Anyone that has survived a relationship with a narcissist can testify how damaging and crazy-making it can be. We’ve covered in previous articles how toxic relationships can get in the way of your fitness and life goals, and given you tips on how to navigate those challenging relationships in a way that keeps your needs and your goals first. One of the most difficult and abusive relationships to deal with are romantic relationships with a narcissist. In today’s post we have put together a short guide to the narcissists playbook, and the 4 steps that they covertly follow to take control of your life. If you have been fortunate enough to live life to this point without having entered into a relationship with a narcissist, this article will help you recognize the red flags that you should be looking out for to avoid the emotional devastation that they inflict on their victims.
In the age of endless instagram selfies and surgically enhanced adult age ‘influencers’ prancing around half naked as a substitute for talent, all in the name of worshiping an algorithm that delivers ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ (yes, I’m increasingly disgusted by the oily taint that covers everything in social media), you might think that you are well versed in spotting narcissists.
Question: How many ‘fitness’ accounts do you follow where the influencers primary content is themselves posing for the camera mostly naked? Ask yourself - would you feel comfortable doing this day in and day out? Would you spend hours taking pics of yourself in the mirror and then posting them for strangers?
You might be able to spot the tell-tale signs - a lack of sympathy or empathy, the need for attention at any cost, an unyielding attitude of self-importance. But when you are in the throes of a new relationship with someone that has narcissistic tendencies, things can get foggy. Sudden shifts in someone’s behavior, and the more obvious red-flags can easily get lost in the rush of new feelings and experiences.
Emotionally aware and empathetic people often draw the attention of narcissists. According to Erin Leonard, a practicing psychologist who has written for Psychology Today, there are 4 phases of ‘control and conditioning’ that narcissists often take before taking over someone’s life and emotional compass. In today's article, we are going to have Leonard explain these stages, so that we can avoid falling victim to them. If you are currently in a relationship with a Narcissist, understanding the phases and comparing them to your own lived experiences might just be enough to help you start to break the cycle of control and abuse.
Phase 1: The Attraction.
“A narcissist is often extremely attracted to a person who is emotionally intelligent. He or she strives to get close to a person who is warm and caring” Leonard explains. The emotionally aware person on the receiving end of these feelings of attraction often feel flattered and validated by the narcissist’s attention. Many narcissists are extremely charming, at least initially. The narcissist typically ‘love-bombs’ their intended victims, orchestrating an intense, almost over the top level of romantic emotions that make their victims feel like they have met ‘the one’. The victim misinterprets the narcissist hyper courtship rituals as genuine attraction. The narcissist will make their victims feel ‘special’ and shower them with attention and praise. In the early stages of courtship, the narcissist will work overtime to learn their victims emotional patterns, history and vulnerabilities, all under the guise of getting to know them. Once they have a map of their victims sensitivities, they will start to precision guide the ‘love-bombing’ by using what they know about you to press your buttons. The victim opens up and overshares because they begin to trust the narcissist on the back of all the praise and validation they are receiving. Armed with your emotional history and sensitivities, the narcissist will then adjust themselves to become the person that the victim needs them to be, taking on a new, important presence in the victims life.
The attraction phase can feel like one of the most intense emotional whirlwinds you’ve ever experienced. This ‘Hollywood level’ attraction phase lasts until the narcissist has their victim on their hook, and they are emotionally invested. Then Leonard says, things begin to change…
Phase 2: The Narcissist Feels Small.
Once the narcissist realizes that they have their victim on their hook emotionally, they start to consider what their victim has that they don’t, be that their emotional or intellectual intelligence, a career or social set of opportunities, or other characteristics that they want but don’t know how to attain on their own.
“Sensing the partner (victim) has abilities that they lack, creates resentment”, explains Leonard. The narcissist does not understand their victim's power because they don’t have the capacity to speak or understand a genuine emotional language. The narcissist can, at best, learn to mimic other people's emotional responses in an attempt to present themselves as a human being, with emotional depth and empathy, but this performance is never genuine. The narcissist will seek out the traits that they covet in an attempt to knit together a more convincing human like disguise. “In time, the Narcissist realizes that [what they are looking for] is a commodity that cannot be extrapolated from the other person and possessed, so they resort to something else - manipulation”.
