Lessons I’ve Learned From the Narcissists in My Life — 2
Why does the narcissist in your life deliberately sabotage you?
I recently wrote a piece discussing some of the things I’ve learned from my run-ins with narcissists. I’ve had a few grateful comments about the information being helpful, so I thought I’d share some more.
My first piece on this topic was more of a casual response to my reader’s comments, so there is something I should have clarified that I didn’t. When you say someone is pathologically narcissistic, you’re not saying that they’re “extra” or “attention-seeking” or “selfish” or even “self-absorbed,” although these are traits narcissists often display. When you say someone is pathologically narcissistic, you’re saying that their personality is so disordered, so shattered that what we understand to be a person isn’t there in any meaningful way. There are only alternating masks they put on and take off. Whatever developmental process allowed the rest of us to establish clear psychological boundaries between us and the world failed in the narcissist (usually as the result of trauma, neglect, or abuse as a child). Everything and everyone is an extension of themselves. Every action is taking place with them in mind. That’s not “excessive self-love” or “extreme self-centerdness” or whatever else people confuse pathological narcissism with. It’s a serious disorder of the personality that makes every other person an object to them.
How full of self-loathing narcissists are might surprise many people. That might be the only thing that is consistent about them. They have no self-worth and have to get all of it from external sources. It’s why they demand so much attention from the people they use as sources. They’re not capable of genuinely caring about other people. We’re like food to them. The thing they feed on is our emotions. That means they have to be manipulating people constantly. Narcissists’ whole personas often change to fit whatever group or person they’re currently targeting or associating themselves with. Literally every time they open their mouths they’re lying, because their whole “personality” is a construction. It’s a heavy label to put on someone, and I don’t throw it around.
Something that is particularly confusing about narcissists is that they often attach themselves to successful, admired people only to sabotage their targets deliberately. They will do this even to their own children. If their friend, lover, family member or spouse gains more accolades and attention, they do too by proxy. It should be what they want. Nevertheless, narcissists often interfere with that ascension. If their target is an actor with a big audition coming up, the narcissist finds ways to hamper their study of the script. If their target has an important presentation at work coming up, the narcissist will prevent them from working on it and may even go so far as to damage or destroy the presentation materials. If their target is an athlete, the narcissist will find ways to break their concentration when they’re trying to prepare mentally for a big meet or game. Picking fights at these important junctures is common for narcissists as is nitpicking to death anything the target is working on. It can be confusing because, particularly early in the relationship, the narcissist may have been the most helpful person in these situations. It’s an odd way to behave for someone who most people think is just looking to get as much of the limelight as they can.
The first thing to understand is that the nice, helpful person you saw early on and the monster sabotaging you are both fake. Your emotional reaction — positive or negative — is a sign to the narcissist that they matter, and that is what their behavior is meant to elicit. It’s the only thing they’re ever after. How often this behavior damages the narcissists themselves is a sign of how constantly and irretrievably depleted they are and how desperate they are to be filled. It’s their desperation and lack of boundaries that make them so dangerous. They’re like drug addicts, and our emotional upheaval is their fix. It’s why some of them are always causing drama and stoking conflict on the one hand, then being extra to the point of creepiness about how much they love you, then icing you out completely. How disproportionate and grandiose everything is is a huge tell you’re dealing with a narcissist. They can’t experience contentment, and they destroy it wherever they find it. It may be going too far to say the narcissist has no true self, but they’re so disconnected from it and bent on receiving any external validation of their self-worth that whatever is left deep inside them may as well not exist.
As for why narcissists sabotage their targets, even though it’s in their best interest for their targets to succeed, so they can get even more attention: Every time a narcissist sees someone else getting praise and accolades and being loved, they’re filled with intense envy and self-hatred. The closer the person is to them, the more intense the feelings. They’re so pathologically focused on having their non-existent self-worth validated that they take anyone else being appreciated as a slight against them. If they can, they try to get the praise directed towards them, and they lash out against the person getting the attention to punish them. They often disguise the punishment in a way that gives them plausible deniability, so they can play the injured party and say, “Who me? I was only trying to help!” It’s incredibly passive aggressive. The more overtly dangerous narcissists may even become violent with targets they feel are “upstaging” them.
The sabotage can be particularly destabilizing, because it is often mixed in with glowing praise, and the target doesn’t know which of these faces of the narcissist to believe. (Remember: both of them, all of them, are false.) In addition, it’s not like after the first date, the narcissist keyed your car. After the first shared snack during a break at work, the narcissist didn’t badmouth you to your boss. High-functioning narcissists are very skilled at making good first impressions. They are also adept at probing their targets to determine how to make themselves attractive to them. These attempts to gather intel are nearly always mistaken for attentiveness and genuine interest. In addition, nobody’s perfect, so early bad behavior from the narcissist is often put down to them having a bad day. The narcissist wears the good mask most of the time early in relationships and begins to slip into abusive behavior when they realize their target isn’t perfect, that their target has other interests, that their target doesn’t exist solely to fulfill them. To a narcissist this is betrayal. Hence the punishment.
