How to Survive a Malignant Narcissist

Many, many women – and far too many men – know what it feels like to live under the thumb of a malignant narcissist.   This is the truth: A very small portion of the population is devoid of empathy and stalks other humans like prey, uses them for their own purposes or merely dehumanizes and neglects them.   They do not relate. They do not change. They do not see the light. Ever.

Survivors of malignantly narcissistic fathers or stepfathers, mothers or stepmothers; survivors of abusive siblings or partners know this. Whether consciously or subconsciously. We know, on a cellular level, in our bodies as well as our minds, what it feels like to be controlled by that certain type of person. Some of us have been, for whole lifetimes, bereft of the words for this feeling. Without a name or a label for it. But we know it in our bones.

Now, with the promise of a malignant narcissist at the helm of our country, that feeling is present for all of us. The ones for whom this is not their first rodeo – the survivors – the trigger this election has unleashed is profound and relentless. Every news story rings with the danger. He is here. He is powerful and he is unchecked.

Trauma therapists know that after a trigger come the automatic reactions. Muscle tension, shortness of breath, intrusive thoughts, surges of fear, relationship disruption, failure to perform basic self-care, numbing, dissociation, self-blame, generalized fear, rage, feelings of powerlessness, anhedonia (the inability to enjoy things.)

All these descriptions render clinical the special flavor of that trigger experience. That feeling in our bones, the painful scars of abuse survived, tingling with presence. Like the way a rainy day makes a formerly broken bone ache. That rainy day is here. And it is not going away.

Americans have lived, since the Bay of Pigs without a threat of war on our soil. Many of us have felt deeply trusting and at ease. America is safe. Others of us have traveled and lived abroad.   Our foreign friends told us the tearful stories of narcissists in charge, the effects of hatred and genocide on Bosnia, Rwanda and the like. Precious few Americans are still alive to tell the stories of the Nazi Holocaust, though their families urge generations to never forget. But the survivors of narcissists in this country alone know the score. We know what the narcissist is capable of.

Here is what we know.

Before you reach the place where you accept it, you will fantasize that he will change. You will tell yourself it’s not that bad. You will take responsibility for all the things you have done that made his behavior possible. You will put your head in the sand. You will shut down. You will rage inside and say nothing outside. You will keep to yourself how terrible it feels and only share a version you believe is for public consumption. You will be invalidated by those who only see his charm and magnetism and you will believe you are alone. That you have no power.

You will do this, possibly, for a long time. And each day that you do it, you will feel him erode your sense of self, your sense of agency, your belief in the power of justice to work its magic.

And you will see no way out.

Traumatized people are tired. I work with them every day, so I know. But they are wise. They have been tested. And they have some advice for us during this time. A time that tries men’s souls. So I speak for them when I say this.

There is a way out. Here it is:

Know what you are dealing with.

Do not rest in the fantasy that he will change.

Separate from his voice, resist fear and hatred and protect those who are most vulnerable.

Never, never blame yourself.

You didn’t ask for this.

It was his job not to exercise terror in the first place. It is part of the human compact.

Find your humanity, deep in your core, where it has lived since the day you were born.

Feel your feelings and allow them to guide you.

Fan the flames of courage when they appear within.

Connect with safe people and stand up.

Stand up.


And in these ways, you will be free.

God Bless America.




The End of Toxic Narcissism

I really want to write about narcissism.  What a loaded word!  Our current political climate has recently opened up all kinds of discussion – on social media, in the blogosphere, in the mainstream media –  about narcissism.  I guess it’s helpful to have more open dialogue about how we should – and shouldn’t – treat each other.  In my work, though that discussion with my clients has always been front and center.

All human beings have, at the very least, healthy narcissism.  We all have to value our own needs enough to wake up in the morning and take a shower, feed ourselves breakfast and resist the onslaught of messages about everyone else’s needs long enough to take care of our own.  In my perfect world, every adult could look back at their childhood and say, “my primary attachment figure – the parent person I was closest to – took care of their own needs enough for them to then turn their kind, patient and boundaried attention to my needs.  They weren’t perfect, but they were there most of the time when I needed it.  They saw me and liked what they saw.  They wanted me to feel proud of myself and lovable.  And they gave me the space to learn slowly, making my mistakes along the way.  They reminded me that, even though they hope I’ll strive to learn and grow, I’m good enough just they way I am.”

