This is Part One of a three part article series on Coparenting with a Narcissist. Links to Parts 2 and 3 are available at the bottom of this article.
What is Narcissism?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder begins as a way of coping with psychological danger. Originating in childhood during the formation of the personality, it’s a psychological shield created by the child as a defense against intolerable emotional pain. The child, bereft of safe connections with caregivers, begins to fulfill their own need for affection and acceptance by inventing an imaginary self—rather like an imaginary friend.
This idealized version of themselves is super-strong, invulnerable, and unconditionally deserving of bountiful praise, love and approval. The child comes to depend on the imaginary self as the primary means of coping with unmet emotional needs. They can conjure up the construct like magic whenever they’re confronted with fear or pain, and it soothes them more reliably than their abusive caregivers.
Hiding a deeply wounded core identity, the imaginary self becomes increasingly important to the child over time and with use. For the child, it feels like they’ve found a secret weapon that makes them safe in an emotionally threatening reality.
The child may eventually lose conscious awareness of the real buried self and come to believe that they in fact are the imaginary self-construct. They then grow up into adult narcissists with an unrealistic sense of self-importance, a self-love inflated to the point of grandiosity. They believe that they are extra talented, morally infallible, and destined for recognition for their greatness even when they’re not unusually talented, they behave selfishly, or are acting cruelly.
The narcissist is incapable of acknowledging their personal flaws because to do so threatens the security of the false self’s perfection. This is why any expression of displeasure (especially from loved-ones) is met with denial.
A narcissist processes information through a mental filter. Only thoughts that reinforce the protective false identity are allowed to percolate through to conscious awareness. Narcissists will talk about their amazing achievements and surpassing cleverness ad nauseum as a day-to-day self-regulating mechanism, and they enjoy putting others down for the same reason. It’s a self-soothing impulse that makes them feel secure in their idealized identity; an identity that is far better than normal people and that can do no wrong.
The long buried anguish resulting from their early abuse is too terrifying to access consciously, and it’s held at bay only by focusing on the false self-construct. The idealized identity therefore occupies center stage for the narcissist, requiring constant upkeep and attention. Even with all the soothing self-talk and criticism of others, it is impossible for the narcissist to maintain the security of their assumed self-construct singlehandedly.
It is therefore necessary for the narcissist to receive regular external confirmation that they are, indeed, the invulnerable and wonderful imaginary self. Every other consideration, including the emotional and material well-being of a narcissist’s own children, must play SECOND FIDDLE to their all-consuming compulsion to protect and promote the false identity.
This is happening inside of the narcissist unconsciously, however, since the infallible identity isn’t allowed to experience fear or failure. The core self is abandoned, left to wither in the dark recesses of the subliminal mind, and emotional development is arrested.
Healing for the narcissist is not possible unless they willingly process their suppressed suffering and accept their vulnerable, frightened, and damaged core selves as their true identity. This they will not do. You can see how this would make co-parenting with a narcissist very challenging!
What are Narcissists like?
Here are some fast points of reference that may help you to get started piecing together what is happening to you:
• Narcissists need you to reflect back to them their own distorted self-image, and will go to great lengths to secure reliable sources of narcissistic supply.
• They can be very charismatic and alluring when they choose to be, and are usually highly skilled at drawing others in. This initial phase of the narcissistic dynamic has been called “love bombing” and it can feel really good.
• You may have been emotionally abused, yourself, and feel an irresistible compulsion to get back together with the narcissist, perhaps with hopes of showing them the way to healing and saving your family from the devastation of divorce. These feelings are very much like withdrawals from an addiction, and will subside as you see their behavior clearly and from a safe distance.
• Your intense emotional responses to manipulative provocation can make you look like ‘the crazy one.’ This is called ‘crazy-making.’
• Others (including the narcissist’s own children) are only important to them insofar as they are able to serve the function of bolstering the narcissist’s need for idealized-identity affirmation.
• Narcissists are naturally drawn to ‘shiny’ folks—the ones who are empathetic, generous, upbeat, higher achieving, and attractive. They prefer to associate with such people because it makes them feel important, but they are quick to envy any recognition that you may enjoy.
• The narcissist is, by necessity, unaware of their own self-obsession; they believe themselves to be who they profess themselves to be, i.e. selfless, uniquely talented, destined for fame/greatness, and deserving of better treatment than others.
• Narcissists will always blame someone else for any wrongdoing of their own—and will even assign admirable motives to their selfish behaviors. (“I’m teaching you a lesson in self-sufficiency by going to this concert…”)
• The narcissist will react with vehement denial at the slightest hint of a criticism, always blaming their hurtful behavior choices on others or on circumstances beyond their control. This tactic of single-minded deflection/distraction from their misdeeds is called ‘gas-lighting’, and it can cause you to question your own perception of reality. (“You’re not supportive of my having a healthy social life…it’s not normal!”)
• All healthy relationships have conflicts, but within the narcissistic dynamic any negative feedback related to the narcissist’s behavior is interpreted as a hostile attack on the idealized self-construct.
• The narcissist’s main goal in conflict resolution is not to improve the relationship by learning more about what makes you both feel secure—but rather to deflect a perceived attack at all cost and stop you from threatening their psychological safety.
• Narcissists will eventually grow bored with you and begin to seek new sources of emotional supply, usually blaming you for their abandonment. This is called the devaluation/discarding phase.
• They will enlist the affirmative support of others by trashing you in a ‘smear campaign’. If there’s any room for doubt about your being the one at fault in the dissolution of the relationship, the narcissist will undertake to ruin your reputation so completely that others (so they imagine) will view them as utterly blameless. They may also accuse you of having tricked them into being in a relationship or claim that you ‘aren’t who you seemed to be at first’.
• Narcissists collect admirers and followers. Their followers are like a harem of narcissistic supply sources that can be harvested as-needed, and since the narcissist doesn’t get too close to them, it’s easy to keep admirers admiring with little more than some well-placed flattery.
• Narcissists will take on a totally different personality in public than the one they show you in private. They may be cold, indifferent, sarcastic, or cruel behind closed doors, but in public they are likely to be breathtakingly charming and engaging.
• It makes the narcissist feel more real if you’re insecure about their love, so they’ll say and do things that inspire jealousy. Your insecurity serves to keep your emotions focused on pleasing and pursuing the affection of the narcissist.
• Infidelity is very common for narcissists. If caught, they will blame you for it or excuse their behavior as justified. “I was lonely.” “If you weren’t always so ___, I’d have come to you..."
• The narcissist feels entitled to a continuing flow of praise, gratitude, and affirmation from the people around them whether they deserve it or not.
• The constant need for affirmation of the false self is the central theme of everything they do. That’s why so many of their activities seem random or odd. Their real motives—self-protection, self-aggrandizement, and personal gratification—are largely unconscious.
• The intelligent narcissist is VERY convincing when it comes to saying ‘all the right things’. They may seem to be truly apologetic or regretful when you have a problem, but the hurtful behaviors will not change.
The narcissistic dynamic is a very painful and confusing pattern to live in for a child. Even separated parents who are embroiled in the cycle of narcissistic abuse are less available to connect emotionally, and children begin to compensate for their unmet emotional needs in unhealthy ways. In this way, unchecked, a legacy of heart-pain is passed down in perpetuity. If you've found your way to this series of articles, chances are you're having a hard time dealing with the stress of parenting around an emotional engagement with a narcissist. It is impossibly overwhelming at times, but I hope that the information gathered here is as helpful to you as it has been to me! I invite you to read my personal story in the next article.