I’m in the middle of a horrible break-up. My ex has been screaming at me and calling me horrible names and shit-talking about me behind my back. They’re even demanding I give them money, but I never borrowed any money from them, ever! Most of the time we were together, I paid the rent and all the groceries. My therapist thinks they’re a narcissist, but if that’s true, I never saw the signs. What should I do now?
– Badly Burned in Birmingham
I’m so sorry you’re struggling, but I’m glad you have a mental health professional to talk to. Let me just say right off the top, I’m not a therapist, but I have spent several decades in therapy working though the malignancy of narcissism in my own life, so take what I offer here as peer-to-peer advice.
I’ll start by laying out some of the signs of narcissistic behavior, and then some strategies to manage it. I’m relying heavily on the teachings of Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist who specializes in narcissism and difficult personalities. I’ve learned a ton from her helpful videos — you can watch them for free here.
As I understand it, narcissism can take a wide range of forms, and — unfortunately — the symptoms aren’t always obvious. In media, we often see narcissists portrayed as grandiose, boasty, surrounding themselves with glamor and fabulousness, making them easy to spot. But in the real world, narcissism can be more insidious: an indifference to other’s feelings. One way to see this is by using people: things like borrowing money but not giving it back or asking for favors but never reciprocating. Many narcissists use charm to get what they want but can become real bullies when someone disappoints them.
Two useful markers of narcissistic behavior I’ve learned are, first, noticing if someone is curious about you — asking about your life and demonstrating real interest in your answers. The second is the ability to express gratitude privately. Spend any time at all around a narcissist, and you’ll notice the words “thank you” only slip from their lips if they have an audience.
One of the trickiest things about navigating narcissists is that they often display appealing qualities. They aren’t necessarily all-bad people. Narcissists can be warm, funny and generous. When you’re in their good graces, they can go out of their way to praise you or teach you or otherwise make you feel important. That’s the sticky paradox at the heart of getting involved with this personality type. They tend to effortlessly offer a lot of what many of us crave, but only for a time, and always for an emotional price.
Narcissists can very often feel:
— Fun: They’re natural pleasure-seekers, so, no surprise, they’re good at enjoying the finer things in life. But when real life comes knocking, narcissists check out.
— Powerful/Effective/Exciting: Because they don’t care about other people’s feelings or breaking rules, many narcissists thrive in competition, including business, politics and entertainment, including the sex industry.
— Familiar: For those of us raised by narcissistic parents, we can get trapped in the cycle of seeking out unconditional love and approval from folks who are fundamentally incapable of giving it. Until we break that cycle — therapy can play a critical role — we’re doomed to keep repeating it.
Dealing with Narcissists
According to Dr. Ramani, the very best way to manage narcissists is to steer clear of them in the first place. Many of us, however, don’t have that luxury. They’re our family members, coworkers and neighbors. If you do have to deal with a toxic personality, her best advice is to use a method known as “going grey rock.” As the name implies, it means making yourself uninteresting, not reacting, not feeding the narcissist’s need for excitement and attention. Avoid unnecessary contact. Keep any necessary exchanges brief, flat and boring. Eventually, the narcissist will get bored and move on. You can read more about the grey rock technique here.
One thing I can tell you for certain — if this person is a true narcissist, they will never atone for how they’re behaving right now. Many of us in the midst of a breakup will do terrible things that we’re ashamed of later. It is possible this person will, in time, come around, apologize, and behave in a way that will make some kind of future relationship feasible.
But don’t hold your breath. During this difficult period, I advise you to stay far away from them. Do not initiate contact, and do not respond to their flame-throwing. As difficult as it may be, you’ll need to heal from this rupture and betrayal on your own.
The one good thing your ex is offering you is perfect clarity: You are 1,000 percent better off without them.
Until next time, be sweet to yourself.
Lola Davina is a longtime veteran of the sex industry and author of Thriving in Sex Work: Sex Work and Money, her followup to the formative Thriving in Sex Work: Heartfelt Advice for Staying Sane in the Sex Industry. You can get the audio version of Sex Work and Money via Awesound here. Contact Davina at Lola.Davina@ynotcam.com and visit her on Twitter at @Lola_Davina.
Image of Lola Davina courtesy Pat Mazzera.