Identifying and Overcoming the Toxicity of a Narcissist
When a narcissist enters a room, it isn’t long until all eyes are on them. They are full of charisma, seemingly knowing everyone in the room. They thrive on the attention of others, throwing out winks and sly smiles that they’ve perfected over the years. They walk around, larger than life, exuding confidence with every word, every look, every step. When they enter the room and single you out, you feel in some way blessed to be chosen.
It is easy to fall for a narcissist, especially when you have self-esteem issues yourself. They seek out those struggling because it is easier to manipulate someone who already feels damaged and broken. In the beginning, you see their entrance in your life as a blessing, believing they see some hidden inner fragment of yourself that is beautiful and worthy of love. Sadly, it is never about you. With a narcissist, it is always about them.
For eleven years, I struggled to have a relationship with a narcissist. I had seen him as alluringly self-confident and charming, fiercely cocky about every aspect of his life. In rare moments of what felt like unadulterated honesty, he showed me the scars of childhood abuse. On some level, I understood his façade as his survival mechanism. I felt a strong bond to him. We were two damaged souls struggling to survive together. However, it was a togetherness that only existed when it suited him.
When we were at our best, it felt like it was us against the world. He had a thundering presence, carrying me along on his coattails. I was never his equal, however. I was just along for the ride. His attention waxed and waned. The harder I tried to be there for him, the more he withdrew; If I considered giving up, he would reel me back in with promises of change. Everything was on his terms and he needed complete control. He was at the helm of this relationship in no uncertain terms.
Any love or energy I put into the relationship was taken for granted as something expected and well deserved. Though I went above and beyond in my attention and affection, my efforts often went unnoticed. Only when others would remark on all the wonderful things I did for him did I become an asset. He thrived when others took notice of me, bringing their attentions into the bedroom as pillow talk. The more desirable I was to others, the more he wanted me.
He had a constant need for the attention and validation of others. I stood by him through multiple infidelities and heartbreaks. On rare occasions, he would blame his actions on his nature; That is just who he was – garbage. My heart went out to him in those moments, reassuring him of all that was wonderful about himself. More often, he would find ways to twist the situation. I was somehow at fault because I was not working at the time, or because my asking him to call if he would be running late after work made him feel trapped. He would always downplay his infidelities to minor infractions, lashing out in frustration because I could never just let it go.
Throughout it all, I poured all my energy into loving him. Whenever I saw cracks in his façade, I would try to mend those wounds with reassurance and compassion. I felt, in our strange bond, I saw a side of him no one else had and wholeheartedly believed that if I just loved him enough, doted on him enough, I could get through to him and help him heal. No matter how much I gave, it was never enough to fix things, never enough to reassure him that he was loved and cherished, never enough to stop the infidelities. I put every ounce of myself into making him feel like he was enough; Meanwhile, he continuously showered other women with flirtations and affections while I was starving for love and validation myself.
Often, I was the brunt of jokes to his friends and lovers. I was an easy target. As I crumbled farther into my own depression, I was the pathetic mess he was saddled with, a joke he shared at my expense. Though I poured all my attention and affection into our relationship, others would hear that I was a leech, sucking the life out of him. When I would beg him to stop straying and work on us, I was described to them as laughably needy. The harder I tried to make things work, the more of a joke I became.
When he finally left me for someone else, my world had shattered. By that time, my self-worth was so intertwined with his approval that I internalized his abandonment as being proof that I was worthless; I felt he had discarded me because I could not love him enough. He went so far as to flaunt the things she had that I did not, the majority of them being fiscal in nature; She owned her own house and didn’t rely on him for anything financially. He openly admitted to not being in love with her, but rather touted her convenience while bragging about having other women lined up on the side. It crushed me to hear that he would discard someone who had loved him wholly for over a decade and had stood by him through better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and health, for someone else who he admittedly didn’t love, all in the name of financial security. In the weeks and months after he left, however, no longer scrambling every moment to try to win his love and affection, I began to see things differently.
There were so many red flags I should have seen, beyond the obvious infidelities. Any time my attention or affection was focused on anyone else, especially my children, there was strife. Holidays, in particular, were always tainted by arguments he started because the attention placed on festivities took away from the focus he felt he deserved. Whenever we would fight about his lying or cheating, he would find a way to twist things and place blame on me for something else, put me on the defensive and justify his actions.
- I was in treatment for depression and unable to work, so the stress of paying bills by himself led him to cheat. How many times does he have to tell me to just get over things and get a job?
He systematically isolated me from friends under the pretense that they all desired me or hoped for our relationship to fail; In reality, it forced me to revolve my life around him because I had no one else. Finances were always a battle because it was his money. He should not have to answer for how he spent his money or his time. I was to blame for money always being tight because he had to give me money for groceries, regardless of the fact that a large chunk was taken off the top to cover his vices and whims before even bills were paid. He fought any plea I had for counselling because he didn’t want his dirty laundry put out there; It was imperative that everyone else saw only his strengths and never his flaws. Little by little, over eleven years, he broke me down until I was unable to function than used that fact as his reason to leave me for someone else he had been secretly seeing. I was, at best, a convenience in his life to help raise him up when he felt down; At worst, I was a burden he told others he carried until he felt he could find better. I could have been anyone. I was never anything special to him. Even in his new relationship, she was nothing special; By his own admission, she was a convenience, nothing more; Someone who bought him things, paid his bills and showered him with money. It was always about him.
It is easy to put it all on him. He came into my life during a very difficult time and was a master manipulator. But the truth is that we both had dysfunctional upbringings and came into the relationship with a lot of baggage. I would not have succumbed so easily if I had learned along the way to love myself. My self-image was so low that I sought the validation from others that I could never give myself. I had made myself an easy target. Until I learn to see worth in myself, I cannot expect others to value me. Until I have a healthy relationship with myself, I will never be able to build a healthy relationship with anyone else. People say hindsight is 20/20. I hope to take the painful lessons I’ve learned in this relationship to avoid ever falling for another narcissist again.
In all honesty, looking back, I do not hate him or regret my time with him. He wasn’t entirely a bad person. He was intelligent, witty and loving, even if only on his terms. In between the hurt, we shared some good memories. He had, to an extent, attempted to be kind in his departure from my life and ease me into the transition of standing on my own again – at least until it became inconvenient in his new relationship. I do not doubt that he, in his own way, had sincere feelings for me though I hesitate to call it love; He just was too consumed with himself to consider how his actions affected others. He’s struggling through his life, seeking validation through others, as well. He has his own demons to fight and his own dysfunctions to face. I truly wish him well and hope he finds peace in whatever it is he has been searching for his entire life. Sadly, however, I do not see that happening for him. First, he must learn to find worth in himself instead of seeking it in others; Likewise, he must learn to see value in others based on their own merit and not what they can do for him. His narcissism, like my depression, is a mental illness that will never go away on its own. Acknowledgement and treatment are needed for there to be change.