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Narcissistic Relationships: A Breakdown Is Not a Breakthrough

The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.

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If you've been dealing with a pathologically narcissistic person, you've probably seen what we call "the narcissist's epiphany." This is the moment when the narcissistic person finally seems to get it. They understand what you're saying, they understand the problem now. They can finally see the truth and they are going to work hard to fix it because you mean so much to them. If it's the first time you've heard this, it probably seems like a dream come true. This is what you've been waiting for. You've finally broken through the denial. All those hours spent explaining have finally paid off. They finally see it! Things are going to be better from here on out.

Except... they're not. In most situations, as soon as the narcissistic person feels comfortable again, the same behavior comes back up. They may talk a good game, and they may even seem to get better for a period of time, but it generally goes back to how it was before the supposed "breakthrough" happened. This is because more than likely, what they experienced was a breakdown, not a breakthrough. A breakdown comes as the result of high stress and crashing self-esteem. A breakthrough comes as the result of processing, self-reflection and insight.

Pathologically narcissistic people are dependent on others for their self-worth. They cannot create any self-worth on their own, so they look to others to provide a constant stream - a supply - of attention that they can spin into validation and some semblance of self-worth:

  • If people want me, I matter
  • If people see me, I exist
  • If people argue with me, I'm important
  • If people victimize me, I'm virtuous
  • If people react to me, I'm powerful
  • If people try to control me, I'm valuable

If these things are cut off - such as when a relationship ends or a valued situation is over - narcissistic people that cannot find other ways to secure this attention, this supply, will go into a tailspin that ends with what is called decompensating or collapsing. As with any other person whose self-worth has bottomed out this way, a collapsed narcissist is in very real danger, because suicide is a very real possibility. This is a dangerous situation for any human being to be in. It's just that non-narcissistic people can usually combat the feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred that may come up when their self-worth or self-esteem has taken a big hit. Narcissists can't. They have nothing to fight back with because they have no independent self-worth. It's all reliant on other people. In a very real sense, narcissists need other people to survive. When their survival is threatened, they react with panic and scramble to fix the situation before it's too late.

Many narcissistic people will begin engaging in reckless or self-destructive behavior such as self-medicating with alcohol or narcotics, they may begin sleeping with multiple people or people they don't know very well, engaging in self-harm, generally not taking care of themselves and many other things. This is because they are panicking. Even those narcissistic people that seem very self-assured and emotionless will often react this way and the contrast can be shocking. People may think to themselves, "Oh, wow, this is so out of character!" but in reality, it isn't. It's what happens when they don't receive enough energy - or supply - from other people to maintain the facade. They are simultaneously looking for a source and trying to hold themselves together without one. The result can be very ugly.

Sometimes when this happens, the narcissist will attempt to come back to a relationship that has ended in hopes of re-securing things. We call this hoovering. Many times, this hoovering involves the epiphany we mentioned earlier. The narcissistic person may suddenly be willing to admit it all, take responsibility for it all. They are willing to do anything to re-secure the relationship. People may take this as a sign of love or remorse, but it usually isn't. It's actually a desperate attempt on the narcissistic person's part to survive. It's a breakdown, not a breakthrough. Chances are, they don't understand anything you were trying to say any better than they ever have. They are just willing to agree in order to make the way they feel go away. In fact, if you listen to the things they are saying, you will often find that they are simply repeating the things you've said are the problem. There's usually zero genuine realization here. It's just panic and narcissistic manipulation.

If you take the breakdown as a breakthrough and recommit to the relationship, you will find that more often than not, things eventually go right back to the way they always were. This is because the pathologically narcissistic person has no other way to relate to others. They didn't suddenly learn how to create and regulate their own self-worth. They didn't suddenly get a stable identity or sense of self. They're still operating the same way. They still need supply from other people to function. They still have a false self. They still suffer from affected perception, pathological self-hatred and shame, they still can't distinguish the self from external objects. It's all still the same, and 100 breakdowns isn't going to change that.

This often becomes a cycle, where the narcissist engages in abusive behavior, the other person or people attempt to leave the relationship, the narcissist starts collapsing due to the removal of supply and then has a breakdown. People feel bad for the narcissistic person or believe in the epiphany, they recommit to the relationship and it just starts all over again. This cycle is very painful for people; they want to believe in the narcissistic person, especially because they seem so sincere! And they actually are sincere, as far as that goes. It's just that what they are after is not what you think. People think the intensity and emotionality of the hoover is motivated by love. It's not. It's motivated by survival. You are seeing love because that is how you feel, not because that's what it is.

When you are dealing with pathologically narcissistic people, remember that the stakes are very high for them. It is often a matter of life or death. A person in that position can be very persuasive and seem very sincere. Ask yourself how many times you've heard this before, and how many times it was ever true or ever lasted. Ask yourself what it is they really want from you. Ask yourself if it makes sense that someone who never cared for all this time can suddenly care so much, or if someone who was never able to understand to suddenly understand everything. And if they really could do that, why didn't they do it before?