The archetypal narcissist is a crazymaker, at once needy and aggressive, desperate
for love and yet rejecting of it, fragile child and bully. Laurie Helgoe, Fragile Bully
Psychologist Laurie Helgoe, who previously wrote Introvert Power, also has some important things to say in her 2019 Fragile Bully: Understanding Our Destructive Affair With Narcissism in the Age of Trump. In this book she explains how to disengage from people in your lives who display Trump-like behavior.
First, more about the term “fragile bully” from Kenneth N. Levy, PhD: It’s about “…the paradoxical dynamic of narcissism—that the grandiosity and surrounding bravado belies an underlying fragility and brittleness.”
A key statement from Helgoe: “When I talk to clients, friends, and family members who are trying to exit a destructive dance [around a narcissist], two consistent themes emerge: feelings of failure for being unable to fix the fragile bully, and feelings of shame for staying in the dance.”
With severe personality disorders such as borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, it is often the people in the lives of the affected person who suffer. So we can often sense we are dealing with a narcissist by the feelings he or she arouses in us.
Narcissistic characteristics such as grandiosity and a sense of entitlement tend to elicit aggressive feelings—a desire to put the narcissist in his or her place. The narcissist’s lack of empathy may elicit extreme frustration. And on the flip side, the narcissist’s focus on his or her fragility can leave others feeling trapped—trying to “fix” the narcissist so that he or she can be more available. People are also drawn in by the narcissist’s charisma or fragility, gaining a sense of importance by being in the shared spotlight or by the promise of being the fragile narcissist’s savior.
The fragile-bully dynamic leaves loved ones with nowhere to turn: defend yourself, and the partner feels victimized; distance yourself, and the partner feels abandoned; express an independent thought, and the narcissist feels threatened. The unwritten contract is to empty yourself and keep dancing in step with the narcissist’s needs, even when those needs hurt you.
Developing empathy for oneself is crucial to the process of healing and emancipation. It’s also important to make room for the grief of ending a relationship—even a destructive one. The grief may have more to do with disappointment that you were unable to “fix” the narcissist or that you invested so much in a relationship that turned on you.
Narcissism sets up a “you versus me” dynamic, so breaking that dynamic is key. “You are important to me” statements combined with what Craig Malkin calls “empathy prompts”—“I feel/need/want,” help empower the self-absorbed to be cognizant and supportive of the loved one. If such efforts—which may be better accomplished with the help of a therapist—do not work, this may be a sign that the capacity for empathy is just not there.