When we first begin to grasp what narcissism is and learn how to recognize it, many of us are surprised at how many narcissists we find already in our lives. By the time someone comes to this blog, they are pretty sure someone in their family—usually one or both parents—are narcissistic, but they are totally unprepared for how many other people they know seem to be Ns as well.
This can lead to self-doubt because it doesn’t seem possible that all of those people are narcissists, too. So we begin to dig deeper into narcissism and its traits because we are unwilling to trust our initial assessments or, because we assume we are wrong, we deliberately ignore the red flags that are tossed our way by narcissistic bosses, co-workers, siblings, doctors, shopkeepers, other family members, and people we call friends, because we aren’t sure of the difference between real narcissism and fleas.
Most people gravitate to what they know. They seek the familiar, even when that familiar is toxic or painful. They seek it and tolerate it because they know the territory. They can run on auto-pilot (habituated awareness and responses) when in the presence of the familiar. You know not to say this or do that in order to avoid conflict, you know when to disappear or to put in a strategically timed appearance to maintain a fragile peace. You can recognise the run-up to a fight or a confrontation or an ass-chewing or even a beating and your life is predictable—if unhappy—and predictability brings a measure of security in and of itself.
When faced with what we don’t know—a person who seems genuinely warm and giving and interested in us, for example—we experience two immediate emotions: fear and distrust. We are afraid because we are in unfamiliar territory and don’t know what to do or think or trust and we don’t want to make fools of ourselves in our ignorance. Most people like us will respond to such a situation in predictable ways: they will remove themselves, they will bluff it out, or they will attempt to make light of the discomfort. But they will not feel at ease.
We tend to distrust that with which we are unfamiliar. In our experience, this kind and giving behaviour on the part of another person has often been no more than a façade designed to lure us in and make us vulnerable. If we stick around at all, it is because we are waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the monster to emerge from behind the mask—or we are studiously ignoring the red flags that are popping up all over the place. We simply cannot be sure this lovely person is genuine and due to previous experiences, we may not ever completely drop our suspicions.
But that can make us feel guilty. As the children of narcissists, we are conditioned to be givers, pleasers, and without any expectation of reciprocity. Misplaced guilt acts as a goad that propels us to give even more: it drowns out our doubts, blinds us to those red flags, and chides us for not being charitable in our thoughts.
We are conditioned to see the best in everyone and to overlook, ignore or refuse to acknowledge the kinds of character flaws that would otherwise alert us to something being wrong. This conditioning coupled with our desperate desire for someone in our lives from who we can get (or earn) approbation, makes us very vulnerable to the con artists and narcissists of the world. Women are conned out of their life savings and assets by romantic con artists in just this way: they so want to be loved in the ways these monsters pretend that they deliberately put their common sense on a high shelf in a dark, seldom-visited corner of their minds and then forget about it. We, the victims of narcissists, do much the same thing.
It has been said that narcissists are drawn to us in the same way that wolves are drawn to the weakest, most vulnerable member of a herd. The wolf doesn’t care if their prey is old and chewy or if it is young and tender—the only thing the wolf is interested in is whether or not the prey can be caught: a haunch of venison is a haunch of venison whether it is from an old stag or a new fawn—the wolf does not care as long as the wolf gets a meal. And so it is with narcissists: whatever it is they want, if they perceive we can and will provide it, that is all they need to pick up our trail.
These narcissists can be—or at least seem—romantically inclined like the con artist lover or clingy gold digger, and they can be platonic. All they require is a person who feels in need of a friend badly enough to overlook any flaws that might inadvertently pop out. All we require is someone we think will be a real friend to us. Symbiosis…
It is important to realize that what the narcissist wants does not have to be major: it doesn’t have to be a large sum of money or huge favours like borrowing your car or moving into your house. It can be as small as using you as a “cork” for a hole in their life. They are between the kinds of friends they can usually prey on and you only need a few strokes now and then to keep you around: low maintenance friends are easy to manage while looking for the “right” friend. Maybe the N has managed to get herself stuck in suburbia, cut off from the bright lights and party atmosphere she thrives in. She needs to jog or cycle or do Pilates or boxing or whatever to keep fit and she needs a partner. I briefly had a friend like this: she moved into my neighbourhood and we met by chance at the local 7-11. She seemed to want a friend but what she really wanted, it eventually emerged, was a running partner, and I was just pudgy enough that she could use the promise of shedding a few pounds as a way to get me to run with her. I thought she would take it easy on me because I had never done this before: nope—she did her normal 2 mile circuit and I ended up walking home alone…with shin splints and asthma. She never called me again after that and for a very long time I could not understand why. Everybody knows that a novice doesn’t have the stamina of the experienced, so I couldn’t understand why she was so upset—disgusted is the word she used—with me. It seemed so unreasonable—and I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t see how unreasonable she was being—but I didn’t know anything about narcissists back then.
