Why do people fall into the trap of the narcissist?  

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question came from J. Mill via email [equivalent to 1 special vote]: Why are so many people charmed by narcissistic people? Which I recast as: Why do so many people fall into the trap of the narcissist?  

As the son of a father who was a narcissist, I know this trap all too well. It works like this:

  1. You meet someone and are impressed.
  2. You’re not sure why, but there’s something powerful and deeply familiar you feel from them. Something you’ve always wanted.
  3. As you cross the doorway into their life, you see someone already inside on their way out. As they exit, sad and upset, they warn you not to trust the narcissist.
  4. But you smile in disbelief at what they say.
  5. How could it be true? You ask. The narcissist is so charming. They satisfy something you know you need. So you blame the person leaving for whatever went wrong.
  6. You know you are special – because the narcissist tells you so.
  7.  They promise you something you want – something important. Something no one else can offer.
  8. It feels good for a time. But then they forget their promise. You remind them, and they seem to remember.
  9. But then they forget again. Or they lie.
  10. Then you feel abused, but don’t want to believe it.
  11. Maybe they apologize, but not very well. They promise again.
  12. You wonder: have they earned your trust or are you just giving it away? But you think love is trust, so you offer it willingly.
  13. Then you are used again. And again. Each denial makes the next one easier.
  14. Another denial takes less courage than admitting to yourself who they really are and who you are for not seeing it sooner.
  15. By the time you hit bottom and can’t deny anymore, you’re ashamed, wounded and exhausted.
  16. Even when you summon the courage of confrontation, they ignore you. Or blame you for what happened.
  17. So you decide to leave.
  18. As you exit, you tell the next person coming in the door what you learned, but they smile in disbelief at what you say.

You can read The Ghost of My Father, my memoir about my family, for more thoughts on narcissists and how to overcome their influence on your life.

8 Responses to “Why do people fall into the trap of the narcissist?  ”

  1. Daniel H. (Germany)

    Somewhat related:
    There’s a fun book I often recommend, but it’s only available in french and german (and maybe japanese? I’m not sure) from psychologists Francois Lelord and Christophe Andre called “Comment gérer les personnalités difficiles” (how to deal with difficult people). The premise is like this: There are ~5% of all people that are very difficult to deal with (but in a state that does not require direct psychiatric treatment). In each chapter, you are introduced to one category – people who are narcissists, schizoid, paranoid, histrionic, dependent, anxious, … (I can’t remember them all) with many examples, both from the person’s and their peer’s view. It offers reasonable suggestions how you can deal with these people if they happen to be your partner, relative, colleague or boss. It has helped me in countless situations.
    As mentioned above, there appears to be no english translation available. A quick online search for “how to deal with narcissists” brought up comparable articles, but you have to decide on your own how helpfull they are. For example, there’s this psychology today article with from my view not-so-helpfull advice but a great introduction on narcissism: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201408/8-ways-handle-narcissist
    “Just because some people are narcissists doesn’t mean they’re unlovable. People high in narcissism may also be fun, charismatic, or good at what they do. Having them around gives you more pleasure than pain and, in the workplace, enhance your team’s success.”
    I think that resonates very well with what Scott wrote above.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks Daniel – sounds like an interesting book. A similiar one that was popular here in the U.S. is The Sociopath Next Door that focuses on a few different kinds of (common) personality disorders.

  2. @GetzelR

    Your answer explores why/how people charmed by an individual are not deterred by warnings of narcissism.

    The original formulation of the question seems to me to include a more interesting suggestion worth exploring: Narcissism and related personality traits themselves seem to give the narcissist a certain allure and charisma.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Excellent points. Yes, I did dodge the question. For whatever reason a short story (which is what this numbered list was, in a way) seemed to be more illustrative than an essay – or perhaps I was just lazy.

      Allure is a perfect word for some of the effects narcissists have.

    2. Joeji

      I disagree. I have met purely narcissistic people whose appearance and vibe that acts like a “dark magnet” that lures people in, usually those who are blind to red flags or grew up with a narcissistic family.

  3. JD

    While I agree with all of your points, it is also interesting to note that if the narcissist in question is a family member (as in your and my case), then the victim never did make the choice/mistake to fall for the narcissist voluntarily.

    Aside from that, I discovered you today and absolutely love your writing, you have a direct, smart, and engaging style and I cannot wait to read the rest of your articles and books 😊

    1. Scott Berkun

      That’s a good point – and I’ve read the theory that the healthy/unhealthy patterns we experience as children are the most familiar to us, and we often conflate familiar with good even as adults.

      Thanks for the complement – I hope you come back and comment again! Cheers.

      1. JD

        Well, in my own personal experience, there is certainly some truth to that. And that is really a bit upsetting. You would expect that someone who experienced such – Yes – abuse, would run far away from that as a lucid adult. There is simply nothing healthy about a “relationship” with a N…and yet…one falls into the “familiar” trap….please share some thoughts on how to break free from those patterns…as a follow up to this piece :) I really do enjoy your intelligent writing very much.


Leave a Reply

* Required