Health has always been a struggle for me. As a child, I have multiple memories of sleeping on the bathroom floor so that I could be near the toilet because I was too sick to be far away. As a teen, I struggled with debilitating migraines. Often, when I was at school, trying to study, I suddenly noticed a shimmering circle in my peripheral vision. If I waited too long, the circle completely engulfed my sight and I was trapped at school in the throes of a migraine so severe that I couldn’t tolerate any light or sound.
As soon as I noticed the shimmering, known as an aura, I ran to the office and called my mother to pick me up so that she could pack me into bed, put a blanket over my bedroom window as make-shift blackout curtains, give me an ice pack for my pounding head, and shut the door so the room would be as quiet as possible, because any noise at all was like a nail being driven into my skull.
I had my last migraine at age 17, and thought that my struggles with my health might actually be over. What I didn’t realize was that I was just at the beginning of struggling with the health of my romantic relationships. I’ve discussed my early marriage in previous posts. Suffice to say it was bad. Since then there have been a string of bad relationships that looked great in the beginning. The trauma of these events led me both into therapy, and to become a therapist in my own right.
However, I hadn’t realized what the true problem was until my current therapist, a wonderful woman who specializes in Highly Sensitive People, said, “You know. I think every man you’ve ever dated was a narcissist.”
Running through the criteria for narcissism in my head, I realized she was right.
As a Highly Sensitive Person, I possess a depth of empathy that is difficult to find. When I meet new people who interest me, I invest in getting to know more about them, and I have an unfortunate tendency to notice the light in people and disregard their shadows. For these reasons, I’m like catnip too narcissists. They love being put on a pedestal. They love a person wanting to know more about them and being interested in what they have to offer.
There is a lot of talk in the media about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), but most people don’t understand what it truly means. It sounds like someone who has high self esteem and is generally impressed with themselves. These qualities don’t sound so awful. We tend to like people who like themselves. However, the truth about NPD is so much more insidious. Here are the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
(3) believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
(4) requires excessive admiration
(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
**Author’s note: While there are women with NPD, 50 to 75% of people with NPD are men, so I’m going to use the pronoun he/him to refer to the NPD person. Please know that I acknowledge that not all NPD people are male. I am also going to refer to the person he is dating as her. This works for my purposes, but know that I recognize that romantic relationships can be between people of the same sex, or people that identify as transgender or gender fluid.**
At first meeting, an NPD person will be excessively charming. This isn’t to make the other person feel comfortable. It’s a way to gain admiration. Unfortunately, this charm takes people in, especially in dating situations. When the NPD person takes a date to a fancy restaurant, buys expensive gifts for her, and takes her on romantic vacations, it isn’t to show his date how much he loves and respects her. It’s to make her believe he is as amazing as he believes he is. The more that she believes he is wonderful, the better he feels about himself.
It’s a trap.
Once the NPD person has hooked his target into admiring, and possibly into loving him, things start to shift and the other criteria for NPD show up.
Here’s a real-life example that happened to me. I had been dating Adam (not his real name) for about 3 years when he suddenly decided that we should move in together. Instead of discussing this with me, he told all of his friends about his decision, and they brought it up in conversation with me, which is how I found out. This should have been my first clue. Then, without discussing it with me, he decided that I should move into his apartment building. I told him that I would prefer that we look at other places, and choose a place that was new to both of us so that it would be our place instead of a place that belonged to him.
Instead of respecting this request, he informed me that he’d talked with the management of his complex and made an appointment for us to look at an available apartment (criteria 5 and 7). When I said that I had no intention of looking at the apartment in his complex because I had already made my needs clear to him, he became very angry with me and chose to punish me by taking me on a hike that we had planned for the day and refusing to speak to me the whole time (criterion 9). It was excruciating, and I eventually told him I wasn’t having a good time and was going back by myself.
