It’s become fashionable to claim that your ex was a narcissist. You see it everywhere. Endless lists of grievances pointed at someone the victim claims is a “narcissist”. It’s a label that can get you a lot of pity, but it’s a label that has been wildly misused and (thus) misunderstood.
Not every toxic ex is a narcissist. Over-quoted-stats aside, it’s simply impossible for every single person on the planet, or even online, to have experienced the same type of over-the-top abusive relationship.
Some people are just toxic. It doesn’t make them narcissistic. It usually makes them emotionally immature. For you to get to a place of true healing, you have to be honest about past relationships and the levels of hurt they inflicted. Knowing the difference between a narcissistic relationship and a toxic relationship is a good place to start.
There is no one-size-fits-all narcissistic relationship.
There is a big, big difference between a relationship with a “toxic” person and someone who ranks high in narcissistic traits. Anyone who has been caught in the clutches of a narcissist can tell you that. Narcissism brings a different level of insanity to an abusive partnership.
That’s primarily because truly narcissistic people rank high in pathologically destructive behaviors. With an inherently delicate ego and hidden self-esteem issues, they become the center of delusions that can create monstrous abusers centered entirely on their own desires.
To date or to marry a narcissist is to be brought into their delusion. If, at any point, you refuse to engage in the delusion, you become punished in some of the most brutal ways (mentally and emotionally).
A narcissist is not someone who leaves you simply feeling hurt or angry. They’re not simply childish people who don’t understand the way they move through the world. Destructive narcissists are highly aware of and focused on getting what they want by any means necessary. Narcissism isn’t a run-of-the-mill experience and being in a relationship with one is the craziest ride you will ever take.
Was your ex really a narcissist?
When looking back at the lessons of our previous relationships, it’s important to keep ourselves rooted in reality. For some, that reality is toxic. They had selfish partners who hurt their feelings. Narcissistic relationships are unique. Attached to a narcissist, you enter a pattern and a system of delusion and destruction that’s hard to avoid.
How selfish were they?
The grandiosity of the narcissist has been over-exaggerated, when in fact it can be extremely subtle. The grandiosity of the narcissist is not always overt. It is reflected more in how the narcissist centers themselves in their lives and the lives of everyone else. For them, it’s important to always be the best, the center of attention, or the top of the pile.
Narcissists expect the people around them to be consumed with constant thoughts of them. They have to be the center of the universe. They don’t have to do this by being an over-the-top braggart. They simply have to keep their eyes on them.
They may do this by becoming victims. Any time this narcissist needs attention, they feign a crisis or create one. They may even bring up past hurts and traumas that trigger pity in you and change your reaction. The point is to center themselves in a way that gives them power. Narcissists can do this in so many ways.
Where was the reality?
Too many people ignore the very real existence of narcissistic delusion. Because narcissists are inherently insecure, they create delusions in which they can feel like the most powerful, the most beautiful, the most successful, etc. They don’t dwell in reality because that would kill their ego. So they demand everyone around them dwell in their delusions, too.
Did you have to validate your ex constantly? Tell them they were the best? That their pain was the most painful? That they were the most successful and accomplished person in the room (even if they weren’t)?
Where was the reality in your relationship, and what happened when your ex was confronted with the reality of being wrong, unimportant, etc.? The narcissist will not accept any reality in which they are flawed. A toxic person may. Toxic people don’t have to live all the time in delusion to protect their egos, like narcissists.
How did you communicate?
Communication is an important element to consider when flashing back to old relationship patterns. Did you and your ex ever have a healthy dialogue? Did they show compassion in that dialogue? What were they open about? What was it hard to talk to them about?
Communication must be one of the foremost corners of the relationship that you analyze. The way we communicate reveals a lot about what we're thinking, how we're thinking it, and what we believe and value.
Toxic people struggle with communication. They may lie to protect themselves or shut down and avoid big issues. Narcissists weaponize their communication techniques, though. They use them to wound. That’s why they stonewall, erupt, and withdraw themselves to hurt you and trigger your insecurities (so they can keep control).
Where was their awareness?
