Don’t blame yourself for getting charmed by them — it’s happened to the best of us.
If you’re here reading this, my first thought is that you may identify, as do I, as a highly sensitive person (HSP) — or you might be one and not even know it.
Maybe, like I did, you faced criticism during childhood for your emotional sensitivity, making futile attempts to “toughen up” and numb yourself, all the while learning to become an expert at hiding from criticism and misunderstanding.
We may have learned from well-meaning parents, who feared that their emotionally sensitive children may be taken advantage of, or worse — bullied by others — and that our way of being in the world was “wrong.” As a result, most of us probably learned to nurse our wounds in private, wounds that were inflicted by parents and others. So we’d live in a state of semi-exhaustion in the never-ending cycle of engagement with others, followed by retreat. (We HSPs usually need this coveted alone time to recharge.)
In relationships, our sensitivity to the feelings of others can be highly reactive since we absorb information and energy from others, as well as our environment. This may be especially so when we have experienced early childhood neglect, abuse, or abandonment.
Most HSPs are hard-wired for intensity, and subtlety, given that we are both adept at reading between the lines and respond internally, in-kind, to what’s in front of us. This paves the way to be easily emotionally triggered in relationships, generally speaking, and this is especially true with respect to toxic relationships. Emotional highs may be higher, and the lows, lower.
So when an HSP meets a narcissist, it makes for a very potent cocktail — with effects that can follow you for years.
Why an HSP May Be Attracted to a Narcissist in the First Place
Although narcissism is complex, particularly when it is severe enough to merit a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), I’m going to define narcissism with the following criteria:
- Lacking empathy
- Having a sense of self-importance entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
- Expecting to be recognized as superior (even without achievements that warrant it)
- Exaggerating achievements, talents, and wealth
- Preoccupation with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty, or the perfect mate
- Believing they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
- Belittling or looking down on people they perceive as inferior
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
- Exploiting or taking advantage of others to get what they want
- Envious of others and believing others envy them
- Exhibiting arrogant behaviors
- Must have the best of everything (clothing, cars, etc.)
So why would HSP — or anyone — find these behaviors attractive?
For starters, a narcissist can be difficult to spot. They often present themselves as charismatic, outgoing, self-confident, and successful, while hiding their lack of empathy.
As a result, the HSP is already emotionally invested before they see the narcissist’s true side.
The hallmark of a relationship with a narcissist is you find yourself riding a constant pendulum of idealization followed by devaluing, until ultimately you are discarded.
What you should do about this relationship depends on which of the three stages you’re currently in.
The Three Stages of a Relationship with a Narcissist
Stage 1: The Narcissist Will Idealize the HSP — Also Known as the Love-Bombing Stage
During the idealization phase, a narcissist will place you, the HSP, on a pedestal and shower you with adoration. You’ll feel as though you’re truly being seen and appreciated, possibly for the first time, and form an intense and immediate bond with the narcissist.
The idealization phase of the relationship between an HSP and a narcissist is also referred to as love-bombing, which is chemically addictive and can be a high like no other. It’ll flood you with feel-good neurotransmitters. The sexual attraction may be intense, along with feelings of attachment. Some HSPs are starved for acceptance, understanding, and connection, making the love-bombing stage highly potent.
Why does it work? According to a study led by Dr. Helen Fisher at Rutgers University, emotional love passes through specific phases — each with its own set of feel-good hormones:
- Lust — Testosterone, Estrogen
- Attraction — Dopamine, Serotonin, Norepinephrine
- Attachment — Oxytocin, Vasopressin
The point of the love-bombing stage is to flood you with as many of the happy hormones as possible, and move you quickly toward attachment. During this stage, you’ll be swept off your feet, believing you have a deep and meaningful connection. This plays into an HSP’s natural tendency to gravitate toward connection and meaning. (Generally, HSPs abhor superficial communication; we find it exhausting.)
Often, the narcissist will hook the HSP with stories of their victimization that may closely resemble their own. And because HSPs usually have a high level of empathy, this will make them feel even more connected to the narcissist. Often, the HSP, believing that they are sympatico with the narcissist, will admire their confidence and strength, as it also emboldens them.