Adam eventually caved and said that he would look at other places, but was still rigid about what he wanted in an apartment, and didn’t much care about what I wanted. We ended up compromising on a place where we lived together for 2 years. During that two years, we went on amazing trips, ate at fancy restaurants and he gave me beautiful and expensive gifts. He was a very fancy dresser and tended to talk too much about money and his expensive education (criteria 1, 2, 3 and 4). However, living with him was excessively lonely. He spent all of his time watching television that I hated, and I mostly hid in the bedroom with earphones in trying to get some peace (criterion 7).
When I finally realized that he was just keeping me around as a roommate and was never going to marry me (criterion 6), I moved out. The day I left, he didn’t even say goodbye to me. When I emailed him saying that it bothered me that he didn’t say goodbye, he told me that he had considered us broken up for the whole two years, so he didn’t feel he needed to say goodbye to me (criteria 6, 7 and 9). I was devastated. He had lied to me and wasted time that I could have spent trying to find someone who truly loved me and wasn’t an exploitative narcissist.
On their own, any one of these actions doesn’t look too terrible. Perhaps he simply forgot to tell me that he thought we should move in together. Maybe he really liked his building and wanted to stay. Maybe he likes watching television a lot and is careless about making sure the other person enjoys the show that’s on. However, taken together, they show a pattern of disregard for the rights and needs of others that is pervasive to his personality. I should also say that Adam was probably the nicest of the narcissists I’ve dated and this is a fairly light example.
Many people wonder how kind and giving people end up with narcissists. It seems to be a pattern. When one person in the partnership is cruel and exploitative, the other person seems to be incredibly empathic and caring. This is exactly because narcissists have an unending need to be loved, understood and cared for.
In the article “Do Highly Sensitive People Attract Narcissists” Andre Solo writes, “[Narcissists] have very lofty dreams, nothing they do or achieve is ever good enough, so they’re frequently upset, disappointed, or even wildly angry. Isn’t there anyone who can treat them the way they deserve? Yes, unfortunately; and all too often it’s an HSP, the person who keenly feels the pain of others and takes a true sense of satisfaction from helping. HSPs are often the first to try to console and comfort someone in need, and that puts them at risk of getting pulled into a narcissist’s trap.”
What happens is that whenever the HSP gets exhausted by the NPD’s selfish and exploitative behavior, the narcissist reels the HSP back in by “love bombing.” What is a love bomb? It’s a super romantic date or trip, or an expensive gift out of nowhere. The HSP thinks, “Oh. I was overreacting. He really does love me,” and then the narcissist goes right back to sucking the empathy and kindness out of the HSP.
If you’re recognizing yourself or your relationship here, please don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. It’s an insidious trap that unfolds over time and plays on your capacity for kindness and empathy.
However, I urge you to get out now. It will not get better. It will only get worse. Leaving a narcissist can be incredibly painful. He will blame you and make you question your decision. He will punish you. The intermittent reinforcement the narcissist gives, alternating between intense attention and then intense lack of attention is addictive, and leaving a narcissist can feel like detoxing from a drug.
However, once you’re through the detox, it can feel like being freed from a long and arduous prison sentence. The day I received my divorce paperwork after I left my NPD ex-husband, and I saw my name in print changed back to the one I’d been born with was one of the happiest days of my life. I walked away from the courthouse holding my divorce papers with a smile on my face so radiant that several people stopped me as I walked back to my car and asked me why I was so happy. All I could do was hold up the 1/4 inch-thick divorce decree and say, “I’m free!”
I realize that I’m a few days late, but I have some Valentine’s Day thoughts to share. Valentine’s Day is always a difficult day for me, whether I’m coupled-up or not. This year I’m not in a relationship, so I had plenty of time to reflect on past romances. In the initial incarnation of my book, I’m Sick, Not Crazy, I weaved in a subplot of my relationships getting healthier as I did the things that made my body healthier. However, after some initial feedback, it looks like that plot may end up being my second book, but since this is my blog, and I can write whatever I want, I have a few things to say about love.
