Crazymakers. We’ve seen them in sitcoms, and if you’ve dated one, you know how passionate it can be, dating a narcissist. There’s a rush of aliveness, like hanging on the wing of an airplane with a parachute on your back. The maelstrom of emotions brings the thought “wow, this is so intense, I guess it’s love“.
For those who have any existential malaise or some sense of internal lack, the intensity is a powerful allure. That rush feels alive. That’s what the first few months of dating a narcissist felt like.
First off, unlike most posts out there, I don’t view the word narcissist with a negative vibe. They are human beings. A narcissist will have swaths of internal pain, incredibly unstable emotions, and ways of managing those emotions that can hurt and destabilise others. It’s the only way they know, and without acting like that they’d likely fall apart. I’m for balanced compassion, not blame. But as anyone knows, dating one can turn into a train wreck.
Those “How to Recognize a Narcissist” posts out there?
If you’ve been on Facebook at all this last decade you’ve likely seen posts about recognizing a narcissist. There’s this Psychology Today one. And this, where it’s not as obvious as you think. Or this. They’re all great and insightful – after you’ve already broken up. They’re useful in recognizing one subtype – the narcissist who is also a dumb-ass psychopath. Most people would usually stay away from those anyway.
The average narcissist is a very hurt but well-meaning person who doesn’t want to be completely self-centered and really tries not to be. They will also read these articles and complain about how they’ve been hurt from narcissists they’ve dated themselves. That is often true. It’s simply that their past trauma prevents them from seeing their own behavior clearly.
I started dating Narcissa (not her real name) about half a year ago. I felt a spark, and so did she. I was in a loving, open relationship already which wasn’t perfect, but still had an incredible amount of love and caring in the dynamic – the most I’d ever known. I introduced Narcissa to my long-time partner and tried to be honest and caring to both of them.
Part of why I’ve been attracted to polyamory has been growth. Different parts of me come out with different people, and I’m always curious about making relationships healthier. Narcissa was great at pointing out any codependency with my partner, ostensibly with our best interests at heart. At first, I was glad for a third pair of eyes. She wasn’t wrong; there was “emotional violence” in my existing relationship, referring to tone of voice or subtle unintentional threats based on control for safety. We both have our own attachment disorders, which I wrote about last year.
Getting insights about my faults and my partner’s flaws did help with our growth, but a narcissist is incapable of admitting their own faults. This led to a cycle of covert blame and projection. In an increasingly uneasy sea of control dynamics and flying judgments, I began to act out in ways that I wouldn’t have normally. Narcissists project their unhealed parts onto you, their most despised and unconscious beliefs about themselves – because they simply can’t take responsibility for them.
Of course, I have my unhealed parts too. Some of them were clearly asking to be looked at.
Looking back now, I can see many narcissistic characteristics in her: intense preoccupation with looks, clothing, and a haughty mannerism (somatic narcissism). Cerebral narcissism was there too, guiding conversations back to her areas of expertise while speaking with the confidence of a professor. Making grandiose gestures to me – always with strings attached.
Ironically, she was an expert at the theory of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), but when her own emotions were too much to handle, her nonverbal communication exploded. There was a huge cognitive dissonance between the reasonable-sounding words from her mouth, and her tone and body language, which conveyed threat, distrust and a need for control.
These patterns, of course, only revealed themselves over months. That’s why those articles were useless.
My mother was narcissistic, so a part of me is still used to taking care of that kind of ego. Sometimes I joke about what dating is like for me: “Ok, let’s get real. You show me your DSM labels and I’ll show you mine. Oh, Narcissism? Like my mom? That’s HOT!”
That usually gets a laugh because it’s true. Sad – but true.
Growing up with a narcissistic parent made that rush of adrenaline normalized. My survival depended on managing her needs, not mine. If her needs weren’t met, she could suddenly cut off or threaten her connection to me. As Alice Miller described beautifully in “The Drama of the Gifted Child”, I used my sensitivity and intelligence to play parent to my parent, and so learned to ignore my needs, desires, honest thoughts, and emotions.
But because those childhood habits are ingrained in the emotional (limbic) brain, many of them are preconscious. When those survival instincts get fired up with a similar person, it all comes back at once. There’s that rush of adrenaline. And more than that, familiarity. Familiarity always feels good in a way, even if it feels bad at the same time. I remember telling Narcissa it felt like home with her. It took me a while to understand that this it wasn’t a good thing.
For those who haven’t jumped out of a plane (I did it for my 30th birthday), it’s a huge rush of adrenaline. Before you jump, you have to walk out on the wings of a Cessna, then drop your legs and hang on to the struts before letting go, looking down 3500 feet. Part of your instincts are telling you that you could die – but it is so alive. All messages are on overdrive, filling the body with chemicals, so it creates a huge “rush” feeling. That rush can be addictive, just like amphetamines or cocaine.
The shadow side of the adrenaline override is that other more cognitive brain functions don’t work as well. You can react, but it’s impossible to step back and see things clearly.
Isn’t that what obsessive love feels like?
The phrase “wow, this is so intense, I guess it’s love” says something too. In psychology, it’s called the Two Factor Theory of Emotion, or in this case, misattribution of arousal. In a famous experiment, a moderately attractive girl asked a questionnaire and gave her number for any further questions to random group of men, both in a normal place and in a dangerous place – in this case, on the wobbling Capilano Suspension Bridge looking down hundreds of feet. Those on the bridge who already had their adrenaline circuit activated were significantly more likely to think there was a “connection” and call her back than those in a neutral environment.
