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Exploring Your Vulnerabilities to Narcissistic Relationships & How to Address Them


To preface this discussion, it should be clear that regardless of what you may uncover about yourself, nothing in your history or any vulnerability you might have somehow excuses the narcissistic person's behavior or absolves them from responsibility for themselves and their actions. Ever. They are manipulative by default, misrepresenting themselves (often very convincingly) and nothing excuses or mitigates that behavior. Nothing. This is about understanding yourself, so let's make sure we're clear about that. Understanding the narcissist is very important. Understanding yourself is more important.

It is often said that narcissists target people, and this is very true. They target people who have things they don't have, or who they believe may be able to give them what they want. But it's also true that one of these labels will fit most people, and to that end they run the same game on everybody. It's the only game they have. It's all they know how to do. The thing is, it isn't successful with everybody and many times by examining ourselves, we can find the thing or things that have made us susceptible to this game in the first place. This doesn't excuse their behavior in any way, but it does help us build up our own defenses and address our own vulnerabilities so that we are not taken advantage of moving forward.

People sometimes take this to mean they've done something wrong, or something to cause the abuse or mistreatment. This is false. No one ever causes abuse. No one ever causes mistreatment. It's time to get out of these rigid, black and white mindsets where we believe that if someone ever made a mistake or had a flaw or made a bad choice, they are somehow to blame for someone else's choice to be abusive or were somehow asking to be abused. To put it frankly, this is total bullshit. It can be difficult to look at these things even when we haven't done anything wrong, but if we are too defensive to learn about ourselves, we can't grow. Narcissists are 100% solely responsible for their own actions and choices, but so is everybody else. If we cannot explore where we could have made different choices, we cannot protect ourselves. That is what this is about.

As hard as it is to face, the narcissist was not in the relationship alone and while nobody is ever perpetuating abuse, people usually are perpetuating the relationship in the hope that one day it will not be abusive and it's important to understand why this happened. We know why the narcissist did it and how they did it. But why do some people see through it and walk away while others don't? There is usually a vulnerability of some kind involved, whether it is situational, environmental, emotional, psychological or physical.

For example, sometimes a person with strong, healthy boundaries will find themselves in a vulnerable situation like grieving the death of a loved one, or going through a divorce. If an unhealthy relationship came along at any other time, they would have had no trouble rejecting the relationship but because they are in a vulnerable situation, they do not do so. They then find themselves entangled in a relationship they are finding it very hard to get out of, and understanding how they were vulnerable in the first place is a big step toward doing so.

While this type of situational vulnerability can and does happen, what we find most often with people who become entangled with narcissists is a history of related conditioning. This can be the result of different things, all usually revolving around a similar theme: emotional unavailability. This can look like having a narcissistic parent, a caregiver who struggles with substance or other addiction, a parent who is struggling with mental illness, a parent who must work all the time, a bad match in personalities between parent and child... It generally revolves around caregivers who were emotionally unavailable in some way - even if it was not intentional. This type of socialization creates lovestarved people who are unsure of their worth, who are unsure of their place in loved ones' lives, who struggle to validate themselves, who believe they need to perform in order to be loved, who believe it is their job to take responsibility for the entire relationship as well as the other person and who are often very vulnerable to the no-holds-barred intensity that is the state of many narcissists, particularly in the love-bombing or what is known as the idealization phase of the relationship.

People who were lovestarved or emotionally neglected as children can be very susceptible to love-bombing, even if consciously they don't realize why. Love-bombing is the narcissist's most potent aphrodisiac and it is very powerful. Whereas someone else might be wary of - or even put off by - the intensity of the courtship presented by the love-bombing narcissist, people who have been lovestarved may find it intoxicating and exciting. It feels like the love they've been waiting for, where they are the sole focus of another person's attention, where they are the most important thing in someone's life.

