Many of us might think that we know what a narcissist looks like. There are plenty of tell-tale signs, like self-importance, a lack of empathy, a demanding personality and an excessive need for admiration.
But when we’re in the early stages of a relationship – be it romantic, familial or platonic – with a narcissist, their traits can often be more covert and nearly impossible to detect.
Sudden changes in a person’s demeanour often make us wonder if we did something wrong to lose their affection, or if we’re just being overly sensitive about their behaviour.
This is particularly true for emotionally intelligent and empathetic people who are typically more self-aware and attuned to the feelings of others, and therefore sadly become magnets for those with narcissistic tendencies.
However, according to Erin Leonard, a practising psychotherapist, understanding the interplay between emotionally intelligent qualities and narcissistic tendencies at various stages in a relationship may help us to be able to see a toxic or abusive dynamic more quickly.
As Leonard writes in Psychology Today, there are often four distinct phases of control and conditioning that narcissists can take before invading your life. Here’s how to identify them, and navigate the signs of a narcissistic relationship.
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,” writes Leonard. This attraction can be amorous, as well as a non-romantic connection.
Similarly, emotionally intelligent people can’t help but feel flattered by the narcissist’s attention and charm. The narcissist showers the person with compliments and validation – also known as ‘love bombing’ – appearing emotionally intelligent themselves as they respond to the affection.
This period of mutual respect usually lasts until the person is seriously invested in the relationship. Then, Leonard says, things change.
Phase 2: The Narcissist Feels Small
Jealousy and feelings of inadequacy are powerful drives of behaviour. The narcissist senses the emotionally intelligent person has something powerful that he or she wants but does not know how to get.
“Sensing the partner has abilities that he or she lacks creates resentment,” says Leonard. “The narcissist does not understand the power because he or she does not “speak the language” or “understand the currency,” but he or she wants it. Yet, in time, the narcissist realises that it is a commodity that cannot be extrapolated from the mate and possessed, so he or she resorts to something else – manipulation.”
By taking advantage of the person’s trust, time, generosity, loyalty, and empathy, the narcissist punishes them for embodying something they cannot extract and possess.
This could involve eroding the person’s relationships with other people by talking behind their back and trying to turn people against them, in the hope of isolating them.
Phase 3: The Narcissist Seeks to Sabotage
Narcissism is more than just enjoying taking pictures of oneself or always needing to be the loudest person in the room. According to Healthline, it’s a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, often regardless of the negative consequences to another person.
Therefore, a narcissist becomes enraged when they see people trying to utilise their own power, seeking to destroy it by undermining them. Making ‘jokes’ at the person’s expense, publicly humiliating them or reducing and dismissing their achievements are all classic examples of this control.
The more a person is subjected to this, the more they internalise the idea and begin to wonder if the narcissist is right. Their own confidence in themselves, their ideas and achievements begin to dwindle, leaving space for the narcissist to claim for themselves.
Phase 4: The Narcissist Disguises Their Emotional Abuse by Being Nice
Lenoard suggests that this may be the narcissist’s most effective tool when camouflaging emotional manipulation and gaslighting.
“Suddenly he or she is kind and complimentary, acting as though the fit of rage he or she threw an hour ago never happened. The sudden change in temperament often causes confusion in an emotionally intelligent partner who naturally recognises the good in people. He or she wonders if the toxic tendencies were exaggerated in his or her own mind. After all, a person is allowed to have a bad day. Now, the emotionally intelligent individual feels foolish for perceiving the narcissist as mean,” she writes.
Of course, like most mental health or personality disorders, narcissistic personality disorder isn’t black and white, and falls on a spectrum.
In difficult situations like these, Leonard recommends a simple trick to gain clarity. “Ask oneself, ‘Would I ever do what he or she did?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ the person may be narcissistic.”
If someone you love has narcissistic traits and it’s beginning to feel like they’re manipulating you, take some distance and start a record of their behaviour. Take a step back and separate your own emotional responses from what’s really going on to begin to break free from the cycle.
For more help and support in a difficult relationship, seek support with Relate or contact Refuge for help and guidance with control issues. In the U.S., contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline.