Dear Ask a Bitch,
Valentine’s Day is around the corner, and I’m afraid I’ll be spending it with a narcissist. The first month of our relationship was a whirlwind of romance. It seemed too good to be true. We’re now three months in, and I’m starting to have second thoughts. At first he showered me with compliments, and now he criticizes me for the smallest things. Lately he gets irritated with nearly everything I do. When I ask him about his past or how he feels about something, I get absolutely nothing. Once he asked me if I thought he was a narcissist. I answered no, but am starting to get a bad feeling. However, there’s something about being around him that makes me doubt my own judgment. Help!
Oy vey. The whole “am I dating a narcissist” thing. While I’ve not had the divine pleasure of meeting your Romeo (and thus stop short of gleefully declaring, “Congratulations, you’re dating a narcissist), you do bring up a couple of red flags.
To be fair, we all exhibit some degree of narcissistic traits, and there is such a thing as healthy narcissism. Healthy narcissism is essential for optimal personality development, the capacity for self-love (which is different from self-absorption) and reciprocal, two-way relationships.
The problem comes when narcissism is pervasive and disordered, which can contribute to full-blown pathologies like Narcissistic Personality Disorder or clusters of less severe behaviors like Destructive Narcissistic Pattern (less intense than NPD, but still destructive to relationships). The DSM-IV provides diagnostic guidelines for NPD, and narcissism expert Nina W. Brown describes different styles of destructive narcissism in her many books on the topic.
Among the most prominent characteristics are a lack of empathy and fragile self-esteem (though this article argues that perhaps some are unabashedly arrogant without deep-seated anguish). In order to manage this profound emptiness and insecurity, the narcissist usually presents as grandiose and sometimes vacillates between this and utter deflation. Narcissists unconsciously use the people in their lives as narcissistic supplies. That is, those around them serve to puff up a false sense of self, which makes reciprocal relationships difficult if not impossible.
I could seriously write pages and pages on this, but here’s the crux of it.
First, trust your instincts, girl. I know, easier said than done. Especially if you’re involved with a pathological or destructive narcissist who’s adept at honing in on your vulnerabilities – and fucking with you. If Romeo is in fact a narcissist, he’s probably an expert manipulator, which might explain why you’re experiencing self-doubt. So keep coming back to yourself, dear Tara. Clear your mind of whatever clutter he’s projecting onto you and trust your own wisdom.
Two, knight in shining armor all in the first month is a classic red flag. Sure, the beginnings of a relationship can be hormonally intoxicating, but if he seems too good to be true, he may putting a lot of effort into presenting a false exterior.
Three, all of those nice compliments don’t go very far if they’re followed by hurtful criticisms. There’s a difference between caring feedback and chipping away at someone’s self-confidence. Putting you on a pedestal only to knock you off likely mirrors his internal struggle with self-worth. This is not ok and often escalates into emotional abuse. This would make a lovely deal breaker.
Four, the sense that there’s “nothing” in there is a tip-off. A vapid emotional landscape, an air of secrecy and lack of depth could be indicators of deeper issues. Irritability and control also like to frequent narcissistically infiltrated relationships.
Five, he asked you if you think he’s a narcissist. A little odd, don’t you think? Like, maybe he’s heard it before?
Can I tell you for sure if you’re dating a narcissist? Nah. Never met the guy. So do your homework, check in with yourself and reality check with your loved ones. Look at what aspects of this relationship have you hooked in – if these “hooks” aren’t in your best interest, then you need to seriously ask yourself what the point is.
People may tell you to run the other way like a bat out of hell. This is because even with years of psychotherapy NPD is one of the most difficult mental disorders to treat. Ultimately, it’s your choice, but I have to agree: if he’s a bona fide narcissist – get outta Dodge!
Best of luck,
This column is not intended to replace the support of a mental health professional.
Krista is a psychotherapist and non-profit lackey who is relieved to offer bluntly honest advice, preferably to the masses…but you’ll do. She somehow lumbers through the bedlam of pre-licensure and still manages to write this column. Krista holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology and Expressive Arts Therapy and currently studies Asian Bodywork Therapy at the Acupressure Institute in Berkeley, CA.
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