Are you an empath involved with a narcissist? Here are 8 steps you can take to turn your destructive relationship into a self-love story.
It’s a classic pairing: the empath and the narcissist.
You’re a giver. Emotions permeate you easily. If your friend is filled with joy, you’re delighted, too. When your son tells you his teacher cut him down in front of the whole class, you deeply feel your son’s shame, anger, and helplessness. Upon walking into a crowded room, you can immediately sense the vibe — cheerful, subdued, threatening. You’re skilled at comforting and listening to people. You have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility for problems that aren’t actually yours. You are loving, intuitive, trusting, and sensitive. You avoid conflict and sacrifice yourself at the altar of harmony.
You’re an empath.
Your partner, on the other hand, lacks compassion. She feels her own emotions but is nearly impervious to the feelings of others. When you tell her that she’s hurt you or that she’s messed up, she denies it, says you’re wrong, twists the blame squarely back on you, or all three. She criticizes you about tiny issues (the way you slice avocados), medium issues (how you drive), and big issues (your body, your lovemaking, your family). In conversations, she needs to be right — she needs to win. She creates conflict and stirs up anxiety. And sometimes, when you’re super vulnerable and she’s super stressed, she becomes unremittingly cruel.
She’s a narcissist.
What drew you to each other? Why is the empath-narcissist pairing such a classic?
Let’s rewind to when you first met your partner. As we continue our story, the narcissist will be male. (For context, 6.2 percent of American women have narcissistic personality disorder, compared to 7.7 percent of American men). When you first met your partner, he was successful, charming, decisive, confident, and veryinto you. Like many other narcissists, he skillfully acted like the ideal catch, showering you with compliments, gifts, and grandiose gestures of adoration.
In psychological lingo, you got love bombed. “This is the kind of guy I deserve!” you swooned as you grabbed him up.
Meanwhile, your partner flocked to you because he viewed you — accurately — as loving, devoted, agreeable, and primed to do his feeling for him. You were the ideal adoring fan. When he often complained about perceived wrongs done to him by the world and its inferior citizens, you empathically swooped in with understanding and compassion to heal his wounds. He grabbed you up.
So now here you both are.
At first you don’t notice the switch in him. When your partner gets a bit critical, overbearing, or mean, and you protest, he manipulates the situation to cast you as the one who messed up. He says things like “Stop being so defensive” or “I had to interrupt your phone call; you were saying it all wrong!”
And here’s the problem: You fall for the smokescreen. You’re so concerned with pleasing your partner, and so open to self-evaluation, that you find a therapist and apply yourself to fixing the ‘flaws’ he’s convinced you are yours. Bit by bit, you’re helping him mold you.
While you’re trying to fix yourself, you’re also convinced you can fix him. You now know he has flaws, but everyone has flaws, right?
So you double down on your love, support, loyalty, forgiveness, and compassion. Over time, you do all the self-improvement and compromising needed to keep the relationship (that is, him) happy.
But then you start noticing the switch in him. Your intuition is planting a giant red flag at your feet. You try to ignore it, but your partner’s Jekyll-and-Hyde swings are getting faster and more extreme. Knock, knock! Something isn’t right here! Your gut reports multiple times per month . . . then per week . . . then per day.
You’re in a battle with the essence of who you are. You’re giving your power away — and he’s taking it. Your personal boundaries have gone from firm to negotiable to nonexistent. You are coming undone.
Very likely, you’ve been silent to the outside world about your partner’s behavior and your growing anxiety and misery in what has become an abusive dynamic. She (changing genders again) puts you down all the time now, sometimes scathingly. These days, your heart races with dread when you hear her footsteps approach the front door of your home. You’re racked with self-doubt, loneliness, confusion, and shame. You wonder…
What in the world has happened to me… and why am I hiding it?
And then, somehow, you make a switch. You have an epiphany. It might come from a book you read, an especially unacceptable act from your partner, the intervention of a close friend, or insights arising from the rock-bottom surrender of depression.
Now that you realize that you’ve been duped, a new flavor of shame hits: How could I not have seen this? How could I have defended, trusted, and loved this person? Why did I keep her abusive behavior all to myself and let everyone believe everything was perfect? Now no one will believe me!
You know it is time to leave, but how will you do it?
The logistics of your exit will depend on how entangled you and your partner are. Leaving becomes more complicated with jointly-owned property, marriage, children, and other commitments. But the following suggestions apply to anyone who has decided to end a relationship with a narcissist.
