I happen to be somewhat of an expert when it comes to narcissists. At the age of 26, I was swept off my feet by a modern day Prince Charming. We met at a lake and within weeks he began to shower me with gifts, flowers, poems, expensive vacations, shopping sprees and affection. I was naïve and from a small town, and I was sold on everything that was presented to me.
Things moved quickly and while I saw red flags, I chose to ignore them. There were several times than I caught him lying, but I believed his excuses. I trusted him when he said that he could afford what he was buying.
A year later we were married, and I discovered that there was something seriously wrong with my fairytale. Our marriage was filled with lies, deception, fraud and tears.
I heard the term Narcissistic Personality Disorder from my therapist in 2008 when she implied that my husband was a narcissist. Once I began researching the disorder, the past 10 years of my life made complete sense. By the time I understood this personality disorder, we had two daughters and were almost 2 million dollars in debt -- and I had lost every ounce of respect that I once had for this man. In one year, I went from a million-dollar home with luxury cars to living on an oversized cot at my local women’s shelter.
While our marriage was horrible, our divorce has been a nightmare that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Narcissists do not have the ability to love, show compassion or empathy. The custody battle was not about our daughters -- it was about winning and, ultimately, his driving force was to hurt me and maintain control.
I lived in terror and slept with a hammer and mace for over two years. I watched in disbelief as he sat in court and made up elaborate stories while appearing to believe them. Narcissists have the uncanny ability to believe their delusions and our Family Court System is simply not equipped to deal with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Most levels of narcissism are healthy -- when it crosses over to a level of dysfunction, then it is classified as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which some reports state affects 5% of the population. That means in a regular social setting of 100 people on a Friday night, there are at least five that you will need to avoid like the plague.
Narcissists come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. Sadly, narcissists don’t have warning labels printed across their foreheads. That means you need to be aware of the red flags.
What are the red flags of a narcissist? Common sense tells us to avoid the slimy guy at the end of the bar. Narcissists are different. They are charming, charismatic, and often the life of the party. As women, many of us are drawn to narcissists.
Hindsight is 20-20, and I often do something called a “red flag reflection.” I like to do a self-inventory, which involves looking in the rearview mirror to see the warning signs that I personally chose to ignore. Being aware of the signs of a narcissist will save you from years of heartache.
Here are some of the key things to watch for:
- Excessive charm: Question a person that seems too good to be true. Narcissists are masters at wooing their female targets. If you are receiving tickets to your favorite ballet and bouquets of flowers larger than your Christmas tree before the third date, you may be dating a narcissist. Offers to whisk you away to Paris for New Year’s Eve are fabulous but could be considered odd behavior if you just met last week!
- Overly confident: A healthy dose of self-esteem is a good thing but be cautious if he seems to be the president of his own fan club. In short order, you will likely to become the secretary of his fan club.
- Haughty: This was one of the main warning signs that I brushed under the rug. Watch for elitist comments and an attitude of arrogance toward those who are “beneath” him. Narcissists will often put down co-workers, friends and even family members.
- Bragging: Narcissists do not care about your feelings, views or opinions. Narcissists are generally too obsessed about telling you how great they are to even ask about you. Their bragging rights carry over to a wide variety of topics including their family, money, cars, physical appearance, elite gym memberships, clothing, and their career.
- Grandiosity: Narcissists seem to live the phrase, “Go big or go home.” They like to be seen and known. Grandiosity is often their middle name. A narcissist will pick up an enormous group dinner tab or buy everyone in the bar a round of shots. Their motivation is to be showy and attract attention. These gestures could be interpreted as kindness, which is the furthest thing from the truth. While a narcissist is signing the tab for dinner, he is simultaneously scanning the group to take inventory on how he can personally use each person whether it is to maintain his inflated self-image or for elevation in prestige or status.
- Success: There is a reason why the political and celebrity arenas are brimming over with narcissists. Narcissists are often found in leadership roles where they have free reign to dominate and dazzle those around them. They flourish in big cities where there is less accountability and less risk of developing a reputation that will follow them.
- The Band-aid: Narcissists are professional Band-aids. They will seek out your weaknesses (abandonment issues, self-image issues, etc.) and will morph themselves into your savior. Whatever voids you have, they will fill. This sounds great except for the fact that it is short-lived. Once you are hooked on them, they will rip off the Band-aid and leave you bleeding.
- Hypersensitivity: Fluctuations between extreme confidence and extreme insecurity seem to be a common trait with narcissists. They will often imagine non-existent criticism and will act out by shutting down and sulking, or acting out in a rage. Any perceived attack or criticism of the narcissist is not dealt with in a healthy, normal way. In his mind, you are either with him or against him and there is no gray area.
What does one do when encountering a narcissist for the first time? The simple answer: grab your running shoes and start your first 5k right there in the middle of the cocktail party! There is no bouquet of flowers, expensive dinner, or trip to Paris that is worth the havoc a narcissist will wreak in your life. Do not engage with a narcissist.
If you can’t find a pair of running shoes, at least excuse yourself to the ladies room and then avoid him for the rest of the night at all costs. This may be the perfect opportunity to start flirting with the nice guy who is standing alone by the hors d'oeuvre table! The bottom line: get away quickly.
The Narcissistic Boyfriend
If you have had an “ah ha moment” and discover that your current boyfriend or partner is a narcissist, what do you do next? First, take a deep breath. This isn’t an easy road. You are not dealing with a mentally healthy person and, therefore, you cannot expect this to be a normal break-up. Breaking up with a narcissist is playing by a whole new set of rules. Once you have called off the relationship, you must follow the most important rule: NO ENGAGEMENT.
While difficult for many to follow, the “no engagement rule” is fairly straightforward. Do not call him and do not answer his calls, emails, texts, or faxes. Faxes? Yes, there are no limits to the great lengths a scorned narcissist will go to for his next fix. Think of him as a junkie and you are his drug.
Narcissists need emotions from you because they are not capable of their own emotions -- they need your emotions to feed their ego. It could be good emotions or bad emotions -- they do not care. This is called “Narcissistic Supply” and I like to think of them in a cage at the zoo with a sign that says, “Do not feed the narcissist”.
If you are planning to leave a narcissist, I encourage you to educate yourself thoroughly on the topic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Education is more than just power in this case. It will be your lifeline. There are a multitude of online support groups, hundreds of online articles and some great books on the topic. Read everything you can get your hands on. Leaving a narcissist is one of the hardest things you will ever do but it is imperative to your future.