In the love-bombing phase of the relationship are usually the first red flags. They may be subtle, but they are almost always there. If a person has some boundary awareness, they may notice boundary violations such as jealousy, demanding too much of their time and persisting with unwanted or inappropriate attention, but ignore or justify these things, chalking them up to the intensity of the relationship and the narcissist's feelings for them. If they don't have boundary awareness, they may have a feeling that something is not right or seems too much, too fast, too intense, etc. but it will not be enough to dissuade them. People who have not been raised with an understanding of boundaries may actually feel rejected by someone having boundaries or when trying to create boundaries themselves, even if they are not narcissists. They were socialized to believe that enmeshment is love and that boundaries are threatening, so it may be very difficult for them to create or understand what healthy boundaries between people look like. And without boundaries from either person (because narcissists generally have no understanding of boundaries either), the relationship with a narcissist can become very intense very quickly. Instead of being seen as dangerous and unhealthy, it is seen as wonderful. It feels too good to stop. It seems too perfect to put the brakes on. It literally seems too good to be true, and unfortunately, it literally is.

All of this conspires to create an extremely difficult situation. The person, fueled by their own fantasies, conditioning, unaddressed wounds and unaddressed needs on top of the love-bombing from the narcissist becomes entangled very deeply very quickly. How could you not? It's called love-bombing for a reason. It's disorienting and engulfing, so if someone does not have a healthy understanding of boundaries or the ability to regulate and curate their own internal experiences, it's very easy to get sucked in completely. Believing they've found the love of their lives, people may jump in to the relationship head first, even in situations where they don't know the person very well at all.

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It is not long before the façade starts to crack and the depth of the narcissist's struggles, often even with just basic day to day living, start to be revealed. These cracks may be small at first, but they are usually very definite. Being a human being with eyes and ears, it is impossible not to notice that the narcissist is a human being, too, who has flaws and makes mistakes. This is intolerable for the narcissist, who cannot take the shame of being seen as imperfect. The perfect relationship is now ruined. Because they can take ownership or accountability for nothing, the fall of the relationship is blamed on the other person in acts of overt aggression and hostility, or it is acted on but not spoken about, causing the narcissist to behave differently but not to articulate why, in acts of passive aggression and hostility. The devaluation of the relationship and therefore the other person has begun.

In this stage of the relationship, people with healthy boundaries and a strong sense of agency will generally understand that something is going on with their partner to cause this behavior, regardless of whether they are blamed or not. People without healthy boundaries who have been conditioned to believe that relationships are solely their responsibility to manage or that they are responsible for other people's feelings and behavior will generally assume (or believe when they are told) that they are the problem. The narcissist is happy to have a partner who will take the blame, and often disgusted by the perceived imperfections in the other person who they believed was perfect before now. This is nothing but projected self-hatred, but for someone who looks to the narcissist instead of inward for validation, the pain caused by this fall from grace is extreme.

Those who are unable to validate themselves can be destroyed by a relationship with a narcissist because they have put the responsibility for their self-worth into the hands of a person who values nothing. They can become obsessed with trying to prove their worth to the narcissist in a desperate attempt to convince the narcissist and themselves that they have value. But the narcissist values nothing. They recognize nothing. They appreciate nothing. It has nothing to do with the other person at all. This is often the pattern being played out in these relationships and we can often trace it back to how someone was socialized by their caregivers. When someone has an unaddressed wound in their history, they often find themselves playing out the same kind of relationships over and over again trying to address them.

For example, if someone has a history of feeling unimportant, rejected, abandoned, invisible, of being neglected, of being abused, of needing to perform for love, then when the validating attention they craved from the narcissist is taken away, this triggers that conditioning to take over and they work as hard as they can to get it back, incorrectly assuming (or believing when they are told) that the narcissist's behavior is about them, that they have somehow caused the other person to take the good things away. We often find that this is linked to an old, unarticulated and usually unacknowledged wound attached to the idea that if someone's caregivers do not consider them or their feelings important or valuable, they have no importance or value. It then becomes disproportionately important to the person to convince the narcissist to see them as valuable. Indeed, to see them at all. The narcissist of course does not do this because they can't; their survival depends greatly on denying things about others in order to protect themselves. It also depends on keeping other people around, however, so if the threat of losing the relationship becomes greater than the threat posed by the things they need to deny, and if they don't simply leave first to avoid being abandoned, the narcissistic person will do whatever they can in order to re-secure the relationship. As soon as the threat has been eliminated, the priorities rearrange themselves and things go back to how they were.

The constant push-pull of this kind of relationship, where someone is given attention and validation that they equate with love and then it is pulled away can mimic the inconsistent relationship they had with an emotionally unavailable or unstable caregiver. It pushes all those old buttons and all those old reactions will be triggered. Stuck in a cycle of needing to prove their worth to the abuser so they can prove it to themselves, the person is unconsciously trying to work out this unaddressed wound. Whether it's done through appeasement, indulgence, fixing, caretaking or anything else, the unarticulated idea is always the same: "When I prove my worth to this abusive or neglectful person, they will recognize it and stop abusing or neglecting me. I will then have proven my value to them, which will prove it to me." It is a symbolic healing or undoing of the relationship with a caregiver that functioned the same way: "I must convince this abusive, neglectful person that I have value so they will stop abusing and neglecting me." This desire to prove and the resulting behavior is all predicated on the idea that the abuse is being caused by the victim, that something about them is inviting or creating the abuse.

For a child, there is no understanding that this is a choice the abusive or neglectful caregiver is making for their own reasons. As an adult in a consensual relationship, it becomes a situation where the victim feels that they need to convince the abuser of their value so that the abuser will reflect their value to them in return. When this fails to happen, the person feels worse about themselves than ever, unable to understand why they are not valuable enough for the abuser to treat them well. Even as adults, it often still doesn't occur to people that the abuse has nothing to do with them at all and is the result of the abuser's problems, not theirs. If it does occur to them, they often don't believe it because it runs contrary to what they've believed or been told their entire lives.

If this sounds similar to the way pathologically narcissistic people function, that's because it is. This is the way a dysfunctional ego behaves. The people we call narcissists are blinded by this - and to it - and unable to change because their personality structure is so rigid and defensive that they cannot learn anything of value about themselves or others. They generally cannot engage in the self-reflection and analysis that is necessary to grow in this way, and their perception may be so affected that it is rendered completely unreliable. They trust no one and nothing, including themselves, so they cannot believe anything anyone says to or about them. Their affected perception causes them to believe they are seeing proof that they should not trust or believe anyone. This epistemic mistrust is profound and it is all-encompassing. They cannot have that lightbulb moment and even if they do, their denial is just too entrenched for it to matter. This is why they can have so-called epiphanies about the same thing over and over again with it ending up meaning nothing at all in the way of changed behavior or perceptions. They will always eventually convince themselves that they are not the problem or that the ends justify the means. Always, because they are too afraid and too limited by their own rigidity to be grow. Existence of any other kind does not seem possible for them and even if it were, they do not seem interested in pursuing it. Probably because they are too afraid.

But for you, it doesn't have to be that way.

People will often say that the narcissist feels like home, or that the relationship feels like home. This is very telling, and when we explore someone's history, we almost always find out why. People who become entangled with narcissists have often been subjected to the same kind of conditioning and socialization that narcissists themselves were subjected to: abuse, neglect, enmeshment, being forced to take responsibility for others, gaslighting, invalidation, parentification, prohibited from creating boundaries, prohibited from creating an independent identity, scared or convinced into not trusting themselves and much more. Any relationship with any narcissist follows these same general patterns and will almost always trigger the same reactions. In the case of narcissistic caregivers, it may even be the same person. In order to explore our vulnerabilities to narcissistic relationships, we have to examine our beliefs about ourselves and the world and where these beliefs came from. You will likely find that much of this is rooted in outdated coping mechanisms that, as an adult, you don't need anymore or in beliefs and conditioning other people instilled in you that are false.

Sometimes people say, "Why should I have to change?" as if growth is a punishment that means we've done something wrong. Be open enough to understand that growth is change and change is not bad. It's time to start unlearning who you were told to be so that you can become who you actually are. It's not easy and it's not comfortable but it's necessary and it's worth it in the end. This is our responsibility, even if it's not our fault and it's important that we understand nobody can do it for us. We must confront these things and sit with the discomfort of changing them. There's no other way to evolve.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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