Every time narcissists talk about their targets in glowing terms, they are really soliciting praise and attention for themselves for being the wind beneath the targets’ wings. They’re looking to be told the target “couldn’t have done it without them” no matter the truth of that statement. It’s deeper than that, though. Narcissists target people with traits they covet, traits they themselves lack. The narcissist doesn’t just want credit for being supportive; they want to be seen as even more impressive than their targets. Narcissists need to believe other people see them as perfect. It’s what they demand be mirrored back to them — how great and amazing and supportive and kind and intelligent and [fill in the blank with whatever affirmation they need] they are. When they don’t get that, they collapse. It’s a hole that cannot be filled. Their reaction to loss of status (real or perceived) is incredibly intense, almost existential. Everything is a competition to a narcissist. Their thinking is very black-and-white. Coming up short in a comparison to their target whom they chose for being impressive constantly triggers those feelings of loss. Hence the sabotage, which always escalates (often into disaster) unless the target gets the narcissist out of their life.
In addition, as the target achieves success, other impressive people come into their life. They’ll have new colleagues and collaborators and mentors — people whose opinions they respect, people who are all more “special” than the narcissist. To a black-and-white thinking narcissist for whom everything is a zero-sum game, each of these new relationships is a threat. The narcissist’s relationship to their target is parasitic, vampiric. Every other person who receives a share of the target’s emotional responses is stealing sustenance from the narcissist. The narcissist will try to sabotage these relationships to maintain control over their target.
I’m not a clinical psychologist. These are my observations after personal experience and extensive research. Take what I say with a grain of salt, but please also take this to heart: Narcissists routinely fool mental health professionals. They often turn family therapy and couple’s counseling into another space to further manipulate and punish their targets. It’s why they can be so dangerous in divorce and child custody proceedings. They manipulate therapists and counselors into taking their side all the time. Only people (professional or otherwise) with extensive personal experience and/or training dealing with narcissists really understand how to identify the high-functioning ones relatively quickly and manage them. Please keep this in mind if you ever feel the urge to call someone who’s been tricked by a narcissist stupid. One of the reasons you may be able to spot the manipulation from a distance is that the narcissist has spent exactly zero effort “putting on the Ritz” for you. Narcissists tap dance a hole through the floor to hook their targets. They make it look good. Many of them can keep it looking good enough long enough to entangle the target so deeply in their morass that it can seem impossible to get out. The narcissist, of course, reinforces this belief at every turn.
Narcissists are also very good at keeping their targets’ emotions in a constant state of flux. All the flip flopping between the praise and sabotage and gaslighting and love bombing and towering hysterics and silent treatment and other forms of abuse and manipulation is incredibly stressful and makes it hard for people to think straight. That’s why indifference is narcissists’ kryptonite. It turns off the emotional fog machine they’ve always got running that prevents their targets from seeing what’s really happening. After you stop letting them get any kind of a rise (positive or negative) out of you, it becomes clear that nearly every interaction with you is a setup to manipulate a heightened emotional response for them to feed off of. (You can literally watch them cycle through their entire repertoire of manipulation tactics, sometimes over the course of a single conversation.)
It’s very frightening and destabilizing for a person to realize someone they care about has no moral center. People don’t want to accept it. It’s why they believe the lies when the narcissist apologizes and puts the “good” mask back on. It’s too painful to admit the truth even though the pattern of abusive behavior tells the whole story. Setting boundaries with narcissists exposes them, because it denies them unfettered access to what they feel belongs to them. (Their sense of entitlement is limitless.) Each act of sabotage they commit is at heart the violation of a boundary they know is there but think shouldn’t limit them. People who are very conflict averse and have trouble setting boundaries are good targets for narcissists. This can be a big problem in romantic relationships, because we’re taught so poorly how to negotiate them. Society sends the message that two people should meld into one. It’s a recipe for the elimination of boundaries and enmeshment and is particularly ripe ground for narcissists.
Remember: there’s no fixing what’s broken inside the narcissist. Even so, their disorder doesn’t prevent them from knowing right from wrong. How skillfully they can deploy the “good” mask shows that they know how to behave. Their disorder does mean they are programmed to abuse their targets, though, and they will always do so if the opportunity presents itself. Their limits are what they think they can get away with. Because they’re so grandiose, they nearly always misjudge those limits and make themselves a danger to other people and sometimes themselves. The only thing you can do is get yourself as far out of their blast radius as possible.
I hope this helps.
Here’s my first piece on narcissists, which discusses some of the ways they operate and the tactics they use. It’s on the long side, because after I learned readers found it helpful, I added some resources for people who are in the early stages of figuring out if there’s a narcissist in their life, what that means, and what to do about it. I hope it’s a useful starting place.