Narcissists' children become smarter

Relationship with a Narcissist: From Dream to Nightmare

Narcissists can be extremely charming and generous, especially when they are dating or at the beginning of a relationship. Often they shower their partner with attention and quickly build castles in the air of a common future. So it's no wonder that many people get involved with narcissists, end up in a relationship and thus also in a toxic dependency.

For the STANDARD podcast "Relatively", the psychotherapist and narcissism expert Katharina Schuldner speaks about how to expose a narcissist on the first date and how those affected can get out of narcissistic relationships. Here is the interview to read:

DEFAULT: How would you describe a narcissist?

Debtor: Narcissists can be very charismatic to the outside world. They show themselves at their best. Especially at the beginning of a relationship, they shower their counterpart with messages of love and compliments. This is the so-called "Love Bombing" phase. This means that initially narcissists tend to be people you find particularly impressive.

DEFAULT: To put that into perspective and because we all know him: is Donald Trump a classic narcissist?

Debtor: There are always therapists who attest he has a narcissistic personality disorder. These are all remote diagnoses, of course, but you can certainly spot a few narcissistic tendencies in him.

DEFAULT: One often has the impression that narcissism is primarily a problem for men. Are there actually more male narcissists than female?

Debtor: There is a fairly extensive study by the University at Buffalo School of Management with 475,000 participants on the exact topic. It turned out that men tend to be narcissistic more often than women - regardless of age. However, differences between men and women were also examined. For example, men are of the opinion that they have more privileges than women and more entitlement to be in a management position, without any qualms about using others to achieve their own goals. Whereas both men and women are equally self-centered and equally vain.

DEFAULT: How do you become a narcissist in the first place? What is the origin of this personality disorder?

Debtor: There are different approaches in science. On the one hand, it can arise from severe neglect in childhood and, on the other hand, from over-caring for and pampering. In any case, the decisive factor is a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. In both cases it is the case that the children are not seen in their true selves with all their needs and desires.

DEFAULT: Is Narcissism Hereditary?

Debtor: There's a certain genetic predisposition to it too, yes.

DEFAULT: Are there any narcissistic traits we all have?

Debtor: We all need a little praise and recognition, and that is a pleasure. It becomes problematic when one can no longer live without this praise and constant attention. It has to be a healthy amount. What is no longer normal, for example, is an oversensitivity to any criticism and a lack of empathy. Narcissists can usually only empathize with others on a cognitive level. Many do not manage to be happy for others or to empathize with grief.

DEFAULT: If narcissists are constantly looking for attention, are Instagram and Co conducive to narcissism?

Debtor: Naturally. If I post a photo and I get a lot of likes, then it's always a narcissistic feed, always this confirmation and admiration. Of course, this can also become addictive behavior. In addition, there are more and more platforms to convey this narcissism to the outside world.

DEFAULT: Is there such a thing as healthy narcissism?

Debtor: Narcissistic tendencies per se are not bad, they can create a certain level of ambition and assertiveness. Turning to yourself in a positive way, asking yourself what needs you have and how you can meet them, that is also healthy.

DEFAULT: Now what is the difference between narcissism and selfishness?

Debtor: Reinhard Haller, the renowned narcissism expert, describes a narcissistic personality disorder through the five big "ids": 1. lack of empathy, 2. egoism, 3. selfishness, 4. sensitivity, 5. devaluation. These five qualities are less pronounced in an egoist.

DEFAULT: Can a relationship with a narcissist still be happy?

Debtor: At first maybe. In a narcissistic relationship, however, love is often mistaken for admiration. It has little to do with love and more to do with substitute satisfaction. The narcissist is the one who takes and the complementary narcissist is the one who gives. Both have injured self-esteem and both are looking for reassurance. In such a relationship, however, there is no real we-feeling possible because there is no balance between give and take.

DEFAULT: That means everything is fine in the beginning, but when does the point come when the relationship starts to crumble?

Debtor: The complementary narcissist doesn't just want to give and admire after a while, but wants to have something himself. That is usually the point in time when the relationship tips over. So for the first time something is demanded of the narcissist, or he is criticized. Usually the narcissist reacts very sensitively, for the first time verbal derailments and devaluations of the partner occur.

DEFAULT: Does that mean that a constructive argument with a narcissist is not possible at all?

Debtor: Clients usually describe arguments with narcissists as "word salad" or "going in circles". Most of the time, partners of narcissists don't even know what the real issue was, they just remain confused.

DEFAULT: Are long-term relationships with narcissists even possible when things turn over so quickly?

Debtor: It is possible, many suffer for years. However, one's own personality becomes more and more unstable and one's self-worth less and less.

