We have interviewed leading experts in the field of personality disorders. Each guest brings a fresh perspective and counselor Melissa Richards is no exception. Melissa has a wonderful way of stating the obvious with some punch. As all survivors of narcissistic abuse know, sometimes it takes a punch in order for us to get unshackled from those trauma bonds. Join Melissa and I for some frank talk about narcissistic personality disorder and the road to recovery.
Tell me about your practice?
I have been in practice for roughly 5 years now. I knew since high school that counseling was the song of my heart. I began my practice in Tampa, FL where I did my internship, but am now currently in Miami. I see clients all of the US via skype and teleconferencing for a variety of issues, but I really enjoy with what I know first-hand. I find the insider information helpful in guiding the treatment process (although objectivity is valuable in its own right too). Nonetheless, the things I know first-hand are codependency, anxiety, eating disorders (of every variety), grief, self-image, divorce, and narcissistic abuse recovery.
I also very much enjoy writing and public speaking, and I welcome any opportunities to do more of them.
Other issues that I treat regularly include relationships, cutting, trauma, and adult adoptee issues. All of that to say, in the mental health field, there are generalist and specialists. I consider myself to be a generalist with a couple specialties. Today, I am excited to talk a little bit about something I understand from both personal and professional experience–Narcissistic abuse recovery.
You wanted to talk about narcissistic abuse. Why?
Because it’s something I understand first hand and something I am seeing more and more of in a clinical setting. It’s tricky thing–tricky to define and tricky to comprehend. It manifests itself in so many different ways and goes far beyond what the black and white print of the DSM can adequately describe. Narcissists come in every form and flavor, which makes them very hard to detect. They are chameleons as they need to be so they are not easily recognized.
I see many clients come in with many issues and at the root of it is that they are in an abusive situation with a narcissist. Many times they simply don’t know it. They think they themselves are the problem, too sensitive, too needy, too (you fill in the blank) and need to be more patient with the internal wounds of their partner and the way those “wounds” are displayed.
I myself didn’t recognize why I was having PTSD symptoms and experiencing such heavy, undefinable feelings at times. The feelings that narcissistic abuse invokes are not unique, but recipients often feel alone and misunderstood as they themselves and the people around them struggle to identify what is actually even going on. Often times, they think the narcissist is just a selfish, angry, struggling, wounded, emotionally incapable, or dense person.
I want to help set people free of this. To give them a sense of understanding about their experiences, to offer education, hope, empowerment, and a sense of community surrounding the subject.
Understanding what narcissistic abuse is makes it definable. When we can define something, it automatically feels more manageable. Otherwise, interacting with one feels a lot like playing a game without knowing the rules. It’s scary and overwhelming. But when we have definitive words and an understanding for the situation, then we know better how to face it. It gives us a way to articulate and express—to externalize. Not being able to articulate or explain why we have the feelings we do is part of what makes us feel like we are the crazy ones.
Tell me about your personal experience with narcissism?
I am always reluctant to talk about these things from a personal perspective because I don’t want to seem like a woman with a vendetta. But it is such a growing epidemic that I would consider it an injustice to say nothing. Narcissists are everywhere. They fill every role. Many narcissists are parents, friends, coworkers, romantic partners, and authorities in churches, schools, the medical field, the legal system, and institutions of any kind.
I was married to a narcissist for 8 years. Everyone else could recognize this, but me. I couldn’t identify that something was terribly amiss until the latter years of our relationship. He was my best friend (at least to my estimation), until everything came untangled and the house of cards came crashing down. Many intricately woven lies I couldn’t even imagine began to surface. He was two people. One was my advocate, friend, and the one who understood me. The other was a skilled liar, cold, dark, manipulative, calculating, and cruel. He’d go for the jugular if he needed to or he could cry big crocodile tears to garnish my sympathy, depending which was more advantageous at the moment. He told many elaborate, fictional stories intended to soften my heart and distract from my concerns. Stories that effectively redirected attention from what else was happening in the relationship things—all the things that weren’t working for me about it.
