The story The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen is about a vane and insecure emperor who is more interested in being well-dressed than he is interested in governing his people. Some swindlers claim that they can weave clothes from fine fabric and that their clothes can become invisible to any subject who is unfit for their office or stupid. The Emperor, thrilled to look well dressed and discern the wise from the fools, pays the swindlers. When his noblemen were sent to inspect the new clothes, each one returned pretending to have seen beautiful garments to avoid losing favour with the Emperor. Only during the procession in the town of the Emperor in his new clothes, does a child point out that the Emperor is wearing nothing. Then, the entire town said what all had been afraid to reveal and agreed that the Emperor had no clothes.
Like the Emperor, narcissists are insecure and surround themselves with people who will feed their vanity and grandiosity. They feed their illusion and are afraid to be honest or criticize, for fear of banishment, punishment, humiliation or abuse. In a romantic relationship with a narcissist, it is a roller coaster of feeding their ego, feeling special and privileged one day, then experiencing disapproval and being demeaned the next and then trying to get back into their favour again.
According to Shahiba Arabi, in her book Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare, it is important to free oneself from the emotional abuse in the relationship with an narcissist to recognize the following five tactics.
- The idealization-devaluation-discard cycle
In the early part of the relationship you are placed on a pedestal. You are frequently complemented, constantly contacted, told because you share so many similar ideas, interests and beliefs that you are ‘soulmates’. This idealization phase makes you feel special but also dependent. It is followed being thrown off the pedestal and devaluation when your narcissist partner blows hot and cold by criticizing, comparing you unfavorably, withdrawing emotionally and giving you the silent treatment. This is the best time to leave your love relationship. Many people don’t leave, and work desperately to seek that sense of specialness the craving again. The make up-period when you accept their flimsy excuses for treating you badly in exchange for the powerful attraction and flattery, hoping to return to the previous earlier experiences. The idealization-devaluation or roller coaster break up and make up phase can occur regularly in a relationship with a narcissist. Eventually the narcissist abandons you, but unlike break ups with normal people, the narcissist will intentionally try to hurt you through silent treatment, spreading rumours or humiliating you with their new partner in public. They are trying to convince you that you are worthless. Because they saw you as their possession, the discarding of you is how they feel back in control again.
This is the technique narcissists use to convince you that your perception of their emotional abuse of you, such as their insulting comment, is faulty and inaccurate. They say things like, ‘I was just kidding. Can’t you take a joke? You are way too sensitive! Don’t take it personally!’ or ‘I never said that. You heard me wrong.’ Gaslighting undermines your confidence, self esteem and self worth.
3. Smear Campaigns
Narcissists often surround themselves with a posse of admirers who feed their grandiosity. They can be chameleon-like people pleasers who morph into whatever others want them to be at that time. But over time, like the noblemen of the Emperor in the story cited above, they know it is dangerous to be honest and assert themselves. They know that being banished can mean a smear campaign. For a romantic partner of a narcissist who tells the truth, they will be depicted to others as unstable and provoke you in public to prove it.
Many narcissists rely on your jealousy to compete for their affections. They will flirt or have an affair to create a love triangle. They do this to manipulate your emotions and maintain their control.
5. The false self and true self
The ‘false self’ is the construct of qualities and traits that the narcissist presents to the outside world to gain admiration and attention. This armour is what prevent you from seeing the ‘true self’ and the absence of empathy, insecurity and cruelty. Only during the discard phase does the narcissist reveal their ‘true self’.
How to Leave a Narcissist for Good
If your narcissist partner is physically violent, emotionally abusive, addicted to alcohol or drugs, or constantly unfaithful, and making no effort to stop, the best solution is to do whatever it takes to keep yourself safe. You must tell them to leave or you leave yourself. It is unlikely that any other strategy will work in these circumstances. The best plan is to make a clean break with no contact at all.
- Have no contact with them in person or by any medium. Block them on all social media.
- Resist any efforts to find out what they are doing as you risk them finding out and them starting up the cycle with you.
- Refuse to meet up and avoid going to places they tend to frequent.
- Do not read what the ex says on social media as it is likely there to provoke you.
- If stalked or harassed take legal action.
- Consider which friendships that are too strongly connected to your ex that you need to end.
- Fill your weekly schedule with pleasurable activities and distractions and avoid being alone when you may feel tempted to call them
- Join an online forum that relates to unhealthy and toxic relationships for ongoing support
- Keep track on your progress on a calendar and celebrate the number of days, weeks and months of no contact including noting what has been rewarding for you
- Pay attention to the beneficial results of no contact: how you are moving forward in your own life, healing from the trauma of emotional abuse and disrespect, recognizing what healthier relationships feel like.
- If you have children and need to co-parent with a narcissist, and are separated or divorced:
a. Don’t answer the phone every time they call. Let it go to voicemail and call back when you are feeling strong and confident.
b. Require email to be the regular communication method and phone for emergencies only.
c. Make sure they do not just walk in the door of your home. They must not have a key and call before coming over.
d. Have a child visitation schedule and vacation schedule in your legal Separation Agreement and ensure that it is followed. Contact your lawyer to enforce adherence to it.
e. Document everything and do not let them know you are doing so. Send documentation to your lawyer when necessary.
Healing from Emotional Abuse and Rebuilding Your Self Worth
Once you have ended your relationship with a narcissist, it will take time and effort to heal the emotional wounds and rebuild your self worth. It is important to spend more time with family and friends who care about you and avoid being in a relationship for a while so you can heal emotionally. This would be good time for you to enter therapy and work on both the damage to your self worth by the relationship and any childhood issues or trauma that made you vulnerable to fall for, and stay in, the unhealthy relationship.
It will also be important to learn from the experience so that if you want to be in a relationship in the future, you will not fall for a narcissist again.
- To keep yourself from dating a narcissist again, become a well informed about what narcissism is.
- Recognize what it is in you that is attracted to this kind of person.
- if you put yourself in situations where there is preponderance of narcissists, find a different place to meet a potential mate.
- Be ready to cut your losses early – if you suspect you are dating a narcissist:
- Watch for the behaviours of a narcissist
- Don’t focus on looks as much as character
- Distinguish ‘chemistry’ (attraction) from a deeper experience of love
- Go slowly, because long-lasting relationships can take a long time to develop
- Focus on the friendship part of the relationship
- Listen to your friends’ or family members’ impressions of your date
The little boy who called out the Emperor for being naked when all the adults colluded in the deception and promoted an illusion out of fear about falling from favour, has an important message. Can we find the truth, courage and confidence to be like the little boy? If you are trying to leave a toxic relationship with a narcissist and find compassion for yourself, consider how you might find that determination within yourself.