DEFAULT: Let's go back to the beginning of a relationship. On the first date. How does a narcissist ensnare his counterpart?

Debtor: He is a master of grand gestures, trying to portray himself as something unique, is charismatic and convincing. He invites you to an expensive restaurant, sends flowers to work or surprises you with an exclusive vacation right at the beginning of the relationship.

DEFAULT: That doesn't sound bad at first ...

Debtor: Exactly. Many who come to my practice also say that they have finally found their soul mate, that the sex is extremely good and that they read every wish in their eyes. A "future faking" usually takes place here, which means that narcissists quickly forge plans such as a wedding, children or a house. What then happens is that the other person tries everything to achieve this. Hoping that all of these wishes will come true.

DEFAULT: But how do you expose a narcissist on a first date?

Debtor: Maybe by really paying attention to whether he resonates emotionally when you tell something. Most narcissists relate what is said to themselves immediately and cannot emotionally empathize with the other person.

DEFAULT: How do narcissists behave towards their own children?

Debtor: With two children there is often the "golden child" and the "scapegoat". All positive narcissistic elements are then transferred to the golden child, mostly it realizes the wishes and dreams of the parents, learns a musical instrument, writes good grades, becomes very sporty. The scapegoat, on the other hand, is made responsible for everything, is always to blame and is devalued. Because of these two roles, there is often a strong sibling rivalry.

DEFAULT: Would this be some form of narcissistic abuse? You read a lot about it, but what does that mean exactly?

Debtor: Narcissistic abuse or narcissistic violence is always used when an emotional bond with a person is exploited to exercise power and control - and the person is harmed or suffers as a result. But there are also various manipulation techniques, such as gas lighting. Here the perception of other people is specifically manipulated in order to be able to exercise power and control over others again.

DEFAULT: Sounds like narcissists are constantly lying. So do you cheat more often?

Debtor: Narcissists desperately need outside admiration and recognition. And since after a while they no longer receive this from their partner as intensively as at the beginning, they often look for variety and the kick elsewhere.

DEFAULT: It sounds terrible, and at some point you will probably want to get away from someone like that very quickly, right?

Debtor: The essential point to break out of such a relationship is to realize that this is really narcissistic abuse. Then really leaving the narcissist is often a lengthy process because a narcissistic relationship is built on interdependence. The second essential point is then the conscious decision that you no longer want this.

DEFAULT: How do narcissists deal with leaving them?

Debtor: There is a narcissistic offense taking place. So in the first step he will perhaps try to win the person back, again with grand gestures, or he will use all means to punish and finish off the other person. I know from practice that narcissists really do use gruesome means to destroy the other person's life bit by bit. Some examples: Rumors are spread among friends or unrest within relatives by telling more intimate things. Others even go so far as to call the ex-partner's work and discredit the person.

DEFAULT: That's probably really bad when you have children together ...

Debtor: Many try to manipulate the children and incite them against the other parent. It is not uncommon for there to be very nasty custody disputes, unfortunately.

DEFAULT: They have developed a special therapy method called EDEN to help those affected. How do you work here?

Debtor: In working with my clients, I have recognized that every person affected goes through certain steps in order to get away from a narcissistic partner or parent. EDEN stands for the four steps that you go through: 1. Recognize that this is really a narcissistic abuse and you make the clear decision that you want to give up your victim role and specifically want to change something in the situation. 2. Unmasking is the actual block of therapy. This is about dealing with your own behaviors and beliefs that keep you in this relationship. 3. Developing means that I think back to myself, to my physical and psychological well-being. As a result of the abuse, many of those affected have left themselves bit by bit, no longer taking their own wishes and needs seriously. 4. Reordering means thinking about how to view narcissistic abuse as an opportunity. This raises the question of how to rearrange your life and live free from narcissistic abuse.

DEFAULT: Can narcissists change and heal their personality disorder?

Debtor: Narcissists often don't suffer the way narcissistic abuse sufferers do. But of course there are narcissists who want to change if, for example, they lose a job or a family. Therapy with narcissists is then unfortunately often very protracted, usually lasting at least two to three years. There are also specific therapies, but no empirical evidence that these therapies are really effective. If empathy is fundamentally absent, then I cannot train it either. This makes working with narcissists particularly challenging for therapists. In practice, I have to try to confront the client with their narcissistic behaviors without endangering the relationship between us. Here it can quickly happen that the narcissist tells you that you are a bad therapist and he no longer comes. (Nadja Kupsa, Kevin Recher, November 17, 2020)

Katharina Debtor is a psychotherapist and clinical psychologist. In her practice in Vienna, she helps people who have experienced or are still experiencing narcissistic abuse. She has developed a special therapy program for this. More information at