How Narcissism Harms Your Relationships

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How to shut up and listen: Lion Goodman’s advice on improving our relationships by becoming more empathetic and less self-centered. 

[Note: In this article, I speak as a masculine man in relationship to feminine women. Please adjust the gender terms to suit your relationship experience.]

In previous articles, I described narcissism as an extreme form of selfishnessBut narcissism goes beyond mere self-interest. It’s more akin to egotism — an excessive or exaggerated sense of self-importance. In the extreme, a narcissist exists alone at the center of his (or her) known universe. Other people appear as instruments that serve a purpose: to satisfy the narcissist’s needs, wants and desires. If they don’t, they are considered useless (or worse) and can be easily discarded.

If that’s the extreme, where are you on the scale of narcissism? Measure yourself here.

I have always considered myself an evolving “conscious male,” so my own narcissism was submerged, hidden in the subconscious shadows. I couldn’t see it — but the women in my life could. Here’s how it looked in my earlier days: As long as I was getting what I wanted from the woman in my life, I was happy. I felt good about my relationship. I was cooperative, kind, and loving. But if I didn’t get what I wanted, if she wasn’t showing up consistently as the perfect Love Goddess I expected, I began to shut down, withdrawing my energy and attention. I frequently became resentful. I stopped caring about her as much as I had initially. I got snappy, overly irritable, and reactive. I would hit an internal limit, then started looking for an exit, or someone else who would be more pleasing, and less of a problem.

Looking back, I can see that this was a narcissistic demand that my woman satisfy all of my needs and appetites. If she couldn’t do so (and of course, no one could), my dissatisfaction grew. If she didn’t meet my expectations, there was clearly something wrong with her. I couldn’t see my own role in the dynamic.

This type of narcissism has destroyed many good relationships.

Eventually, my girlfriend would mention my withdrawal, or my lack of care or attention. Or she pointed out my rude behavior. I didn’t want to hear it. I pointed back to her, informing her that the problem was how she was reacting. I said things like: “You’re too sensitive. You’re not taking responsibility for your stuff.  The way you’re delivering the message isn’t clean. If you used different words, or a different tone, I might be able to hear you.”  

This blame-the-victim tactic drives women bat-shit crazy — and for good reason. When your behavior has a negative impact on her, and she responds or reacts to it, and you then make her the problem, you’re doubling down on narcissism. You avoid responsibility for hurting her, and blame her for responding to the problem. It’s cruel.

 This kind of narcissism tears relationships apart.

Men are generally bigger and stronger than women, and throughout history, men have been responsible for most of the damage done to women. It’s understandable that women have a natural fear of us — especially when we get big, huffy, demanding, or angry. When confronted by a large raging male, most animals avoid being hurt by employing one of the safe strategies: flee, freeze, or fold. When men act like macho jerks, most women shrink back to become invisible.

If you see your woman folding in on herself, collapsing, or withdrawing from conflict when you bark or yell, your narcissism is doing damage. If you see this in your children, you’re doing significant damage to them. (Get some help, now.)

I learned from my partner that when women blame, shame or criticize men, it’s usually because the man won’t listen to them. They then have to escalate the delivery of their message. After a few frustrated attempts at telling you what you did to hurt them, their communication starts to sound and feel like emotional castration. Beneath their rising anger, women are trying to inform and inspire us to become more kind, loving and virtuous. It’s our own block-headedness that gets them so riled up. It’s as if someone is trying to hand you a gift, and you refuse to accept it, so they start pushing it in your face until you figure out that it’s good for you.

A woman, at her best, is a beacon of the truth. If you hurt her feelings, whether by unconscious mistake or a  narcissistic act, she will tell you about it, either verbally, or in non-verbal body language. The truth is often uncomfortable to hear, but when a woman tells you that she’s hurt, or someone else is being impacted by your insensitivity, it’s time to button up, quiet down your narcissistic ego, and be humble. In other words, shut up and listen. And if you’ve hurt someone, don’t expect them to be elegant in how they deliver the message.

♦◊♦

Love is caring.  This isn’t just an adage — it’s a description of a specific set of behaviors that demonstrate real love. When you care about the other person, you care about her (or his) needs, and about the impact of your behavior on them. If you want to be a good man, a loving man, and be initiated into your full masculinity, start caring more about your impact on others. Anything less is an ego protection racket. Listen carefully to your woman’s truth, even if it comes in the form of anger or upset. She’s trying to communicate something important. Be genuinely curious. Ask, “What are you feeling upset about? I want to know because I care how you feel.” If you don’t ask, you won’t get the information you need to improve yourself or love her more deeply.

