How does one lose their sense of self? This is a loaded question. With a child, it begins when you are more focused on your parent than yourself. You realize that their needs are more important than your own. You make decisions that they will like rather than what you want. You compromise your likes and wants and needs to make sure they are happy. It can come from not having boundaries growing up so that there is no space that is your own. One example is not allowing doors to be locked, even in the bathroom. Therefore, when a child is going through puberty any moment a person can walk through the door. This is frightening to hear but yet this has become a life they are accustomed to. You don’t know any different. Another example is a child who does not even have a room to sleep in and so there is no place to go and read or talk to your friends on the phone. Losing your sense of self can make a person feel like a robot; they are just there doing what they are told. As one person stated, it made them feel invisible from those around them.
Imagine getting a present for Christmas that you really, really love. You are so excited and happy. Then your parent says to you “I really couldn’t afford it, so you better be happy with it.” A normal child would feel guilty, sad, like they had taken something from their parent. Imagine that you want to be a ballet dancer but your mother puts you into tap and your sister into ballet. You strive to take the lessons to please your mother but ultimately you hate it and don’t want to do it. You go and tell your mother “I really want to do ballet.” Your mother says to you, “Well, you’re in tap now and you don’t even practice, so I am taking you out. You won’t do anything.” No one listens or when they do, it is followed up with criticism and punishment or blame. Over the years you begin to feel as if you are unsure of your identity. You don’t know where you begin and your parent ends.
When you grow up in this cocoon of living for others needs and wants, you might not be able to have likes and dislikes. You believe what your parent (s) believes; you think as they do. You want what they want. Your job is to make your parent happy. As an adolescent, you strive to find connections with friends or with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Sex might end up meaning love to you because it is a time when two people’s bodies are connected and nothing else exists. It can cause one to self-harm through cutting so they can feel alive. The idea behind feeling alive is because the person feels numb as if they don’t exist. When the razor hits the skin, they feel pain and suddenly they know they are really alive. It is like the saying “pinch me so that I know I am not dreaming.” Drugs and alcohol or even cigarettes can come into play here for teens as well. You might even see eating disorders (an attempt to feel in control). Anything a teen could get turned on to that makes them avoid being numb. People want to feel alive. Normal teenagers go through an identity crisis so if they are afraid to experiment with the “Who Am I?” because their parent discourages them having an identity, it is easy to get turned onto things that will make them feel less numb.
It is so hard to separate and individuate as an adult when you have grown up with a parent or parents with narcissistic traits. You are so enmeshed with them because your existence is dependent on them and they are dependent on you feeding them with the nurturance they need. A narcissist cannot be alone so they want you to take care of their needs. Someone has to fan the flames of the fire. Someone has to validate them and put them on a pedestal or be the one who takes the blame, so that they don’t have to. I have seen so many interesting things happen to clients because of a narcissistic parent. One person called the narcissist, when their child was in danger instead of calling 911. It can mean being unable to live on your own and thus we have people living in basements. Kids are living in their parent’s houses much longer than normal and more than what has been seen in the past. They have not been taught to be self-sufficient. It is one thing to call and ask for a recipe or how to fix a flat tire. It is another thing to be unable to exist without them and feeling as if you have to please them even from afar.
With a narcissistic partner, the victim enters into a relationship with a person who can be quite charming up front. They may also be a person that plays games and you feel compelled to enter the chase. They may be needy and so your sense of empathy kicks in and suddenly you need to care for them. If grown kids aren’t living in their parents basements, they are certainly living in their partners home and not providing much financial support if any. It is amazing to me how many times a young adult girl will tell me that her boyfriend is living with her and not working. Then she tells me she isn’t using birth control which further exacerbates the problem. She will become dependent on this relationship that most likely won’t last past the birth; if it goes that far. Not all narcissists are wealthy CEO’s of companies.
With wealthy narcissists, there is often a financial dependence from the victim. These women generally don’t leave because their life is dependent on the money (more will be said later on this). With the poor narcissists, the women don’t leave because she feels sorry for the guy. She doesn’t want to dump him on the street.
In the meantime, the victim stays with this charming guy because she hopes he will go back to being the person he was when she met him. She is left with the other narcissistic traits such as being blamed, twisting your story around, tricking, making the victim the butt of jokes or bullying. Women will often get caught up in believing whatever the narcissist says because it is safer. When I say safer, I mean he won’t pout or they can have sex that night or he will be in a good mood. When this person gets their way; life can be very nice. Naturally, the partner will get caught up in pleasing them to make them happy, just like the victim of physical abuse tries to keep the place in order so that the batterer won’t beat them when they get home. With all this going on, how does one find the time to know who they are? In fact, their sense of self is falling apart and they become an empty vessel.