Once you turn out to be inadequate to plug the hole in their lives or, more likely, they find the “right” kind of person to befriend, you are on your way to becoming history. They might drag you along for a while, as they solidify this new relationship or they may drag you into an established social circle into which you would otherwise not be accepted: this is to instil a sense of obligation in you: without the narcissist, you would not have access to all of this wonderfulness... But there is always something in it for the narcissist so when you no longer supply what the narcissist wants or when they find someone they deem better to supply it, or they no longer feel a need for what you supply, you then for them, it is over.
This ending of the relationship can play out several ways but I suspect “ghosting1” is the most common because it allows the narcissist to simply move on without wasting any of her precious time on something she does not value, like your feelings. If you manage to corner her, you might get a lame excuse for her disappearance (“I have just been so busy…”), you might get blamed for it (“…what makes you think I’d want to hang out with a liar like you ever again?” when you told her a truth she didn’t like), or you might get a vague promise of a future meetup (“let’s do lunch next week…I’ll call you…”) that never comes to be. Too often we are left holding the bleeding remains of an executed relationship with no idea why it was put to death, and the other party is simply unwilling to give a clue. This can be very painful—it is a serious betrayal of trust and that always hurts. It can also make you fearful, particularly if you confided anything sensitive or confidential to your absconding friend. Will she keep your confidences? Or will she consider her obligation to maintain your confidentiality dead with the ending of the relationship?
In my experience, the vast majority of people go through these kinds of endings but ACoNs seem to have them more often and are also more emotionally injured by them. It makes sense, if you think about it: our FOOs are untrustworthy and emotionally unavailable to us so we are hungry for connection. And that hunger, coupled with our sense of familiarity with narcissists, draws us into relationships—I hesitate to call them “friendships” because these people really aren’t our friends—with people who seem in the beginning to be warm and welcoming, empathetic and supportive, loving and giving, only to discover later that we projected onto this person what we wanted to see, not what and who they really were.
We often suffer with this kind of “friendship” for years, silently questioning hurts both large and small, but always forgiving, making excuses, rationalizations, justifications. Friendship requires compromises, after all, and forgiveness. And then one day something occurs and you start seeing that you are the one compromising, not your friend. You are the one forgiving, not your friend. You get left out of important events—or given only a minor role—and when you need someone to lean on, she is mysteriously—and consistently—absent.
These kinds of “friendships” come from two places: lack understanding what a real friendship is and our own desperation and fear of aloneness. We may not really know what true friendships are because we have not yet experienced one nor have we had them modelled for us. If our Ns manage to keep a long-term friendship, a close examination will likely reveal the same kind of pathology we have in our own: someone who is well-versed in toadying to an N in order to keep the one-way relationship alive.
Real friendships have reciprocity—but neither friend keeps score. They don’t need to because they know that the other one will be there when they need them and that is enough. Real friendships wax and wane: there are times you hardly see or talk to each other, and time when you are virtually joined at the hip. And real friendships can end, too. Emotionally healthy people grow and sometimes they grow in different directions. But the end of those friendships are soft…there is no painful dump or bump, your lives just grow apart and you remember each other fondly.
Narcissists are not capable of real friendship so you can’t “save” a friendship with a narcissist because there is no friendship there to save. We, however, often don’t know how to deal with the waxing and waning or eventual wind down of a friendship that has run its course. When coming from a place of deprivation, we want to grab onto our relationships and hug them to us—and when we do that, we run the risk of strangling the life out of them.
I treat friendships loosely—if my friend is a call-once-a month kind of person, fine—because I do not need friends in my life to feel whole. I am whole all by myself and have lots of stuff that keeps me busy and engaged, thinking and writing, coming and going. I love my friends but I have discovered that I do not need them—and that is a good thing. If a friend drifts away into another phase of life, I am happy for her, happy to see her progressing. Only those friends who try to put a stranglehold on me, who want my constant company, who cannot seem to function without my presence or at least my approval, only these friends do I have difficulty with because they are not creating their own lives, they are creating lives they hope I will approve of, and that is not healthy for them—they should be creating lives that fulfil them regardless of my opinion or approval.
