If you’re here reading this, my first thought is that you identify as a highly sensitive person (HSP), or are considering this may be a real possibility. Possibly you faced criticism in 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. We learned that we needed to nurse our wounds in private. Wounds that were inflicted by parents and others, while living in a state of semi-exhaustion in the never-ending cycle of engagement with others followed by retreat.
In relationships our sensitivity to the feelings of others can be highly reactive as 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. HSPs are hard-wired for intensity as well as 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 and this is especially true with respect to toxic relationships. Emotional highs may be higher, and the lows lower. So why does this make for such a potent cocktail when the HSP meets the narcissist? Although the issue of narcissism is complex, particularly as it pertains to a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), we will define narcissism with the following criteria:
- Lacking Empathy
- Having a sense of self-importance entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
- Expects to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerates achievements, talents and wealth
- Preoccupation with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
- Belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
- Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
- Exploits or takes advantage of others to get what they want
- They are envious of others and believe others envy them
- They exhibit arrogant behaviors
- They must have the best of everything (clothing, cars, etc.)
You may be wondering why an HSP would find these behaviors remotely attractive? The answer to this is often complex. A narcissist can be difficult to spot. They often present themselves as charismatic, out-going, self-confident and successful. Their lack of empathy is hidden as in the initial stages of the relationship they will adore and idealize you. This is commonly referred to as the love-bombing stage. You are swept off your feet believing that you have a deep and meaningful connection. This plays into the HSP’s natural tendency to gravitate toward connection and meaning. Generally, HSPs abhor superficial communication in its many forms we tend to find it exhausting. This plays right into the intense nature of a relationship with a narcissist who understands this about you and works to exploit your need for the meaningful.
The hallmark of a relationship with a narcissist is that HSPs will find themselves riding the constant pendulum of idealization, followed by devaluing, and ultimately being discarded. During the idealization phase, the narcissist will always sing your favorite song so to speak, as you are placed on a pedestal. In the beginning of the relationship between a narcissist and a HSP, the narcissist will shower the HSP with adoration. The HSP will often feel that possibly for the first time, they are truly being seen and appreciated. They an intense and immediate bond with the narcissist who is highly adept at creating the illusion of their connection. Often the narcissist will hook the HSP with stories of their victimization that may closely resemble their own. The HSP has a high level of empathy and is almost immediately taken in by the intensity of this connection and mutual understanding. Often the narcissist presents an attractive, charismatic and successful individual, which intensifies the HSP’s attraction. Often the HSP in believing that they are sympatico with the narcissist will admire the narcissist’s confidence and strength as it also emboldens them.
Love-bombing…It’s a Chemical Thing and Highly Addictive to the HSP
The idealization phase of the relationship between a HSP and a narcissist is also referred to as love-bombing. The love-bombing phase is chemically addictive to the HSP. The intensity of the love-bombing stage to an HSP can be a high like no other. The sexual attraction may be intense along with feelings of attachment. Many HSPs are starved for acceptance, understanding and connection, making the love-bombing stage highly potent. During the love-bombing stage we are flooded with feel-good neurotransmitters.
According to a research study led by Dr. Helen Fisher at Rutgers University, romantic love can be broken down by stages of – Lust, Attraction, and Attachment. Each stage is characterized by its own set of hormones stemming from the brain:
Lust – Testosterone, Estrogen
Attraction – Dopamine, Serotonin, Norepinephrine
Attachment- Oxytocin, Vasopressin
Because the relationship develops rapidly and with intensity, within a short-period of time a deep attachment is formed. Once the narcissist knows that they have the HSP deeply committed to the relationship they begin to pull-away. The HSP goes to great lengths to fix the relationship and this becomes and almost addictive trend. We know that chemically, dopamine is implicated in addiction, making someone’s high regard for us highly potent when mixed with attachment which may be avoidant or anxious. In romantic relationships a partner’s high regard for us can be highly addictive, especially for a HSP. Therefore, when we experience or witness injustice or cruelty those feelings are equally intense. 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.
What Happens When the Narcissist Pulls Away?
The HSP is deeply confused and feels stunned by the narcissist’s retreat. When the narcissist pulls away suddenly, the HSP will go into overdrive to fix the relationship. The HSP is susceptible to rumination and self-blame, particularly if in childhood we believed our way of being in the world was “wrong.” As we know, HSPs are 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, trying to please the narcissist becomes all-consuming. Being highly sensitive, may make us more susceptible to someone’s high regard for us hard to resist, and even in some instances addictive.
As time goes on the narcissist begins to devalue the HSP. Since the narcissist 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 fears rejection and abandonment. When the narcissist turns cold, the HSP may find themselves stuck in a never-ending loop of trying to assign a logical explanation for the narcissist’s behavior. The narcissist who is 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, the HSP will look for logical reasons for the shift and may engage in self-blame. By buying into the narcissist’s victimhood, the HSP may tolerate mistreatment while offering help. It is in this phase that the 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.
Narcissistic Abuse and the Highly Sensitive Person
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 sense well-being. It is common for survivors of narcissistic abuse to experience chronic fatigue and stress related health issues as well as anxiety and depression.
Verbal abuse by the narcissist can induce a trauma-like response as the narcissist easily and without remorse inflicts injury in places most vulnerable. Those who suffered childhood abuse, neglect, abandonment or have issues with past trauma may be highly triggered by the narcissist. Since it is natural to wish to avoid the pain and shame of past trauma, it is in this place that we lose our way becoming ungrounded, fearful and disconnected from self.
How can the HSP Self-Protect Against Toxic Relationships
If you are highly sensitive, it’s important to recognize the importance of your physical and emotional energy. Using physical cues to inform ourselves about the emotional costs of a relationship can be helpful. Learning to trust feelings and somatic experience as helpful data in evaluating relationships may be important. Recognizing that frequent anxiety, mental exhaustion, emotional overwhelm and too much intensity in a relationshipis may be a signal to begin to self-protect and improve boundaries. Often HSPs have a heightened sense of awareness when it comes to their internal states (physical, psychological and emotional). Learning to use that information as something to pay attention to even when we don’t completely understand it, is highly valuable. Often validating our own uniqueness is an important first step. Understanding that when our bodies are signaling that danger may be lurking ahead is important. Relationships that make us feel fatigued, exhausted, anxious, or physically unwell should be a signal that it’s time to re-evaluate the relationship. HSPs are extremely perceptive when it comes to picking up on the subtle energies of others. Therefore, learning to trust our unique way of processing sensory information is critical in being able to self-protect.
7 Tips for HSPs to Evaluate Relationships
- Identify your feelings (physical and emotional) about the relationship.
- Recognize that frequent anxiety and rumination about the relationship as potentially unhealthy.
- Identify physical symptoms such as GI upset, racing heartbeat, headaches, fatigue, etc. in response to negative relationship dynamics or abuse.
- Spend time alone to restore your energy get clarity on the relationship.
- Consider psychotherapy for support and clarity on your relationships with significant others in your life. Recognize abuse dynamics and gather support to leave an unhealthy/abusive situation.
- Evaluate how you feel after spending time with a partner. Consider keeping a journal to help with self-reflection.
- Recognize feelings of guilt regarding the need to set boundaries and limits with others.
ARTICLE WRITTEN BY LESLIE MILLER LICSW (originally posted on her website) Thank you Leslie!!