If someone gives you the jibbies, it’s love, right? Well, it’s easy to think it is, even if it isn’t. Our brains are trained to.
Our brain is a neural network. That means it doesn’t work like an algorithm. When intense stimulation arises, especially on multiple fronts, we operate on gut instincts – often simply from the loudest input. The cognitive mind comes in afterwards to give a label to the response – which may be completely wrong, such as using the word “love”.
So what to do that would create real change? I can’t change my past. I can’t immediately change my body’s response. I’m not enlightened; I don’t yet have a fully-developed sense of self, and so can get into codependent or appeasing dynamics, because I like to help people. A checklist of narcissistic traits won’t help; you don’t see them all in a person on the first date. So what’s left?
That’s where body (somatic) awareness comes in.
I’ve been into mindfulness (especially in India, as I wrote) and somatic awareness for many years. So as this relationship unfolded, I was curious about what my body was telling me. I began to notice different messages:
- A “walking on eggshells” feeling that this was a person who could erupt or cut off quickly. This was both unsafe and a rush.
- A “recognition” quality of a familiar dynamic. Because of my past, I knew her body signs, and so I was good at pleasing her and showing her affection. It feels good to do this.
- A “pressure” to feel, show, and think certain ways. Because of fairly instantaneous body reactions from her, my body learned quickly what states led to her “fight” response and what to a form of connection.
- Over time, a tiredness. A recognition of how much emotional effort it took to do the above.
These are not things I could have learned from a Psychology Today article. It has taken me years of tracking body states with emotions and relationship dynamics, and taking the time to sit with each one of them. Practice made me able to separate the inputs, and more importantly, to recognize when the “rush” was so strong that subtler messages were certain to be discarded.
Again, that “rush” was linked to not feeling safe. My body couldn’t truly relax – even though there was something comfortable in the familiarity. It took time to trust that I needed that feeling of safety. I deserved it. Why is it so hard to know this?
These days, we are bombarded by more manipulative messages than we can count consciously. Social media sites are deliberately constructed to manipulate users to spend as much time online through little dopamine rewards, and then we are trained to choose short-term rewards over long-term benefit. Charismatic leaders can sway millions towards pseudoscience, online outrage, or voting against their interests. I know I’m fairly educated and discerning, but I also know how easy it could be for me to be manipulated into making choices not in my best interests. This doesn’t mean I’m defective – it means I’m human. I’m a social animal, and we’re built to be influenced by other humans in a multitude of subconscious manners.
That’s why you can read up all you like about characteristics of a narcissist, and the only help that will give you is your mind giving you a logical reason after the fact about why the whole thing blew up like a mine placed in a manure pile. The trick is recognizing the dynamic of a relationship as it is happening. And that comes from the body.
My body was saying simple things, which I ignored: I feel unsafe. I’m being treated like an enemy, or just a resource to be used. You don’t trust me. You aren’t curious about me.
At the beginning these messages were mixed – and confused – with the excitement of attraction. Now I’ve learned to step back, give my body time and space to process, and recognize that “rush” includes the real message that this dynamic isn’t safe – or respectful.
Which means that now I can say “oh, I recognize this. No.”
The relationship didn’t build up to a huge explosion. I just started listening to my body saying “no”. No to managing her emotional turmoil in a 30-minute phone call before bed every single night. No to one sided listening. I asked her to acknowledge her body language and distrust, so there wasn’t a cognitive dissonance. No to the assumption that intensity was love.
She pushed back and continued her demands until one night, something seemed to break. I saw in her eyes she was in overwhelm – deep feelings of helplessness and trauma. Suddenly it wasn’t a power struggle any more, but two human beings talking to each other, both with pain, both not knowing what to do. I relaxed more, hoping we could connect from a more honest and vulnerable place. Perhaps she could be honest about what she was defending inside.
But it was too much for her – she broke it off the next day, and her attitude towards me spun a full 180 degrees, switching dramatically from a “love” to someone to be deathly afraid of. Whatever I’d triggered in her, she absolutely could not face. Whatever we’d built did not include trust to go there, under any circumstances.
In some ways the experience was humiliating for me, feeling how controlled I could be by eruptive reactions, and how I still haven’t developed a grounded, stable core sense of self. But humbling as it was, it unearthed some truths that needed to be acknowledged. In my relationship with my partner, we avidly saw past codependency and emotional violence, coming from the desire to control the other instead of accept. We were both mature enough and growth-centered to want to see how our dynamic could improve.
There was hurt. Hurt is a hard thing to move beyond, because it is an assault on safety and trust. Both of us were able to allow that to be there – in our bodies – and still have a connection. Connection is about honesty, both with one’s self and others, and trust and bonding builds (and rebuilds) from that. As I’ve written before, real bonding is different from commitment – it builds from an in the moment trust that nothing is suppressed or controlled.
And it has. We’re travelling in India now, discovering a different kind of trust. It helps that there’s space and time here. Both of us are doing plenty of somatic meditations – connecting to ourselves more fully and then approaching each other from that. This has created a sense of possibility, allowing change of habits that drew me into pleasing a narcissist.
Everyone can be narcissistic at times – I have a saying that enough stress turns anyone into a narcissist, so it’s no wonder we see those behaviours frequently in this over-stressed world. But being present in my body, learning its subtle messages, has both made me less stressful and less drawn in by crazymakers. It’s also opened me up to what real connection is. It’s connection that doesn’t have that “rush” – but still feels alive. An aliveness coming from relaxation and openness.
And deep connection, as Johann Hari’s latest book “Lost Connections” describes, is what we all live for. And need.