Don't Get Stuck In This Common Narcissist Trap, A Relationship Expert Says
Seeking growth is a great thing, whether we're striving for deeper emotional awareness, building new habits, or improving our relationships. But sometimes, we run into people who seem to be seeking growth (or at least claim to be), and yet after a substantial amount of time, we feel stuck and frustrated in our relationships with them.
We've invested patience, hope, and support in these people we love, so it feels hard to just throw in the towel. We can't possibly give up hope in our loved ones, especially because they're trying so hard—or are they?
Welcome to the world of "performative growth," where emotional intelligence is counterfeit and instead, wielded to trap and trick. Here's how to spot it, plus how to deal with it.
How narcissists reel you in with false promises
Using therapy speak as a "get-out-of-jail-free" card
Being in therapy or coaching, devouring books and journals, and psychoanalyzing 24/7 doesn't mean anything if it's just empty speech. Talk is cheap, and there are people—especially dark personality types—who show up to therapy to tick a box, tell people they are doing it, and develop a more sophisticated language that ups their game.
For example, they might say something like, "You know I have rejection-sensitive dysphoria, and that's why you have to understand me," compared to someone who might say, "I'm sorry I did that when I felt overwhelmed because I thought I was being rejected. I will work hard not to do that again—what can I do to make it up to you?" With the key being, of course, that they actually commit to it and display growth.
This veneer of self-awareness and therapy speak also evokes your empathy, so you can't help but believe they're working on themselves. You then find yourself stuck in the snares of an accountability trap. Most of us work harder to be better people, so we assume others will do the same. Except this courtesy cannot be applied to dark types because accountability is what gets you hooked—and they may even ask that you keep them accountable.
You walk on eggshells and wonder if your behavior might trigger them; you learn to blame yourself every time they get triggered. And every time you inadvertently get distressed, you're not allowed to say a thing. You aren't even allowed to take me-time to ground yourself, because they will spiral again. In other words, you are trained to forget, ignore, and hide your own pain and just "let them be."
Becoming an emotional-intelligence expert (& painting you as the "EQ idiot")
Dark personality types get sophisticated with psychology speak to look like they're experts in emotional intelligence (EQ). One way they do this is by understanding your triggers, deliberately pushing your buttons, and then calmly telling you that if you are upset, it must be your fault.
Under the guise of caring about you, they may want to process your emotions together or sit down for long talks to gain more intel about how you operate. They're also the maestros of confusing messaging that sounds intelligent, wielding psychology speak with buzzwords like "emotions," "triggers," and "boundaries."
They may act like they're doing something in the name of their self-care and sanity, when it's actually to control you. A typical example would be someone saying, "I will not be with someone who has male friends because [reason about their history], and that is my boundary." This confused messaging doesn't happen because they are confused—it's employed to trick you. And it's not a healthy boundary, by the way.
In any case, this wielding of EQ serves a few purposes. First, it gaslights you from your own intuition and you wind up over-rationalizing why you're being "sensitive" or "difficult." Second, your boundaries erode further and further. Third, you learn to blame yourself for everything, which makes it easier for them to succeed faster in future attacks. And fourth, their calmness and use of psychology speak gives them more "EQ street-cred," so you believe they're right and you must be wrong.
They think they're the only one with competence
A curious case I've noticed in dark personality types is that they think everyone besides them is grossly incompetent, even friends or co-workers.
There's a never-ending litany of tales about how everyone is terrible or doing a crappy job at work. They make it sound as if they're suffering like martyrs, which means you have to be extra understanding toward them, and they're the ones who swoop in to save the day—so you have to praise them, too.
We all run into hiccups at work and in our social circles, but the thing is, it's often a transient episode or at the periphery of our lives. With a dark type, the drama and never-ending sh*t-storm revolves around them, and they act hurt by it or like they have to come to the rescue.
In other words, they're the only emotionally and technically competent ones.
How to discern the truth
Is the "change" hardly a change at all?
If the change is piecemeal, meaning very little action or maybe a tiny part of an action, they're not really growing. For instance, saying "I've put a calendar reminder to book the holiday trip" is only a fraction of what else needs to be done—researching, planning, deciding, and actually committing to a trip.
Does the change last?
Second, ask yourself if the change is transient. Here, dark types often make a change for a very short period of time (sometimes only hours) and brag about it—or they boast about what they haven't done. They might say, "I haven't even hit you this year," and it's a week into January.
Are you punished for wanting growth?
Ask yourself if you're paying for these small, transient changes. Dark types will punish you for any change they embark on, nevermind if it doesn't last. Because they know which buttons to push, and they also know how to make it look like it's your fault. They're particularly good at this, and that way, you're trained to not ask for decent treatment.