The isolation of narcissism prevents empathy. Empathy is a natural ability we were all born with. It’s “feeling the feelings of others, as if they were your feelings.” But most boys got this emotional talent squeezed or beaten out of them during their upbringing. Most of us were told, or shown, that it’s “not manly” to feel deeply, or cry, or share in the suffering of others. We were expected to be tough, impervious to pain. Too often we were taught how to inflict suffering on others. Empathy is not a valued emotion in competitive sports, military operations, or the cut-throat world of business.

As men, we can re-learn this crucial skill of empathy. Stretch your awareness out to the other person, and feel what they’re feeling. You don’t have to agree with the feelings, or even like them — you just have to feel them. When you lower the impervious shield you’ve built to stay invulnerable, you become more willing to feel. This opens you to more of your own suffering, and the suffering of others, but it also opens you to compassion and joy.

Men who are shut down into egotistical narrowness are missing out on the glory of true masculinity. Full masculinity includes both vulnerability as well as strength, the ability to cry as well as laugh, and the ability to feel grief as well as joy. In our full masculinity, we can care more openly, and receive the potent love and wisdom of the feminine.

And by the way — this increased awareness, openness and care prove useful in business relationships, too. Research shows that compassionate leaders produce better business and financial results, and their employees are more productive. (See Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education for more information.)

It looks like a long journey from narcissism to true love, but it can be accomplished one step at a time. Care a little more each day. Practice one intentional act of kindness every day. As you care for the well-being and feelings of others, you grow to be more fully human, and certainly more masculine. And the sooner you get there, the better, not just for your self, but for the women and children whose lives you touch.

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Photo: Flickr/nox-AM-ruit

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About Lion Goodman

Lion Goodman is the co-founder of Luminary Leadership Institute (http://www.luminaryleadership.com), an accelerated initiatory program for leaders of businesses and organizations. With his partner, Carista Luminare, Ph.D., he developed a program to help couples transform old patterns of insecurity and trauma into a secure and passionate relationship: Confused About Love (http://www.confusedaboutlove.com). Lion is a co-founder of The Tribe of Men, an initiatory program in Northern California, and he served as the Director of Men’s Programs for The Shift Network, where he produced the Ultimate Men’s Summit, attended by 20,000 people around the world. He is the author of three books: Creating On Purpose (with Anodea Judith, Ph.D.), Transform Your Beliefs, and Menlightenment: A Book for Awakening Men. He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, but considers himself to be a world citizen.

Comments

  1. Powerful stuff! Thank you.

  2. “After a few frustrated attempts at telling you what you did to hurt them, their communication starts to sound and feel like emotional castration….”

    This is very true…I just withdrew from my husband for a while when he and his ex-best friend were at the height of their drinking buddy phase….I could feel that I was not being listened to at all…and I would just come home really late just to avoid a confrontation….my husband hardly noticed that I wasn’t there, but his ex-best friend and his other friend could see it….Years later, my husband has broken off his relationship with this particular destructive friend after I threatened to break off with him….my husband has since apologized but it feels like it is too late and too little….emotionally I keep a distance from him because it seems impossible to expect anything resembling a mature relationship with him….the only time he pays attention to what I say is when I text him… face to face communication seems to scare him away (as if he is afraid I am going to bring up some uncomfortable topic)…..

    • I found all comments you made are about how bad your ex or how creepy your male friends. What a greta woman you are

    • Lela: Your experience is quite common among women who are in relationship with self-absorbed men. That’s the purpose of my articles – to wake men up to the damage they’re causing in their relationships. Of course, women cause damage, too. That’s why we’re educating both men and women — because it takes both people to commit to awakening from their trance and begin to construct a more positive and healthy form of love. It’s nobody’s fault. We got really bad programming from our parents. The good news is, it’s possible to re-wire when both parties commit to doing so.

      John: It seems like Lela’s comments pushed your buttons. I wonder what lies beneath your reaction? Perhaps shame or guilt? That, too, can be cleaned out, but it takes the willingness to do some inner work. Our reactions are just signals that there’s something beneath the surface, in the subconscious mind, that needs tending to.