When I was 18 years old, I married my high school sweetheart. Even writing that line makes me feel painfully embarrassed, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. We’d been dating the entire four years that I was in high school, and I was raised in a conservative Christian home, so marriage seemed like the obvious and right next step. I was excited to get down to the business of being a wife, but the very first week that we were married, I realized I’d made a grave error. My ex-husband was in the Marine Corps, which had been the source of small problems between us while dating, but after the wedding, he began treating me like a drill sergeant treats a recruit.
During that first week of our ill-fated marriage, he became angry with me because I forgot to do something that he asked me to do. It was a small something, and I offered to do it as soon as he brought it up. Instead of accepting my offer to complete the task, he backed me up against a wall and screamed in my face for what seemed like a half an hour. I held my breath and closed my eyes, bracing myself for the punch that I expected, but didn’t come, while tears streamed down my face. Not only did I never forgive him for that, but it happened again . . . and again. Over the six years that we were married, he humiliated me in public, spoke to me like I was an idiot, screamed at me, and generally abused me. I didn’t realize that it was abuse at the time. I believed what he told me; that it was my fault, and if I could just be better, he would treat me right, but no matter what I did, things failed to improve. Now that I’m a therapist, and have training in matters of power and abuse, I realize that he didn’t abuse me because of anything I had done. He abused me because of him; because of his own internal feelings, and there was nothing that I could have done to change them. When I was 24 years old, he left me for another woman that he’d gotten pregnant, and I was relieved.
After my ex-husband left me, I met a man at work that I’m going to call Justin. There was an instant and strong attraction between us, and after he put up some initial resistance, we started dating. One day I was putting on makeup in his bathroom before work, and the bottle of liquid foundation slipped out of my hand, flew through the air, and splattered everything around me, including the carpet. Frantically, I started trying to clean it up, hoping to have it done before Justin saw, but I heard Justin coming into the room, and my heart started to pound. My ex-husband would have lost his mind over something like that. In his mind, there were no accidents, no mistakes, and no forgetting. Instead, Justin laughed and started helping me clean up the mess. I fell in love with him, hard, in that very moment, and our relationship is one of the more positive experiences of romances I’ve ever had. Justin and I had beautiful long talks about everything, and I believe that he loved me just as strongly as I loved him.
Unfortunately, he kept finding ways to sabotage the relationship. He told me that he didn’t ever want to get married and have children again (he already had two daughters from a first marriage). At age 24, I definitely envisioned having children of my own, so I broke up with him. However, he kept changing his mind, and after breaking up and getting back together over and over again for the next 10 years, he finally proposed marriage. We started planning a wedding, and I thought that I was actually going to get the relationship that I had always wanted with a man that I thought I couldn’t live without. It wasn’t meant to be. A few months before the wedding was supposed to occur, Justin announced that he was going to move to Texas because his ex-wife was going to be retiring there after getting out of the Navy, and he needed to be near his daughters.
If they had been little girls, I would have completely understood, but they were aged 16 and 18, and I was in the middle of establishing my career as a therapist. Plus, I was never going to be in a relationship again where my needs were not considered. Justin telling me that he was going to move to Texas, and that I could choose to either come with him or not, triggered my abuse trauma. I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but I felt it in the deepest part of my being that I couldn’t form a life with a man who didn’t talk to me before making a decision about where we would live as a couple. I gave the engagement ring back.
Justin contacts me here and there, but we’ll never get back together. Not because of his moving to Texas just before we were supposed to get married, but because of what happened afterward. After Justin left, I felt bereft and didn’t know what to do with myself. I needed something to put my energy into, and I found it in the local San Diego swing dancing community. The love I’d felt for Justin easily transferred to dancing, and I was dancing 4 to 5 nights per week, until one night a man I was dancing with dipped me so roughly that I sustained a serious whiplash injury. Within a week of the injury I was so sick that I couldn’t keep any food down, my vision doubled, and my cognition was so wonky that I couldn’t even make basic decisions, like whether to turn right or left. This went on for over a year, and at the worst of it, I was certain that I was going to die, whether of starvation, or by my own hand, I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to say goodbye to Justin before it happened. I called him and told him that I was sick. His response was to tell me that he couldn’t keep doing this. I didn’t expect him to do anything except say goodbye back, but instead he made even my illness about himself. That was the moment that I knew it was really over between us.
After a year and a half of an illness that nearly killed me, I was walking down the street toward Mission Beach and I met a man we’ll call Andrew. He was beautiful. Probably the most attractive man that I’ve ever dated. We had a lot of fun together, and traveled all over the world: Australia, England, France, Thailand, and more. Andrew and I moved in together after 3 years of dating, and lived together for two years before I moved out. Living with him was impossible for me. He spent all of his time in front of the television, completely numbed out. The TV noise was overwhelming to my sensitive nature, and living with someone so absent made me feel more lonely than being alone.
After moving out, I decided that I must be doing this dating thing completely wrong. I’d missed the training that most people get in early dating by being with my ex-husband so young, and for so long, so I did what I always do when I need to learn something new–I took a class. Dating coaching was extremely helpful and motivating, and I spent most of my time outside of work on dating apps and going on dates. After an exhausting few months of fruitless dates, I met a man I’ll call Steven, and fell crazy in love with him. Steven was almost divorced when I met him. If he’d told me on the first date that he was in the middle of a divorce, I wouldn’t have gone out with him again. Unfortunately, he waited until a few dates in to tell me, and I was already hooked. I’ll never know if Steven felt the same way about me that I did about him. I believed that he did for the 10 months that we dated, and he was the one that initiated each next big relationship step. He suggested that we go on a trip to Kauai together. He suggested that I go with him to Connecticut to meet his family. He suggested that we move in together.
That last suggestion ended up being the death knell for our relationship. Steven lived about a 40 minute drive away from me with no traffic. With traffic, it would have taken me about an hour to get to work from his place. He worked about a 10 minute drive closer to where I lived, so it seemed logical to me that we could move somewhere in between where I lived and where he lived and we would both be happy with our commutes. However, Steven’s comment about where we should live was, “I’ve decided that I’ll watch the condos across the street and we’ll move in there when one opens.” You’ve decided? Flashbacks to Justin deciding to move to Texas, and my ex-husband backing me against the wall to scream in my face whenever I did something he didn’t like engulfed me. After giving it a day or two to think, I approached Steven and told him that his location posed difficulties for me, and that we should talk about where we would live together and make the decision as a couple.
This proposition seemed completely reasonable to me, but in my heart I had already decided that if he insisted that we live in his area, I would drive the hour to work each day because I loved him so much. All that I wanted was for him to be willing to talk to me about it.
Instead of talking to me about the issue and coming to a resolution, he told me that he “didn’t have it for me,” and that he really wanted to re-engage in fighting with his ex-wife. I was beyond shocked . . . and heartbroken . . . and broken.
It’s been over a year since then, and I’ve been engaged in the deepest and most intense self-healing work I’ve ever done, and that’s coming from a licensed psychotherapist. What I’ve discovered about myself is that I’ve been relying on others for my sense of value. This strategy was the one that I was taught by movies, and songs, but it’s unsafe because I can’t control the behavior of these other people. When they leave me, I lose my foundation, and I’m left shaking and alone. Unfortunately, I’d been abandoning myself for these others all of my adult life, when what I really needed to do was stay with myself and love myself first. Loving myself first sets the model for the love that I receive from others. When they see how I love myself, they know that they have to love me with that same intensity and kindness, and nothing less will do. Most importantly, if they leave me in the end, I still have myself to love, and my foundation is still strong.
I don’t know what your history is with romance, but no matter what is going on with you, I invite you to also love yourself first, and to cultivate your relationship with yourself. The more you’re good to you, the more that you will inspire others to be good to you. Best of all, if you are your own best partner, you won’t be hungry for love, and you will only accept the very best.