These letters concern narcissism in partners, friends and family members. Narcissistic traits can cause frustrating relationship difficulties--but Borderline personalities are narcissistic, tormenting and toxic, and may actually be the cause of your troubles. To learn more about narcissism and how it's resolved, click here.
Q. How come a Narcissist is more lovable than an honest, dependable, kind, caring person?
A. Whom did you learn to love as a child? Were your parents honest, caring, dependable, kind people? You're subconsciously attracted to people who are like the folks who raised you. Get help.
Q. I keep hearing the term, 'toxic narcissism.' Can you explain please?
A. Narcissism can make for frustrating relationship dynamics, but I don't see it as toxic, per se. I think that most folks who use this term are referencing someone with Borderline Personality Disorder features, and there's a lot of material on this site about that!
Q. Why do I keep falling for Narcissists? The 'good guys' who can really love me, don't excite me I guess--but I want to find a healthy relationship!
A. Actually, you don't. We all need a spark to ignite our flame for someone, but your pattern of attraction/choice indicates that you're addicted to chaos and drama. It also suggests you're afraid of attachment--this was acquired during your earliest years of life. Reference my Borderline articles for more insight about this troubling obstacle, and find help to surmount it.
Q. Can a narcissist make you feel crazy?
A. No. Relationships with narcissistic individuals are difficult, but they're not crazy-making. When you feel as though you're losing your mind, you're very likely with a Borderline. These people are narcissistic, but there are features to this personality disorder, that make you feel like you can't make sense of their behaviors. Read about the differences between NPD and BPD just two entries down from here, and explore my articles about Borderlines.
Q. My narcissistic ex-boyfriend has stopped returning my calls. I hate that he's ignoring me like this, and I need to know how to get his attention.
A. The operative word here, is "ex-boyfriend." He's obviously found a way to move on--and perhaps it's time that you did too. Besides, why would you want to hang onto a guy who's narcissistic, and unresponsive to your needs? Read my BPD forum and articles on Borderline Personality Disorder, to see if any of that material resonates for You.
Q. What's the difference between Narcissistic and Borderline Personalities?
A. Arrested emotional development is shared by both types--which makes for rocky relationships, but constitutes one of the reasons they're drawn to each other. Both are narcissistic, and fear attachment. Our sense of Self (or Ego), is supposed to be forged in the first year of life through solid bonding and emotional attunement with our mothers. Personality disordered people lacked this important symbiotic connection during infancy. Narcissists don't have the psychotic features typically associated with Borderline pathology; intense/irrational abandonment fears, self-harming behaviors, splitting (love you/hate you), cognitive distortion, pathological lying, dissociation, suicidal ideation, unfounded/extreme jealousy, histrionics, etc. Borderlines primarily fear abandonment, or being left--and Narcissists primarily fear engulfment, or feeling constrained (obviously, why this couple has persistent struggles). Both types have a tremendous need to control their relationships.
Q. Hi Shari, I've read your website with great interest. I live in the UK and am just coming out of a 3 year marriage to a passive aggressive husband who was very manipulating and controlling, and it's left me a temporarily changed person. I'm usually happy, positive, peaceful, etc., but feel that I've taken a lot of emotional battering during this period (it was a wonderful relationship--when he wasn't being passive aggressive). My question is, how do I start to build myself back to what I was before? My husband would probably still like contact once the divorce over--but I've decided I must have none, as he'll constantly confuse me with "I love you more than anyone," yet has treated me worse than anyone, has divorced me, and doesn't want any financial ties. Any suggestions concerning how to start back on the road to 'Myself' would be gratefully received! Many thanks.
A. Try to accept that the past few years have prompted growth and wisdom, so characteristics you liked in yourself (before) will return even stronger, once balance is regained. It's critical to give yourself time to heal from this trauma, and rebuild self-esteem and trust in yourself and others; this can't be rushed (we've gotta crawl before we can run). Get therapeutic support to help you discover who you are today, and what's important to you now. Be around family members and friends who respect and admire you. You may one day view this as a valuable experience, as you'll have learned to better discern the qualities you want/need in a loving partnership.
Q. A friend of mine is always telling me how to run my life. His advice is often good and helpful, but he can come across as pushy, or intolerant. Mostly, I've kept my mouth shut about this for years, but now it's bothering me more than before, and I want to address it with him. What's the best way to do this?
A. It seems your friend means well, but this pattern of interaction suggests some narcissism. Narcissistic individuals are insecure at their core, and more focused externally than internally. This means they're compelled to clean up the mess in your backyard (which feels empowering), while remaining blind to their own! Tell your friend you appreciate his concern, but you'd prefer to ask for his feedback or advice, when it's needed.
