It’s Narcissist Friday!
There’s an old saying that has been popular among preachers for generations:
“Beware of those who meet you at the train!”
So many pastors have been given a warm welcome by church members eager to please. They come with food and flowers and offers of help. They are ready to show the pastor and his family the new town and introduce them to the important people. But, after a while, these people become much less friendly. They may even become hostile, criticizing and challenging the pastor.
I have found this to be true in my own life. Those who meet you so graciously at the beginning often have something in mind. They expect that their warm welcome will somehow bond you to them. If, however, you don’t come through, their hearts seem to change easily. Or maybe the novelty wears off. In time they find you to be just another problem.
Narcissists can be very friendly people. They are able to say and do the right things at the right times. They present themselves as generous and thoughtful. They make good first impressions. But they are terrible at real relationships. Not all of those who “meet us at the train” are narcissists, of course. Some just like to be connected to the new thing. Some are genuinely kind people. But narcissists are notorious for manipulating new relationships.
And, of course, this problem doesn’t exist only in churches and for pastors. The overly helpful co-worker at your new job. The generous new friend. The amazing new boyfriend. The magnanimous mother-in-law. These people all may have agendas. They will use you for their purposes, then discard you. If they learn you cannot be used, they may become your enemies.
So how do you tell the difference between the narcissist and the genuinely kind person? How can you protect yourself from being caught up in the manipulations of the narcissist trying to make a good impression? Here are some ideas:
1. Be suspicious. There is nothing wrong with being a little suspicious. The simple fact that there are people out there who want to use you should make you a little more cautious around everyone. You can still be kind and appreciative. You may have been taught to trust people until they hurt you. You should know better by now.
2. Listen carefully. Narcissists will give themselves away by the things they say about others. I learned that those who were critical of the previous pastor would probably be critical of me. Because the narcissist sees people as tools, toys, or obstacles, he will usually categorize others in this way. When he speaks negatively about other girls, or she says harsh things about others in the organization, you should realize that you will one day be in one of those categories. The friendly co-worker at the new job who tells you all the dirt on the other employees will almost certainly be telling someone what he learns about you.
3. Beware the superlative. If you are tempted to describe your new acquaintance with an adjective, particularly a strong positive adjective, you might have a narcissist on your hands. The generous new friend, the amazing new boyfriend, the awesome co-worker: beware. If you are tempted to add the word “very” to any of these adjectives, you should be extra careful. Narcissists often overdo their kindness. They are too generous, too friendly, too available. They think they have to outperform others to have you in their corner. Most people will be kind, perhaps even generous, but the narcissist has to do more.
4. Watch out for ownership. If you begin to see that others can only reach you through your new friend or lover, or you feel that others are standing off and you can’t get to know them, it may be that the narcissist has marked you as his or her own. Narcissists want exclusive relationships. They will introduce you to others, but not let you have your own relationship with others.
5. Value your freedom. If you find yourself feeling smothered, you may be dealing with a narcissist. If you get a phone call every day, or several times a day, from your new friend, you may be her latest victim. When you realize that you can’t go to the grocery store without feeling like you are supposed to call your friend first, maybe you should back away. Narcissism is about control, and narcissists know that control takes time. The more freedom you have to think or to establish a life apart from the narcissist, the more risk that the narcissist cannot control you.
6. Listen to your feelings. If you feel it is too much, it probably is. Allow yourself to be suspicious. Allow yourself to question even the most gracious new friend. When you feel indebted to this person, and that debt allows him/her to ask uncomfortable things of you, you should probably get out of the relationship. Anytime you are pushed beyond your comfort level, realize that the new friend does not have your interest in mind. Narcissists want their victims to be uncomfortable, confused, and weakened.
7. Understand the anger. Narcissistic anger can be sudden and intense. You will be made to feel like a traitor, just for thinking your own thoughts. You may find that your secrets are out there for everyone to hear, because your “confidential” friend is angry. You may see others turning away from you because of what the narcissist is saying behind your back. Understand this. Because you could not be controlled, you have become the enemy. Or, because you let yourself be used, you no longer have value. Yes, a narcissistic relationship is just that shallow—and just that painful.
Listen: because there are people out there who want to control you and use you, be careful. Build relationships with many people, not just those who seem so giving and welcoming. We should all have many friends because we are friendly people. Get to know as many of your co-workers as you can. Spread your kindness and helpfulness around at church or in the organization. Spend time with people other than the ones who met you first. You don’t have to neglect those who were kind in the beginning, but you don’t have to limit yourself to them either.
And tell your teenagers the dangers of exclusive relationships too early in their lives. The ones who pull them away from their friends, of either gender, may be the ones who will use them and hurt them.
Not everyone who meets you at the train is a narcissist, but the narcissist may well be there to help you. Be aware!