That’s my perfect world.  The world, my friends, is imperfect.

Across the spectrum from healthy narcissism, is Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  We think it is related to a deeply ashamed sense of self originating in childhood but what we know it is that is characterized by a mask of ultraconfidence  and extreme vulnerability to the slightest criticism.   If that’s how you travel through the world, you’re probably really smooth and really mean.

Many of my clients enter my office with a story of a parent who may not even technically meet the criteria for the full blown personality disorder, but who – when the client was small and helpless – was charming, was never wrong, would not tolerate the client’s childhood anger, frustration or disappointment, who acted as if everything the client did – positive or negative – was a reflection on the parent (see this article for more explanation about how this plays out in families.)  My clients describe feeling sad and scared and never good enough.

Yup.  As you would.

But while those conditions are damaging for a child there is no clear villain in this story.  It would be easy to call the villain the parent and you’d be the closest to the truth.  It’s certainly not the kid.

But who is the kid?  The narcissistic parent was once a kid.  And then they had a kid.  And that kid grew up and had a kid (see where this is going?)  Hurt people, hurt people.  And narcissists, deep down, are very hurt, ashamed children in grown up bodies.   So many of my clients, even as adults, want deeply to heal their parents, to be loved by them, to change their behavior so that the dream of connection can be realized.  They struggle with the notion of seeing their parents as having been wrong in that story.  Why?  Because as I often say, “we are wired to believe our parents.”  So they’re left with that feeling of shame that sounds like, “Something is just wrong with me.”

(For more on that watch this Ted Talk with Brene Brown.)

There is a cycle of shame playing out in the world. Shame happens but if we pretend we don’t feel it, it tends to steer how we treat each other, and with a steady diet of it, it’s toxic. How will it end?  I think I know.  Though the goal is a lofty one, I get to walk toward that goal with my clients every day.  It will be ended by the survivors of narcissistic parenting – the ones who are healthy enough to dig into their own therapeutic work –  saying, “it ends here.”

Here’s what that sometimes looks like in my office:   I start with a bold assumption.  If we want kids to grow up emotionally healthy, parents have to put their kids’ emotional needs first.  No kid is responsible for making their parents happy.  (Sound obvious?  Not if you had a narcissistic parent.)

Next, together, we shine light on the childhood violations.  The times when clients were shamed or frightened.  Then we say what may never have been said. “I remember this or that hurt as a little person; my hurt matters; I didn’t deserve it; it wasn’t my fault.”  We ‘right the ship’ a little, right there.

I help clients to imagine their child selves and say (over and again in manifold ways), “I love you; I hear you; I’m sorry you were hurt; you’re safe; I will take care of you now.”

It sounds like just words but actually, it’s a habit you can develop and use as a very effective tool.  I love Kristen Neff’s work for explaining why and how to use it.

We work on how clients can be for themselves and for others – especially their children –  what they needed their parents to be for them.  That part can be hard.  Shame bubbles up about ways they might have hurt their kids that mirror ways they were hurt.  But that’s where shame helps us.  In tiny doses, if we can acknowledge it, it keeps us from doing that “thing” again.   It helps us repair rifts in relationship.  So together, we hold shame gently and let it do its work, while keeping the self-judgement reasonable.   We are all only human, after all.

What is all this?  It is good work.   It can feel too slow.  There is grief.  There is healing.  It’s courageous as hell.

And then there is change.  Change in the ways clients think and feel about themselves.  Change in the ways they talk to themselves.  Change in the ways they tell others “no” and tell others “yes” and tell others, “I love you.”

But the most important change of all is that my amazing, heroic clients can finally say to themselves, “There is nothing wrong with me.”  And by saying so, with compassion at the helm, they break the cycle of shame for their one family.   The goal is lofty.  But I’m sticking with it.  We shape each other by how we treat each other.  It’s darn important.