Q. Hi Shari, I've done a great deal of research regarding narcissism, and my husband is a text book case. I've not approached him with the information yet, although he has been through counseling for depression and other things. What is the best way to make headway when I tell him, and what's the best approach? Also, how do I move on in my life without a divorce? We have four kids at home (five in total), and I would rather not break up the family. So far, I've been able to make up for his lack of parenting, but the kids would be devastated (if we split). Thank you.
A. First, it's important to ask yourself what you're hoping to accomplish by sharing these diagnostic impressions with your spouse--in other words, what do you imagine you'll gain? Narcissists lack authentic ego strength due to childhood wounds; they cannot recognize/own their failings or flaws without doing some solid inner work. Confronting your husband with the 'information' you've gathered will likely trigger his core shame. As a defense, he might react with passive-aggressive or rageful behavior. You can't change another; you can only change yourself. Get therapeutic help to grow, and learn about setting boundaries for your husband, as to what's acceptable and what isn't. Narcissism can wear many faces, and some are surprising; I think you would benefit from deepening your existing insights--which can also help you begin to heal this marriage.
Q. My wife treats me like a child, and it drives me nuts! She's always checking if I've taken my medications, telling me to bring a sweater if we're going out, and back seat driving (and this is only the tip of the iceberg)! I was a Marine when I was young for Christ's sake, and have lived on my own for many years, both before my first marriage, and after my wife (of 32 years) died. I left home at 17 and never looked back--so I sure don't need another mother! My wife's a good woman, but this behavior aggravates the shit out of me and always prompts a fight. Why can't she just let me be?!
A. When a partner constantly intervenes in this manner, it's infantilizing. Granted, some people maintain relationships with spouses who are under-developed or immature--but control issues prompt behaviors that can feel disrespectful/insulting to an adult, and trigger his/her rage. There may be a number of reasons your wife feels a need to monitor/control you, but this behavior is generally driven by narcissism. Individuals with narcissistic traits tend to focus attention outside themselves, rather than addressing their own needs or feelings (like sensations of emptiness). Their preoccupation with controlling or taking care of others, is motivated by abandonment concerns. Your wife's apparent need to be needed is irritating, but you can alter this. Let her know you need her love and affection, but assure her of your capacity and willingness to care for yourself. Explore what she thinks would happen if she didn't engage with you this way, and gently challenge her fears about leaving you to your own devices. Interrupt her s'mothering behavior with a word or phrase you've both agreed on, that lets her know she's about to step on an emotional land mine, and you need her to stop!
Q. What's the name for a disorder where you have no remorse?
A. Borderline Personality Disorder is the first that comes to mind--although there are others, such as Narcissistic Personality, Antisocial Personality, etc. Essentially, anyone who grows up wounded or damaged, and hasn't acquired enough ego strength to recognize/own their errors and shortcomings, would fit under this umbrella.
Q. My mother is very difficult to approach when something's bothering me about our relationship--she becomes defensive, angry or sad, and shuts down. Sometimes, she won't speak to me for weeks at a time, and other times she criticizes me on how ("poorly") I run my life. The result is, I always feel guilty/bad about upsetting her, and we can never seem to work through any problems. I love my mom, but I've learned that maintaining some distance feels safer/better for me. At times, she'll want to know what's going on in my life, but I've become very cautious about what I tell her. I'm usually sorry for having opened up, so I guess I've learned not to. I'd really like us to be closer, but don't know how to go about this. Any thoughts?
A. Your mom's reactions sound consistent with parents who have narcissistic and/or borderline traits. When you approach something she perceives to be a criticism, it may trigger a shame response, due to unresolved wounds from her childhood. In a sense, you've unwittingly stepped on an old (but active) land mine, which actually has very little to do with you! A couple of things usually occur when this happens: 1) She'll tend to react the same way her mother did, which made her fear and avoid open/honest dialogue. 2) These painful feelings that are left over from her childhood will be directed toward you, instead of where they belong. This can have you walking on eggshells, and intimacy is derailed. Convey to her what you've shared with me. Handle this directly or in a note if necessary, and allow that she might have strong feelings about it. However she responds or reacts, you may choose to take it in, but do not take it on; in other words, stay with your feelings. If there's no response to your concerns, you could try again--but you may ultimately have to come to terms with these limitations. In any case, solid therapeutic support can be very helpful with these issues.
Q. A close friend of mine said I was "narcissistic" in the midst of a heated discussion. This felt pretty harsh, as I'm considerate of others, and don't see myself as egotistical or selfish. Still, this label she assigned to me is troubling, and I don't know how to go about getting rid of this trait, if it actually does exist! Can a person fully eliminate narcissism from their personality, and how is this done?
