As common (but not as tasty) as peanut butter and chocolate is the unhealthy bond between narcissists and empaths.
Narcissists are those people who are arrogant, lack empathy, and are ultimately self-serving. They manipulate to get what they want—not necessarily intentionally. Under this thick veil of ego is a very wounded person. However, the nature of the narcissist is to project blame while avoiding responsibility. As a result, they can be extremely destructive to empaths.
Empaths are sensitive people who feel the feelings of others and ultimately want others to feel loved, healthy, and good. They often mistake the feelings of others for their own feelings and struggle to put appropriate boundaries in place. The nature of the empath is to sometimes take too much personal responsibility in conflict situations. As a result, when they are relating to someone with narcissistic traits, they can end up taking responsibility in ways that are unhealthy.
It is challenging for the empath to see the relationship with the narcissist clearly. And the narcissist will be endlessly trying to make themselves look good, as well as to get the endless appreciation and love they so desperately desire.
The result is that the empath will begin to doubt themselves and their intentions. They will become imbalanced, and as a result, they will often act in ways that they are not proud of. The longer this continues, the more the narcissist will blame the empath for what is happening and the more the empath will believe that what they are doing is wrong, losing their center and their health in the process.
The following is from Bill Eddy’s article “How to Spot a Narcissist.” He shows how you can most easily spot a narcissist. While many writers have described the characteristics of a narcissist, he does so in a way that is accessible and clarifying.
The following are several hints you may pick up from a narcissist early on, using the WEB Method.
Watch for both extremely positive and extremely negative words, about you or others.
EXTREMELY POSITIVE (SEDUCTIVE) WORDS include: I love you, you’re so wonderful! I’ve never met someone as great as you are! You’re so much better than all the others. You’re the center of my life! I will give you everything you deserve. No one has treated you as good as I will treat you. The person you were with before was a real loser. I have this great idea that will make me really famous someday. Let me tell you about it. (Notice that much of this is very comparative—that’s a warning sign that you will compare negatively later on.)
EXTREMELY NEGATIVE (DISPARAGING) WORDS include: That person over there is a real loser. Let me tell you about him (or her). The people that rejected my great idea are some of the stupidest people I have ever met. They don’t know brilliance when it’s staring them in the face. My boss is really treating me unfairly. I’m thinking of going over his head and getting him fired. I can’t wait until everyone sees him being walked out of the office for good! He’ll be totally humiliated. (Notice the thrill of superiority and lack of empathy, even if the other person is a lousy boss.)
WORDS THAT SHOW LACK OF EMPATHY OR INTEREST: The following happens a lot with narcissists. If you tell the person about a bad experience or vulnerability that you have, their response will often begin with: Well, let me tell you what happened to me once! There’s often no recognition of your concern—or even your existence, sometimes. They lose interest quickly, once they think they have you.
VICTIM WORDS: Narcissists perpetually see themselves as superior, but also perpetually as victims. When they are exposed as not being so superior after all, they suffer what is often called “a narcissistic injury.” Maybe they were turned down for a job promotion in favor of someone else. After such an “injury,” they will become obsessed with proving how bad the other person is and how wonderful they are. They may go on a long rant: It’s so unfair what they did/said/are. I will show them! They’re punishing me for being better than they will ever be!
Now pay attention to your own emotions. How do you feel around the person?
FEEL TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE? This person is so nice to you, you feel extremely loved and flattered. You may have a euphoric feeling. He/she almost seems too good to be true. That’s a warning sign, because people who intensely and endlessly flatter you are often not who they seem. Their charm for you is a warning sign. Sometimes, they are simply charming and not a narcissist. But sometimes it means you are being seduced in the moment with lovely words by a narcissist, who will say them soon to the next person or organization they meet. They like winning more than having.
FEEL STUPID AND INADEQUATE? Some narcissists are so busy puffing themselves up that they don’t realize that they are putting you down in the process—it’s so automatic for them. You may not even notice it consciously at first, but soon you may be filled with self-doubt. I wonder what he/she thinks of me? I’m not really that smart, talented, attractive after all. I’m certainly not in his/her league, am I?
FEEL LIKE YOU CAN’T BREATHE? It’s common for narcissists to “suck up all the oxygen in the room.” Other people start feeling like they can’t breathe, because they can’t get a word in. Whatever someone else says, the conversation gets steered back to the narcissist somehow.
Notice what they do, more than what they say. Narcissists have lots of words to distract from and make up for their insensitive behavior. People constantly confront narcissists and constantly are frustrated. Rather than reflecting on their past behavior, narcissists defend it and attack you for criticizing them. (“How dare you, after all I’ve done for you!”) So just become aware of their behavior and ignore their words excusing or distracting from it.
For example: Instead of saying: “Why were you late?!” You could say: “I’d prefer if you would let me know ahead of time if you’re going to be late, so I can make other plans.” Then, just leave it at that and notice if they fulfill or ignore your request. If they try to fulfill your request, that’s a good sign. But if there’s an unchanging pattern of disregard for you and your requests, then you may consider ending that relationship, since you’re not going to change that person. If you feel taken for granted, remember that narcissists like winning relationships, not having relationships. He/she may be on to the next conquest.
TARGETS OF BLAME: If a narcissist also has a high-conflict personality, that means that they will look for a Target of Blame when something goes wrong for them. They may intensely blame you for something minor or nonexistent or done by someone else (perhaps even by themselves, which is called “projection”). When they mess up, they often look for someone close by to blame. “It’s all your fault that I didn’t get that promotion! You should have spoken to the boss like I asked you to. Now what are you going to do about it!!”
