Being in a relationship with a narcissist, borderline, histrionic, psychopath or other personality disordered abuser can be a topsy turvy existence. Common rules of decency, honesty, mutual respect and reciprocity are, as far as the narcissist is concerned, optional. Or, to be more clear, optional for the narcissist. The narcissist’s or borderline’s spouse, partner, child, friend or employee are typically held to a different set of standards than the abuser holds themselves.
Many narcissists see themselves as too special to comply with relationship norms. Sometimes they even fancy themselves above the law. This is a manifestation of their entitlement. Borderlines, on the other hand, often see themselves as “the real” victim, even as they viciously abuse their partners and children. Many borderlines believe they’re exempt from relationship norms, and sometimes laws, because of their self-designated victim status and how much they claim to suffer emotionally as a result of abusing their loved ones.
Their distorted un-reality is their reality. Anyone, including non-disordered individuals and codependents, can choose to deny reality. It’s much harder to avoid the consequences of reality, however. Unless you’ve a legion of enablers, flunkies, negative advocates, apologists and flying monkeys willing to protect you from the consequences of your choices, that is. Narcissist Club Rules 1 & 2: Don’t Tell the Narcissist They’re a Narcissist, gives an overview of the one-sided, shifting rules many victims of narcissists and other abusers find themselves navigating. Choosing to live this way carries some very heavy consequences, which is why it’s important to recognize and understand the mechanics of dysfunctional and abusive relationships, including the rules of engagement.
NARC CLUB RULE #3
Once you figure out not to tell the narcissist they’re a narcissist (i.e., speak the truth at your own peril), the next rule you must accept is that the narcissist is never wrong. Narcissists are always right and always the injured party, at least, that’s what they convince themselves of and will expect you to concede. The self-manufactured dramas, crises and conflicts typically don’t stop until after you admit you’re wrong and apologize for being bad, selfish — whatever the narcissist’s accusation or victim narrative of the day might be. Groveling, begging, pleading, self-flagellation or getting on your hands and knees may be required. Especially if your narcissist rates the sincerity of your apology for making them rage at you, lie to you, cheat on you, spend the rent money at the casino, etc.
While apologizing and falling on your sword might buy you some temporary peace, you’ll pay a price for it later. Because conflicts, real ones or ginned up ones, are rarely resolved, they’re often rehashed with each new professional victim–blame game episode. When you agree with, appease or humor the narcissist’s distorted or patently false narratives, you reinforce their bullshit. Your appeasement apologies will be held over your head as proof that the narcissist or borderline was right before, right now and right in the future.
Why do they do this? Admitting they’re wrong is a dire threat to the false self of narcissists and borderlines. Dysfunctional and abusive families are often characterized by attachment and attunement issues, toxic shame and a lack of love and other emotional resources. The children of these families thus have a limited number of developmental trajectories. In order to cope and survive, these kids develop defense mechanisms or a false self. This includes codependency in addition to personality disorders and other mental health problems.
Object relations theorist D.W. Winnicott (1965) wrote about the true self and the false self in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. Winnicott believed narcissists develop a false self in infancy as a defense mechanism to protect them from a lack of parental emotional attunement (i.e., good enough parents who respond to and meet the infant’s needs often enough for the infant to feel loved and secure). Borderlines develop a false self, too. There’s overlap between the two disorders and a high percentage of borderlines have traits of pathological narcissism in addition to the borderline characteristics.
Otto Kernberg theorized that the borderline’s false self is the place where the traits of pathological narcissism reside. Basically, it means the more narcissistic traits a borderline has the worse they are. Narcissism creates the borderline’s façade of self-esteem and identity. A key component of BPD is lack of an integrated self. In my opinion, the false selves of borderlines and narcissists are basically a patchwork of primitive defense mechanisms. These primitive defense mechanisms become their personality. Narcissists develop a false self to mask the core wound of feeling unloved and inferior. Borderlines develop a false self to mask the core wound of abandonment.
Preserving the false self is a matter of ego preservation v. ego annihilation. It’s life or death. In order to avoid the toxic shame the false self protects them from, they do many confounding and contemptible things. Including lying, developing a sense of entitlement and/or a victim narrative and a very rigid spider web of covert and overt, self-serving and outrageously unfair interpersonal rules. If you want to be in a relationship with one of these individuals, you’re expected to roll with and take the lumps as they come. Don’t expect any appreciation or gratitude from them in the end either. Their pathological entitlement means they believe you owe them blind loyalty and unconditional love no matter how atrociously they treat you.
Living with a narcissist, psychopath, histrionic or borderline can feel like being in the backseat of a car driven by a screaming toddler who’s wildly careening out of control. In those moments, you’ll do anything to calm the little monster down and stop the car from crashing. You can humor them, appease them, admit you’re wrong when you’ve done nothing wrong and apologize to them for their abuse you. It doesn’t solve anything, not long-term. It just buys you more trouble later on. My advice is to get out of the car, never to return, and leave the angry, self-pitying adult toddler to experience the reality they create for themselves and the consequences of their choices.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries.
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