Angela and Neal had been married for ten years when the truth about her past started to surface. Neal thought she came to the United States to get better life from her country of origin, Serbia. She told him stories of living on the streets, being physically abused by family members, and a chaotic nation with no hope for a healthy future. He believed her without ever checking her facts or even meeting any of her family members. Instead, he saw her as a wounded charming person who craved love and needed rescuing.
Given her past, Neal excused away Angela’s outbursts over little and big matters thinking they would get better over time. But they did not; they escalated. The more attention Neal gave her, the more she craved. She even seemed to be jealous over the time he spent walking the dog or playing with the children. Her demands for a picture-perfect family alienated her from not so perfect ADHD son who routinely got in trouble at school. Angela blamed Neal for their son’s behavior but did agree to go to counseling.
While taking a history on both parents, discrepancies began to surface in Angela’s story. When Neal confronted the matter, she accused him of making things up and not remembering it properly. That’s when Neal began to check out her story from the past. An extensive background check revealed that she was not from Serbia and her family was quite well off. Angela had concocted a lie about her past to hide her hidden shame of sexual trauma by a family member. The counselor also diagnosed her with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
Why does a person do this? At the heart of NPD is often deep-rooted insecurity or a hidden shame which the narcissist covers up with grandiosity and/or perfectionism. By creating another persona, so different from their actual reality, the narcissist believes they can bury the truth and never deal with it. For the narcissist, if their shame or insecurity were to be revealed, then they would be revealed as a phony and their whole world would come crashing down.
Do all NPD’s have this? Yes. Most narcissists will manage to charm, fake, blame, or escape their way out of a situation like Angela’s. Their hidden shame or insecurity is like a precious treasure that they guard with their lives. Very few people ever see it and when they do, the narcissist returns their empathy, compassion, or sympathy with intense anger. This is done to push the other person away so they won’t confront the shame or insecurity because, without it, the narcissist loses their identity.
What can be done? Normally, when shame is exposed and empathy is received, a person gets better. This is not true for a narcissist. When a narcissist’s shame is exposed and empathy is given, the narcissist rages against the other person for unveiling the mask. Instead, their shame should be used as an explanation for their accomplishments. After hearing the real truth of Angela’s life, Neal used that moment to point out how strong her survivor instincts were and how that made her such a determined woman. This neutralized the shame, without removing it, while protecting her identity.
Can a narcissist be cured? Narcissism is a personality disorder which means it is an integral part of the fiber of a person’s being. It can’t be cured but it can be managed. Narcissists can get better only if they want to and usually it takes a life-altering event for this to occur. This is a combination of therapy, understanding from close family members, and accountability from others which is very effective in managing the disorder.
Angela and Neal decided to stay together and make their marriage work. It was a difficult road at first but after a long period of time and a lot of work on both parts, they came to a mutual understanding of each other. Angela’s hidden shame was never brought up again by Neal in exchange for her honesty going forward. However, Angela did go through individual therapy to deal with her sexual trauma and learn how to minimize her narcissistic tendencies.