Narcissists Are Confusing

Colleen Sheehy Orme
Man and woman in redPhoto by casper somia

One day my marriage counselor made a clarifying statement.

"A healthy love relationship is not gauged by how I feel about him/her," he said. "But how I feel about me when I am with him/her."

The average person can't diagnose narcissism. A qualified mental health professional must do that. It takes a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor who is highly specialized in the field of narcissism since it is difficult to distinguish.

How does someone know if they are involved with a narcissist? And may need professional help?

As a relationship columnist, I've spent a decade in the counseling and research of love, marriage, divorce, and narcissistic personality disorder. A lot is written about NPD but it can be confusing. Why? There's a difference between having narcissistic characteristics and actual narcissistic personality disorder. Just because someone has a sense of entitlement, is self-centered, or has an inflated ego does not a narcissist make. Likewise, just because an individual is manipulative or gaslights does not a narcissist make. It's a combination of signature characteristics as well as a critical lack of empathy.

Narcissism has become a popular catchall and the diagnosis du jour.

But it's a serious, complex, and abusive personality disorder. Those who are struggling at the hands of a narcissist need help. After years of research, counseling, and my own experience I believe it's better to identify how an individual with narcissistic personality disorder makes you feel.

The following is what I have developed as "The 5 C's of Narcissism."


There is a shifting coldness within the one you love. It's the precursor to cruelty, ironically another word beginning with the letter C. Anyone involved with a narcissist understands one can’t exist without the other. At first, it's subtle. You think your spouse may be aloof, laid back, or not care about certain things. This is how you rationalize the absence of emotion and accompanying coldness.

You don't detect how sinister it is nor what provokes it. But it's unlike any interaction, argument, discord, or unpleasantness you have ever experienced.

It feels unnatural. Instinctively you know something is terribly wrong.

It's cruelty that hinges on abusiveness. In the beginning, you shove these feelings aside in favor of your spouse's more charming persona. Ultimately, it's a critical lack of empathy that explains this abnormal and unidentifiable interaction. A person who has no ability to feel your pain.


Your partner is controlling but not in the conventional sense. Typical control doesn't sufficiently convey the experience with a narcissist. A narcissist controls your world to the point your life feels completely out of control.

One person yields the power while you feel powerless and the imbalance increases with time. You feel helpless. This person will not do anything they do not want to do and they will get their way at all costs and at your expense.

Your spouse is happy as long as they are getting their way and their approved world order is in place. If you challenge that or voice something they disagree with, your spouse will create chaos. They will turn your world upside down. They will manipulate to achieve their desired outcome and remind you they are in control.

It could be done overtly or passive-aggressively. The conflict between you and your spouse will not be resolved normally. They will create enough upheaval to prove you are wrong for wanting or thinking something they disagree with. Until you are worn down, exhausted, overwhelmed, and give up.

Only then will the chaos subside.

You have unknowingly attached yourself to a person who will use, confuse, and manipulate to establish their win and control. Yet while you were dating there were no hints of this rigid individual.


You are thoroughly confused by the person you love. More than likely you have dated one individual yet unsuspectingly married another.

The charming, seemingly carefree, perfect person is capable of great coldness and cruelty. They are unnaturally controlling and enforce this overtly or via manipulation to show you who is boss. If not, you will pay a price.

A chaotic price.

It's become an unrelenting cycle and an abusive signature of your relationship. No, a part of your entire life. It's spilling over into your everyday. It's encompassing and exhausting. Joy is interrupted by bouts of crippling emotional disruption.

You live with a disturbing unpredictability as cruelty exchanges with the charmer.

You're confused but rationalize the charismatic person outweighs the cold one.


Before this relationship, you have never felt like you are interacting outside of reality. Unfortunately, while you believe you are having a conversation with your spouse, you are conversing with a narcissist. And narcissists don't live in reality. They live in their version of reality. This is due to their critical lack of empathy.

The person in front of you is charming, engaging, and successful. They are well-liked and the life of the party. Certainly, they must live in reality. But they do not. A narcissist lives in their warped perception of reality. The lack of empathy prevents them from seeing outside of their world and into the world of others.

But because they appear normal you keep trying to reach your partner. Instead, they turn your words and their own behavior back around on you. They blame you. You are the problem. They might say you are needy, unreasonable, high-maintenance, uptight, or overreacting. These words make sense because the narcissist doesn't feel or understand the pain of others so, of course, they think you are the extreme. They say you shouldn't put demands on them or ask anything of them.

You begin to feel crazy.

Another word with the letter C interrupts your life. Crazy is followed by crying. You cry and cry some more. You are entangled with someone who is incapable of meeting your needs. But you know what you are asking is basic and reasonable yet they make you feel like you're losing your mind.


It's been a slow build but now you understand you are living with two wildly different people. The illusion you dated and the narcissist you married.

They are a contradiction.

The one all-encompassing word that begins with the letter C, “Charming” has been permanently replaced by five others.

Cruelty, control, confusion, craziness, and contradiction.

As well as a few of their synonyms.

Coldness, chaos, and crying.

This is the standard emotional operating procedure of a true narcissist.


My marriage counselor indicated the mark of a healthy relationship. Sadly, we spend too much time focusing on how we feel about the one we love rather than how they make us feel. We refuse to give up on them. We see the best in them. We push aside our doubts.

There's an escalation to narcissistic personality disorder.

A narcissist is smart enough to ensnare their victims. They don't present themselves initially. It begins with this hint of coldness that is barely detectable. Once you commit to the narcissist, more of their signature characteristics come out to play. And then the narcissist increases in severity and dominance.

By then, you've fallen in love with the charming individual who first caught you.

This is what keeps you in a relationship with the narcissist. This is what makes you disregard those guttural instincts that something is terribly wrong. It's what makes you override your own feelings of fight or flight in the early days of a narcissistic relationship.

If you have experienced what I refer to as the 5 C's of narcissism, you may be entangled with a narcissist. They are a package deal. Come one come all. A narcissist will elicit all of these feelings within you.

This would be a potential precursor to seeking a qualified medical professional/counselor who would be able to assess the situation more accurately.

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Colleen Sheehy Orme is a National Relationship Columnist, freelance journalist, and former business columnist. She writes about love, relationships, and self-restoration. She has spent more than a decade in research and counseling on the topics of divorce, relationships, and Narcissistic personality disorder.

Reston, VA

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