Lying was as easy as breathing for him, and I was eager to believe him. And, oh, the affairs that wouldn’t stop. There was an endless unhappiness in him—a particular vacancy and darkness. Honestly, I didn’t realize how heavy was the weight of it all. How subtle were the accusations. How callous were our interactions. I would cry and plead. He wasn’t moved. I learned to stop crying. I learned to monitor my words. To not give him anything to point at to deflect. I learned to speak carefully and precisely and be careful what I revealed. I can recognize this same quality in many clients, who speak very carefully, precisely. I know they’ve been conditioned to measure their words. It’s a matter of survival. And I recognize it in them just as I was conditioned.
I learned to not expect much. To try to be content with what I got. When I left him, I left with a broken heart, knowing in my head that I had to for my own good, but still not wanting to. I never was able to get fully angry at him. I just felt too tired and drained for the energy anger required. I still felt a closeness, protective, a familiarity, even as I left. I didn’t realize a lot of the closeness I felt was due to the chaotic state in which we got married, lending itself to immediate trauma bonding.
When I was going through my counseling internship, I remember a therapist friend asking me “What if he never changes? Then what will you do?” That was a question I didn’t want to entertain. But it was an important question. She knew what I didn’t yet see. That he wasn’t going to change. His methods might change, but overall the cycle and nature of it would not.
In contrast, my second narcissist seemed the antithesis of my first. The stage had been beautifully set by my previous one for this new version. He seemed so polished, caring, smooth, gentle, understanding, and very spiritual. This is why I know it’s tricky when reading articles to actually define narcissism very well. I was looking to avoid the signs and particular manifestations of my ex-husband, but I didn’t realize how many forms narcissism takes.
This one was very good at mirroring everything I wanted, near perfection. He is a hero everywhere he goes. When things began to show themselves- lack of thoughtfulness, promises unkept, unreliability, bragging, poor prioritization, confusing explanations, lies, triangulation with his ex, flirting with other women, the silent treatment (all of it done behind the scenes), it frustrated me that I couldn’t explain what was happening. It felt vague, undefinable, but I knew I wasn’t comfortable with the trends I saw in the relationship. I was far from my own support system by the time it all started revealing itself. One of the most painful parts was to be made to look like I was needy or selfish or insensitive—to feel misunderstood, but bound to silence. Who was going to listen to me and believe me? And wasn’t it my fault anyway for not seeing the signs? Shouldn’t I have learned the first time?
He was subtle. And that’s the point, so you don’t recognize it. It’s meant to be concealed. Narcissists are master strategists, selecting what they conceal and reveal. I later learned that it wasn’t my fault for not seeing what was intentionally hidden from me. That it’s not stupidity. It’s humanity. He had a way of putting ideas in my mind and then blaming me for pursuing them. For planting inconsistent, destabilizing messages, veiled comparisons, and conflict with his ex, all the while publicly portraying how good he was being to me.
I began to notice that he was good in measurable ways but not the intangible ones. I noticed if he was kind, then it came with an expectation of effusive gratitude and subtle implications that I should be a better partner myself. Attention was drawn to things normal people do without acknowledgment. The right answers were given, but they were just too perfect to be real. Like reading a script. There was a false humility. A false spirituality. A false kindness. And cruelty and callousness just below the surface. He would remark about his great looks, his great love, his success, his everything. It really all came back to him in the end. And I was supposed to give more and require less because his life was demanding. Essentially, I was to learn my place as the lowest priority of his pursuits.
Eventually, I walked away from this one too, willing to lick my wounds in private.
But again, my story is not unique.
What are some challenges that you have in treating it?
Defining it first of all. There is a difference between clinical narcissism and cultural/layman’s definition of narcissism. Confidence and ego-centrist is not the same as narcissism. One comes from a place of insecurity and vanity, while the other comes from a desire to dominate, subject, humiliate, and manipulate other people. It’s the difference between selfishness and cruelty. One can look like the other, but if we’re shading things, one is darker. Selfishness is ego-centric and doesn’t see other people’s needs. Narcissism sees them and doesn’t care. It leverages them instead.
There are shared qualities of the two in that they sometimes seem to manifest in similar ways, being concerned about the “appearance” of things. But the root of it is a bit different. Although both are destructive.
Secondly, it can be hard to pinpoint due to the many ways that it manifests. It can be hard to recognize and impossible to treat. You can work on behavior modification, but I have never (and many other therapists report the same) seen a narcissist make a true recovery. The thing that motivates most of us to want to change/grow is exactly the thing that is pathological in them. The core issue remains, even if you are able to address some of the specific manifestations. It’s a bit like playing Whack-a-mole. Pluck it out and it will show up again somewhere else. Because they don’t change the underlying root, only a specific behavior modification gets addressed, if you’re lucky.
Many narcissists don’t come to counseling for personal growth—they come to vent, to incriminate their target, and to perhaps have solutions (but not ones that address internal changes), to appear contrite and effortful, and to possibly to string along a victim. Quite frankly, they aren’t sorry. So the motivation to change is not there. They just want the pieces to fall in line as needed to serve them. If counseling is a necessary strategy for that, then so be it.
Trust me, counselors also get their own version of idealization, devaluation, and hoovering from these clients.
Red Flags? Signs to recognize them by?
It manifest so many ways, so helping people understand the core, as opposed to the manifestation always becomes tricky. People always say but my ___________ doesn’t do this or doesn’t do that when reading articles or researching the signs of a manifestation.
At the heart of narcissism is the consuming motivation to elevate one’s own state, one way or another (regardless of the method), at all cost. If people are a casualty, then it’s unfortunate, but necessary. They look for opportunity to put themselves in the dominate position emotionally, financially, and across any other plane you can imagine.
You have to pay attention to both external and internal cues. This is not an exhaustive list, but…
Externally, some good indicators are they don’t seem to have good relationships in practice, even if they claim otherwise. When you observe their relationships, a certain intimacy seems to be missing. A particular vacancy in them. This can take time to spot, because things appear above board at first.
You have to listen to the ways they talk about other people. It reveals the way they think. Is there a callousness? A harshness? An objectification of others? Do they relay stories of cutting others to the quick with a word or a look? Or stories of how they always come out on top? Do they subtly or overtly drop information that makes them look better? Do they report the ability charm or destroy people? Do they acknowledge they have this capacity (most of us don’t think of life and others in this way) and wield it as is serves them? Are they vengeful? Do they tell “white lies”?
Every narcissist I know will lie as they deem necessary or shade the truth, at best. If they do it in small ways, they will likely also do it in large ways. Do they have a certain conflictedness of nature, seemingly put together-but somehow seeming to need to be taken care of or needing sympathy at the same time? We all have vulnerabilities, but they have a special knack for portraying whichever side is useful at the time.
It’s helpful to watch for PATTERNS. What are the emotional and relational cycles that you run through together and separately? Do not just look at what is currently happening now. Because in the moment, you might be in a relatively peaceful phase, lulled into thinking and hoping it will last (the more of these that happen, the more instability you internalize at your core). It keeps you off balance.
For internal cues, you have to asses what’s going on inside of you. Do you feel uncomfortable in any way? Do you have a nagging feeling? Do they make you feel like you’re the exception in their life? There is a difference between being made to feel exceptional and being made to feel like an exception. If they treat other people in a certain manner, they would and will do the same to you eventually. And most assuredly, they have done it to others before you. People are who they are.
Neither of my Narcissists had close friends, which made me feel like I met a special place in their life. That made me feel like I was their confidant. As it turns out, I was just a pawn. But that is all part of the manipulation—to be made to feel special. I heard at times the painful way they talked about and handled other people – with no compassion and such cruelty, even if they pretended to have shared emotions with others. At the end of the day, I was getting the same treatment, without even knowing it, at first. It’s just that I was earlier in the process than others, or I had something to offer at that time than someone who maybe didn’t currently benefit them.