After divorcing my NexH I stayed away from men for two years. During that time I concentrated on school and on my therapy. When I started dating, I came to a remarkable discovery: I didn’t “need” a man! My previous hunger for male companionship had not only disappeared, I found myself not responding in my previously programmed ways to men who were, if not full-on Ns, full of fleas. I didn’t try to please them—I didn’t care if they were happy with me or not! I was gobsmacked because this was just so out of character for me! But I really, truly, didn’t care if I was paired up or not. I did things on my own, I was comfortable with myself and didn’t need someone else to distract me from what I used to perceive as my inadequacies. I was just fine the way I was and if I was going to have a man in my life, he was going to have to be someone who added a dimension to my life, not someone who took it over expecting me to jump at his expectations like a trained dog.
This realization brought me to the further realization that friends, while lovely to have and entertaining to hang with, weren’t necessities. This made me much more circumspect in the people I came to call friends. I stopped tolerating behaviours I didn’t like and walked away from friendships with women who thought feminism was synonymous with man-hating, who thought men were meal tickets, who judged other women. I began looking at friendships like informal marriages: this person will be in my life, have access to sensitive information, and I will go out of my way to be there for her/him when needed—is this person worthy? Is she trustworthy? Is she tolerant? Is she kind? Does she love?
At some point in therapy I realized that friendship is actually about ME. I know that sounds narcissistic but it isn’t: it is a manifestation of healthy self esteem. I want a friend who will be my friend, not a person who sees me as the supplier of whatever is missing from her life because these are the people who dump their friendships as soon as you get tired of always having to shovel love, attention, advice, sympathy and understanding into that bottomless pit of need and moves on to someone else with a bigger shovel. I have a long-term friend who recently experienced this: a friend of hers (acquaintance of mine), after years of waiting and hunting, finally found “the guy.” And suddenly she disappeared out of my friend’s life. She would stand her up for meetups, lunches, movies, dinner parties—you name it and you couldn’t depend on her to be there anymore because the hole in her life…a man who might marry her…came ahead of a girlfriendship of more than ten years. It made my friend angry, but beneath the anger I could see she was hurt—she had been dumped for a man...for those ten years she had been only a “filler,” a placeholder, until her friend found what she really wanted.
When we as ACoNs choose friendships, we need to be careful and make sure we are not friending just anybody because we are needy, because when we do that, we sow the seeds of our own disappointment. We are prone to repeating old, unhealthy patterns by relying on that comforting feeling of familiarity, so we need to be consciously aware and look for—and heed—those red flags. Most of all, we need to learn how to be alone with ourselves, to be our own best friends, before we go out looking for more. If we don’t like ourselves well enough to spend lots of time alone with ourselves, why would we expect people—the kind of good people who will make true friends—to be friends with us? Other people are not tools to be used to distract us from our own unhappiness with ourselves, nor are they security blankets to keep us shored up as we are try to survive without digging into the quagmire of our dysfunctional emotional history and actually fixing what is wrong with us.
Healing can be a long and lonely process, but it is longer—and lonelier—if we take a gaggle of faux friends with us, people who sabotage us or hold us back or have expectations of us that are unhealthy to our own psyches. You have to be your own best friend first, before you can recognize and reciprocate a healthy friendship with someone who loves you just as you are, regardless of how you might be at any given moment. Friends like this are rare, so don’t expect to find one around every corner and don’t expect to have a horde of them. Fair weather friends—those who love you when your fortunes…and moods…are good but who can’t be found when you have troubles—are a dime a dozen and narcissistic opportunists who masquerade as friends are no less plentiful. You cannot close yourself off to people because there are so many frauds out there looking out only for themselves, though, because if you do you won’t be available to find the real friends who are out there, just waiting for someone like you to buddy up with. You have to put real effort into learning how to separate the chalk from the cheese—you have to stiffen your own spine and exert the self-discipline to not ignore those red flags, to not follow the comfortably familiar path back into a dysfunctional relationship. You have the power here, and it is up to you to use it.
It’s not easy, but it is truly, truly worth it.