I have decided to share this personal story here because I think it might help others to understand what it took me too long to: narcissism takes many forms and can look like many things. There is no tarot content in this post, but I will post later about a tarot spread I did regarding the realizations below.
I recently had the liberating insight that I had been in a seven year friendship with a narcissist. Liberating because it put all of the pieces about his behavior together for me, and also liberating because I lost any residual guilt about cutting off all contact with him. The main reason why it never occurred to me that my former friend is a narcissist is that I had a very narrow view of what narcissism is. I thought that all narcissists were swaggering blowhards who are violently cruel to their victims. I didn’t know that narcissism is really at its core about obsession with oneself, which can imply a range of behaviors and beliefs, including self-deprecation and desire for closeness with others.
I do not believe that my former friend was a deliberately scheming narcissist trying to manipulate me. Rather, I think he has set of views about himself and the world that cause him pain, and he will do whatever it takes to try to relieve it. I believe that he is like a small child who wants something, and who might cry, sulk, rage, hold his breath, wheedle, make promises, flatter—anything to get what he wants. It’s not premeditated or calculating, but it’s still just as destructive.
My former friend believed that I owed him certain types of physical affection and verbal affirmation, because “those are just the kinds of things that friends do for each other.” He always pushed for greater closeness and intimacy in the friendship and several times threatened to leave because I just hurt his feelings too much. Now, I am not saying that I always acted perfectly in the course of that friendship. However, I do know that when two people in a relationship can’t agree on what they owe to each other or how they should treat each other, the relationship just ends, or never progresses past a certain depth.
My former friend, on the other hand, insisted that I was not being a good friend (aka. didn’t give him what he felt he was entitled to) but remained obsessed with me. He wanted to get together as often as possible and told me frequently how much he cared for and admired me. Yet he would lecture me periodically about how I wasn’t being a good friend to him and everything I had done to hurt him. At first, those lectures happened once or twice a year. By the end of the friendship, I sat through these lectures every week.
Over the years, I had to state boundaries with him over and over about a variety of things—touching, my time, etc. Every time I put up a boundary, he would question and test it, argue against it and make me justify it. After a certain amount of testing, he would generally accept the boundary, but not without periodically bringing up how the boundary wasn’t necessary and how much I had hurt him by putting the boundary in place.
Why did I put up with it for so long? There are several reasons, but one of them is that I bought into his ideas about what it means to be a good friend. That’s the weak spot—convincing me that I’m not being a good person, and that if only I do the things that a good person does, everything will be OK between us. And so I tried. I modified my behavior by expressing more gratitude, apologizing more often, saying certain things he wanted to hear, doing certain activities with him that he knew I didn’t want to do. And yet, I would be in the exact same place the very next time I saw him. It was as if all the things I did to try to please him went in one ear and out the other, that he literally did not remember. It became clear to me eventually that he had this very fixed idea of me in his head and that he spent much of his time apart from me building up a case against that imagined Emily, no matter how I actually treated him in real life.
So, if you have a frustrating friendship or relationship with someone who seems to be very sensitive and empathetic, who claims to care about you maybe even more than anyone in the world, and yet you find yourself asking, “What do they want from me? When will anything I do ever be enough?”, narcissism is a possibility.
If there is someone who criticizes you for hurting them, and yet insists on being your friend or partner, you may be dealing with a narcissist.
If someone insists they care very deeply about you but always challenges and questions your thoughts and feelings that are not convenient to them, you may be dealing with a narcissist.
If someone doesn’t respect boundaries but tries to punish you or get your attention by breaking off contact or giving you the silent treatment, you may be dealing with a narcissist.
If someone insists that the two of you are closer than you actually feel you are and pressures you into agreeing, you may be dealing with a narcissist.
If someone has lots of ideas and rules about how to be a good friend or partner and is constantly asking you to measure up to them, you may be dealing with a narcissist.
That person may be kind and empathetic in other contexts and they may genuinely care about you to a certain degree. But, at bottom, what they care about most is how much you can prove to them that YOU care about them. Even if you rolled over and capitulated to everything they demanded, they would not care about your pain or discomfort in doing so AND your efforts would still not be good enough for them.
A lesson I learned here is that not every narcissist swaggers around like Donald Trump. Some do genuinely care about other people. Some are more open and forthcoming about their insecurities. And if a narcissist has decided that you are the special person that they can open up to about all their insecurities, the person that they are closest to in the world, then it’s only a matter of time that you, from their perspective, also become the person who hurts them most in the world. And once they get that idea in their head, they will eventually do everything they can to blame you and shame you into complying with their demands.
My former friend took advantage of my patience. He took advantage of my empathy. He took advantage of my good listening skills. He took advantage of desire to be a good person. One reason why our relationship lasted so long, I now see, is that I was so good at deflating and deflecting his harangues because I was willing to listen to him empathetically, sometimes for hours, about all of my supposed failings, resist the urge to take it personally, and then respond by affirming how his perceptions were wrong and I did indeed care about him a great deal. However. Every piece of evidence that I cared about him was forgotten or ignored. In the end, he even accused me of being a liar when I tried to prove to him how much I cared.
Fortunately, over the seven years that we were friends, I changed a lot. I got better at understanding my own needs and boundaries. I got better at being direct with people who are manipulative and calling out that behavior. I stayed in the friendship way longer than I should have because I truly loved him. Because I had invested so much time in it. I also stayed because my former friend would temporarily agree with my assertions of how much I cared, only to come back in a few days with the same old complaints against me. I participated willingly in the cycle because I wanted to make things better and it took a long time for me to admit that even if I made things better for a few days, weeks, or months, things would never actually get better.
It was my therapist who suggested to me that my former friend is a narcissist and right there it seemed so obvious. Once I started with the premise that narcissism is not simply about feeling superior, but about being obsessed with oneself, so much of his behavior toward me and others made sense. I had already broken off contact with him, but this realization was the final push I needed to feel peace and closure that I had done everything that I could, and that I was not wrong to leave him. Right after I came home, I blocked his phone number and email address with no hesitation or regrets. I do still feel empathy for him because he is in a hell of his own making, and he will certainly inflict it on other people. But I did everything I could over the course of seven years and, while my efforts to be a good friend didn’t make any difference to him, I learned a lot about true friendship.