Some more questions you can as yourself are…Do you feel they are out of your league? That you need to be more? That you are so lucky to be loved by them? Do you feel embarrassed of yourself? Needy? Hopeless? Driven to be the emotional support that no one else ever was in their life (reportedly)? Do you feel you NEED this person? These internal signs are red flags. Partners should be WANTED and should feel like equals.
Both of the narcissists who impacted my life the most gave me unsettled feelings at the beginning of the relationship. Being overly analytical and self-doubting, I persisted anyway. They were very good at allying my fears, which I willingly expressed in the spirit of open communication.
Who do Narcissists prey on?
Everyone. We like to say they only pray on the empathetic and understanding, but this is not true. They see opportunity everywhere because everyone has vulnerabilities. They create vulnerabilities where they did not perhaps already exist. They will systematically fortify you in order to create a feeling of need for what they bring, even if you did not previous have that need. Then they will remove themselves and insert in subtle and over ways over and over again so you are in a frantic pattern of clinging to for fear of losing them.
They create the need if it’s not there even. They build you up to tear you down. It’s a systematic process for them. And if you’re wondering, yes they know what they are doing. Narcissists are drawn to anyone and everyone that has something to offer them, whatever that may be.
What advice do you have for those who have been or are entangled with a narcissist?
My best advice is ensure that you give yourself time and find lots of support. Time gives us opportunity to collect information and to collate all the information in a way that makes sense. This takes a bit of time. Time in a relationship. And time after one. Many things reveal themselves in time.
Recovery usually takes more time than we think it should. Post-traumatic stress disorder, thinking patterns, developing new coping skills, cultivating stability, building new support systems, and rebuilding a life takes time. You must be patient with yourself and with the process. There is a physiological and psychological bonding.
Bond breaking is traumatic and feels a lot like withdrawal from drugs because you are emotionally AND physically going through a tough adaptation process. Your brain has created many neural pathways attached to this person. The release of Oxytocin (bonding chemical) is increased when you’re in trauma (which the narcissist creates) so the bonding is quick and tight. That Oxytocin makes it so that if you’re in proximity to them, even if it’s sporadic, you will feel connected. Time allows this connection to weaken.
Your body needs to recover, your soul, your mind, your finances perhaps, your relationships. It’s a bit of a rebuilding process. A good foundation is important and will set the stage for the rest of what’s to come. So take your time to fully heal before rushing out and go, go, going. The adrenaline in your body (as a reaction to trauma) will make you feel restless. It’ll be hard to make yourself just sit still to process. You’ll want to escape. You’ll want to run from the discomfort. Don’t! You can begin to create more protection for yourselves now by becoming aware of the signs and removing people quickly who demonstrate narcissistic traits or make you feel unsettled in some way.
Observe. Observe yourself. Observe them. Take time to sort things out. Months and even years after (with less frequency) I still get realizations about what was happening that I couldn’t comprehend previously or have eyes to see at the time.
But most importantly, be willing to walk away if you need. Why keep poison in your medicine cabinet, knowing the outcome if you drink it? To stay attached to a narcissist is to invite their darkness into your life?
If you know someone who is in an abusive situation—listen! a lot! It’s best to ask them questions. It’s best to validate, not accuse. We are taught that relationship is 50-50. This is not true of abuse. Abuse is 100% the abuser’s fault. Give the victim time to process, time to cycle through, time to come to new conclusions, time to gain strength. Be a gentle, validating, uncritical, but also uncompromising voice of reason. Whatever you say, speak with kindness and clarity.
And as a final note, I would highly recommend Lundy Bancroft’s Book “Why Does He Do That Anyway: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.” It has been one of the most helpful resources I use in my practice.
Is there hope?
“So should I walk around skeptical, wondering if everything has a hidden motive?”
I don’t think so. There are a lot of honest, loving people out there. You just need to be very aware that a lot of dark people also exist–people who are not moved by compassion and consider you a commodity for their use.