With any abuse, it starts out small and ends up big. If a person knows they can “get away with something,” they will. The more they see you are giving, the more power they have. I am not blaming when I say get away with something. I am simply showing the dynamic. If a person could leave a batterer the first time they were hit or abused in some other way they would. Often, the person who is with a batterer is someone who came from a difficult childhood to begin with. Children raised in healthy families do not go and meet up with batterers or even narcissists. This is because they have clearly defined values and boundaries and are not vulnerable to this type of personality. This is why psychotherapy is crucial to the person who has left the narcissist. It is helpful to see how this type of person was attracted in the first place and to learn how your own life, as a child, precipitated meeting this guy.
I once wrote a blog article about S&M (sadomasochism) and stated that it is okay for this to happen if two people are consenting but not when one is being coerced into this behavior to please their partner. Unfortunately, people in the S&M community attacked me because they weren’t therapists and didn’t understand what I was talking about. Perhaps they were a victim as well. The word “vanilla,” is their attack word to use on people in the community who are not into their world. It is shaming because we live in an abusive society via social media. I have heard some pretty difficult sex stories from women who were so ashamed to tell me what they were forced to do. I have sat with them as they cried their hearts out for an entire hour telling me how difficult it is for them to be with a man now or how dirty they feel or how disgusted they are with themselves.
I worked with prostitutes (sexual abuse victims) that were still foster children who were groomed by pimps outside their group homes. Pimps who knew the streets much more than these girls presumed they did. The girls believed they were making choices to be with the man this time. They believed they were only staying with their “boyfriend” or their “daddy,” or their “uncle,” because he owed them money or had their clothes. As if this guy was their real boyfriend and they were having a hard time splitting up with them. How do you have a sense of self when you have been humiliated by the one you think you love? To make it worse, what if the guy is a minister or a deacon in the church? What if this woman is being made to believe she is doing something to make her a better Christian? Or, if she tells someone, the whole flock will be destroyed and then his mission to create a safe haven to Jesus will be ruined all because of her? I have heard all the stories with these themes outlining patterns of narcissistic traits.
This is how you lose your sense of self. Let’s now take a look at what a narcissist looks like. He/she can take on many titles such as player, gaslighter, pimp, narcissist, sociopath, psychopath, etc… (none of these terms except Narcissistic Personality Disorder are actual diagnoses). What difference does the word choice really make? They are a narcissist and it is important to know the signs and stay away, now that you have left them.
What is a Narcissist?
Below is an example of the traits you will see from a narcissistic person (and you will see most if not all of these – not just one):
1. “It’s not my fault, it’s yours” (re-framing the chaos). Never saying they are sorry.
2. Only allowing people to praise them; when you try to hold them accountable, they will turn it back on you. “I am not a Narcissist you are.” You always or you never phrases might come into play here. They also love pulling in their friends, as in, “My friends say that I shouldn’t even be with you.”
3. Not requesting permission, just doing what they feel is right to them. I had a man hit me over the head the other day with a folder on his way out the door of a couple’s session. He thought it was funny. It was a light touch, not harmful but inappropriate. It was dealt with successfully because I set a boundary.
4. Not saying I love you – It seems like they do but they never really say this. This can happen with different types of narcissistic people such as a player but it is not always going to happen with a narcissist.
5. Pulling the rug out from under you (Switching personalities). First, you are the greatest thing that has ever happened to him and then you are a peace of dirt.
6. Unable to see others pain, empathize, dismissing this or ignoring it altogether. If you are crying they might just sit there or go into another room. After dislocating my shoulder, I met with a young female client (this was in social services) who kept talking to me about herself and issues of concern. Her brother walked into the room and was immediately focused on my well-being.
7. When caught “with their pants down” can explode and even become violent. This means, be careful confronting this type of person with a truth that they hold sacred (meaning a truth they lie about or are in denial over). For example, a parent who tells the survivor they were never abused and then kicks them out of the house because they are tired of hearing about how abused the survivor was. There is a need to get the parent to validate the abuse. They won’t. Sometimes the narcissist will say they don’t know what you are talking about. They might one up you with “You think you had it bad, I…” Don’t take risks is the moral here.
8. People who are friends with the narcissist question the survivors’ views of them as a narcissist. Friends of a narcissistic person won’t see the same things you do. If you are the scapegoat of a parent who has narcissistic traits or are a partner of one, you are very intimate with this person and they will treat you much differently than they treat their friends, who have no intimate relationship with them. For example, you have sex with your partner – they aren’t having sex with their friends and their friends don’t have the same dependency on them – or need to be loved. Your parent is all you have; you need them to be loved. Your parents’ friends don’t need them to be loved as they have their own parents to love them.
9. Making “I” statements instead of “We” statements. You aren’t someone they hold dear and it is all about them. “I am going to Europe in July.” Not, my spouse and I or just telling their friends “We are.” They are unable to take responsibility for a relationship and are usually excluding you in their mind (unconsciously). I had a client who told me their parent had them living next door in another home or in the house but not even in a bedroom (e.g., they were forced to sleep in closets).
10. Contempt statements which are designed to make you feel less than them in some way. “You don’t know how to…” When you talk about yourself and they laugh or make a face that is in a sarcastic tone. Another way to make contemptuous statements is alluding to, “I am better than you, smarter than you, richer than you.” I call the contempt statements the “snake in the grass.” Often when I work with couples, I might hear this statement being spoken to a partner and it takes me a minute to think about what they just said. These statements can slither out unsuspectingly, or calmly, so it seems that they are being kind when they are being mean instead. Often the narcissist will then go into defensive mode. “I was being nice about it.” Or “I didn’t mean any harm by that, you know that don’t you?” They did mean harm but have been engaged in this pattern of protecting themselves for so long, they actually believe they did no harm. They won’t understand when you say that they did harm you because they are unable to self-reflect. They will push it back on you. “I didn’t mean any harm by that, you know that don’t you,” can be translated to mean [with a narcissist] if you don’t know that then something is wrong with you. That is a snake in the grass contempt statement.
11. Abuse is always a part of a narcissistic relationship, even if it is JUST emotional. As if “just” weren’t enough but I can tell you that most people feel they were not in an abusive relationship because it was only felt on an emotional level. The longer you are with a narcissistic person it can lead to physical abuse, though emotional abuse is often more painful and lasting than physical. Meanwhile, I also see sexual abuse and financial abuse as a strong second to emotional. Sexual abuse can take directions such as doing things he wants to do but you are uncomfortable with (i.e., three-somes, bondage, voyeurism, fetishes, awkward positions, porno etc…). These things are fine if you are both agreeing to it but if you are not in agreement and he/she has talked you into it; it is not okay. Even if you are married and your partner forces you to have sex – it is rape. Your state may not protect you but it is rape. Sexual abuse can occur with narcissistic parents as well. They believe they have this right over their children. Financial abuse is when you are given an amount that they feel like giving you or they pay for everything and you have no access to money at all (even if you work). Financial abuse often leads to such dependency that people are afraid to leave their partner for this reason alone. Believe me I understand not wanting to give up the country club, the Mercedes, the mansion, the nanny, the ski lodge, the trips to Saks and the “mani-pedi’s.” I understand and yet it is self-sabotage as well. None of those things bring happiness unless you are in a healthy relationship with a wonderful person. I also know that to be true on a personal level.
A dozen roses being given to a woman from a man she loves and who is equally in love with her is so much more rewarding and lovely and beautiful than when they come from a man who lays them on the counter or you do not know love from or feel it from.
Lastly, narcissistic traits will show up in a variety of diagnoses. A person who is an addict, will put their addiction first and everything else second. Don’t enable, make them go into treatment or leave them. If the relationship is that important to them and you leave them, chances are they will get help. If they don’t, than this tells you something. A person who has a mental illness is struggling with the depression or the manic episode and it seems like they are not focusing on anything else. This is because biologically, they are unable to – not because they don’t want to. There are medications to treat mental illness but it can take time to find the right dosage or medication. Patience is what they need if they are working on their mental health (in therapy and seeing a psychiatrist). If they are not working on themselves; you are not going to save them. You are definitely not going to make them “feel better.” If your partner had cancer would you think they didn’t need treatment because your love would make the disease disappear?
There are other personality disorders besides Narcissistic Personality Disorder. They all come across as a narcissistic person in different ways. Likewise, someone who was the “Hero” to the narcissistic parent or that child in the family who can do no wrong, they will come across as a narcissistic person. This is because their whole life, they could do no wrong. It is hard for them to understand that they may have faults. They can be very annoying to be around at times too. A person who was the placater to the narcissistic parent can come across as narcissistic. The placater is the person who is joining with the parent to keep the calm. They can end up over-identfying with the narcissistic parent and feel that they themselves (the placater) don’t do anything wrong either. They are like twins (this is not the scapegoat) it is the person in the family who constantly agrees with the parent, who is always rationalizing what the parent says or defending them. Anyone with a position of power can come across as a narcissist. Sometimes this happens because you perceive them to be this way and sometimes it can happen because they usurp their power as they go up the ranks.
I have a little more faith in these hero’s and placater’s or CEO’s getting help with the right person there to gently guide them back to reality. It would have to be someone they trust or look up to for some reason and will ultimately listen to. A true narcissist is probably not going to go into treatment. It is available but don’t beat yourself up if they don’t go. What is important for you and your family is your sanity. If this is compromised than perhaps you need to re-consider your relationship to the narcissist.
Check out Wendy Behary’s book: Disarming the Narcissist where she discusses Schema Therapy that is the best form of treatment (according to her) for the Narcissist. She will explain why in her book.