Thoughts from the other side: everything I’ve learned about dealing with NPD.
[NPD: Narcissitic Personality Disorder.
In the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5),  NPD is defined as comprising a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by the presence of at least 5 of the following 9 criteria:
A grandiose sense of self-importance.
A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
A belief 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.
A need for excessive admiration.
A sense of entitlement
Interpersonally exploitive behavior.
A lack of empathy.
Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her.
A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes.]
I wrote the below in April 2020. It’s taken me three months to decide to finally publish. After a night spent binge watching Dr Ramani Durvasula on YouTube I decided it was time to share. If this provides relief to one person in suffering it will be worth it.
If you need support I highly recommend her YouTube channel: ‘DoctorRamani’. https://www.youtube.com/c/DoctorRamani
This is likely the most exposed I have been on my blog. Tread gently.
In no particular order I have tried to articulate some of the findings in my journey towards peace with a narcissist. (Note: the person in question has been diagnosed by a psychiatrist. Narcissism, here, is used as a diagnosis not an adjective).
1. Smear Campaigns.
One of the worst things about having a narcissistic abuser in your life, especially as a child, is how isolating it is. To the outside world the relationship seems, like any other, to be “normal”.
In fact, narcissists are generally so charming that people might even perceive them as the antithesis of whom and what they really are. They work very hard on their image to the outside world.
But, as a result of one of the narcissist’s sharpest weapons, ‘smear campaigns and stalking’, the victim inevitably becomes portrayed as the cruel abuser of the narcissist. In my case I was a child and my abuser was an adult. Yet I was still portrayed as evil.
‘When toxic types can’t control the way you see yourself, they start to control how others see you; they play the martyr while you’re labeled the toxic one. A smear campaign is a preemptive strike to sabotage your reputation and slander your name so that you won’t have a support network to fall back on lest you decide to detach and cut ties with this toxic person..’
⁃ Shahida Arabi, 2019, thoughtcatalog.
I have experienced this so many times throughout my life that it’s almost become my default. I expect these campaigns, know how they work, and move through the motions of answering calls from strangers and trying to defend myself.
In every version of the above, the narcissist garners all of the sympathy while the child (or adult victim) is vilified for simply trying to seek refuge in some version of silence and self-created peace.
I have memories of being phoned by other adults from as young as 8 or 9.
I also have truly loyal, beautiful and amazing best friends in my life who still feel more sorry for my narcissist abuser than they do for me; simply because of how manipulative this person can be.
I land up distancing myself from my friends because it’s too painful to be reprimanded and rejected and it’s too exhausting to try and explain the entirety of the situation.
In the words of my therapist: ‘if you haven’t lived this yourself it’s absolutely impossible to understand’. I am not angry that they believe this person. I’m just tired.
2. The Adult Child. The Childhood Parent.
Being abuser by, or exposed to, someone with NPD from childhood, automatically means one has no idea what a healhty personal boundary is, let alone what such a glorious human right would even look or feel like.
So when the onslaught begins, the victim (me) has absolutely no clue of his/her right to simply say: “this feels awful for me and I do not allow it”.
That is a lesson to learn in itself. A lesson of self worth and value. A lesson that says, I am a complete human being created by GD and I do not need to allow unnecessary pain or abuse into my life.
The thing about having an adult narcissist for in your life, whilst growing up, is that he or she is actually still a child. Dr James Masterson, the archetypical NPD guru, says that NPD is created when a very young child experiences trauma and, as a result, natural emotional development is stunted or halted.
The developmental arrest happens between 16 months and 2 years of age.
This is why the narcissist so resembles a tantrumming child. This generally triggers the maternal instinct to save and/or rescue.
The difference is, I am no one’s mother but the children I gave birth to. I am not here to rescue anyone other than myself.
To try and teach them that throwing a tantrum is bad behavior is unhealthy - in much the same way that teaching this skill to our actual children, IS healhty.
3. Skinner and his Rats.
To illustrate this idea further, I shall point to some science:
In his 1948 experiments with Rats, Burrhus Frederic Skinner famously discovered that we can condition behaviors based on how we reinforce them.
If I don’t give in to my son when he screams at me he will eventually learn that he won’t get what he wants by screaming.
Essentially, we reward good behavior and we ignore or punish bad behavior.
Skinner introduced a new term into psychological vocabulary at large: ‘Reinforcement’.
Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated; behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or become extinguished.
This is very helpful when parenting.
However, when the proverbial son is actually a narcissistic adult, things are much less simple.
In my case I would refer to this portion of Skinner’s findings as being most relevant:
Something called: ‘Variable Ratio Reinforcement’: behavior is reinforced after an unpredictable number of times. Think of, for example, what happens when gambling or fishing. The Response rate is FAST and the Extinction rate is SLOW. I keep trying to catch a fish because I have no idea when the lucky moment will present itself.
