Lessons I’ve Learned From the Narcissists in My Life
This week, I deviated quite a bit from my usual path and wrote about what happens when you find out one of your friends isn’t a good person. It seemed to touch a nerve with some readers here and on my Instagram, where I posted an excerpt.
C. M. Barrett wrote:
You nailed it. Probably a lot of people in the bad person category are narcissists. Having grown up with a narcissistic father, I know that they can be fiendishly clever in disguising their base reality that it’s all about them. In such cases, it’s difficult to get to the truth.
They can also be good at fostering co-dependent relationships. Breaking free isn’t easy but so worth it.
Thanks for making me think about this.
Lakitha Tolbert also related:
I can grok this. I had a “friend” like this in college .I watched her treat the ppl who weren’t important to her pretty badly, I just didn’t think it would ever be me. This was my first run in with a true narcissist.
Luckily, I had a good support group, who had always seen through her, and they helped me through the breakup. I definitely learned from it and have been pretty good about spotting those toxic ppl ever since.
First off, thanks for chiming in! I haven’t had a comment from either of you in a while! I’ve had to wrestle with narcissists a lot in my life. They seem like my cross to bear… All of the “bad people” I was describing may not meet the standard of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the DSM, but they certainly share a lot of the traits. The more dealings I have with these people, the clearer it becomes to me that there needs to be more education about spotting the red flags they throw up. And there are always red flags. I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned about narcissists in my dealings with them.
As Connie rightly pointed out, they’re very good at hiding that everything (and I mean everything) is always about them especially when they’re pretending it’s about someone else. A narcissistic parent is particularly damaging, because they shape so much of your early perceptions. It’s very easy to control a child. Some people never break away. The societal pressure to remember “blood is thicker than water” keeps them susceptible to all the narcissist’s tactics that rely on guilting their victims. Narcissists are exceedingly good at weaponizing society’s expectations regarding civility and loyalty, etc. to pressure their targets into compliance. They’ve mastered the art of playing the injured party. They always manage to be the one who’s hurt the most by their bad behavior, and it’s always someone else’s fault. They’re very good at gaslighting — lying to undermine reality — to get their victims to stop trusting their instincts and second-guess themselves. When reality is constantly under attack, it’s a big sign you’re dealing with a narcissist.
The most important thing to know about narcissists is that everything they do is some sort of phony projection. Their entire self-image is fake. Even so, it can be very difficult to spot a narcissist’s manipulation. It’s incomprehensible to most of us that a person could be that dishonest about everything (including who they really are) all the time. In the beginning, they use a tactic called “love bombing” — overwhelming you with praise, attention, and cooperation to get in the door. It’s flattering. It feels good. They idealize you. They find ways to mirror back to you the version of yourself you want to be. In a way, they get you to be friends with or fall in love with yourself.
The more sophisticated ones often attach themselves to high-status, admired people to siphon off the attention they can’t get on their own. They often set themselves up in a gatekeeping position that allows them to control access to the person. They paint themselves as being integral to the person’s accomplishments and are incredibly demanding about being recognized for it while feigning humility. Once you know how to spot this, it’s unbearable being around these people. The vicarious embarrassment of watching someone be that phony is too much to stand.
A big tell you’re dealing with one of these people is their insecurity and envy. It fills their every waking moment. It’s what shapes their identity. They believe they’re special (it’s why they’re so grandiose) and constantly want to be recognized for it. They often aren’t, though, and they deeply resent people who are. Their life’s work is undermining these people. It makes them especially dangerous to any “popular” person they’ve grafted themselves on to. I choose the word “popular” advisedly — they have the emotions of children. They secretly hate the person they’ve attached themselves to, and even while they’re shouting praise and support for them from the rooftops, they’re actively trying to sabotage them. You know you’re dealing with one of these people when their actions demonstrate that they don’t want what’s best for you. You should never under any circumstances ever pay attention to their words. They are constitutionally manipulative and practised liars. What makes them so dangerous is that they often believe the lies they’re telling as they’re telling them. It’s part of what makes them so convincing. They’re not smart, though. They’re not evil geniuses. They’ve just mastered a particular set of tactics of manipulation, because they’ve been deploying them since they were children. They’re very good at providing just enough to create a sense of obligation to them. And you will always be reminded of the obligation — that’s another tell.