A. Nearly all of us are narcissistic to one extent or another--if we weren't, it would be virtually impossible to survive. Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves much more than being "egotistical," and stems from narcissistic injury during infancy and childhood. People with entitlement issues (they don't feel deserving/worthy of receiving from others) lack healthy narcissism, and this takes some time in therapy to repair. The root of the word, "selfish" is self-ish, which means being responsive to the needs of the Self. Many of us have been counter-conditioned for this growing up, which causes serious issues in our adult relationships. The phrase, "underdeveloped narcissism" seems peculiar to me. Narcissism stems from an underdeveloped ego, which drives behaviors or defenses that keep the false-self from confronting inner vulnerability. You cannot completely dismantle your narcissism and remain productive and emotionally healthy, but monitoring it with continuous self-reflection and apologizing for self-absorbed behavior when appropriate, will keep you on track.
Q. Shari, why do narcissistic men leave their women?
A. Not all narcissists leave their women, but many need to be needed to ease their abandonment concerns, and lovers are chosen accordingly. If a partner begins to gain a more empowered/equal footing in their union, the Narcissist's 'job' of caregiver/controller is threatened, and anxiety surfaces. He may reactto these feelings, by undermining his lover or their connection with destructive acting-out behaviors; sexual or emotional distancing, having affairs or leaving. Narcissists typically long for, but fear attachment. Based on childhood experiences with Mother, their notion of closeness is infused with and tainted by fears of engulfment (or loss of Self) and abandonment. Hence, they're prone to diminishing or finding fault with partners, as the more someone matters to them, the more these attachment concerns are heightened. This is a catch 22 sort of issue: Narcissists need you to be a perfect reflection/extension of them--but the more 'perfect' they perceive you to be, the more anxiety they'll have about losing you! They might remain with lovers/spouses they feel are lacking (or less than), to maintain a sense of control in their relationships--or leave in search of someone they think will better reflect their (inflated) self-image. Make sure you read about men with borderline traits.
Q. It seems I keep falling for narcissists, and I may need help with this. My relationships are exciting and wonderful at the start, and then they deteriorate and get pretty ugly. It's like there's a constant power struggle with these men, which creates a lot of conflict. I've met a few nice, "normal" guys along the way--but the passion's missing, and I'm quickly bored in those relationships. I'm in my mid-thirties and would like to settle down (soon) with someone, but am having trouble finding the right person. Help?
A. We set up our lives the way we need them to be. Subconsciously, you may have concerns about attaching to another; if so, you'll keep selecting people with whom this is impossible. Narcissists lack genuine empathy for others, which means they're incapable of responding to your needs or desires (they'll give you what they think you should have, as opposed to what you really want or need). You likely experienced these relationship dynamics in childhood, and learned it wasn't safe getting close to another. Your pattern of romantic choices suggests you're repeating what feels familiar (and yields the same disappointing/under-nourishing outcomes you experienced as a kid), and there may be an addiction to struggle or drama. Meaningful/constructive inner work helps you heal from childhood wounds, so that your relationships can be more healthy/gratifying.
Q. I'm really angry with my daughter. She's totally irresponsible with money, and I have to keep bailing her out of financial messes. Her husband's a low-life--absolutely a loser, and doesn't keep his jobs for very long. My kid's 38, and I'm really coming to the end of my rope with this stuff! How should I handle telling her this bank is closing?
A. How about doing just that? Sadly, it seems money becomes the currency of "Love" in these situations, and might be more about your need to control this relationship, than anything else. Can you think of other ways to convey affection for your (grown) child? Apparently, you've been frustrated with your daughter for not living up to your expectations for quite awhile, and I'm certain she feels your disdain; this may cause her to maintain certain behaviors in order to get your attention, and/or punish you for not being responsive to her in other ways. Cutting the cord financially will allow her to accept the consequences of her choices, and become an adult. Accept that her husband probably fulfills some important needs you cannot relate to, or understand. Try loving her as is, and mirroring her more positive attributes. Imagine what it would feel like if a tragedy occurred tomorrow, and she was suddenly gone. Relate with more caring language and gestures, and make certain she knows that while this money train has come to a stop, your love and concern for her have not!