  3. Awesome and insightful…..I recently ended a relationship with someone because they were too self-centered and self-absorbed to see how their actions (and inaction) affected my feelings for him, as well as our relationship. In the course of trying to explain my feelings, in reaction to his insensitive behavior, I was cursed, demeaned, and marginalized – all because his life, issues, and overall perception of himself (and me) was askew. His excuses for his lack of attention and empathy was never-ending and always pointed to the fact that I was judgmental and my desire for him to constantly prove himself, his dedication to the relationship, and his love for me, was just ridiculous, and after reading your article, I’m convinced that you know him….

  4. I’m hesitant to criticize because this is all well intentioned and obviously things like yelling at your partner or especially your children are behaviors you should avoid because it can be frightening. However overall I don’t like the tack this article and the comments take because it has this overall man = block-headed narcissist, woman = beacon of truth angle embedded in it. I recognize the traditional masculine gender role and applaud the attempt to break it down, but I feel that most of us are somewhere in between these two extremes regardless of gender, and that one party to a relationship is rarely solely responsible for it’s breakdowns, yelling-matches, or faults.

    A possible example is Cookie’s. Now maybe that guy had NPD and is solely responsible because he is a block-head, I acknowledge that possibility and that I don’t know the full story. On the other hand he expressed that Cookie was too judgmental/demanding and Cookie expressed a need for more attention – so it seems that there was something wrong in the relationship itself for both parties, not necessarily just with him. This reflects the stereotypical man – woman scenario where the man traditionally finds the woman judgmental or demanding, and the woman finds him emotionally distant or inattentive – both partners are flawed human beings and need to move toward each other in this situation, one is not a block-head and the other a beacon of truth.

    To expand – yes he should listen to her more, but she should also listen to his truth. The fact that what he expressed as his truth is framed by Cookie as “excuses” and “just ridiculous” is a red flag to me that she may not have listened herself, and I venture to say that most relationship breakdowns involve two people who aren’t listening to each other – I’m not sure men deserve the sole bad-rap for this one. (I’m sorry if he really was just a horrible narcissist, but I’m talking about average men – who I suspect often have this lens put on their behavior to devalue their own concerns and perceptions).

    To put it another way – this article tries to view men through the guise of Narcissistic personality disorder as a way of challenging the traditional male role. You could actually likewise look at women through Histrionic personality disorder (which is pretty much just a feminine gendered NPD) and challenge women’s traditional need for more attention/affection, and tendency to criticize when this need is unmet. Personally I think both approaches frame the issue incorrectly by using a personality disorder, because most people fall somewhere in the middle regardless of socialization, and they need to solve things together egolessly and according to their own individual needs.

    Sorry if that is unclear, I guess I’m saying that this article has half the equation?

    • No. You are clear. And you have good arguments.

      But is it correct to say that histrionic personalty disorder in a woman= narcissistic disorder in a man?

      I think not.
      Men can be diagnosed with histrionic personalty disorder. They are what we often call Don Juan’s .the male variety of “hysteria “..
      I am not a psychologist ( obviously).

    • RMNZ: Note that I did not use the term “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” in this article. This isn’t about a psychological label for an extreme disorder. It’s about narcissism itself, selfishness, and egotism – all within the normal range of human psychology. Read my other articles to see that I’m talking about a range from low to high, not the extremes. I am also careful to point out that both men and women have these qualities — given how our parents and culture raised us, it’s understandable. This isn’t a knock on men or putting women on a pedestal. It’s about the search, within each of us, for this tendency to be more self-oriented than other-oriented, to be self-absorbed rather than caring for others. I’m also not challenging traditional male roles, or female roles. There ARE differences between the sexes, but if you think about “masculine” and “feminine” rather than what appears between one’s legs, you can expand your thinking to include the masculine aspect and the feminine aspect in men, women, and all the other genders. I even stated at the beginning of the article, “I speak as a masculine man in relationship to feminine women. Please adjust the gender terms to suit your relationship experience.”

      The truth is, we all have the same need — secure love. Every infant (with a few exceptions) needs that kind of love, and most of us didn’t get it in sufficient quantities. We go into detail about childhood attachment styles in our program, “Confused About Love.” (www.ConfusedAboutLove.com). We’re trying to point to the trouble spots that appear in most relationships. And in 1200 words, it’s hard to go into much detail. So summarize we must. Thanks for your comments.