If you’re already in one of these situations, you must resolve to detach as much as is possible. You can’t engage the cycles. Don’t take the bait. Not even a little. They can’t run in cycles with you if you don’t join.
For a while, you will need to direct with your mind, until the chaotic emotions settle. For some this requires no contact, but for others extremely minimal contact is sufficient.
Expect to feel a void and make effort to fill it with other things that respond to the same needs the narcissist use to fill. Needs demand a response and if you don’t find a way adequately to respond to them, you’ll run back to what you believe will satisfy them.
Expect to feel chaotic. You will cycle. Your feelings will be erratic. But in time, they will gradually lose a bit of the edge. You will regain a sense of normalcy. Even now, almost a year after no contact, I sometimes still feel random moments of anxiety when there is a possibility of encountering one of them in some manner. I dread the idea of an encounter, but the bonded side welcomes it too in a way. But the farther you go, the less conflicted you will feel. The more you are able to get space and unwind the threat of manipulation, the easier it becomes to separate the thoughts they fed you from reality.
Recommit. Recommit. Recommit. Have gentle people around you who have wisdom, insight, and perspective. Do research to understand it. And build a life. So you can move farther away from it mentally.
As with all things, it requires some effort, and support, and determination (especially at first), but by the grace of God, you can absolutely recover. It is possible!
As a last final thought, what impact does personal experience have on the treatment of narcissism?
There seems to be a growing recognition and awareness about narcissistic abuse, but this has not always been the case. And the ignorance of it, is in part what allows it to persist. Narcissists tend to use people in authority and in respected positions, such as attorneys, judges, therapists, doctors, pastors, etc. to validate their schemes. Because so much is concealed and not easily detected, many have accidentally collaborated in heaping guilt and blame upon the victim. For those of you who have experienced this, I am so sorry.
Rightly so a clinician is going to validate someone’s viewpoint. They are going to share the responsibility for a solution when a couple comes to counseling together. However, one person cannot create a solution for both. And it’s helpful to have a therapist who can conceptualize narcissism through personal experience or a great deal of clinical experience. Deep knowledge of the subject changes the entire approach to process. Find a therapist, pastor, friend, someone who really knows!!! Be sure you find safe people. It will make all the difference.
Passion for people has long been a companion of mine, and caring for them in a professional capacity makes my heart sing. It is in my DNA to find fulfillment in encouraging, challenging, and nurturing others. God designed me to walk alongside those who are hurting, and it is my great delight to do so. In life, some things “just make sense”. For me, counseling is one of those things.
After receiving a Psychology major and Church Ministries/Bible minors from Clearwater Christian College, I earned my M.A. in Professional Counseling from Liberty University in Virginia. My training as a student and state-registered intern was done in Tampa, Fl where I got experience treating a variety of populations and concerns. Tampa is also birthplace of my own venture into private practice.
Today, I continue to enjoy treating adolescents and adults for varied issues as a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Florida. Although my office is located in Miami, Fl, I also see clients across the states via teleconferencing and video sessions. In addition to one-on-one counseling, I also enjoy speaking at workshops and conferences.
My specializations within the field of mental health have been developed through a combination of formal education, clinical experience, personal life experiences, and the experiences of those I love. I enjoy working with a variety of issues, and have a great deal of patience with the slow and sometimes uncertain process of healing deep wounds. My approach to counseling acknowledges the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual factors that contribute to a person’s functioning. I find that a comprehensive approach addressing the multidimensional nature of people and relationships typically yields equally comprehensive results.
On a personal note, some of my favorite things include spending time with family, reading, being active, listening to soothing music, perusing social media, shopping (uh-oh!), girlfriend coffee shop dates, talking, talking, and more talking. I’ve always had a secondary interest in interior design also; however, instead of rearranging objects and places, I help transform people’s inner spaces. While both require creativity and a vision for possibilities, for me, there is untold satisfaction in the restoration of a place, but even more so a life!
It would be my great pleasure to meet and learn about YOU.
“He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” (Ps. 147:3)