A scene from “Gaslight,” a film about a narcissist’s sadistic manipulation of his wife
There will come a time, most likely, when you come face to face with someone who has a personality disorder, or many traits thereof. These people will boggle all logic and confuse you emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, leaving you feeling unsure of yourself at every turn. If allowed to persist, this person will deprive you of your self-esteem and happiness while you practically beg your abuser to do it some more. Until, that is, you figure them out.
In this article, I’m mostly focusing on narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. There is some overlap in the traits between the two, and without a professional diagnosis, you may never know for sure which one applies, but at least you can figure out whom to avoid.
It is important to understand that people who are diagnosed with these disorders are mentally ill. Even if they seek out professional treatment, however, they will not be cured. These disorders are incurable, but therapy can help them to cope. It is also important to understand that these people actually suffer a lot, so try to have compassion for that. Of course, have compassion for yourself, too, and do whatever is necessary to protect yourself from them. But you can hold compassion from afar.
1. Their reality is not your reality
Corollaries: Their truth is not your truth. Their memories are not your memories.
The narcissist/borderline (n/b for short) has a strange relationship with reality. They inhabit their own. Most healthy people walk around with at least a similar idea of reality, of history, and of shared memory. We don’t always agree on the details, but in general, we agree. The narcissist/borderline, however, creates their own, and it can change from minute to minute.
Let’s say you remember a past incident that the n/b shares with you. Chances are high that you will not only remember it differently, but the details may change radically with time, particularly if the memory is of something that the n/b does not want to acknowledge or deal with. In some cases, the n/b may deny that it happened at all. This is because the n/b occupies a fantasy world of their own making. In the case of a narcissist, reality must conform to their expectations of being adored and valued. Anything that conflicts with this fantasy must either be changed or deleted. For a borderline, the situation is similar, in that their fantasy world must protect them from criticism at all costs. Anything that detracts from their own elevated view of themselves (the person they try to project to the world) must go.
For example, if you point out that the n/b hurt you in the past, they are likely to change their memory of the incident to deny what you say, or to deny any memory of it at all. This feels like lying, but the n/b actually believes it. Your accusation is so damaging to their sense of self (and self-esteem), that they simply rewire their brain to remember it in a way that conforms to their image of themselves. This is important to understand. You can argue until you’re blue in the face, but you will never convince them that anything except their fantasy is the truth.
2. They exaggerate their accomplishments
Corollary: They are perfect, and they are always right.
Speaking of fantasy, the n/b has unconsciously created a “perfect persona” that they show to the world, and they expect to be congratulated for it. This persona is more stable in a narcissist, while the borderline’s may change depending on whom they’re with. The borderline has no real sense of self, so they change their personality to conform to the current crowd and situation, hoping to maximize the validation they receive from those around them. The narcissist can also be flexible with the crowd, but in their case, they are working to find the best way to manipulate those around them.
Elements of the perfect persona may be real (“I graduated from high school”), but some elements may be fabrications (“I graduated from Yale”). Without background knowledge or a little digging, you may not know the difference—until it matters. If you’re an employer, you may have hired a charming new employee with a great resume, but if they’re narcissist or borderline, there may be a good deal of inflation involved. Unfortunately, you won’t find out until it’s too late.
For example, I know a n/b who is essentially a technician, but who routinely passes himself off as a “scientist” and “physicist.” The person in question does not even hold a college degree. It’s no different than a car mechanic claiming to be an electrical engineer.
In politics, claiming that you make more than you actually do, or making a statement like, “I alone can fix it,” is without a doubt a sign of a n/b.
3. They can be very charming
Corollary: If they seem like the perfect [X], they probably aren’t.
Unless you are in a fairly close relationship with a n/b, you will probably find them utterly charming, helpful, courteous, and dear. They may go out of their way to help you out. They may be completely agreeable in every way. But there is always a price.
The narcissist demands to be adored and revered. As long as you serve this need, they will do anything for you. They will be your best ally. But God help you if you cross them. Unfortunately, you may not intend or know that you have until it’s too late. A crossed narcissist is an ugly thing, and they will make you pay, socially, in your career, in your relationships—even physically.
The borderline needs to be adored and revered. They cannot function without it, so they will bend over backwards to impress you with what a great person they are. But they can’t maintain it indefinitely.
4. They are master manipulators
Corollary: They are addicted to power and the need to control you and the world.
Neither the narcissist or borderline can maintain the fictional Superperson facade forever, so they are extremely good at finding what makes you tick. If you’re an empathic, compassionate person, then they will show you a vulnerable side that makes you feel sorry for them and want to help them. If you feel vulnerable or lack confidence in an area, they will seek to exacerbate your lack of confidence. If you’re good at something, they will work to knock you off the pedestal of your competence.