During this phase the narcissist will often start to attempt to covertly destabilize or eliminate the primary relationships in their victims life - moving with a subtle aggressiveness against close friends and family, sewing seeds of doubt and friction wherever they can. The narcissist will tell the victims friends or work colleagues private or sensitive information about them in an attempt to undermine those relationships and sew discontent. The narcissist works to isolate their victim so that they can become the central relationship in their victims life, severing their lines of support from close friends and family to consolidate their power and influence.
Phase 3: The Narcissist seeks to Sabotage.
According to healthline, narcissists experience a strong desire to seek out excessive attention and admiration, often with little thought or care for the people around them.
When their victim expresses their own agency, in the form of their emotional intelligence, education, work skills, or any talent which signals their individual power, the narcissist will begin to target their victims confidence in these areas. The narcissist’s methods for chipping away at their victims' confidence come in a variety of methods - jokes at their victim’s expense, a disparaging nickname, publicly humiliating them (think screaming or making a scene in a very public place) or downgrading or dismissing their accomplishments and victories. These are all classic examples straight out of the narcissist playbook.
Given enough time, the narcissist will grind down their victims' confidence. The victim starts to doubt even the most basic things about themselves, and begins to lose their sense of self. Anything, no matter how small or trivial, is up for criticism. Narcissists often attack their victims body-image and fitness goals, cruely undermining the comfort that they feel in their own bodies. No area is off limits to withering criticism. Nothing can be allowed to stand independent of the narcissist's control. If the victim is working on their fitness, the narcissist will find a lever to discourage them into quitting. As the victim's confidence disintegrates, there is usually a limited number of people left in their life at this point to signal their concern or offer support. The narcissist then moves in and attempts to claim the victims traits or opportunities for themselves.
Phase 4: The narcissist disguises their emotional abuse by being nice.
Leonard believes that narcissists are occasionally “nice” to cloak their emotional abuse. “Suddenly they are kind and complimentary, acting like the fit of rage that they threw an hour ago never happened. The sudden change in temperament often causes confusion in an emotionally intelligent partner who naturally recognizes the good in people. He or she wonders if the toxic tendencies are exaggerated in his or her own mind. After all, a person is allowed to have a bad day. Now, the emotionally intelligent person feels foolish for perceiving the narcissist as mean”, Leonard writes.
Isolated, without the benefit of close friends and family, the victim can lose months or even years of their life trapped in the phase 4, packing and unpacking their bags, setting ‘redlines’ that keep getting crossed by the narcissist and becoming increasingly numb to the constant abuse. Once you have reached this point, it can be hard to break free. Leonard says that [victims] should ask themselves, “would I ever do what he or she did?” If the answer is no, make a note of it, it will help you reset your emotional NorthStar and begin to navigate your feelings independently of the narcissist.
If all of this feels familiar, you might be (or have been) in a relationship with a narcissist. This article is meant as a high level overview of some of the most common patterns in the narcissists playbook, but there are others behaviours that can be just as predatory. Being in a sexually intimate relationship with a narcissist can get dark and ugly in ways that we didn’t cover here. Withholding sex, or using physical intimacy as an opportunity to further attack the victims confidence is routine and can be emotionally devastating. Narcissists often cheat on their partners without empathy or concern for their physical health. It often takes years of therapy to start to unravel the negative impact of being in a relationship with a narcissist.
Opening up enough independent space in your own head to start to hold an awareness of what is happening is the first step in breaking free. Take the time to reinvest in yourself, particularly your health. The quiet void that envelopes your mind when you exercise will give you a much needed break from the narcissists emotional cyclone. Start to reclaim yourself and your confidence one workout at a time. Take a stand. Fitness has helped many people overcome incredible emotional trauma. If you are looking for this sort of lifeline, I invite you to come and train with us, our community of supportive BodyRockers and coaches will help you to re-establish the external support and connections with people that you are lacking. Feeling the power of movement in your body will plant seeds of strength and help you find and reclaim the parts of you that feel lost or stolen. Our Beginner Bootcamp is 30 days long - and for a limited time you can get a full year of unlimited access (365 days) to our fitness streaming platform BodyRockPlus.com for just $69 with code: NY22. The videos stream on any device, so we will be just a click away from you the whole time. Reach out and give us the chance to give you the support that you deserve.