Their biggest tell is that they don’t respect boundaries. Most people make the mistake of thinking loyalty is the test of friendship. Some of these people will go super hard for you, defend you to all comers, get into fights for you, sob and cry when you’re treated poorly by someone else. Most of them are addicted to drama, though, so they’re just getting a fix when this happens. In addition, narcissists see their “friends” and “loved ones” as extensions of themselves. When they decide to defend or protect you, they’re really defending or protecting themselves. Narcissists can actually pass many of the tests of loyalty very easily, particularly if they’re public, because they make them look good. Loyalty isn’t the test of friendship, though, respect is.
The quickest way to suss one of these people out and know to give them a wide berth is to set a clear, reasonable boundary with them. Something like: “Don’t call me at this time, because I’m doing [insert activity] and don’t want to be disturbed.” If they keep violating this boundary even after you reiterate it, it’s a power move. If they try to insert themselves into what you’ve marked out as your private time (e.g., they become obsessed with the activity overnight and insist on joining you), that’s a GIANT red flag. The ones who, early in your relationship, keep showing up without notice (in the age of cell phones!) and invite themselves along to gatherings with your existing group of friends? Nope out of that. The insinuation is deliberate, carefully planned, and the erosion of boundaries is meant to take control from you.
The blaring siren — the sign that you should run for the hills — is when they try to isolate you from your friends and family. Sometimes the isolation is complete, particularly if they have the financial power in the relationship. Sometimes they surround you with people they’ve handpicked — people they know they can control. These are your new friends. It can all begin very subtly. Criticizing your close friends. Playing up any conflict or disagreement you have with other people for maximum drama to create a rift. They’re obsessed with someone trying to “steal” you from them (because you’re just a possession to them). The underlying theme is that no one is good enough for you. Except them. They don’t want you to care about anyone else. They don’t want anyone else to care about you. They have to isolate you in their dysfunction, because they have no real emotional core. They can’t genuinely meet anyone’s emotional needs. They’re too damaged. They can pretend for a while, but they know the mask will slip. Their only hope is to get you away from healthy relationships and normalize their defective behavior.
Human beings are incredibly adaptable, and the isolation tactic works much better than people might think. It’s particularly effective if the narcissist catches you at a low point in your life — while you’re dealing with something traumatic (job loss, an illness or serious injury, the death of a loved one, etc.). They’ll pretend to be the most supportive person on the planet. They’ll never leave your side. They’ll pass all the tests for loyalty while eroding all the boundaries that are the basis for respect. They’ll make you dependent on them. That proximity they’ll cultivate — the always being there — is how they paint others who can’t be there all the time as uncaring. “I’m the only person who really cares about you.” That’s what they want you to believe. It’s also how they keep watch on you. They are paranoid, fearful people. Their biggest fear is being found out to be the frauds they are. That’s one of the reasons they have to isolate their targets — it makes it less likely someone will reveal the truth about them. It’s why they try so hard to eradicate support systems like the ones Lakitha had.
Modern society isolates us. It makes us more susceptible to this kind of manipulation than we’d like to admit. It’s one of the reasons I decided to share this. These people RUIN lives. They’re abusers. That’s what I want people who read this to take away. Narcissists are abusers. Their personalities are defective. Their character is deficient. They don’t change, and they can’t be reasoned with. Every apology and promise to do better is a false concession — more manipulation. The only course of action is to cut them out of your life. How poorly this kind of action is looked upon by a society that keeps pressuring us to forgive is one of the most powerful weapons in their arsenal. It’s what allows them to keep coming back like a fungus you can’t clear.