Q. Shari, I hope you can help me. My husband's always telling me how I should dress, wear my makeup and hair, prepare our meals, etc. We've been married for several years, and while he's always done this to some degree, I feel it's more pronounced now. At first, he used to say he didn't want to "change" me--only offer some "constructive criticism," and the rest was up to me. NOW, he's a lot less subtle about his likes and dislikes. Whether it's that he doesn't approve of how I load the dishwasher, shape my fingernails or fold his socks, he seems to have an irrepressible need to tell me about it! I knew he was perfectionistic when we met, and it didn't bother me--but this constant haranguing feels awful. To his credit, he has great taste and I trust his judgement in many areas, but he's now insisting I leave my hairstylist of seven years, and go to his! This is not acceptable to me, and I've told him so. I'm often complimented on my appearance from men and women at work--so why's my husband picking on me, and how can I make him stop? CW
A. Dear CW, begin by reminding your husband that there are two people in this marriage, and that your tastes, desires and needs must be considered (and respected) also! Individuals who exert this kind of influence over their spouses or lovers, are usually insecure at their core; basically, the better you feel (and look) in your world, the more abandonment anxiety he may experience in his. Your husband's incessant criticism and apparent need to influence your choices and behaviors, suggest he's narcissistic. This means you're basically seen as an extension of himself, and your autonomy may threaten his sense of control over you and this relationship. If you had a parent who was hypercritical, you may have felt 'right at home' when you met your spouse, and have a higher tolerance/threshold for this treatment. Repetitive criticism from someone you love is highly toxic, and erodes your confidence and self-esteem. Your husband's perfectionism could be related to obsessive/compulsive (OCD) traits. Invite him to fold his own socks, load the dishwasher, or handle any other tasks he thinks you do inadequately. Spend time with friends/relatives who admire and respect you. Any relationship that continually feels diminishing, is wounding to your spirit and dangerous to your health!
Q. Shari, what does it mean when someone's got selective memory about the past, and they keep denying the truth? An ex-boyfriend called the other night; I'd ended the relationship a couple of years ago, because I couldn't trust him, and sent an email detailing exactly why it was over. After two years, he's asking why I haven't maintained contact, and denies ever having received my letter (sure). He also denies having cheated on me when we were together, and insists it was all my imagination--ya, and so was the STD I had to get treated for! I kept our dialogue brief, told him not to contact me again and I'm seriously considering changing my phone number, but it infuriates me that he's still lying about this stuff!
A. Passive-aggressive behavior (like having affairs while in a relationship), control issues and lying are prompted by deficits in emotional development. Selective or distorted recall of past events is a defense against feelings of unworthiness and shame. When someone routinely believes his/her own lies, it's considered pathological (I call this O.J. Simpson Syndrome). Denying errors, shortcomings or harmful behavior temporarily bolsters an extremely fragile ego and sense of Self. Changing your number's a great idea, but you may be giving this guy too much power. Consider adding priority ringing to your phone, and program it with any number(s) you want to avoid answering. It costs less than Caller ID, saves you the time/energy of informing all your friends of a new number, and lets your voicemail or answering machine deal with the problem!
Q. Shari, I love my parents and I believe they love me, but it seems they're always disappointed in how I manage my life. For many years (I'm in my early forties) I've looked for their approval and love, and have wanted to make them happy and proud of me. But it seems that no matter what I do, they always find fault, rain on my parade when things go right, or make it MY fault when something goes wrong. I'm not ignorant, I've carved out a life for myself and earn a decent living, but (for them) it's never "enough." My mom and dad have always disapproved of my friends and romantic relationships, and I feel they've continually undermined my confidence. I think I'm basically a good person, but I don't feel "good" when I'm around them--in fact, I feel defective and small. I've tried talking with them about these issues, but they always say things like, "you know we love you" or "you're talking crazy!" Is there a way to get through to them? J.P.
A. Dear J.P., your parents have related to you in a manner that's emotionally toxic. Along with basic parental duties (protecting, comforting, encouraging, supporting, positively mirroring and educating), it's crucial to give a child affection, patience, guidance, understanding, empathy and nurturance. And this is just for openers, in terms of raising a psychologically and emotionally sound human being! It deeply saddens me that many people have absolutely no concept of how to love a child, so that he'll grow up with the ability to love himself and others. Psychoanalyst, Alice Miller has authored many books on this topic; Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, The Drama Of The Gifted Child, For Your Own Good, etc., about toxic parenting and the resultant core wounds that adult children can carry for a lifetime. She fearlessly blazed a trail in the arena of narcissistic injury, and was far ahead of her time. Ms. Miller states that she prefers not to be referred to as a 'psychoanalyst,' because psychoanalysts perpetuate the myth that our parents really did love us. The greatest blessing a parent can give his/her child is their acceptance, approval and respect. People often wonder why their kids move clear across country (or continent) and put such distance between them, but many grew up with parents who kept them small/disempowered, to maintain control for their own self-serving reasons. Your mom and dad say they love you, but their actions speak differently; they continually criticize/undermine you in ways that are damaging to your self-worth. Limited emotional development makes them narcissistic, which means they're incapable of empathy, so it's very important you set firm boundaries/limits for your parents (as you would with adolescents) in terms of behavior you'll tolerate or accept. Honor your feelings, with respect to how much exposure you're wanting at a given time. When you're with them, know where the 'emergency exits' are, and leave a room to escape behavior that feels bad or toxic. Don't be afraid to terminate a phone call, when the dialogue starts feeling uncomfortable or pushes your buttons. Prioritize your feelings not theirs, and be with friends or relatives who see you in a positive light. Core trauma work can help you surmount self-esteem issues.