In the last decade the world has developed a fascination with narcissism. We read about narcissistic spouses, co-workers, parents, friends, siblings and even children. We read about the severity with which these traits exist on a scale from healthy to malignant. We read about different types of narcissists including overt, covert, spiritual, sexual, cerebral etc. Coaches, lawyers, and healers have built thriving businesses attempting to help victims “negotiate with their narc”, “heal from their narc” or “move on from their narc.” We now even have a National Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day, June 1st that sheds light on the insidious and extremely damaging effects of being in relationship with one of these individuals.
Although the term is overused, the hype is not without reason. At some point most of us have encountered someone on the narcissistic spectrum and have left bewildered thinking “what the hell just happened to me?” Many of these individuals can inflict severe abuse, leaving the victim confused, unbalanced, drained and in a perpetual fog. Indeed, no matter how many results a google search for the keyword “narcissism” returns, one is hard pressed to find any evidence of positive or uplifting outcomes to these relationships. On the contrary, popular advice and esteemed psychologists unanimously warn, “run far and run fast.” And while this cannot be disputed and your suffering could never be invalidated, nor should it be, is it possible to view the narcissist as less tormentor and more teacher? Here are some examples.
You will learn more about who you are
If normal, healthy relationships are mirrors, with one partner reflecting back traits in the other that they see in themselves, then a relationship with a narcissist is like a magical looking glass. This is because someone high in narcissistic traits will purposefully seek you out for qualities and characteristics lacking within themself. Initially the source of admiration, these same characteristics will be used to tear you down during the devalue and discard phase of the relationship.
Try to gain some clarity about what these attributes are and how they present in your life and relationships. Better yet, how can you foster and improve upon these traits in a future, healthier partnership? Do you perhaps overshare your thoughts, feelings and anxieties with this person? Your narcissistic partner may have at first found this endearing, only now to accuse you of being too sensitive, anxious or unhappy. This realization can provide profound emotional freedom simply by increasing self-awareness and the capacity to understand what makes you unique.
You will become acquainted with your inner critic
We all have an inner critic, that saboteur that loves to pepper us with self-doubt and observe our every move with disappointed scrutiny. Over time, you will notice the narcissist echoing this voice. For example, you may be hard on yourself for something you failed at in your career, such as a promotion or a dream that never came to fruition. While your inner critic does a stellar job of bringing up this past failure, the narcissist will similarly find any opportunity to remind you of your past defeats and shortcomings. Don’t take the bait, rather consider this your cue to celebrate your achievements with, at the very least, equal vigor to the admonishment of your failures. The narcissist will gladly lead you to your inner critic. Use this to your advantage and learn to recognize this voice for what it is – just a voice, and a pathetic one at that, that you choose to believe or not.
You will learn to trust your intuition
Chances are high that alarm bells sounded early in your relationship with this person. But you didn’t want to listen, did you? Whether a boss, co-worker or romantic partner, they said or did something offensive, but you brushed it under the rug so as not to disrupt the applecart. As your relationship progressed the bells became louder, more menacing. It became harder to look yourself in the mirror as you denied what you needed to face – your truth. Your soul, a higher self, your spirituality, intuition however you define it, will awaken in the course of this relationship. Let this be a lesson that this intangible, vaguely defined part of you is extremely valuable and there for a reason, stop ignoring it, it will not steer you wrong.
You will learn more about who you want to be
Did you ever consider that you may not want to be with your narcissist, but perhaps rather, more like your narcissist? Counterintuitive as this may sound, stay with me here. It is commonly understood that many narcissists, particularly the garden variety grandiose type, are charming, fun, driven and extremely successful. To compensate for deep insecurity, they are masterful at creating an intoxicating bravado that can be very alluring when considered in isolation. However, by now we know that whatever gifts they boast come with a hefty price tag, namely their abuse. Don’t put up with it, rather get to work on fostering what you admire about them within yourself. There is no reason you cannot recreate their charm or try on a little of their confidence. My bet is you do an even better job given you will likely sprinkle in a dose of humility.
You will become a kinder person
Of the nine criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a lack of empathy tends to be most commonly recognized and synonymous with narcissism. This person will shock you with the depths of their cruelty, and even more chilling, the skill with which they are able to turn it on and off. As long as you play into their haughty behavior and need for admiration, you are safe, but challenge them and all bets are off.
How do you react to the unkindness? Do you notice yourself overcompensating for the bully, jumping to defend the victim of their scorn? Are you caught off guard when someone is kind to you, having been deprived of it for so long? If this teaches you to approach life and others with more compassion, your narcissist has been your greatest teacher. If you have children, model this for them and pat yourself on the back for becoming a healthier parent rather than perpetuating the cycle. Don’t be surprised if the narcissist him/herself is on the receiving end of your bleeding heart, within reason, of course. Psychologists believe that an early environment of either excessive parental neglect, disproportionate praise or competition is a major contributing factor to the disorder. It is no secret that they are wounded children in an adult form.
Tormentor or Teacher?
Is the narcissist a tormentor or a teacher? I would argue both. Keep in mind that, unless this person presents with other co-morbidities, it is exceedingly unlikely that they would ever seek help or get an actual diagnosis. A narcissist is incapable of self-reflection or a desire to change and assume responsibility. So where does that leave you? Well, it could leave you scrolling the internet late at night for answers to the crazy making. It could leave you hoping that life rounds out their rough edges leaving you with the teddy bear you know they are deep down. Or, it could leave you curious about your own deficits and/or your own personality disorders. It could leave you compelled to do better on your own accord. My vote is for the latter. Thank them for a fascinating lesson in abnormal psychology, but more importantly, thank them for bringing to light an awakened, kinder and stronger version of