Please share this with someone you think might need to see it. People who are being victimized by narcissists often don’t see it until utter catastrophe strikes. They always know something isn’t right, though. It’s another reason the narcissist keeps such a close watch, isolates them, and gaslights. Most people don’t have the vocabulary to express what’s happening to them. Introducing them to it can help them realize they’re being abused and get away.
Thanks for reading!
Updated to Add Some Resources
Below are additional resources that provide more information for those of you who are wondering if there’s a narcissist in your life and what to do about it. It’s overwhelming to take in all this new information, and, even after all this time, I still find returning to the basic concepts helpful. So, take your time and re-visit it as the need arises.
Here’s a good primer on how narcissists behave:
Here’s a great debunking of some myths about narcissism that prevent people from realizing what they’re dealing with:
What most people struggle with is accepting that the narcissist never cared about them, because they are literally incapable of doing so. It’s even deeper than that, though. Here’s a video explaining that yes, the narcissist hates you, and why:
The most important thing you should never forget is that these can be extremely dangerous people. DO NOT FEEL SORRY FOR THEM. STOP TRYING TO RESCUE THEM. PROTECT YOURSELF. Here’s a video explaining the threat narcissists pose to their targets:
When ending a narcissistic relationship, it is recommended that the narcissist’s target completely cut off any and all communication with the narcissist. This is called going “no contact”. No contact means NO CONTACT. Of any kind. If you and the narcissist co-habitate, you’ll have to make a plan to leave or throw them out (CHANGE THE LOCKS!). Change your number and unfollow and block the narcissist on social media. This can be incredibly difficult and lonely, because the narcissist has likely been an important part of your life. Those friends and family the narcissist isolated you from? Reach out to them for support. The narcissist will almost always act out in some way after being discarded. Correcting or chastising them directly is what they want, and it’s designed to get you to break no contact. Have a plan in place to deal with their shenanigans that doesn’t involve interacting with the narcissist. The farther away you can get from the narcissist, the better. If you’re 1,000 miles away, it’s much less likely the narcissist will “just run into you” accidentally. Here’s a video discussing the difficulties of ending a relationship with a narcissist and how to cope (N.B. The reference to “hoovering” describes tactics narcissists use to to suck their targets back into the relationship after they’ve left.):
The Group of Friends the Narcissist Assembled Around You is Part of the Manipulation Too (Sorry…)
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to break away from narcissists is that there are more than likely other relationships involved. The narcissist often recruits a “harem” around them to serve their needs. The target is often a part of the harem, and, if they are, they are always being manipulated, not only by the narcissist, but by other members of the harem. The most important thing to remember is that every member of the harem the narcissist allows access to the target is someone the narcissist is confident they can control.
If a harem member’s relationship with the narcissist pre-dates the target’s (particularly by a very long stretch), it is almost certain they are aware of the narcissist’s deficient character and help to cover it up to keep the narcissist attractive to their targets. Long-term harem members often aren’t as charming as the narcissist and need their relationship with the narcissist to have access to the benefits the narcissist’s targets provide. They also often participate in helping the narcissist love bomb, gaslight, isolate, and hoover their targets. They form a constant praise and worship circle around the target that boxes out sensible people by painting people who won’t behave that way as “haters.” They also subtly devalue the target and make them doubt their judgment, so they can take over important responsibilities in the target’s life. They co-ordinate to coerce or even bully the target to maintain these positions.
The narcissist’s right-hand man or woman nearly always shares the narcissist’s sociopathic traits — it’s why they’re in every plot and scheme with the narcissist. TAKE NOTE: Because this person usually lacks the narcissist’s charm and good looks, if they are attached to a high-functioning narcissist, they will almost always be a highly skilled manipulator whose mask rarely slips, because they won’t be forgiven as easily as someone with the narcissist’s social capital. They are less volatile than the narcissist and often present as even-keeled and reasonable. The nice girl next to the mean girl is often the real mean girl. The “nice” one is absolutely integral to keeping the target amenable to the harem’s manipulations. They explain away the narcissist’s bad behavior as “passion” or “loving too hard” or “unresolved childhood trauma” or some other excuse that makes their lack of respect seem acceptable. It isn’t. Whenever the target starts to see through the narcissist, the Nice Reliable Friend™ shifts into high gear to do damage control. These are incredibly devious people who are nearly impossible to spot unless you’ve been burned by one in the past.
