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How to Avoid Falling Into a Narcissistic Relationship Pattern

How to Avoid Narcissistic Relationship Patterns

What is a narcissist?

The core features of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are grandiosity (beliefs of being special and unique), a high need for admiration, and lack of empathy for others. This person tends to be arrogant, entitled, displays a high need to associate with high status people, events, and things, and will expect special treatment from others. They also are likely to be exploitative in relationships. In the features below, you will notice that NPD is characterized by extremes of each element – displaying both high and low traits on each dimension.

  1. Unstable identity: People with NPD tend to make excessive references to others to define themselves or to regulate their fragile sense of self. They are observed to make exaggerated self-appraisals – either overly inflated or deflated. The core feature is that they tend to fluctuate between extremes of an extravagant or dispirited sense of self. People with NPD fluctuate between grandiose and vulnerable positions. When in the grandiose mode, they will tend to make statements like: “I like to have friends who rely on me because it makes me feel important” and “I often fantasize about being recognized for my accomplishments.” Conversely, when in the vulnerable mode, they will make statements like “It’s hard for me to feel good about myself unless I know other people admire me” or “When others get a glimpse of my needs, I feel anxious and ashamed.”
  2. Behaviors and motivation for action: Goals and motives for decisions are based on gaining approval from other people. They may have extremely high standards which function by enabling them to maintain an extraordinary sense of self. On the other hand, they might maintain exceptionally low standards which reflect entitlement and privilege.
  3. Varying levels of empathy: They tend to struggle to identify with the feelings and needs of the people around them. Conversely, at other times, they can be extremely attuned to the reactions other people have towards them. They use these reactions to gauge their sense of self and value based on how others are perceiving them. In both instances, others are viewed as objects – by either viewing them with a detached lens or through excessive attunement (as that attunement functions by bolstering their sense of self). 
  4. Intimacy: If you’re in a relationship with someone with NPD, you will likely experience the relationship to be superficial or ‘just for show.’ Partners of people with NPD will describe feeling like an object in the relationship, as the person with NPD will tend to have slight interest in them and instead uses them for personal gain and status.
  5. How they react to criticism. People with NPD are hypersensitive to criticism, and often react with shame or humiliation when criticized, and will respond by denying their substantive faults.
  6. Another typical feature of NPD is variable levels of self-esteem. Someone with NPD will tend to attempt to regulate their fluctuating self-esteem through attention and by seeking approval from others. They may also do this through either overt or covert grandiose behavior

What are some signs that you’re in a narcissistic relationship pattern?  

Dating someone with NPD will often have you questioning your reality, feelings, and behaviors. People with NPD relate to others as objects, using them as fuel to maintain their own self-worth and needs. When their objects are not performing for them, they will go to great lengths to have their partners adapt to meet their needs. These difficulties come at the expense of their partner who tends to repeatedly sacrifice their own perception of reality and fulfillment of needs to secure the relationship and preserve attachment.

Is the narcissist impacted by this relationship pattern in any way?

Narcissists are strongly impacted by their partners. They are much more vulnerable than they let on and tend to be very attuned to and susceptible to the actions and reactions of their partner. When their partners express criticism or dissatisfaction, it can strongly puncture their equilibrium and sense of self.

What are some steps you can take to avoid falling into a narcissistic relationship pattern?

Get clear on your own needs. The best way to do this is to identify the unmet needs you have from childhood as they tend to stay with us into adulthood. People who are prone to narcissistic relationship patterns tend to feel like they didn’t get enough attention while growing up.

Get more comfortable expressing your needs. Once you can clearly identify your needs, it is important to communicate that to your partner. Often people in relationships with someone with NPD struggle to identify their feelings, but struggle even more feeling that those needs are valid and can be communicated to their partner.

Stop trying to be a caretaker to your partner. People who get into relationships with those with NPD tend to feel more comfortable in the caretaker role because it shields them from the discomfort of being vulnerable and asking for their needs to be met. Remember, you are looking for a partner, not to be a caretaker. You are not responsible to fix or heal your partner. Only they can do that for themselves once they decide they want to.

What can you do if you find yourself in a narcissistic relationship pattern? How can you break out of it?

It’s important to maintain your social support network. Narcissists tend to isolate their partners and then convince them to see the world though a lens that serves them exclusively. They are successful at this endeavor because they isolate their victims, persuade them, and eliminate competing perspectives (e.g., friends or family members who might have your best interest at heart). Narcissists are experts at having your question your reality. The best response to this is to diversify your interpersonal world so you can integrate the perspectives of the people who care most about you instead of receiving exclusive feedback from the narcissist in your life.

Another tip is when you notice yourself questioning your feelings and perspective and pressure to do things that are not in your best interest – to take a step back and create some distance in the relationship. Time and distance allow you to recalibrate your outlook and see things more clearly.

What can you do to heal, after breaking out of a narcissistic relationship pattern?

It is important to consider what originally drew you into a relationship with someone who displays narcissistic tendencies. Often, after self-reflection, people realize that their narcissistic partner resembles an early primary figure (e.g., a parent) who was unavailable to them and in turn, they are seeking out a familiar challenge from the past to win over in the present. It is important to also consider and get in touch with your own feelings and perspective after breaking out a narcissistic relationship so you can become more confident in trust your own feelings and beliefs without the coercion that was applied by the narcissist.

A key distinction is that pathological narcissism should not be conflated with healthy narcissism. It is important for us to nurture our healthy narcissistic needs. These include self-esteem, worthiness, and well-being – all of which fuel creativity, humor, and self-worth.

According to Kohut’s view on Self Psychology, romantic relationships provide mirroring transference which is when the positive reactions of one’s partner facilitates the ability to see positive traits within oneself. In turn, romantic relationships promote the development of healthy narcissism when they encourage a more positive self-regard, affirmation, and validation to support one’s sense of self at a mature level.

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