- Get educated — Read, watch, and listen to reliable sources about narcissism. Most importantly, you’ll gain validation of what has happened in your relationship. Research will also prepare you for your partner’s reaction to your departure. Her reaction might be anticlimactic and lackluster. But more likely, she’ll dip into her manipulative tool belt and resist you strongly via renewed love bombing, threats, or both.
- Get support — Get yourself into therapy if you haven’t already; you’ve got major healing to do. Surround yourself with people who love you, who believe what you’ve told them about your partner, and who will stand by you no matter what. Figure out what you need, and then please ask for it (not an empath’s strong point). Ask your closest supporters to check in with you regularly. Have them make phone calls on your behalf if it’s tough for you to do so at home. If you and your partner are married, make a list of legal questions, find a good family law attorney and/or mediator, and start asking your questions. It’s crucial for your supporters, particularly the professionals you hire, to have a strong understanding of narcissism.
- Get certain— You need be 100 percent confident in your decision to end your relationship. If you say to yourself, “I’ll try to leave her” or “We’ll just take a break” or “We’ll gradually downshift to friendship,” you will probably fail. Suggestions 1 and 2 will help you get certain.
- Get your ducks in a row — Prepare for your departure, whatever that looks like. This step is highly variable depending on your situation. Some ducks to line up are a place to live, a plan for child care, a new bank account with funds in it, and even more support from your loved ones.
- Get out — Make your exit as low-drama as possible. Your partner might attempt her own theatrics, but your objective is to take action and leave, not to have a conversation.
- Get silent — It’s become an ironclad rule among experts that the best way to move on from a narcissist is to go no-contact. This means zero interaction — no meet-ups, no phone calls, no messaging. If you must interact, put it in writing and follow the rules of BIFF communication to be brief, informative, friendly, and firm.
- Get your self back — Stick with therapy for at least six months so that you can process an experience that was (at best) painful or (at worst) traumatic. Continue to surround yourself only with close friends and supporters. The emotional, social, and financial fall-out of a break-up like this can be huge, so harness all of your empathic skills — compassion, care, love, gentleness, kindness, sensitivity — and direct them at yourself. Feel your mojo starting to flow in your veins again. Celebrate your courage. Seek joy and laughter.
- Get hooked up with your narcissist radar — Work hard to develop your narcissist-detection skills to avoid repeating history (see below).
How to Identify a Narcissist
- Lack of empathy — unable to relate to other people’s feelings; merciless.
- Entitlement — acts as if rules don’t apply to them; expect others to give them special treatment; often complains about subpar customer service and incompetence.
- Selfishness — overly focused on their own needs; willing and able to manipulate and hurt others if it serves their ends.
- Projection — attributes their own views, feelings, or perspectives onto other people.
- Self-importance and arrogance — strongly believes in their own incredibleness, whether they’ve succeeded at their goals or not; likely to brag and to inflate their accomplishments in a condescending way.
- Tendency to take risks.
- Need for validation and attention.
- Strong tendency to judge, criticize, and blame others.
- Low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority — they cope with hidden insecurity and self-hatred by becoming grandiose and believing they’re superior.
General Facts About Narcissism:
- Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) — the most extreme, clinical form of narcissism — does not have a cure, although long-term treatment can ease symptoms. The upshot here is that extreme narcissists are highly unlikely to change.
- NPD is associated with substance abuse, mood and anxiety disorders, aggression, and gastrointestinal conditions.
- Experts these days are hotly debating whether or not narcissism is on the rise in the United States.
- Narcissism exists on a spectrum. It’s healthy and normal to be confident and to bask in the attention of others, but narcissistic tendencies become problematic when they interfere with close relationships and daily functioning, or when they involve abuse and violence.
- Narcissistic abuse is one of the most difficult types of abuse to detect. Bree Bonchay, LCSW, defines narcissistic abuse as “the insidious, gradual, and intentional erosion of a person’s sense of self-worth. It can involve patterns of dominance, manipulation, intimidation, emotional coercion, withholding, dishonesty, extreme selfishness, guilt mongering, rejection, stonewalling, gaslighting, financial abuse, extreme jealousy, and possessiveness. A partner who never calls you a derogatory name and tells you he loves you every single day can be a narcissistic abuser.”
This is ultimately a story of self-love. It’s a narrative of reclamation, faith, and triumph. While you, as an empath, may be vulnerable to the manipulation of a narcissist, your Achilles heel is also your superpower. The key is to honor your finely honed, Universe-given intuition. Give yourself permission to tune back in to your inner voice, trust it, follow it, and implement its feedback. Let your soul tell the truth.
You may also enjoy reading Recovering from Emotional Abuse & Learned Toxic Behaviors by Dr. Lisa Cooney