Why Everyone Thinks Their Ex Is A Narcissist (And They're Probably Not)

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Why Everyone Thinks their Ex is a Narcissist (and they're prob not)

Going through a breakup is super challenging, but a breakup with a true narcissist is way different.

The term "narcissism" originated more than 2000 years ago, when Greek poet, Ovid, created the legend of Narcissus.

As the story goes, a beautiful Greek hunter happens to see his reflection in a pool of water and falls in love with it. He becomes obsessed with its beauty and is unable to leave his reflected image until he dies. After his death, the flower narcissus grew where he lay. (If only he’d had an iPhone.)

The concept of narcissism was made popular in the 20th century by Sigmund Freud through his work on the ego and its relationship to the outside world. His work became a launching point for many others developing theories on narcissism.

The irony of it all is that interestingly, though the narcissist appears to have fallen in love with themselves, in reality, just the opposite is true.

Narcissistic individuals have painfully low tolerance for anything that threatens a very fragile self-perception. That perception, or self-image, is often built around untruths, unrealistic standards, inflated and impossible expectations of self, and therefore, also of others.

It’s what Karen Horney, another of Freud’s contemporaries, termed the "false self", which develops as a response to feelings of intense shame and inadequacy in childhood.

Normal breakups are already really, really hard.

When a relationship ends, there are countless ways people attempt to get closure. Closure is psychological and emotional and creates the motivation for moving on with life, leaving behind the hopes and dreams of that relationship, and allowing new possibilities to manifest.

RELATED: How To Leave A Narcissist

In a breakup, the decision-maker, the one initiating, has already suffered and accepted the realization that the relationship is not going to make it. This person typically feels compelled to justify his or her reasons for ending the relationship.

When this ‘justification’ is shared with the person on the receiving end of the breakup, it is often met with resistance, opposition, shock, denial, blame, hurt, sadness, and anger. Depending on the quality and length of the relationship, this is to be expected, and quite common.

However, in order to let go, the person receiving the breakup news eventually has to find his or her own reasons as to why the relationship was doomed. Regardless of who is in which role, both parties will be busy exhuming and focusing on the negative aspects of the relationship during and especially immediately after a breakup.

A shift in mindset is underway, which is adaptive and necessary.

To complicate the already difficult task of separating, people don’t typically open the dialogue in an amicable or accountable manner. Often these conversations are fueled by unspoken historical grievances, characterized by finger-pointing, inventory-taking to prove who failed most miserably to meet the needs of the other, and so much more. 

Breakups take a toll on people, emotionally and sometimes, physically! Depression, weight loss, addictions, and other illnesses show up during these times.

Eventually, the extraordinary work of living in one’s emotions creates exhaustion and a desire for distance from the source of the wounding, which opens up space for healing and eventual moving forward.

Is breaking up painful for narcissists too?

The process I’ve described is the grief process. There are stages of grief, as Elizabeth Kubler Ross noted from her research. Stages are not necessarily linear, nor are they progressive, but people seem to experience all of them in some combination at a signature pace and style unique to each individual.

Without this process, fully experiencing the loss of a loved one, the initial numbness and denial, the vacillation between anger and sadness, relentless bargaining (the "what ifs"?), none of us would ultimately reach a final destination — acceptance of the loss.

RELATED: How To FINALLY Move On From The Narcissistic Ex You Can’t Stop Thinking About

The narcissist is one who never makes it through the grief process. They have thousands of tiny and some huge losses that remain frozen in time, like the insect caught in amber from a prehistoric era in Jurassic Park.

The feelings associated with these losses are actually buried alive because they were not allowed expression or even validation by the narcissist. Therefore, when another loss occurs, the narcissist is not only experiencing the current event but all of the unresolved losses that he or she previously denied and buried — alive.

Ever heard of narcissistic rage? This is a compilation of the anger a narcissist has stored up, one loss at a time. With no outlet, no flow of emotion through the grief stages described above, a narcissist is someone dealing with pent-up anger.

When a narcissist is rejected by an intimate partner, what would be a ‘normal’ sad/angry grief reaction in another person is seen as full-on rage. The narcissist is now experiencing the losses that were buried alive, along with this current loss or injury.

Breaking up with a narcissist ex is an injury to the narcissist’s fragile self-image, also known as pride and ego.

Listen, they never let you in, to begin with, so the loss is not about missing you. It is the sheer terror that others will also see a crack in the armor, as you apparently have. Like water seeping into a sinking ship, the toxic shame that was kept in check is now infiltrating, and there is no place to hide.

The injury re-opens his or her long ago disowned feelings of vulnerability — intolerable! Topped with a gut-wrenching feeling of being exposed as a flawed, less than perfect in every way, vulnerable human being.

Exposure is like kryptonite to the narcissist. When exposed, the narcissist imagines that the rest of the world also sees his or her imperfection. To say this is uncomfortable is an understatement. It is intolerable for a narcissist to feel exposed. Often, the only remedy for him or her is to indulge in acts of vengeance. To even the score.

When your ex is a true narcissist, you must protect yourself and those you love.

Many people have experienced an ex as sad, angry, and even rageful, early on in the breakup. That seems to settle down in time, as the saying goes "time heals all wounds".

However, if time has passed, and this individual continues to willfully stay angry and engages in vengeful actions toward you or those you love, the breakup may have tapped into a narcissist’s rage and unresolved grief.

The best thing that you can do is stop engaging with this person, immediately, and use the strongest boundaries and limits possible with him or her. If you share children together, it may be wise to use only written forms of communication.

There are also many websites that document communication between parents and allow for court-appointed guardians to have access.

Do not send mixed messages, and do not think that your kindness is going to resolve anything. Do not sacrifice yourself or anything or anyone you love. Nothing will ever be enough if your ex is a true narcissist.

Be tough, keep your eyes and ears open, and stay strong.

RELATED: 20 Styles Of Narcissism: Which Ones Describe The Narcissist In YOUR Life?

Ann Cerney is a licensed therapist (LCPC), divorce coach, mediator, and parenting coordinator.