The spell of the narcissist

This time of year, always gets me thinking of all things spooky. The nights are drawing in, pumpkins being carved, and scary stories told around log fires.  I thought about taking more of a psychological slant this Halloween holiday. That being the spooky spell we can sometimes fall under when in the presence of a narcissist. 

But first, let’s get a bit clarity around narcissism. 

The word itself originates from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful young man who fell in love with his own reflection marking his ultimate demise. Echo, a female admirer of Narcissus was so upset by his rejection that she withdrew from the world and wasted away. We could say Echo was certainly under the spell of Narcissus and alas it proved to be fatal, such is the power the spell can weave on someone. 

The main traits for narcissism include being self-absorbed, arrogant, lacking empathy and having an inflated sense of self-worth. Narcissists often boost their own self-esteem by either aggrandising or denigrating other people. One clear indication of when you’re in the company of a narcissist is that you feel like an object and not a human being. The other person just isn’t connecting with you, instead they are using you for their own means. 

Casting the spell

A recent study has shown that the greatest consequence of narcissism is the suffering of others close to them. Just like with poor Echo in the Greek myth, it can be incredibly easy to fall under the spell a narcissist casts. 

Narcissists are master manipulators.  They need the people around them to bolster their self-esteem and so having control in relationships is important to them. Their attention in relationships is absolutely conditional based upon whether their selfish and insecure needs are met. 

The narcissist spell can be pretty seductive initially, but the personal impact can weigh heavy and really hurt us in the long-term. 

Alas I have a fair amount of personal experience of playing Echo so I know how easy it can be to collude with narcissists. Their need to be in the spotlight nicely mirrored by own preference to remain in the background (a role established in childhood). It was not unusual to find myself in the role of the supportive best friend (or doormat). I quickly abandoned my own needs, ran errands for them, listened to their countless dramas for hours and hours and overall felt completely drained of energy. I lost sight of myself, with the narcissist becoming the lead in my own life. My personal boundaries had been breached so many times I couldn’t tell where or what they were anymore. 

Breaking the spell

The first step in breaking the spell is to reduce contact with the narcissistic person as much as possible. Ideally exit the relationship, but if this isn’t possible (say if there are family ties), then try to reduce your exposure to the person. For example, don’t have your time with them as open-ended, have another appointment (real or fictional) that you need to attend. Try to meet maybe on neutral territory and limit the time to an activity, a walk, a film, a meal etc. Spending less time in their company will help you gain perspective and stop you feeling quite so drained. Also putting down some practical boundaries, indicates to them that you are a separate person with a life of your own and not just around for their use/enjoyment. I have sometimes found once I start putting down these boundaries (and very importantly holding to them), the narcissistic person quickly loses interest in me as their Echo, they wander off and find a replacement. I am no longer playing their game and so they look to recruit a new player. 

Another important step towards breaking the narcissistic spell is to get informed about this very particular way of being. There are very good reasons why people become narcissistic and it’s not because they fundamentally believe they are truly fabulous beings, but it’s the opposite. Their outward narcissism is a smoke screen for the wounded and painful parts of themselves. This is often created during childhood in response to demanding parents whose love was conditional on what the child could provide, as opposed to unconditional love for the child just as they were.  To be narcissistic may look fine on the outside but on the inside, often deep in the unconscious, the person is really suffering. Their defences need to be very strong as underneath their sense of self is incredibly fragile. Developing empathy towards people with narcissism will help with breaking the spell they cast. The large majority of people who suffer from this condition are completely unaware of themselves or their impact on other people.  Being narcissistic is actually really tough. 

By getting educated on narcissism, we can begin to appreciate that their way of being is nothing to do with us.  One of their ways of bolstering their fragile ego is to devalue or aggrandise others. As people in their orbit, we may come under their line of fire or praise. It’s important to understand that their way of being are not a reflection of ourselves. We need to grow a slightly thicker skin so that their comments can slide off us and not be taken so personally. 

One of the reasons I remained in relationships with narcissists was not only did it feed my Echo -like tendencies but I also, probably like Echo herself, carried the hope that one day they would change and see me as a person, not just an object to use for their own agenda. Letting go of this hope was a massive step in me breaking free of these toxic relationships. With letting go, comes mourning of things that will never be. But also, what appears is a new space of what could be. The only person I could change was myself, not them. By managing our expectations, we can begin to step away from the seductive spell of the narcissist. 

Another important step is to reclaim some time for yourself and devote more energy towards other much less toxic relationships. Narcissists often capitalise people, so you can find yourself only spending time with them, which is not only very draining but also it doesn’t help us gain perspective or distance. Rekindling old friendships as well as nurturing new ones can provide us with much needed bolstering and support (just make sure none of these relationships are narcissistic also)!

So next time you find yourself unconsciously falling under the spell of a narcissist, take a breath, get some distance and avoid playing Echo! Let’s keep the spells fictional this Halloween season.

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash 

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