The most important role all members of the harem play is helping the narcissist reinforce the sense of obligation a target feels to remain in the group. They present themselves as the target’s “family,” and use that language to create powerful feelings of guilt in the target. N.B. This is a classic manipulation technique all stripes of manipulative people use. Always be incredibly wary of people who use the language associated with family to create the impression of having stronger bonds to someone (especially someone of high status) than they really do. It’s a major red flag. Another big tell you’re the target of a narcissist and a harem is if everyone around you seems to be getting what they want at your expense.
Among the more unreasonable demands the narcissist and harem make is that their target’s well-being be sacrificed so they can play at being a “C-suite executive” or “brand manager” or “creative director” or “producer” or “trusted advisor” or “The Most Supportive Girlfriend/Boyfriend Ever to Have Lived!” or “FAMILY!” or whatever grandiose (usually overlapping) titles they’ve taken on in the target’s life. The titles they give themselves are often literally grandiose and pretentious. If a group of people around you are unironically demanding to be called “exemplary” or “iconoclastic” or “visionary” or something similarly nonsensical instead of just getting on with whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing, you’re probably dealing with a narcissist and their harem. These people are often the epitome of mediocrity, and they know it, hence all the posturing. They have to coattail on more talented, special people. All the talk of “loyalty” is really about them not being replaced by well-adjusted, capable people who can meet the target’s needs to a higher standard without all the nightmarish emotional manipulations and the headaches they cause. If most high-status targets look into it closely, they could probably replace the bulk of the harem with a competent, no-nonsense assistant or advisor and a therapist. (Think of all the money and time that could be saved!) The remaining gaps will be nowhere near as difficult to fill as the narcissist and the harem have made it seem.
GOING “NO CONTACT” WITH THE NARCISSIST MEANS GOING “NO CONTACT” WITH THE HAREM. That means, as best as possible, the target cutting ties with every person the narcissist installed around them. Keep in mind that because they aren’t as charming or attractive, the supporting cast often actually have to be pleasant and make themselves useful to be kept around. This masks their participation in the manipulation. If the target is high-status enough, even long-term harem members may abandon the narcissist to try to stick with the target. DO NOT MISTAKE THIS FOR LOYALTY! In addition, after a target leaves them, narcissists almost always run a smear campaign and use the harem as “flying monkeys” to spread lies about how how horrible the target was to the narcissist, when it’s the reverse that’s true. These flying monkeys also bully and harass former targets in other ways.
More importantly, going “no contact” with everyone involved comes down to personal safety. Make sure to watch the video above about how dangerous narcissists can be to understand why. The narcissist will often use harem members who remain friendly with former targets to keep tabs on them and stalk them. This can escalate into extremely dangerous and sometimes even deadly territory, particularly if the loss of status the narcissist experiences when the target leaves them is severe. A clue you may be dealing with a narcissist who will escalate into dangerous territory is if they use language like “forever” and “eternity” to describe your relationship. They are telegraphing the completeness of the ownership they feel they are entitled to have over you. If they’re putting these messages out publicly or even on social media to try to coerce you to stay in the relationship, it’s a GIANT red flag (as in a “RUN!” red flag). Remember: Narcissists have NO limits. If they feel their loss of status may be permanent, they might do anything. However, they and the harem may co-operate fully and go back into the love bombing phase to try to hold on to valuable targets. Use that for cover as best as possible when trying to extricate yourself. Prepare for a potentially dangerous escalation, though. I understand how difficult and extreme this all may seem, but you have to harden your heart as the Lord did Pharaoh’s. It might save your life.
The harem members often reveal themselves as manipulators when a target’s relationship with the narcissist seems like it will end. It’s awkward when friends are caught in the middle when a relationship is ending, but when, for their own benefit, people try to coerce someone to stay in a toxic relationship, they are crossing a bright line. The harem will guilt the target mercilessly, and, if that fails, they’ll often frame their concerns and delay tactics as giving the “devastated” narcissist time to adjust or save face and not be humiliated. The break-up can’t happen until it’s the “right time.” There is no right time. They’re stalling to try to figure out how to keep the con going. Literal Kings and Queens divorce and deal with public scandal that carries on for decades. You can break up with your significant other or friend. The grandiosity — all the hoopla — is another tell you’re dealing with a narcissist.
It can be particularly difficult to separate if the target and members of the harem live together or maybe started a business or other organization together. That set-up was deliberate. It’s a way to make getting them out of your life so tedious that you might comply to avoid the exhaustion. Businesses, charities, etc. (really any group where the narcissist can set and enforce rules and demand and extract loyalty) are also a way to recruit and groom new harem members. In addition, those arrangements are how the narcissist and the harem ensure someone reinforcing their point of view is nearly always with the target.
The narcissist and the harem are also usually adept at creating a hamster wheel of obligations — “Important Things That Have to Get Done!” that you feel you can’t derail. You can. Put things on pause, reschedule, postpone, and recruit your own help. Reasonable people understand that our lives change, organizations restructure and that there may be kinks while it’s happening. Remember: Narcissists poison organizational culture wherever they go, particularly if they are in leadership positions. That also has to be dealt with in the aftermath and is why clearing out the harem as well is necessary — they share the narcissist’s warped values. Hopefully, a trusted friend (or even a hired gun like an attorney) who isn’t part of the harem can act as a buffer to help unwind any business or similar ties. Marriage and children obviously make this all MUCH more complex. Be extremely glad if you managed to escape this snare.
N.B. If you were in any kind of business relationship with a narcissist or did fundraising or ran a charity together (anything involving money changing hands) and weren’t keeping a close watch on the funds, you should check the till and have the books audited IMMEDIATELY. Also, don’t make the mistake of reaching to the outer edges of the harem to promote people to replace the narcissist and the inner circle of the harem when you purge them. Don’t draw from a poisoned well. Do what should have been done in the beginning: recruit and hire professionals.
It’s painful and overwhelming to extricate yourself from a mess like this. People will think you’re overreacting when you excise the narcissist and the harem from your life completely. The narcissist and the harem will likely have done everything in their power to cultivate this response. That’s why it’s important to find resources and take advice and support from people who understand the dynamics, who know that you’re not crazy or ungrateful or disloyal or whatever the narcissist and the harem are gaslighting you into believing when you refuse to sacrifice yourself to them and their unreasonable demands. Every cult is an extreme expression of the narcissist/harem dynamic. Get out and recalibrate yourself and your expectations for relationships.
They covet. That is what drives the narcissist and the harem. All the sycophancy and ingratiation can look like love and respect, but it isn’t. At its core, it’s envy. That’s why it doesn’t feel good. Because you’re just an object to them — a means to an end. I understand that facing this is very painful and isolating. Don’t let fear of loneliness bind you to these vampires any longer. Don’t let pride keep you from admitting you made a mistake, and you should have never allowed them across the threshold of your home. They are unworthy of you. Discovering you’ve been alone in all the ways that matter is emotionally devastating. Embracing it is incredibly difficult, but it’s a powerful feeling when you get through to the other side.
The harem and it’s group dynamics are the most difficult part of the narcissist’s scheme to spot, because as the group tag teams the target, the roles often shift. The narcissist may also shuffle the hierarchy as reward and punishment to maintain control. Here’s an article discussing how narcissists may construct their harems that provides more insight into some of the tactics used: