In recent years, articles, blogs, and literature about narcissists have flooded bookshelves and the internet. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s most frequently searched word of the year in 2022 was gaslighting, a tactic used by narcissists, showing a 1740% increase in searches from the previous year.
Many articles on the subject highlight the narcissist’s gaslighting tactics, love bombing later to be supplanted by debasement, tendencies towards sex addiction, and the juggling of multiple partners. More clinical material describes their grandiosity, arrogance, and lack of empathy, among other traits. Some articles then address the nearly impossible task of leaving the narcissist…unscathed.
But why is it so difficult leaving narcissists when their behavior is as repellent as it is (that is, after the honeymoon phase takes a nosedive)? Beyond the threats, harassment, and the way they trap people in the relationship by terrifying them to their core, why do their intimates stay so long and love so deeply?
Prior to pursuing a graduate degree, I worked as a quit smoking counselor where clients were eager to talk about how cigarettes repulsed them. They couldn’t wait to get rid of that habit once and for all — toss them in the bin for good!
But we were prompted to ask a question that stumped them: “What is it that you enjoy about smoking?”
“What?” They would respond. “They smell awful; they make me feel terrible; I can’t walk up the stairs; my children hate it.”
“Yes, of course that’s true,” we’d say, “but if you have continued to smoke all of these years, you must have gotten something out of it.”
They’d think about that. You could hear it in the silence. And then, “Well…I do love having that time to myself, the break from life.” And off they would go listing the reasons they loved the habit they could not resist.
It turned out, there were many reasons they kept going back to the cigarettes, even knowing how destructive they were. Some of those reasons were emotional, and some were chemical. The idea behind the question was that by helping them to fully acknowledge the good and the bad in their relationship with cigarettes, they would be more prepared to give them up.
How narcissists are wired differently
People stay with their beloved narcissist for years or go on loving them for years even after having broken up. Narcissists are mysteriously addictive characters with a power to charm and enchant.
According to a 2012 article in Plos One, unhealthy narcissism, which was found more often in men, tends to be associated with higher levels of cortisol in men, while the connection appeared to be unrelated in women. A 2016 article published in Personality and Individual Differences also examined the relationship between narcissism and cortisol as well as testosterone and determined that narcissism is positively correlated with basal cortisol and basal testosterone levels.
A 2013 article from the Journal of Psychiatric Research, found that the brain structure of narcissists exhibited differences when observed in brain imaging. Those determined to have Narcissistic Personality Disorder showed reduced gray matter in the left anterior insula which is the part of the brain responsible for empathy. In short, the empathy of the narcissist is compromised, limiting his ability to consider the feelings of others in relationships.
These studies suggest that those high in narcissism are wired differently, rather than our more trite explanation that they are simply disagreeable people. According to science, they have a different chemical makeup and brain structure. A 2019 CNBC article discusses the ways in which narcissists possess characteristics that enable them to thrive, particularly in the workplace, when they temper the destructive aspects of their personality.
Narcissism on a spectrum: healthy vs. unhealthy
Narcissism has gotten a terrible rap but the truth is, there’s a little narcissism in all of us. The 2012 PLoS article classifies subjects as having healthy narcissism or unhealthy narcissism. So although narcissism has become a dirty word in our current culture, it’s the extreme of narcissism that can become problematic. Without a healthy amount of narcissism, we wouldn’t be able to survive the world. It is our narcissism that enables us to get our needs met.
Even in cases that researchers might classify as having unhealthy narcissism, some have gone on to found successful businesses, manage thriving companies that employ thousands of people, and give inspirational talks as CEOs and even presidents. Their magnetism and charisma draws people to them. They have an appeal that is hard to describe but is deeply felt.
Those high in narcissism are capable of doing extraordinary things, perhaps, in part, because they aren’t as bogged down by constraints of conscience. They believe that they can do the job well — the best ever, in fact. And so, we choose to believe them. And phew, we’re also really glad that we don’t have to do the job. We care too much and fear we won’t get it right! But for the narcissist, this isn’t a problem because, according to him, he always gets it right.
This level of self assurance can quickly turn dark, for example, when someone criticizes the narcissist or holds him accountable. In his mind, he cannot accept fault in himself and will sometimes go to extreme measures to exonerate himself from any wrongdoing, even if it means hurting others in the process. This is where the extreme of narcissism becomes problematic, causing his romantic and professional relationships to crumble.
Attractive qualities of narcissists
People struggle immensely to leave a narcissist — his energy is magnetic. Who doesn’t like charisma, confidence, and initiative? But when coupled with the other characteristics, it’s hard to be in a relationship with this person and stay healthy. Likewise, it is hard to leave, especially when measured with the good qualities that, at one time, made one feel on top of the world.
If only it were as simple as employing Bob Newhart’s advice from a skit aired on Comedy Central where he played the part of a psychiatrist who counseled a woman suffering from the fear of being buried alive — “Just stop it!” He screamed at her. “Stop it or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”
But the reality is that the signals of a narcissist are confusing, and while people are saying, “Stop it,” the narcissist is saying, “What’s your problem? Can’t you see that I’m the greatest thing that ever happened to you?” And he happens to be exceptionally persuasive in his argument, partly because, in his mind, he is certain that this is true.
The narcissist also creates a hook early on, diving into a relationship with you at the speed of light so that you don’t know what hit you, and when he withdraws, the air leaves your lungs just as quickly and intensely as he rushed into your heart. As time goes on, everything is smoke and mirrors. You don’t know up from down. It is confusing.
Narcissists are compelling characters. They’re assertive and confident in their ability to lead the way, qualities which are attractive and make people feel secure. They capture peoples’ attention quickly and with a profound grip. They are often passionate, adventurous and spontaneous. They rush in and display grand gestures or romantic displays of affection. In the beginning, their text messages are a constant flow of flattery that makes you feel good. The attention can be intoxicating and all-consuming.
Then, the mask lifts and things shift dramatically in the other direction. The narcissist becomes Hyde to the Jekyll you didn’t know had another side. Your dream come true becomes your worse nightmare.
Letting go of the narcissist
Some may argue that his initial gestures were all a facade. “He isn’t capable of love,” they cry. “He’s a narcissist! He loves only himself.” But whether or not this is true, the love he expressed felt real. And this makes us believe that he meant it. He leaves traces of positive memories that come creeping in when one attempts to leave so that it’s very hard to let go.
Part of the painful reality is knowing that one likely won’t experience the same kind of elation in a healthier relationship. We fear we are letting go of something we will never get back, and this may be true — even if it’s for the best. However detrimental the relationship was, a good feeling is lost, and it can help to acknowledge that.
It’s like quitting smoking. The desire remains strong for a long time. Over the years, it fades, but some days, when you see someone out with a cigarette enjoying their morning Joe, you find yourself consumed by a painful longing. You don’t remember the awful way it made you feel or how bad you smelled when you walked into work from lunch. You never tallied up the cost of buying and throwing them away countless times in an effort to quit, and more importantly, you forget the things you had to give up for the small pleasure of a drag. At this moment, the cost of smoking eludes you. You just see a romantic scene, and you think to yourself, “I miss it.”
And with the narcissist, there were good moments too. That’s why we reminisce, and perhaps there’s a part of us that always will. The hope is that the void, which the narcissist inhabited, gets filled with healthier pleasures and a stronger sense of self, things which will naturally lead one to have healthier relationships.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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