Narcissism – The Secondhand Smoke of Mental Health

  • 6 min read

Maybe I’m the problem, maybe I’m the narcissist.

It’s heartbreaking to hear people exiting toxic relationships say this.

As they utter the words, they cast their eyes toward the floor and sigh.

How did this happen, they ask? What caused someone who said they loved them, and who once treated them well, to turn habitually cruel and vindictive.

All this happens despite their best efforts to make their partner happy. Despite how many hoops they jumped through or how attentive they are.

The perpetrator claims the target has brought it on. Like a political campaign the message is repeated over and over. They end up thinking that they MUST have done something wrong.

I know I sure did.

This shame is part of what keeps you stuck. It’s a tricky and pernicious dynamic.

This is how it works:

Stinging from the ugly words and threats, You feel intense negative emotions. You then read or hear that narcissists are angry and toxic. Sheesh, you think, what has become of me?

Your partner may have accused you of being the problem so many times that now you’re willing to consider it. It’s created a new pathway in your brain.

You feel angry, and isn’t that part of being a narcissistic? It takes two to tango, you reason. Besides, if you figure things out you may be able to salvage the relationship.

So, if you are thinking this way, let’s get the suspense over with real quick.

Are you the narcissist?


If you are asking yourself this question it’s almost guaranteed that you are not the full-blown narcissist that’s causing the chaos. Rest assured, psychotherapists that specialize in the disorder are unanimous in this view.

The hallmark of narcissism is a belief they are above reproach. They blame others for problems and behavior that’s actually theirs. They don’t even think anything is wrong.

An alternative name for the disorder is antagonistic. Meaning they like to fight and create chaos because it works to their benefit.

The type of people they often choose as romantic partners share an entirely different set of traits. These include:




All amazing traits, right? But they don’t serve you in this relationship.

Like superman in the vicinity of Kryptonite, these traits weaken you in the vicinity of a true narcissist.

They love bomb you, denigrate and devalue you. They may even discard you then, hoover you back in.

This is the cycle.

As you become intimate. They make outrageous claims that you are NEVER doing enough for them. You scramble to make the peace.

You over perform in the relationship. You take on issues that aren’t yours, thinking that this way you can make everything better.

You do this because you are more likely to blame yourself, rather than point the finger at others.

But what do when mean when we say “narcissistic”?

Narcissistic traits exist on a spectrum — ranging from not enough (low self-esteem,) to pathological (malignant narcissist and full-blown NPD.)

When someone is getting close to the malignant side of the spectrum, they show what psychologists know as the “three Es.” These are the traits of:

  • Exploitative
  • Entitlement
  • Empathy deficit

Being in an intimate relationship with a person who doesn’t feel truly and deeply sorry when they hurt you and is using you for their own purposes is incredibly painful.

So you WILL have negative emotions. But feeling toxic, doesn’t meant that you have the disorder.

You are simply reacting to outrageously manipulative, crazy-making and vicious behavior being doled out by someone that also says that they love you.

And it’s gotten under your skin. In fact, it’s changing your brain, and it needs to STOP.

Here’s the thing:

Narcissistic personality disorder is the secondhand smoke of mental health.

People in intimate contact with these folks also get sick.

But you CAN get better.

You do it by following the old airline safety adage “put your own safety mask on first.”

Over time you’ll feel anxiety, impaired ability to make decisions, self-doubt, and depression.

But once you wake up to what’s going on you may feel intense anger.

Things may even get worse for a while.

I remember being told right after a hurl of insults stating that I’m bad and worthless were thrown at me. “Why haven’t forgiven me. That proves you aren’t really spiritual after all.”

Things like this make us feel crazy. But you aren’t. You’re not well, but it’s not terminal.

Every part of your life is spiraling down, but the situation is far from hopeless.

Being with someone who has a Jekyll and Hyde personality and is alternately charming and emotionally abusive messes with your brain and body big time.

You feel crippling self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and anger.

You have trouble making decisions and feel a lack of confidence in your actions.

This happens even to people who were confident, happy and vibrant before entering the relationship.

It’s painful to reach the conclusion that your partner just doesn’t care that they are hurting you, and that your role is to supply their ego that needs to be constantly fed.

Once you’ve come to this conclusion it’s time to mitigate the damaging effects so that you can heal.

It starts with setting boundaries so that you can protect yourself and find a measure of peace.

It’s healthy to get the emotions out by writing in a journal or finding a supportive person to listen.

It’s also helpful to educate yourself as much as you can about narcissism so that you’ll know how to best respond.

Psychologists note that narcissism is notoriously difficult to diagnose because the criteria for diagnosis in the DSM is that the person has to have been suffering.

But with narcissists they are GOOD with what is going on, so they don’t seek treatment. It’s not hurting them.

They may not be thrilled that their loved ones are withdrawing or upset. But they are more likely to blame their so-called loved ones, or just to feel confused.

That’s why hoping to convince your partner to change and stop causing harm is unlikely to end well.

If you are ingesting second-hand smoke, you know what to do to get better.

You need to step away from the toxicity.

Taking steps to improve your self -care, as well as self-compassion and self-esteem, will certainly help.

It will do more than help. You’ll become the vibrant, joyful person that you were truly meant to be.

You’ll do this by becoming hero, or heroine, that’s walked through the fire and scaled the treacherous mountains to come out wiser, stronger and happier.

The journey starts with a single step.

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