Individuals who fall at the unhealthy end of the narcissism spectrum, as survivors know, follow a predictable pattern in relationships. The first phase is idealization, followed by devaluation and ultimately discard, often circling back to the first stage and so on, until we break free.
Becoming aware of any clues that a relationship may be blighted and that we are engaging with an individual with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a key part to ensure we get wise as soon as possible, and disentangle ourselves from what will surely follow in this extremely damaging and repetitive pattern with the abusive narcissist.
One way to identify the possibility that we may be entangled, is to pay close attention to the language that is used when communicating. Interestingly, and an additional sign that you are likely to be involved with a narcissist, the language and communication style will change starkly depending on which phase of the abuse cycle you are in. This will also be accompanied by a mind-boggling array of strategies applied to ensure your enmeshment. These articles will look at what these signs are in each of the phases.
Pay close attention to these clues! We can rely on them to alert us that something might be amiss at the very beginning. Although tricky to pull ourselves from the addled and bedazzled state induced by love-bombing, we must remember the adage: if someone seems too good to be true, then they probably are! Perfection is a myth people, and the appearance of it, a big, fat warning sign that something is not quite right…
On the other hand, don’t forget that we all sit somewhere on the narcissistic spectrum. Damage from narcissistic abuse leaves scars, including challenges with trusting people. Be aware of this, and don’t cut someone off if they happen to be human and show one or two of the signs every now and then. It is the overall pattern you should be alarmed by, particularly when combined with the communication signs of the devaluing and discard phases which will be explored in Parts 2 & 3 of this series.
Listen to what is being said. Even if you try to hide from hearing it, listen to your gut – intuition has the best ears around.
During the idealization phase of the abuse cycle, the narcissist is focused on ensnaring you. Frequent and highly complimentary words are used to capture you. Love-bombing is replete in this stage with the narcissist charming you with swift and intense professions of adoration and rushing a sense of intimacy (Roark, 2013). This will also be supported by often potent sexual intimacy, also occurring a little faster than it would with healthy partners.
The sweetest nectar
The narcissist undertakes to demonstrate, that they appreciate and understand you in a way that no one else can. Whilst the narcissist is devoid of empathy for others, they are also paradoxically gifted in understanding the emotions, in particular, emotional weaknesses of others and use this knowledge to tailor messages. Their abilities are so well developed, they will tell you precisely what you want to hear. Like magic.
I recall sage advice from a therapist when seeking to break the bonds of a relationship with a narcissist on this point. I was trying to conquer the belief that he knew me better than anyone and therefore perhaps we were indeed meant to be (I know, I know, familiar right?). She said: “Ah, Maggie, yes, this is what he does. He has given you the sweetest nectar you have ever tasted. He made it just for you, to satiate all your secret desires. He did this though, to drug you, to have you in this very spot, struggling with the very idea of breaking free.”
Don’t get to this point people! This nectar is one of the most powerful drugs around and a heartbreaking addiction to recover from. “Why does she/he stay?” they ask – this is one of the primary reasons.
To identify the magic ingredients for your nectar, they will demonstrate an unusual level of attentiveness through listening and seeming emotional support. This is seeming gift of considerate focus is to gather information and to fully understand weaknesses to fully refine that initial mask to be who you need them to be. The coercion and manipulation at play in this stage is applied to secure and control you through irresistible yet false closeness (Munoz Centifanti, Thomson, & Kwok, 2016). Be cautious with what you share until you know who you are engaging with.
‘Be my reflection’: mirroring
In all of this, adulation and praise will be extravagantly applied. This is a function of ‘mirroring’ where the narcissist projects desired traits they believe they themselves possess (which are of course exceptional and unique in nature), onto you. In this they seek to secure reciprocal adoration and admiration by virtue of the praise lavished on you (Hinrich, 2016; Mahoney, Rickspoone, & Hull, 2016). It is also about possessing another who reflects back the same coveted traits and goals, to reinforce the belief of superiority held by the narcissist of their own selves (Hinrich, 2016; Lukowitsky & Pincus, 2013; Zachar, 2006).
Pay attention to how they speak about others in their lives, particularly those from the past and previous relationships. NPD is a personality disorder with central characteristics being impairments to the self and interpersonal functioning (Lukowitsky & Pincus, 2013; Roark, 2013). Frequent features appearing include many short-term relationships, and negative portrayal of all past partners. The depiction of exes will be extremely damning offering a glimpse into their capacity for blame, rage, and persecution. This is necessary for the narcissist to maintain their elevated views of the self and to excuse for themselves their destructive behaviour (Roark, 2013). The narcissist will use this strategy also to underscore your specialness by contrasting this with all the evil-doers of their past. Don’t be fooled. Know that what you hear now about many others, will shortly be shared far and wide about you, unless you get Narc Wise, and get out while you can.
A sampling of tells
- “This is like a dream. I can’t believe this is happening, you’re everything I could ever have asked for.”
- “I never thought I would find someone as perfect as you.”
- “There is nothing you could possibly do that would make me think you are anything less than perfect.”
- “I don’t want to spend time with any of my friends or family, there is only you.”
- “I’ve never met anyone who gets me like you do” – this would also be accompanied by things like “because you are so intelligent” (subscript being that it takes a special intelligence to truly appreciate their astounding excellence).
- “We are so lucky to have found one another, we are not like other people, we are special.”
- “I can’t believe we have so much in common, it’s so rare for me to find special people like me.”
- “That b*tch was crazy!”
- “He never did anything worthwhile, a complete waste of space he was, he sooooo didn’t deserve to have me in his life.”
Some of these statements may sound ok-ish and could be shared by a healthy individual genuinely seeking to establish a relationship. Some are clearly a little funky from the start!
A clue for identifying when the words and behaviours are a little suspicious or when they are at the ok-ish end of things, is when they start rolling in immediately, as in sometimes within the first 24 hours. This is what is meant by rushed intimacy.
It’s hard to question something that we want to believe is as perfect as we are being told it is. That nectar is often the most delicious thing we have ever tasted. Don’t get hooked.
There is some truth in what you are being fed: you ARE gorgeous, you ARE special, and you ARE so very worthy of love. That is precisely why you are being pursued by the narcissist: because you shine. Thing is, they want to steal that sparkle. Don’t let them, it’s yours and yours alone. Share your sparkle only with those who understand that shining requires light rather than darkness.
These signs will change as the narcissist moves into the next phase which is about devaluing you. Communication clues will be explored more in Part 2 – The mask starts to slip: devaluing phase.
Hinrichs, J. (2016). Inpatient therapeutic assessment with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Journal of Personality Assessment, 98(2), 111-123.
Lukowitsky, M.R., & Pincus, A.L. (2013). Interpersonal perception of pathological narcissism: A social relations analysis. Journal of Personality Assessment, 95(3), 261-273.
Mahoney, D.M., Rickspoone, L., & Hull, J.C. (2016). Narcissism, parenting, complex trauma: The emotional consequences created for children by narcissistic parents. Journal of Counselling & Professional Psychology, 5(1), 45-59.
Munoz Centifanti, L.C., Thomson, N.D., & Kwok, A.H. (2016). Identifying the manipulative mating methods associated with psychopathic traits and BPD features. Journal of Personality Disorders, 30(6), 721-741.
Roark, S.V. (2013). Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Effect on relationships. Alabama Nurse, 39(4), 12-14.
Zachar, P. (2006). Pathological Narcissism and its relationship to empathy and transcendence. The Pluralist, 1(3), 89-105.