The n/b lures you in with too-good-to-be true behavior, literally bowling you over with their wonderfulness. (If you feel swept off your feet, run.) This first stage is a honeymoon, in which they are perfect, you are adored as perfect, and there are no problems whatsoever. This feels too good to be true because it is. Once you get suckered in by their awesome behavior, and they know that you are emotionally invested, they begin to throw curveballs.
5. They are highly critical
Corollary: You will never be good enough.
If you are entwined with a n/b, then you become part of their sphere, so you begin to reflect on them. That is, you are now an extension of them, and you are expected to maintain the perfect persona of their fantasy. And you can’t. “How it looks” now matters a great deal.
Although in the honeymoon phase you could do no wrong, they begin to point out your flaws. Maybe little things, like, you don’t load the dishwasher properly, or you don’t get the right brand of soup. After awhile, they move on to more personal critiques: the way you look, the way you act, the things you like to do, the people you hang out with, the way you do practically anything. Now you’re feeling less happy and kind of bugged, so you mention it, only to be met with something like, “I’m only telling you this because I care about you” or “I’m just trying to help; stop being so defensive” or even “I’m concerned about your health.” In other words, you are the one with the problem, not them.
The n/b will continue to undermine your self-esteem until you start to believe that you’re the lucky one because they picked you. As you continue to fall under this manipulative spell, the n/b will try to control more and more about you: what you’re allowed to do and how and whom you’re allowed to see. They may employ gaslighting techniques, which make you doubt your own mind and senses. They may also become physically abusive if you offer them any resistance to their control.
If you have dealings with a n/b (at work, for example), they may not have the emotional hook to control you, so if you resist them, they may resort to stabbing you in the back and talking about you to others to cast you in a bad light. Some n/b personalities have a hard time keeping a job as a result of their desire to “stir the pot.” If the n/b feels unappreciated at work, you can expect high drama to ensue. I know several borderlines who kept getting fired as a result of their illness. On the other hand, if the n/b is the boss, it’s time to find a new job.
6. They’re emotionally unstable
Corollary: You walk on eggshells constantly.
Because the n/b reality/fantasy is not your own, you’re never quite sure where you will meet the n/b. Will it be a good day, or a bad day? Will this be a good thing, or a bad thing? Will you be praised, or will you suffer the wrath of the Great God/dess? Did you give the right answer? Are you wearing the right thing?
An angry n/b is not a pretty sight, and it can be quite scary, particularly if you’re not prepared. If you threaten to leave the n/b, they may beg your forgiveness and swear it won’t happen again. But it always does. As a result, you will either actually leave, or you will become used to walking on eggshells around the sleeping dragon.
7. They never apologize
Corollaries: They never take responsibility for their feelings and actions. A counterattack always beats an attack.
The n/b can never really apologize. If cornered, they may attempt some verbal acrobatics to avoid taking responsibility for hurting you, but rest assured that it is really your fault. For example, the n/b may say that they didn’t intend to hurt you, so it can’t really hurt you. Or they may attack you for being too “sensitive.” Or they may offer “a good reason” why they did it, so you shouldn’t be bothered.
In short, when confronted with an unpleasant truth, the n/b will respond with a vast array of counterattacks to prove that they are in the clear, and that the problem is entirely yours. You can never win an argument with a narcissist or borderline. They will fight you to the death to preserve their view of themselves.
And, of course, the n/b refuses to apologize because they’re never wrong. (But you are.) Being wrong is the worst thing that can happen to a n/b because it means they are flawed. This is not permitted in their fantasy view of themselves. The perfect example here, of course, is Donald Trump, who is constitutionally incapable of apologizing.
8. They have no empathy or compassion for others
Corollary: The world is black and white, good or bad, and you’re either for me or against me.
The n/b views the world through a lens that is their (fantasy) view of themselves. This fantasy may change with the circumstances or company (particularly for the borderline), but that is the only way in which they can view the world. If you validate their view of themselves (you’re “on their side”), then you become an extension of their ego, flattering them with your positive affirmation. If you do not validate their view of themselves (you’re “against them”) and basically notice that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, they will attack you mercilessly.
The n/b is incapable of empathy because everything is about them. It has nothing to do with you. You suffer? No, they suffer, and they will tell you how in great detail. They only care about how you make them feel. Your feelings are irrelevant.