But then the narcissist will have the HSP right where they want them — and they’ll begin to pull away …
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Stage 2: The Narcissist Will Begin to Pull Away From the HSP, Then Devalue Them
Once the narcissist knows that they have the HSP deeply committed to the relationship, they usually begin to pull away. The HSP usually goes to great lengths to fix the relationship, and this becomes an almost addictive trend.
In romantic relationships, a partner’s high regard for us can be highly addictive, too, especially for an HSP. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is implicated in addiction, making someone’s high regard for us highly potent when mixed with your attachment style — which may be avoidant or anxious.
Therefore, trying to win back the affections of the narcissist to get back to the earlier stage of the relationship can become a very compelling drive for some. Meanwhile, the HSP is probably deeply confused and feels stunned by the narcissist’s retreat. We may ruminate and blame ourselves, particularly if, during childhood, we believed our way of being in the world was “wrong.”
As we know, HSPs are usually the masters of subtext, hearing what’s below the surface and what’s not being said. Picking up on subtle clues and nuances in tone of voice, shifting attitudes, and gestures of hostility or ambivalence by a partner is natural for an HSP.
Walking on eggshells and trying to please the narcissist becomes all-consuming. But, being highly sensitive, we may find someone’s high regard for us hard to resist.
As time goes on, the narcissist begins to devalue the HSP. Since the narcissist generally lacks empathy, this is likely when they may become rejecting, callous, and, more often than not, psychologically abusive.
They may triangulate with the HSP, who may fear rejection and abandonment. When the narcissist turns cold, the HSP might find themselves stuck in a never-ending loop of trying to assign a logical explanation for the narcissist’s behavior. In turn, the narcissist — who tends to be manipulative by nature — may continue to re-hook the HSP by playing the victim and showing small glimmers of the love-bombing phase.
As the narcissist continues to intermittently idealize and devalue us, we HSPs will likely look for logical reasons for the shift. By buying into the narcissist’s victimhood, we may tolerate mistreatment while offering help. It is in this phase that an HSP will do almost anything to please and placate the narcissist to move the relationship back to the earlier stage of love and good feelings they experienced early on.
Stage 3: The Narcissist Discards the HSP
Finally, the narcissist will discard the HSP, who still won’t understand what happened.
Narcissistic Abuse and the Highly Sensitive Person
Research shows that narcissistic abuse can have long-lasting consequences on physical and mental health. The cycle of idealization and devaluing of the HSP is physically and mentally exhausting, as well as toxic to a healthy sense of well-being. It is common for survivors of narcissistic abuse to experience chronic fatigue and stress-related health issues, in addition to anxiety and depression.
Verbal abuse by the narcissist can induce a trauma-like response, and it is important to recognize the signs of it, especially since the narcissist tends to inflict injury on those who are most vulnerable.
If you suffered from childhood abuse, neglect, abandonment, or have issues with past trauma, you may be highly triggered by a narcissist. Since it is natural to wish to avoid the pain and shame of past trauma, it is in this place that we often lose our way, becoming ungrounded, fearful, and disconnected from self.
How to Move Beyond Narcissistic Abuse — and Heal
Unfortunately, the cycle of narcissistic abuse can last for several months or many years, depending on several factors. If you believe that you are experiencing narcissistic abuse, it is important to remember the following:
- Clearly define your experience as abuse, for being able to call something out is important. When narcissistic abuse happens, you need to be able to identify it as such.
- You are not to blame for your partner’s abuse.
- Narcissistic abuse often turns physical. Reach out to your local domestic abuse hotline if you are in physical danger.
- If you have ended the relationship, consider going no-contact with the narcissist.
- Safeguard your physical health through self-care: proper rest, exercise, nutrition.
- Enlist the help of a psychotherapist or support group with a thorough understanding of narcissistic abuse.
Healing may take some time, but it is possible, and knowing that is the first step toward moving beyond narcissistic abuse.
If this article helped you, I offer psychotherapy, coaching, and healing for HSPs and others who have been harmed by narcissistic abuse. Learn more here.