Please know that it is possible to find your way out again and break the cycle.
I got married at 42 after enjoying a very happy and successful dating life as a single man. The woman I selected to marry was 14-years younger, beautiful, highly educated, and very successful. On our honeymoon she had many reasons not to have sex. This continued throughout our entire marriage. 17-years later I was a shell of my former self. I was filled with doubt about myself due to my wife ignoring me. She never asked me what I thought or felt about anything. On the rare occasion we did have sex it would be only 20 minutes of interaction and many rules laid out as to what I wasn’t allowed to do. When I would gently say I think we can create something better for us to feel closer and enjoy more I would be told I was complaint, and my complaining was why she didn’t give me sex more than a couple times a year. Any time I raised an issue the conversation would immediately turn to what was wrong with me. Work was everything to her. Work validation is what she lived for. She would regularly demean my talents and contributions. If I asked if we could talk about an issue I would be told I was too needy. She’d monitor the length of discussions and explain that we had been talking about a particular subject for 15 minutes and that she had listened enough. She would never address an issue in the moment, but rather she would defer by saying we could talk about it later— but later never came. . I am 6’3”, 205, ridiculously fit, very handsome, articulate and funny. She loved to have me on her arm and show me off. But when we would get home alone she would turn into a different person and completely ignore me. I would become insecure and ask her what was wrong? Did I do something wrong? She would be acting like a sulking child while I beat myself over not being enough to make her happy. She provide Very little physical affection, unless of course she needed a hug. I spent 17-years taking care of her emotionally and yet when we she left she told her friends she had been taking care of me. Her final goodbye came to me by text where she thanked me for my friendship and love, but she wasn’t coming back. No explanation as to what I was lacking was provided to me, but I discovered she had been running me down to her friends for years. Her friends had no idea about her many lesbian affairs during our marriage. Or how she would constantly tell me what I’m not. When I explained how I wanted to go back into my field of expertise she told me I was too old to be significant. This was said to me despite the fact I had always encouraged her in her career to the point of completely sacrificing my own. She even left me with her dog and other pets without looking back. I am now starting my life over. I wonder what my ex-wife’s friends would say if they knew she would suck her thumb when she got stressed? Or that she suffers from perfectionist syndrome? Closet binge eating? Hidden sexual activity that is extreme and when I’d question it she would become infuriated. And through all of it my confidence had been gradually eroded to the point that I had no idea who I was or where I was going. I’m so embarrassed that I allowed myself to be abused and neglected to the point of losing my essence. I am much better now and understand how I allowed this to happen, but it has been quite a journey. Healthy relationships share. They have an equal amount of giving and receiving. Both partners take care of each other and put the relationship first. I hope being male and sharing this helps someone.
I dated one for about a year, and I left. I loved him so much. 2 1/2 years later he reached back out and said he was making changes and so we tried again…7 1/2 months later on Christmas day 2021 he comes over, has dinner and then tells me we were just friends with benefits this whole time and leaves. He knows how special Christmas is to me and it was a very special holiday when we first started dating. I was taken aback by his cruelty…and the worst part is, I miss him. I know better, I do. I miss him.
I was in a narcissistic relationship, and I just wanted to share this info. If I spent any money I would have to account for it and explain why I spent it and what exactly it was for. So asking someone to spend money to help them in this kind of relationship is also asking them to risk being more abused for choosing themselves, where if this was free they wouldn’t have to explain money as they didn’t have to spend any. Also, usually someone in a relationship with a narcissist doesn’t have access to a credit card or even a joint credit card. Just thought I’d help remind you victims are that, they don’t have means to spend money even when we know it would help.