As with all of the high-conflict personalities, they tend to blame people in close relationships with them (girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, kids, parents, close friends, close neighbors, etc.) or people in authority positions (supervisors, business owners, police, government agencies, etc.). They often get stuck in a cycle of attacking a Target of Blame and defending themselves, rather than getting any work done or paying attention to their family: such as making angry phone calls, writing long email rants or engaging in social media meltdowns.
Notice if they have ever done something that 90% of people would never do (“The 90% Rule”). Something that you would never do. If so, regardless of their excuses, it usually means there’s a pattern of high-conflict behavior under the surface which would support such extreme behavior. For narcissists, this often includes humiliating a partner or child in public, sabotaging a co-worker or verbally attacking a colleague or employee in a meeting for something the narcissist actually did.
Empaths are particularly prone to getting involved with narcissists due to their failure to spot their games—it is just too different from their own personality. During the initial phase of the relationship (the positive phase), the empath will likely feel positive feelings unlike those received from being with anyone else, and will take this as a sign that this is a special relationship. Because all the empath wants to do is help, and all the narcissist wants to do is take, the empath will end up in a game that cannot end well.
If you suspect that you have a narcissist in your life, you may benefit from distancing yourself. With some people, you may be unable to do this—in which case, you would benefit from a plan that helps you minimize their effect on you while not alerting any of their conflict behaviors. Maintaining objectivity is key to your success. The more perspective you can get, the easier it will be to see what is going on. Make some space for yourself and enroll the support of other people who can help you see things more clearly. You can still empathize with the pain that is the root of the narcissist’s behavior without putting yourself in harm’s way.
Empaths often are exploring self-love within the context of relationships. I invite you to read more here >>> “7 Reasons to Love Yourself First.”
Even if you have spent a significant amount of time on your own healing, you can end up in a relationship so toxic that it takes its toll on your otherwise healthy life. This is particularly true of our romantic relationships or our other closest relationships.
Elucidating contributing factors to our experience of unhealthy relationships been approached in a number of different ways.
One of these is through the discussion of the activation of our defenses in accordance with our attachment styles. There are four different attachment styles: Secure, Anxious, Avoidant, and Anxious-Avoidant. In any relationship that is not securely attached, there is the potential for deep activation of attachment issues that can lead to dysfunction. In the book Attached, Amir Levine discusses the crazy-making downward spiral of unhealthy attachment. This book helps to provide insight into how otherwise healthy people can become very unhealthy when there attachment wounds get triggered.
Another important angle is taken by Harville Hendrix in Getting the Love You Want. In this book, he talks about it as “the turtle and the tiger.” The turtle retreats from conflict and the tiger appears to be the aggressor. While this is not a direct correlation to attachment styles, there is some overlap. Overall, the retreat and attack dynamic can be found in many relationships where two people are struggling.
Codependence literature, on the other hand, can help us clarify unhealthy boundaries and how they affect us. By looking at where we have become immeshed with the people around us and learning new skills, we can learn to untangle ourselves from some challenging relationship dynamics.
No matter how we slice it, once we get into an unhealthy pattern things can go downhill fast. And, as messy as this can be, relationships can actually get worse. When we, for example, add attachment issues, which are a part of many relationships, to some deeper personality issues, we can enter into some very challenging relationship territory that is very difficult to extricate ourselves from. Add in an issue like addiction and things get even worse.
The very nature of the problems that get created in these problematic relationships can cause us to doubt ourselves, and also make it so that we may not know what we should do or where we should focus our efforts to make things better.
There are two parts to getting yourself out of an unhealthy relationship. The first is understanding what got you there. The second is your plan to get free.
Understanding how you got there:
Your Attachment Style: When you understand your attachment style and how it got activated, you can begin taking steps to get back on track. You can lean into healthier attachment bonds, you can more directly ask for what you need, and you can depersonalize the other person’s behavior.
Assessment Skills: When you can assess healthy versus unhealthy behavior and recognize truly pathological behavior, then you can understand how and when to put certain boundaries in place. You will be able to see if the person you are struggling with is a narcissist, sociopath, or some other personality that cannot be safely negotiated with.
Healthy Boundaries: When you are aware of your over-involvement in toxic relationships, you can begin to put healthier boundaries in place. This sometimes includes cutting off all contact with the person who is triggering you in such a deep way or who may simply not be safe.
Your plan to get out:
Once you understand the cause of all the dysfunction, you can build a plan to either work on or leave the relationship. If you need to leave, here are some steps that you can take.
Gather Support: Perhaps the most important part of an exit strategy is getting the support that you need to make it successful. This means establishing people to be on-call with assisting you during the transition. Immediately after leaving the relationship, the emotional volume can get turned up and the other person might escalate their behavior. Planning on this happening can help to make sure you have the right people to see you through these difficult times.
Meet Your Needs: Know that your attachment needs will be activated. Because of this, you will want to establish multiple ways to take care of these needs as part of your plan. If you need to be held, who can do that for you, safely? If you need distraction, how can you divert your attention?
Be Patient: The deeper the activation of your issues or the more pathological the relationship, the more likely it is to take a few tries to get out of the relationship. Be kind to yourself. You will get there, but likely not until you are really certain why this is an unhealthy relationship for you—which is why it makes sense to understand what is going on before you try to separate.
Stay Clear: No matter how bad the relationship, there are usually good parts that can leave you wondering whether you made the right choice. To help you stay the course, it is helpful to clearly remember the reasons for leaving the relationship and the damage that it has caused.
While it is not always essential that we leave a relationship that appears to be unhealthy, there are plenty of times when it is in our best interest. To determine whether or not we need to leave, we will benefit from understanding what contributes to these problematic relationships so that we can see what got us there in the first place. Then we can begin to set up a plan to leave that helps us transition away from the toxic relationship while retaining—or regaining—our sanity.
To explore what self-love has to do with your relationships, check out my post here >>> “7 Reasons to Love Yourself First.”