When you look back at your relationship with your ex, what do you think their awareness level was? Toxic people often hurt others due to a lack of awareness. They jump around, chase their own needs, and never stop to fully consider the other person’s emotions. It’s not that they can’t empathize, they simply haven’t matured enough to empathize.
A narcissist hurts others from a much more conscious place. While they may not have the full language for their emotions or their reactions, they lash out at others with a desire to destroy and a desire to control (for their own ends).
They know they are hurting the people they’re demeaning — they mean to. They know that they’re controlling someone and making them change their behavior — that’s what they want them to do…conform. If your ex seemed aware of their manipulations and hurts, then they could fall into the narcissism camp.
Was there room for empathy?
Emotional intelligence is imperative in any successful relationship. We need to understand our emotions and can understand the emotions of our partners. That’s where empathy comes in. The higher your emotional intelligence, the better your empathy becomes.
Was there a lot of room for empathy in your last relationship? Did your ex show an ability to feel genuine empathy for what you were going through? Did they cry when you cried? Suffer when you suffered?
True narcissists have an empathy deficit. That means you get a partner who can turn their backs on you, even in your lowest moments of suffering. The toxic partner isn’t always so extreme. Selfish though they may be, they can still feel compassion and want to help you in moments of genuine need.
Did they show remorse?
In the endless digital jungle of narcissism, remorse is rarely discussed. There can be no conversation about narcissistic relationships without acknowledging remorse, though. It’s a key defining factor of who the narcissist is both as a person and a partner.
Truly narcissistic people feel little remorse for what they do or what they say. In their minds, narcissists always feel justified in their behavior and don’t feel remorse for the pain they inflict.
Remorse requires a combination of empathy and accountability. For someone to feel remorse, they have to feel bad about what they did, and they have to have that capacity. The empathy deficit experienced by narcissists makes this type of remorse impossible in many circumstances.
What were the motivations?
The last piece of the puzzle is motivation. Important to consider, that you must peel back all the layers and acknowledge what the motivations of your former partner were. There is a subtle but important difference between a toxic person’s motivations and the motivations of a narcissist.
Toxic people can be selfish, mean-spirited, and incredibly harmful. But it doesn't have the same intention behind the behavior. They hurt others out of wanting to make themselves feel (superficially) good in some way. Narcissistic people are different. They want to hurt people because they hurt. They weaponize their pain intentionally.
The toxic person may be out for themselves. They want to feel good and get instant gratification. Narcissists do this too, but it’s not the root cause behind their motivations. They destroy because they are destroyed. Broken and inherently insecure inside, everything they do is done to create a mask that hides those insecurities from the world (while giving them power over others).
Honesty is more empowering than a lie.
It’s important to remember that the above list is not exhaustive. There are many more subtle traits that could show a narcissistic partner vs. a toxic or selfish one. They are not always the same and learn to weaponize their insecurities in different ways.
Someone can mistreat you and not be narcissistic. It’s a spectrum, and “narcissistic” people have a much more intentional and pathological approach to their worst behaviors. They are more conscious and set out intending to hurt (those they believe deserve it) and control (those around them).
Honesty is always more empowering than a lie. Your relationships, your health, your happiness…it doesn’t have to be “on trend”. A toxic relationship is no less hurtful to you than a narcissistic relationship is to those who survive it. It’s not a pyramid of pain, a contest to be won. We are all damaged by damaging people in our own way.
Don’t claim a narcissistic relationship if that level of delusion, and intentional destruction wasn’t there. Instead, focus on what hurt you and create a path forward from that point.
For those who have survived the tentacles of a narcissistic relationship, hold tight. It’s time for a truth that you must accept in order to heal.
What happened had nothing to do with you.
You were little more than an ant on the sidewalk stuck in the magnified gaze of a toddler with an attitude. The pain that was caused to you was not a reflection of your true worth. The narcissist broke you so that they could shape you in a form that made them feel better about their pain.
Escape is not rejection. It’s freedom. Embrace this second chance. You must realize a happy future away from your ex and their endless abuses. You always deserved love, safety, and happiness. Now is your chance to thrive, so use it wisely.