One of the distinguishing traits of Narcissism from other personality disorders/traits is the individual’s inability to truly feel and exchange feelings of empathy. Rather than having “feelings,” they merely register disconnected “intensities” which gives the impression of someone on the Narcissism spectrum as being emotionally stunted. Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of narcissism is that individuals struggle to understand how their behavior impacts others. Unless they are mandated to attend treatment, most won’t be lined up to embark on a journey of introspection and self discovery with a therapist, especially if they don’t recognize that there is a problem within themselves. Pat MacDonald, author of the paper "Narcissism in the Modern World," shares, “Traditionally, it is very difficult to reverse narcissistic personality disorder. It would take a long time and a lot of work.” Clearly, some may be in denial about their issues, and more still are fully aware of them and even embrace them. Narcissists are not always easily detected and often appear shy, coy, very polite, professional, and courteous. They gain the victims trust by mirroring and projecting the traits of those they wish to emulate.
The narcissist may bring traits of co-dependency into the relationship through demands, defenses, projections, and boundary infractions. Individuals who are highly empathic and/or have borderline tendencies/traits are more likely to engage in relationships with individuals with narcissistic traits and/or NPD disorder. One of the distinguishing traits of Borderline Personality Disorder from other personality disorders/traits is the individual’s anxious/neurotic preoccupation with alleviating their anxious attachment style by seeking empathic emotional validation. Individuals with BPD can feel empathy, however they may struggle with issues of co-dependency as a result of seeking to fill their emotional void through another person.
One symptom common to those with BPD is chronic feelings of emptiness. To counter these feelings, he or she may use sex as a means of trying to fill a vast void. These individuals may protect themselves from rejection/abandonment by acting so agreeable to others, via their mirroring capacity or through engaging in sex as a way to reinforce connectedness. For the narcissist, sexual partners may be characterized as trophies used to enhance his or her self-esteem and self-worth. Rather than building an emotional attachment before engaging in sex, they may simply be seeking pleasure rather than trying to bond and build a relationship. These transgressions set the stage for codependent behaviors and anxious attachment for the borderline personality type.
There is a symbiotic relationship between Narcissus and Echo, and because of it’s predatory relationship, it is one that cannot be sustained long term. A relationship with individuals showing marked narcissistic traits will require others who will provide them with an ongoing narcissistic supply. Individuals with borderline traits/disorder may enter into relationships with a great variety of people, though at the core there is a tendency to choose situations in which unrequited love will be the outcome. For those with NPD, a lack of emotional connectedness and closeness results in a lack of long-term relationships. Both individuals with traits of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) engage in maladaptive behaviors resulting in harmful relationship outcomes.
In the film Listen Up Phillip, a narcissistic writer, Philip, played by Jason Schwartzman is involved in a parasitic relationship with his girlfriend Ashley, played by Elizabeth Moss. The relationship seems unfathomable considering how little he actually cares for her, and yet still needs to harbor the illusion of being humanly connected. Philip enters and exits Ashley’s life throughout the film. On one occasion he suddenly leaves her for several months to focus on writing in the country while casually saying, “I hope this will be good for us, but especially me,” while waltzing out the door. The film shows Ashley's emotional roller coaster in the wake of finally deciding to ban Philip from her life for good. At first averse to the notion of being actually alone, as opposed to figuratively alone, Ashley experiences depression and disinterest in her work. When she finally comes out on the other side of their break-up, which Philip deems merely a temporary separation while he accepts a teaching job at a college upstate, she is stronger than ever and finally able to cut ties with Philip. This may be the most redeeming aspect of the film - the fact that at least one person experiences a metamorphosis.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder describes individuals who consciously feel superior to others (at least this is what they tell themselves). Individuals struggle with a strong discomfort with feeling vulnerable and a lack of empathic connection with others. Narcissists choose their lovers based on whether the person enhances their self-esteem. This ongoing need is referred to as a narcissistic supply. As this need continues, there is little to no incentive to wait to get to know a person better. The things that attract a Narcissist are not strong redeeming character traits or compatibility, but may focus on if a person has high status in their eyes. The experience of loving an individual with NPD can be emotionally traumatic and confusing. Since their real interest in relationships are shallow, they often leave relationships as suddenly as they began them.
Borderline Personality Disorder is a complex disorder and involves many aspects of the human psyche. The poor relationship one has with themselves is mainly due to a combination of their upbringing and interactions with others at an incredibly early age and their genetics. With borderline personality disorder, the individual fears abandonment in close relationships and cycles through an anxious attachment style and extreme emotions. The emotional intensity surrounding this fear can lead to inadvertently enabling narcissistic behaviors in those for whom love, admiration, validation, attention, and empathy are sought. The fear of abandonment is irrational for those with BPD but when they engage in relationships with individuals on the narcissism spectrum they may find these fears to be valid. This is especially so when they form quick strong attachments and resist any information that suggests that they should detach because someone may be an inappropriate mate. The idea of detaching brings up their underlying fears of abandonment, so they find reasons not to leave. Narcissistic and Borderline individuals want different things in relationships. Narcissists want continuous self-esteem enhancement and Borderlines want continuous unconditional love.
If you are in a toxic and co-dependent relationship, and find that you are enabling narcissistic or borderline traits in another, it’s important to start protecting yourself:
- Don’t be quick to be swept away by quick, intense romantic attachments without looking very closely at the other person’s real personality.
- It’s important to be honest with yourself and evaluate if this relationship is mutually empathic. Is there an equal emotional give and take? Does this person see you as their equal and not a source of narcissistic supply or an unhealthy codependency?
- Know who you’re dealing with. Some individuals with personality disorders may react with anger, resentment, or revenge when you confront them. Challenging their narcissistic supply or disagreeing with them may become a narcissistic injury, which may illicit a strong negative reaction.
- It’s important to be confident, and to assertively set clear boundaries.
- Calmly and carefully explain to them how their behaviors and words affect other people.
- Respectfully ask them to put themselves in the place of the other person.
- Help them to see behavioral expectations that should be obvious.
- They are capable of intellectually understanding their behavior outcomes, but this is very difficult for them. It is hard work and requires a firm and serious life commitment and the tenacity to openly discuss insecurities with a partner and therapist on an ongoing basis.
Listen to your intuition and refuse the temptation to overanalyze and diagnose. If you suspect someone is being abusive towards you and you are in a situation that is potentially dangerous, be proactive and take the steps to remove yourself from this relationship. Refer to a mental health provider and other qualified professionals to help you identify and work on changing your own self-defeating behavioral patterns. And in the process of healing ask yourself, what made you put up with the abuse in the first place?
- Alloway, T., Runac, R., Qureshi, M., Kemp, G. Is facebook linked to selfishness? Investigating the relationships among social media use, empathy, and narcissism. Soc. Netw. 2014;3:150–158.
- Association between physiological oscillations in self-esteem, narcissism and internet addiction: A cross-sectional study http://www.psy-journal.com/article/ S0165-1781(17)30425-0/references
- Levine, Amir, and Rachel Heller. Attached: the New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find - and Keep - Love. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.
- Lewis, Thomas, et al. A General Theory of Love. Vintage Books, 2001.
- Bender, L. (Producer), &. Perry, Alex Ross. (12014). Listen Up Philip [Faliro House Productions]. United States.
Nadine Burgos is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in prioritizing and taking care of your mental health, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.