narcissists control finances, so partners feel trapped.
Individuals experiencing narcissistic abuse become anxious, nervous, depressed and desperate to appease difficult, controlling partners. Self-esteem is battered. Many people lose the confidence to do the things they once enjoyed. They become isolated and lose touch with their social support network of friends and family.
Narcissistic abuse can leave you feeling as if you are losing your mind and can lead to burnout or a nervous breakdown.
An important first step in moving on from narcissistic abuse is to arm yourself with information. Learning about narcissism and how to recognise narcissistic abuse is essential in beginning to come to terms with the issue and in understanding the nature of this toxic dynamic.
Many people get stuck in the hope that things will change or get better. This is often fantasy thinking and it’s important to get a grounded, realistic perspective on what is happening.
If you suspect that you are in an abusive relationship, then seek support from people you can trust — friends, family, peer support groups and a professional.
Recovery includes working on your self-esteem, self-confidence and self-care. It is essential to develop healthy boundaries and to let go of any fear or guilt that may interfere with your ability to hold them. Addressing any related trauma can help with this. Help and support are available and it is possible to end a toxic relationship and move on.
Dr Sarah Davies is a London-based counselling psychologist and author of Never Again: Moving on From Narcissistic Abuse and Toxic Relationships. Her website address is: www.drsarahdavies.com