In other words, do they really mean what they say? Remember that talk is cheap.
Do they violate your trust and/or peace?
Do they deliberately violate your trust, peace, and respect? Even when you've had conversations about boundaries you're putting in place, some dark types are so brazen they'll say things like, "You know I cannot change," "I can't promise you change because it's hard," or even laugh in your face and say, "You should know better than to believe me."
Do they make an effort to repair?
When this person violates your trust, the least they can do is make an effort to repair the damage. Every relationship has its inadvertent ruptures, but when people are sincere and committed to growing together, they will work hard at repairing any accidental ruptures. If they don't, they're not really concerned with changing or growing.
Are you making (or looking for) excuses?
The human brain suffers from a prejudice called confirmation bias: We look for proof that goes with our belief and discard all other information. So, if you believe this person loves and cares for you and that they're committed to growth, you might inflate the few times they've temporarily changed. Or, you reference the times when they say all the right spiritually adept and emotionally mature things.
Are you only focusing on the good?
If you find yourself thinking "They're not all bad," or "We have some positive interactions!" there's a strong chance you're lying to yourself. Here's the deal, Jack the Ripper might not have been "full-blown" and he killed multiple people; do you need someone to be "full-blown" or "completely psychopathic" to recognize that they are bad for you and your future becomes bleaker with them?
Having some positive interactions does not discount the overall picture—as the Gottman Institute has corroborated, relationships that are healthy and enduring have a ratio of five to one positive to negative interactions.
The good times tend to fall under the initial phase of love-bombing, where you're bombarded with positive affection to make you feel like they're "The One" and it's you both against the world, then as intermittent reinforcement, where they throw in some decent crumbs to reward you and provide evidence that they aren't all bad.
Do you actually trust them?
There are people we can trust to be happy for us in our success and consistently have our back—especially if we make requests for support. These are people to keep in our lives.
When it comes to a dark personality type, the truth is that you cannot trust them not to hurt you. And when they do inevitably hurt you again, they blame you.
Does couples' therapy become another battleground?
With the best of intentions, we may turn to couples' therapy. But the thing about dark types is that they can be incredibly charming and sophisticated—while their partners have been beaten down by repeated abuse and are easily triggered, shamed, and gaslighted.
When a dark type tricks a mental health professional who may be none the wiser that it's all a mask, then therapy becomes yet another arena where the partner is further abused.
Remember, you can't fall in love with potential
Everyone has potential, but not everyone can (or wants to) live up to it. Hedging your bets based on that, especially on a dark type, is a gamble you will lose. Because they cannot and will not change.
If you were to draw a timeline based on consistent patterns of their behavior, consider if it's been getting progressively worse. Be honest with yourself if you're just looking at the few times that are great or OK and dismissing the bad things. Also consider if you feel bad about admitting that someone's "trying" is not enough; some of us have been raised to be "good" and thereby feel guilty when we think we're criticizing someone else.
In this timeline, perhaps you realize it has never been drama-free. Because the initial honeymoon phase of love-bombing itself was a calculated move to erode your boundaries and groom you. And overall, it has been a tumultuous ride that you've learned to tolerate in the name of how much you've already invested—and how much they look like they're working hard to change.
There might also be other mindsets that keep you tethered to persevering. Consider the other mirrors in your head, such as growing up romanticizing certain stories that speak of unhealthy love. Or perhaps, you watched your parents weather hard times. Here, it's important to call things out for what they are—if there is abuse, then it is abuse. And while you signed up to grow as a person in a relationship, you did not sign up to be abused.
Finally, if you were looking at your relationship from a friend's perspective, having seen all the nuts and bolts, would you say it's been positive and healthy overall? Sometimes when we blow away the smoke, we find the relationship is one with dynamics you find impossible to explain to other people, in the words of psychotherapist, Terri Cole. If that's the case, then it's a trauma bond, and a trauma bond happens in abusive relationships.
The longer you stay, the harder it is to leave. The human brain is biased toward doubling down after investing too much emotionally, so any form of growth sought has to be real. It doesn't need to be on-brand 24/7, wrapped up in the shiny packaging of overanalyzing and embellishing.
Growth is meant to be intentionally lived and practiced, where you walk the walk and get up every time you slip. Mental health includes the tiny incremental changes you keep practicing in your daily life that pay compound interest—and when two parties intentionally practice mental health, that is when the relationship is healthy and sustainable.
But if that's not your relationship reality, it might be time to cut your losses and walk away to a more peaceful future.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.