By Rebecca Ward, MSW, LCSW

If you can imagine, I really enjoy working with some of the narcissists who come into my office. They are mostly charming and  engaging at the start, and many do not last long in therapy past the “beginning to see the light” phase. It is then that the dark side of this particular personality will emerge. And it is most usually painful.

When a narcissistic personality becomes threatened in some way, it will become insulting and hurtful. Therapists call this a “de-valuing defense” mechanism. The threat to the person’s inflated ego is minimized by insulting remarks that “de-value” the source of the threat. This can even be painful for a therapist – and we know what’s happening. When you’re an unsuspecting spouse, partner, friend or co-worker, the attack seems to come from nowhere. You’re bleeding and have no idea why. “What just happened?” you wonder.

Narcissists are really rather delicate souls who keep themselves together through a combination of grandiosity, ego inflation and sucking from their environment. Their environment is designed to provide enough narcissistic supplies to keep them happily ensconced in their self-absorbed existence. Mostly, they operate out of complete unawareness of their modus operandi. They’re often genuinely surprised when yet another relationship or friendship ends. Their understanding is impeded by their desperate need to be right, wonderful and faultless.

There are numerous theories as to how any personality disorder develops and what the cardinal features of those disorders are. Google will help you if you’re interested in the origins of the syndrome, but I’m going to tell you how to survive in your relationship – and to encourage you to escape if you cannot. And survival is only possible if both commit to therapy and stick to it until the relationship offers more than mere survival.

A personality disorder is different from the everyday neurotic issues most of us have. Some of us are generally late to appointments, or too early; many of us don’t read our mail or pay our bills on time. Some of us fear flying, the dark, snakes, and won’t eat slimy food. Normal neurotics somehow plod through life earning a living and keeping ourselves clean and useful.

People with personality disorders have persistent, maladaptive ways of dealing with others and the challenges of life and are resistant to change. Generally, they don’t come to therapy under their own motivation or because they are in emotional pain like garden-variety neurotics. They come because people around them are in pain. They usually are clueless as to why they would need any help at all but are coming in to humor someone valuable to their lifestyle.

A true Narcissistic Personality Disorder will likely make few emotional internal connections that lead to changes that will affect their behavior. However, someone who simply has strong narcissistic traits can make changes if they’re willing to do the work, and some are. They learn that always focusing on their own needs and living to keep themselves feeling special is not going to work for the other people in their life. They can be taught to ask “How was your day?” And “What would you like to do this weekend?” Often they may enjoy what another person wants or needs, but it’s difficult for them and short-lived. But they will try.

That adjustment isn’t going to happen for someone with true Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Remember, they are egocentric and do not walk well in another’s moccasins. It’s almost not possible for them to truly care about another’s feelings if those feelings conflict with their own pressing needs. If your partner has NPD, you are in a relationship with someone who believes down to their core: “It is all about me.” I’m not joking.

Get out of the relationship when:

1) You are being regularly verbally abused by criticism, insults and character assassination;

2) You feel in a no-win spot most of the time; damned if you do and damned if you don’t;

3) Your own self-esteem has plummeted;

4) You are confused about why you are always wrong.

And, most importantly, you have tried valiantly to please this person, even at times feeling ashamed at the efforts you have made to please them. You may sense that you are losing yourself. You are exhausted. You begin to doubt your own perceptions about what is really happening within the relationship.

You must get away to be able to regain your own sense of self and analyze the relationship under no duress. You have been told you are responsible for the problems and if only you could do what you need to do to keep the narcissist feeling wonderful, then all would be great.

You are not responsible for the problem. You can’t determine someone else’s happiness and make everything perfect. You will fail again and again because you can’t make anyone happy. I can’t either. Each of us in charge of our own happiness and we must take responsibility for the choices we make in our life and live with the consequences. A narcissist cannot do that.

So run like the wind.