What I Learned From Running a Business With a Narcissist

Alexandra Tsuneta

Spoiler Alert: Don’t do it.

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Last year I began running a business with somebody who I had been “internet friends” with for years. We had run into each other at events, and I admired her business. It was badass, feminist, political, and satirical. It was really, really cool. When we became real-life friends I was quickly hypnotized by how cool she was, how many people she knew, how effortlessly beautiful she was, and how awesome it is that she runs this company that I have loved for years.

I remember being in my early twenties and her posting a photo of me in one of her t-shirts, it was like a dream come true, a huge marker of success. I was cool, she liked me, she liked my photo, they featured me on their Instagram. Awesome.

In the beginning, it was awesome. I mean, for a week or two it was great. Actually, I guess when I check myself all of the red flags were there, I just didn’t see them. Let me back up. Let me give you a little information on who I am, to better understand why I fell into this hell-trap of a business.

I’m really, really nice. In fact, I’m kind to a fault. I’m the sucker who donates to anybody who comes to my door. I give money to the houseless, I shelter homeless dogs. I’m ridiculously maternal. I want to help everybody, and since beginning my own business five years ago, I’ve had some extra income to do so. I’m by no means wealthy, but now I can afford to donate to different charitable organizations, etc. I’m also the kind of person that will give you the shirt off of my back, even if I’ve just met you.

The downfall of all of this is that I am a horrible judge of character. I’d love to say that my history of homelessness, abuse, and generally bad things, allowed me to develop some kind of sixth-sense of people who are shitty. It hasn’t. However, the experience of running a business with a narcissist really did open my eyes. I think I’m starting to develop the ability, now, almost a year later, to see shitty people/situations.

Anyways, back to that. Back to running a business with a horrible, horrible human being.

I was invited to “girls night”. It was her, a mutual friend, and I. Every Wednesday we came together at a bar, where she knew the bartenders, she’d buy us drinks because they always gave her free drinks, and we’d talk. It began innocently, I thought. Her then business partner was a jerk, he was mean and abusive, and he was trying to “steal” her business (a line she’d later use against me). She needed out.

The next week, the same thing. He was awful! Just awful! So, I offered to buy him out. “Why not,” I said, “We’re friends, I love [brand name here], I’ll buy him out, and we can run it together,” of course this sounded great to her, so we began the process. How exciting! I could run a business that I have loved for years, and I have experience running my own business. We could make [brand name here] great again!

Of course, there was a catch, she needed $5000 to get him out of the other business they run together. Okay, I thought, she’ll pay me back. So I drained my savings account. She advised me not to say the money was coming from me. She wanted it to seem like the brand was paying him off like she was paying him off. She had this money. She was successful.

$7500 later and I owned half of the brand. Well, 40%, because, she said, she never wanted to be in the position that she was in with her old business partner. She never wanted to lose control again. The operating agreement I signed was awful, but it was to get him out, so I signed it. Thus, we went into business together. For a total of about six months, before I terminated the agreement, and walked out, emotionally abused, and scarred for life.

But, a lot happened before then.

Here are all of the red flags I ignored:

  1. I was her third business partner, with this particular brand.
  2. A few people warned me that she is abusive.
  3. She was very passive-aggressive.
  4. She talked bad about a lot of people, mainly her two former business partners. But also people whom she would be friends with in person.
  5. She often borrowed money.
  6. Portions of our sales were supposed to be donated to charity, when I tallied up those portions she claimed to have already donated them. She didn’t.
  7. Tips from one of our events were supposed to be donated to charity, we had them in a drawer. When she found them she “wondered if there was enough in there to get a pedicure”.
  8. She never paid our models.
  9. She constantly micromanaged me.
  10. She never paid anybody that worked in our store.
  11. She used her status to get people to do things for her, constantly.
  12. She was very, very manipulative.
  13. Her entire life was curated on social media, she encouraged me to go to “more trendy bars” with photo-booths so that we could take cute pictures together to further curate our relationship.
  14. She is a compulsive liar.
  15. She encouraged me to lie to her boyfriend about the men whom she had slept with, because “he wouldn’t understand”.

Running a business with her was like walking on eggshells, in a minefield, covered in salt, while being yelled at by Donald Trump, every single day. Nothing I did was enough, everything I did was wrong. She told me once that her old business partner “kicked her out” of a photo shoot. I soon realized why, during a photoshoot (I have a photography degree), that she micromanaged the shit out of.

At another photoshoot, for our look-book, she encouraged me to let the photographer and the media manager handle the entire thing, to stay out of it and she would too. She micro-managed the entire shoot, she was a huge part of it, and any part that I tried to get involved with was met with anger and hostility.

At the opening for our summer line, I had my first full-on mental breakdown. She was awful, she screamed at her boyfriend and made him cry, she screamed at my now-husband, she walked out, she threatened to quit the entire business. She did the most, all the time. It was a manipulative nightmare of abuse. Nobody could do anything right. This was the night I decided I would quit. July 13th.

The day after, I came in to clean the shop. She met me there, with coffee. She had no makeup on (this was the first time I had ever seen her not fully put together) and she apologized for the day before. She knew she was awful, she said she didn’t even understand why her boyfriend was still with her, she cried, we hugged, we cleaned, we took the day off. Things were looking better, she acknowledged that she was in the wrong.

However, nothing changed. The next few months were riddled with abuse. At one point she screamed at her other business partner, who decided to leave the storefront to open his own space (it was a shared workspace), ran into her car, and threatened to kill herself. I talked her down, this was when she told me I’m the only reason she hasn’t killed herself yet. Hey, just in case you don’t know — don’t ever say this to somebody. It’s really, really manipulative and terrible.

I finally spoke to the guy who I bought out. I thought it was best to go straight to the source. I asked him what had happened between them, without ever telling him what happened between us; he described, almost verbatim, what had happened between her and me — from the abuse to the lying and stealing, he knew it all. Also, it turns out, he’s not a terrible human being, in fact, he is very nice.

I made the decision to leave; after many long talks with her, I decided to leave without asking for any of the money I put into the business (she did, eventually pay me back, about three months after I signed the papers). I just wanted out. I decided that I would rather lose money than deal with any more emotional abuse from this person. I learned to value my own time, I learned to weigh the cost-benefit analysis with this person and with other people like her.

Was it worth it for me to spend more time here? I’m not getting paid, I’m being abused every day, why should I stay? I’m not gaining anything from this “friendship” or this business partnership.

I then began being attacked online by people who shared our space, accusing me of stealing her business. Accusing me of doing horrible things to her. I was being gaslit by her, and her “friends”. I then realized that I had been gaslit by her the entire time. This was quintessential manipulation, I know this, I know abuse when I see it. I came from a household of abuse. How was I so blind? I was so concerned that I had done something wrong that I asked my husband, my best friends, “did I do this”, “am I a terrible person”, “am I crazy”.

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse. It is the action of tricking, or controlling somebody by making them believe things that are untrue. Gaslighting is a deliberate attempt to make people believe that they are losing their grasp on reality.

I signed the papers exactly two months after I decided to quit. It took me two months to realize that I had been emotionally abused, lied to, and manipulated the entire time. I wanted so badly to believe that not only was I smarter than this, but that a person who I trusted wouldn’t do the things she did. Sometimes, we have to realize, that it’s not our job to fix other people or situations that are out of our hands. It’s not our fault. I hate to say I am a victim of anything, but I was a victim of this person, and that does not make me weak.

I learned so much from the entire experience, but the most important thing I learned was to trust myself. If you think something is wrong, it probably is. If you feel that a situation is not normal, or that you are being abused — you’re probably right. Trust yourself, trust your gut.

Six months felt like six years, the emotional abuse from running a business with a narcissist will probably haunt me for years. But, that’s what she wants, to haunt her victims. To make them question themselves. That’s what every abuser wants.

I’m free now, I can breathe, and I can write about the situation with clarity. I don’t question myself anymore. I know who I am.

Endnote:

Since writing this article three people have come forward with allegations of sexual abuse, and one person with physical abuse from being stabbed by this person. Since writing this article multiple people have come forward with similar experiences. It is important to speak your truth. You can make positive changes.

Multiple people have thanked me and expressed that this article has helped them heal. I never expected it to go this far. If you have any similar experiences, please get in touch with me. I am here to support you.

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digital nomad | queer, Jewish, she/they | ☕️ | degrees in sociology and women’s studies

Bend, OR
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