      • Thank you for clearing that up; nowhere in the original text was there any mention of narcissistic personality disorder – obviously RMNZ took the article and my comments out of context and to the extreme. I believe that it was mentioned that it’s not about gender specific behavior; rather commentary on the idea that anyone can exhibit this type of behavior which can in turn ruin their relationship. It’s not about putting a woman on a pedestal, or demeaning a man because his needs or ways of communication are different; rather it is an observation on how narcissism can ruin relationships – it’s just as simple as that.

  5. double standard? says:

    “As long as I was getting what I wanted from the woman in my life, I was happy. I felt good about my relationship. I was cooperative, kind, and loving. But if I didn’t get what I wanted, if she wasn’t showing up consistently as the perfect Love Goddess I expected, I began to shut down, withdrawing my energy and attention. I frequently became resentful. I stopped caring about her as much as I had initially. I got snappy, overly irritable, and reactive. I would hit an internal limit, then started looking for an exit, or someone else who would be more pleasing, and less of a problem.”

    So, when your girlfriend is not acting the way she used to and you’re less interested in her… that’s narcissism? Why in the world wouldn’t you look for someone more pleasing and less of a problem?

    And the reason she stopped doing whatever it was that was making you happy? Couldn’t be her narcissism. You’re the guy, it must be your fault!

    I guess it’s baaad to have expectations of your partners and of your relationships? They shouldn’t make your life more enjoyable?

    • This is an article about taking full responsibility for your part of the relationship dynamic. Of COURSE both people need to delve into their shadow and find out what’s going on, but it’s amazing what can happen when you look inside yourself for the causes of problems, and stop blaming the other person for what’s happening. In our program, “Confused About Love?” we encourage BOTH parties to commit to making the relationship more secure and passionate. It takes two to tango, and it takes two to make a relationship work. It’s fine to have expectations, but expectations inevitably lead to disappointment. I prefer making specific commitments – to yourself, to the other person, and to the relationship itself. When you do that, you’re brought up against your own inner junk-pile, and you have the opportunity to clean it up.

      It’s not anybody’s role to make you happy. It’s your job. Do whatever it takes to create BEING happy, rather than waiting around passively to see whether your woman is going to make you happy. THAT’S narcissistic (and infantile).

  6. Listen, men:

    If you care enough to truly listen to your women’s truth, especially when it’s about your behavior or overpowering energy, she will be able to care for you and your needs much more consistently. A woman needs to feel safe, and trust that you will honor her truth (as HER truth, not necessarily THE truth). If you do, she can give you her Feminine Best. If you are scary, don’t expect her to open to you. If you miss her signals, or if you can’t hear that she needs you to be more gentle (for example), don’t expect her to be happy. If you can’t say you’re sorry, or if you ignore her needs after you’ve hurt her, (whether her need to be held, or her need to be treated more kindly), don’t expect her to “get off it” about her upset.

    The truth is, we all need to be loved and respected by the other – it’s a universal need for both men and women. We’re all self-absorbed at times. All of us have to learn how to be more loving in a sustainable way, day after day. We’re all just confused about love.

    Lion and I teach specific ways to rewire your old reactions into positive and loving responses. See our program at http://www.ConfusedAboutLove.com.

  7. FlyingKal says:

    Love is caring. This isn’t just an adage — it’s a description of a specific set of behaviors that demonstrate real love. When you care about the other person, you care about her (or his) needs, and about the impact of your behavior on them.

    What if your partner has a need, not something spectacular, just somehing that seems like a minor thing that you are trying yor best to meet. But doing so repeatedly on a day-to-day basis really starts to grow on you, and in getting “confirmation” the need also grows, and finally it’s something that makes your skin crawl and turns your stomach into a hard lump.
    How do I demonstrate real love in a situation like this?

    • FlyingKal:

      Love is caring – both about the other person, and yourself, equally. If you sacrifice a part of yourself to please the other person, you’re not caring for yourself. And if you ask the other person to sacrifice their own integrity or wholeness for you, you’re not caring for the other person. Real love in this situation would be to say, “Honey, I’ve been trying to meet your needs, but I find that it’s no longer working for me. I’m reacting badly, so we need to find another way for you to get your need filled, because I can’t do it – or I can’t do it in that way. I care about you, and I also care about myself. We both have to feel good and win as we take care of our own – and each other’s – needs and desires. What is possible?”