It’s very hard to extinguish the behavior because of the unpredictability of when the response will come.
When playing the slot machine I can tell myself to keep injecting coins because the very next one may yield a jockpot win. It’s the same with variable ratio reinforcement. Putting yet another coin into the slot machine is reinforced by the unpredictability and possibly of winning on the very next try.
I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to reward good behaviors (eg, you send a respectful text I will reply) and to ignore or “punish” bad behaviors (eg, if you text me incessantly or send invasive content then I will ignore the messages/not reply) of the narcissist in question.
[I won’t even mention my lack of ability to cope with the chaos, in childhood].
What I didn’t realize, however, is that ALL of the narcissist’s behaviors are actually bad behavior because they are all just attempts to get the same “reward” - engagement with the object (me), at ANY cost. The narcissist does not care what or how many boundaries he violates to get what he wants. The self-serving, ego-stroking goal is all that matters.
So what I perceive as an appropriate text message is actually just phase one of a repeated cycle of attempts to penetrate.
“How far can I push her?”, “how far can we go this time?”, thinks the narcissist.
If we continue with the Skinner paradigm and look at his proposed remediation, again, we can see behavior modification as the goal. I will condition this person to only perform good behaviors by only responding to those.
‘Behavior modification is a set of techniques based on operant conditioning... For example, the reinforcement of desired behaviors and ignoring or punishing of undesired ones..’
So, there’s the rub...
BUT a narcissist doesn’t float in and out of pathology. He is engulfed by it. He is constantly fueled by an obsession with more. A pathological need for special treatment; G-d status. So it’s important to recognize that all of his behaviors are, in fact, “bad”, or, at the very least, disingenuous, toxic and unhealthy.
I HAVE TO IGNORE ALL OF THEM!
By responding at all, to even some of the behaviors of the narcissist, that may even seem to be healthy, actually creates a variable ratio reinforcement scenario.
I think I’m only rewarding good behavior but in fact what I’m doing is “sometimes” rewarding the bad behavior too (ie any attempt at penetration) with a response.
This is because, again, all of the narcissist’s behaviors are the same by definition: toxic. They just land at varying points within the spectrum of unhealthy conduct, depending on the day, and where we find ourselves in the cycle of abuse.
The rats, in this case, would incessantly and psychotically continue to push the lever hoping for a reward because these rewards came unpredictably. I think I’m rewarding good behaviors and ignoring bad but what I’m actually doing is saying: keeping trying and sometimes you’ll get a response. Keep firing shots and eventually one will land.
The result is EXHAUSTING for me because I’m inundated with messages and attempts at access. Eventually none feel healthy or respectful.
As with all abuse this progresses and continues in cycles. The apologies after the storm are always the most persuasive.
Either way, I see three options available to one who is dealing with a narcissist:
Option one: respond with a treat each time the rat pushes the lever. IE: every time the narcissist engages (every single time), we respond.
This is not an option for me as the majority of the advances made are well over my personal
boundaries and comfort level.
Option two: respond with a treat in response to some of the times that the rat pushes the lever. IE: only respond when the narcissist attempts to engage in a way that I am comfortable with.
This is a good option for dealing with healthy individuals, such as children. However, as I’ve tried to outline above, this will actually generate an incessant response whereby the proverbial rat/narcissist in question will attempt to engage repeatedly because they don’t know which attempts will garner a response and which won’t.
They will relentlessly “push the lever” until they receive a response. The extinction rate is low and the behavior is very hard to extinguish because of the unpredictability of the response rate for the subject (rat/narcissist).
This is the madness I’ve lived with and It is unbearable.
Option 3: no matter how many times the rat pushes the lever, he never receives a treat. IE: disengage completely. Dr. Ramani, and other NPD experts call this option ‘going no contact’. It is highly recommended.
The extinction rate is very quick here too. The rat realizes almost immediately that no matter how many times he tries, he will not get the desired outcome; and therefore stops trying.
Now that I’ve finally realized that what a narcissist wants is NOT a healhty relationship, but, is in fact, an all encompassing, one-sided ego-fest that fills and feeds the insatiable need to be superior and idealized, and that that will come at the absolute expense of any of my boundaries and all of my feelings.. I finally understand that I cannot respond to any of the attempts at engagement.
I have to “teach” the narcissist to abandon the attempts at the above, if for no other reason than that they won’t work. He will not get the desired response. I have to condition him to know that the abuse no longer “works”.
But there is another reason.
4. Teshuva and Healing.
I recently listened to a shiur by the incredible Esther Baila Schwartz. A big focus was around teshuva, refining ourselves, and returning to our true nature.
Narcissists are human beings which means they are creations of Gd in the image of Gd. As such, they have within themselves, the benevolence of our creator. They have the capacity, however hidden, to return to this essence.
They cannot, however, have such an opportunity if we are intermittently reinforcing some of their narcissism with occasional engagement, as discusssed above.
As such, I am left to draw the following conclusion:
Whilst trying to be compassionate to myself, and spare myself the torture of exposure, disengagement is actually the only compassionate response for the narcissist.
The irony is not lost on me.
Cutting all responses, and extinguishing engagement attempts, may seem harsh but it’s the only opportunity the narcissist might ever have for remediation. For peace.
In finally realizing that all narcissistic behaviors will not yield a result, the narcissist is forced to reevaluate what healthy and “successful” behavior actually looks and feels like.
By forcing the narcissist into a state of helplessness, they actually become faced, likely for the very first time, with an opportunity to help themselves! To develop ways of engaging that are successful for both themself and the objection of intention.
5. Letting Go.
Something else I’ve found very, very helpful in this regard is word choice. A generous friend shared the idea with me that instead of deciding to “cut all ties” or “cut the narcissist out”, I should speak to myself about letting this person go.
This is a far gentler version of the same action.
I can let this person go with love and compassion, with positivity and light. The process can be natural and calm. It does not need to be a trauma.
6. The Litmus Test.
Finally, if all else fails, and you’re finding that your intellect and emotions are not in sync..
If you feel uncomfortable or violated but intellectually you are unsure why, and you think you should acquiesce to the narcissist’s request, use this litmus test:
Since having children I am able to protect myself more, simply by referring to them in my decision making. As the lifelong victim of a narcissist I struggle to recognize, let alone value, my own emotional boundaries; but if I reframe the scenario with reference to my own children, the answers are always crystal clear.
Very simply: would I ever do this to, or expect this of, my own child?
It never fails me.
Would I expect my child to do anything for me, physically or emotionally, that made him feel violated?
Would I expect my child to choose my wants and needs over those which foster a healthy relationship or marriage for her?
Would I expect my child to put my wants over the developmental needs of HIS, own, “one-day” child?
No, no, and no again!
I’ve also taken this example to the extreme:
What would I do if my child, one day, Gd-forbid, had a need to free herself from me?
The answer is harsh but simple: I would never ever want to do anything to hurt my child. No normal, healhty parent would. And so if I was the cause of the pain, and my child had a need to eliminate the source, I would, of-course oblige.
Does this mean it wouldn’t kill me inside? Of course not! Nothing could be more painful. But I am the mother and my wounds are not my children’s to bear or heal. And as such, two things would be true at the same time: I am in terrible pain to “loose” my child and my child needs me to be separate from him. Harsh but true.
7. Voldemort vs. Harry.
Just as I would make this painful sacrifice for my child, Gd forbid, I am finally ready to make a painful sacrifice for myself.
I’m reminded of the essence of the plot of Harry Potter. He must defeat the evil Lord Voldemort because of a prophecy that states: ‘neither can live while the other survives’.
This describes the narcissist and I.
My authentic self cannot live whilst being violated by the abuse and harassment. I cannot survive inside the feelings of violation, unhealthy penetration, and harassment.
The “narcissist-self” cannot survive without the constant parasitic stream of energy he craves through engagement with me - what Dr. Ramani call narcissistic supply. Like some sort of half life, he cannot live without surviving on, and draining me of, my life force.
Neither can live while the other survives.
It’s a fight to the death. A choice. Him or me. Life or death.
I choose myself. I choose to live.
8. My Personal Nisayon.
The last point I want to make, with regards to coping with a narcissist, is in the format of question and answer...
What if this is my nisayon in life? What if this is my personal challenge? Should I not be grateful that HBH has sent this challenge to me, as opposed to something “more” horrific like illness or death etc?
The answer, as with everything on this topic, is so simple and so complex.
Having endured narcissistic abuse for 33 years will always, always be my challenge. There will never be a day that I don’t walk with the wounds (most of them likely still uncovered) of growing up this way.
There will always be a void where that love and nurturing should have been. Or even, where nothing should have been. No abuse. Just silence and peace.
And, as much as I work on myself, there will always be guilt. Guilt can be crippling.
The opinions of others will plague me.
All of the results of this challenge and this life will plague me. The wound may heal but the scar is permanent.
This nisayon will always be mine to endure and grapple with. This is true whether or not I choose to let go of the physical person from my orbit of existence. I will never truly be free. Perhaps just in remission from active suffering.
I don’t have all the answers. They likely don’t even exist. My best friend often comments that the generation relevant to this story was raised by Holocaust survivors and that this is the pain and pathology inherited from, and imbedded into, the emotional DNA of our forefathers. Their nisayon. This is likely also true - and helps me to feel less alone.
But either way, I cannot endure the constant harassment any longer.
I am letting it go simply because it is too heavy to carry.