The psychological term for the “all good” or “all bad” behavior is splitting. The narcissist has a long memory of grudges, and once they’ve decided you’re in the “all bad” category, you’re toast. They will gladly throw you under the bus in a heartbeat. They don’t mind torturing you forever if need be. The borderline, however, only has a grudge memory of a few seconds. Whatever you’re doing to them right now defines whether you are good or bad. So if you’ve had it out with a borderline, they can quickly forget it and act as though nothing has happened. You may remember, but as long as you’re being agreeable in the present moment, then it doesn’t matter to them. This behavior is confusing and may cause you to believe the borderline when they tell you that you’re making mountains out of mole hills. Again, it’s your problem. They may even (subconsciously) decide to forget that it ever happened, leaving you with the memory that they now deny.
If you’re unfortunate enough to have a family member who is a n/b, you may have grown up believing that this crazy-making behavior is “normal,” and it can be really hard to understand that you were never the one with the problem. While the n/b expects endless empathy and compassion from you, you’re never on the receiving end. Trying to please someone who can never be pleased can cause great harm to your self-esteem, particularly if the person in question is your parent.
9. They often have addictions
Corollary: They are needy.
When we talk about addiction, we tend to think first about drugs and alcohol. While these are certainly avenues of addiction that the n/b may pursue, there are other, more subtle addictions that may come into play. Here are just a few possibilities:
- Working out
The point of an addiction is to provide comfort and the feeling of power. The n/b craves power over others because it gives them a sense of control in an out-of-control world. Sex, pornography, working out, and money all give a sense of personal power and power over others. One n/b once said that “eating was the only time he felt relaxed.” This same person was also very money-focused. Everything was about money, and it was his primary means of controlling and manipulating others. In the honeymoon stage, this individual would shower people with lavish gifts, but then later he would use these gifts as an excuse to call in favors or get you to do what he wanted—even resorting to threats. There is no such thing as a “free” gift from a n/b. There are always strings attached.
Sometimes the n/b requires “negative attention.” The borderline, in particular, may find themselves bored by a happy status quo and decide to “stir the pot” and make life interesting for them. They may do so by dropping a verbal or emotional bomb on you right before they leave the house. Or they may decide to open an issue that they already know is sure to instigate a fight or hard feelings. However they do it, drama is the cure to their boredom—and another way to manipulate you.
Not every n/b has the money or station in life to exert the kind of control that they would like, so they are very creative at finding ways to manipulate others. They are actually incredibly needy and require constant validation. If a n/b cannot manipulate those around them, however, they are likely to become even more angry and desperate in their attempts to do so. It’s not unusual for the n/b to get worse with age, particularly if they are unemployed or retired and the opportunities for “fresh meat” dry up.
On the other hand, if a n/b actually does have power and money, look out. They can leave a lot of damage in their wake.
10. They have no self-esteem
Corollary: They are thin-skinned and cannot abide any criticism of themselves.
It seems counterintuitive to say that a narcissist, in particular, has no self-esteem, but this is actually the case. The grand facade of their mental fantasy is a bulwark against their own inner feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. They need constant validation to reassure them that they are powerful, relevant human beings. It doesn’t matter if they heard this a mere five minutes ago; they need to hear it again now.
People who are not “on their side” present a direct threat to the n/b’s fantasy world. The n/b greatly fears anyone who sees the truth about them, so their immediate response is to extinguish the truth-teller. They may do so in the form of character assassination, deceit and outright lies, or even physical violence (there is a spectrum of narcissism, with sociopathic killers being on the far end of it).
In essence, the n/b would ideally like to sit on a golden throne while everyone else sings their praises. This isn’t the way the world works, but it’s what they crave in order to feel good about themselves. When your self-esteem is that low, it takes a great deal to raise it to an adequate height.
11. They cannot “get better”
If you are in any kind of a relationship with a n/b, know that they cannot get better. The n/b is unlikely to seek out therapy because they are unlikely to admit (because of their disorder) to the problem. Consider: it’s like asking them to admit that they are flawed. That is a difficult proposition.
Even with therapy, they cannot be cured. Therapy can help them find ways to cope so that they sabotage themselves less, but they are always going to be who they are. Most borderlines suffered a traumatic childhood, which wired their brain. It’s very difficult to undo that kind of damage. Narcissists are even less likely to admit to the problem than borderlines are.
How you continue to deal (or not) with a n/b depends on what you want from the relationship. If you want to be loved, valued, and respected for who you are, that’s probably never going to happen. If they are really abusive, you may need to leave the relationship altogether, for your own sake. Whatever you do, you need to have realistic expectations. The promises of a n/b to reform or change are unlikely to materialize.