      I hope this approach helps you. Love thyself!
      – Lion

  8. Richard Blackmore says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you and again, thank you!!! This beautifully written article is the first I have found that treats narcissists, like me, like people. I am currently working on breaking the biggest bad habit of my life, my narcissism, so that I can fix my relationship with my wonderful girlfriend and, eventually have a strong and healthy union with her. It is so very hard to find help when you truly want to change. Most advice is directed at women victims and tells them to leave. This is justifiable. These women have been put through a lot and have a right to feel victimized, because we do victimize them.

    But what if you are in love with your partner, the way my girlfriend and I are in love with eachother. She doesn’t want to leave, which is why she gets so upset when I get on my high horse. If she didn’t love me, she wouldn’t care and would just leave. Thank you for this wonderful advice. Thank you for providing us with the tools to fix our relationship.

  9. LGWalker says:

    I’m so grateful to you for sharing your insight and awareness about your own experiences; thank you. Looking back, before your recovery began, is there any thing or any way a loved one might have talked with you productively about your narcissistic traits? I believe I know what I’m looking at, am devastated daily by it, but don’t know how to approach it. Feels so much like wanting to help an an injured animal but can’t figure out how to approach it in a way that keeps both it and me safe from its shock and fear. Again, many thanks for all.

  10. Angry wife/mom says:

    i want help but i’m a women… is there a good women project out there somewhere?

    • I’m sure you’re asking for help from Lion Goodman, but I felt compelled to ask…

      What help are you looking for? Are you in a relationship with a narcissist? I posted a comment below outlining my experience of being involved with narcissists..maybe it’ll help reading that comment.

      Or are you the one with narcissistic behavior? If so, I applaud you for wanting to change. A mantra you may find helpful, if you are authentically willing to change, is “show me what I need to see”. I believe people who are narcissists have a deep fear of seeing something ‘ugly’ about themselves and so reject any idea that may cause their flaws or issues to become exposed (it’s very threatening for them), which is necessary if a deep, fulfilling relationship is possible. If we can be comfortable and not insecure and fearful about our issues, it makes it possible for them to come out into the light of day, where they can be addressed.

      Maybe that helps?

  11. This was an excellent article. I’ve been involved with narcissists both personally and professionally and unfortunately, until the person actually recognizes they contribute to the problems in the relationship, there’s nothing that can be done to fix it. It takes two to break a relationship and it takes two to fix it but if one (or both) of those two refuses to own their part in the problems, nothing can be done to move through the problems. Had I learned this earlier on in my life, I would have saved so much time trying to fix relationships that were impossible to fix (not to mention prevent a whole lot of heartache).

    When I re-entered the dating world I had a great little system for identifying the narcissist: When I asked them what happened in their previous relationship and if their response was loaded with blame and finger-pointing and no accountability for their part, I’d run for the hills.

    One point that I feel is worth mentioning and emphasizing is emotional maturity. An emotionally mature person is comfortable enough with themselves to own up to their issues, mistakes and baggage. For me, it wasn’t about finding a partner who didn’t have ‘baggage’ (that’s unrealistic). It was more about finding a mature person who had an awareness of their ‘baggage’, how their ‘baggage’ affected their previous relationship and if they could articulate what they had done to work through their issues.

    So now, because my partner and I are both self-aware and emotionally mature, when our issues are triggered, we are able to work through the problems to a full resolution. There’s never blame, only accountability, love, caring and a desire to restore our emotional connection. And a side note about emotional connection: when we are feeling emotionally disconnected (i.e. not as close as we normally feel) we know there is an issue that needs addressing. Once fully addressed, our emotional connection, closeness, love and passion are fully restored.

    Emotional maturity! It’s a beautiful thing.

  12. hi there. i was in a relationship with a narcissistic man… it has been so difficult to get over, because i really and truly love him. it took me a long time to understand that what I thought was me ( I routinely got the ” You’re too sensitive. You’re not taking responsibility for your stuff. The way you’re delivering the message isn’t clean. If you used different words, or a different tone, I might be able to hear you.” ) was really narcissism raising its ugly head.
    but we had some wonderful time and thoroughly enjoyed each others company. Although the narcissism took its toll on the relationship and it has ended and yes, I have been discarded, I still wish there was someway it would or could be fixed. he has his flaws, we all do… i guess the point of this is, can a true narcissist ever change? Is there ever help for this?
    We don’t speak to each other now – well, he won’t speak to me. And trust me i have tried to mend any fences… to no avail. i know I should let him go or thought of him… I just wish there was a way to get back into his world. I do still care.

  13. hi – just sent a message. I am not a spammer. :-/ And I don’t know how to correct this or contact you other than this comment box.

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