A question that many survivors of narcissistic abuse have is, “If the narcissist in my life loves me as much as they say that they do, why do they hurt me so much?”
As a general rule, narcissists hurt the people that they love because they have insecure attachment styles. People with insecure attachment styles tend to sabotage their relationships, have a hard time trusting others, avoid intimacy, lack empathy, and feel threatened by anyone who tries to get close to them.
This article is a thorough exploration of the role that insecure attachment styles play in narcissists’ tendency to hurt the people that they claim to love.
They Have Insecure Attachments Styles
The term “attachment styles” is used to describe the different ways that we interact and behave in relationships.
This term originates from the work of John Bowlby, a psychiatrist, and Mary Ainsworth, a psychologist, who introduced the Attachment Theory in the 1950’s.
This theory focuses on the relationships we have with our primary caregivers as infants. During their work in the 1950’s, Bowlby and Ainsworth identified three attachment styles, secure, anxious, and avoidant.
Since then, mental health professionals have added disorganized attachment style to the list and established that the attachment styles we develop as infants follow us into adulthood.
Interestingly enough, we conducted a survey among 400 survivors of narcissistic abuse in our article “Why Do Narcissists Push You Away?” about attachment styles.
The goal of the survey was to determine which insecure attachment style the participants believed the narcissist in their life had.
Here’s what we found (image below):
Ok. Let’s go through the meaning of these attachment styles.
Generally speaking, people with an anxious attachment style are needy, anxious, and have low self-esteem.
It is an incredibly confusing attachment style to have because they want to be close with others but are afraid that people don’t want to be with them.
Anxious attachment styles are developed through childhood upbringings with emotionally unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent primary caregivers.
For example, if you believe that the narcissist in your life has an anxious attachment style, it is possible that they had primary caregivers who were inconsistent with them.
Meaning that sometimes their primary caregiver was responsive, and other times they might have been distracted or just not readily available.
This most likely caused the narcissist in your life to feel anxious and insecure because of how inconsistent their childhood upbringing was.
Take a look at the signs of an individual with an anxious attachment style (see below):
The sign that really popped out as a possible reason that narcissists hurt the people that they love was having difficulty setting and respecting boundaries.
In a recent collaboration we had with Andre O’Donnell, a licensed psychotherapist, about setting boundaries, he stated:
Narcissists disrespect boundaries because they feel entitled to having what they want, when they want it.
So, boundaries are both offensive and a foreign concept to them.
As you can imagine, this often leads to a narcissist hurting the people they claim to love simply because they are incapable of respecting the boundaries of others.
People with avoidant attachment styles are the complete opposite of those with anxious attachment styles.
Instead of wanting to be emotionally close, they persistently avoid connecting with others.
They are the type of people who rely on themselves, crave freedom, and find emotions to be difficult.
If the narcissist in your life has an avoidant attachment style, they likely had a childhood upbringing with unavailable primary caregivers.
For example, their primary caregivers may have rejected the narcissist’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs.
As you can imagine, this type of emotional neglect causes a ton of damage on one’s self-perception and cognitive development.
It most likely taught the narcissist in your life that their true self wasn’t good enough to be loved and accepted by others.
Take a look at the signs of an individual with an avoidant attachment style (see below):
Being uncomfortable expressing their feelings and feeling threatened by anyone who tries to get close to them were the two signs that popped out as possible reasons that narcissists hurt their loved ones.
This is because narcissists are so emotionally incompetent that they are incapable of using healthy forms of regulation to manage their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
What they do instead is rely on projection.
Projection is a defense mechanism that occurs when someone takes a part of their identity that they find unacceptable and places it onto someone else.
A simple example of this could be a cheating husband accusing his wife of cheating instead of taking responsibility for his own actions.
The parts of a narcissist’s identity that they find unacceptable are their painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
The way that they project them onto others is through abuse and manipulation.
This allows them to figuratively point their finger at the person that they’re abusing and think to themselves, “I’m not the one who is unlovable, inadequate, worthless, weak, and unwanted, they are!”
Because of this, the people that narcissists claim to love often end up getting hurt because of the narcissist’s projections.
Our article “How Are Narcissists Made?” has a ton of helpful information about the origin of a narcissist’s insecure attachment style and emotional pain.
Our article “Why Do Narcissists Use Projection?” will help you grasp a better understanding of a narcissist’s relationship with projection.
Disorganized attachment style is a combination of anxious attachment and avoidant attachment.
Someone who has a disorganized attachment style, may have a hard time trusting people.
They often alternate between clinging to their others and distancing themselves from them.
If the narcissist in your life has a disorganized attachment style they most likely had a primary caregiver who ignored their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
For example, a primary caregiver who displayed chaotic behavior that was scary and traumatizing for the narcissist in your life.
Take a look at the signs of an individual with an disorganized attachment style (see below):
The sign that sticks out the most here is sabotaging relationships, even when they want them.
However, we want to draw your attention to having a hard time responding and/or connecting to other people’s emotions and alternating between clinging to their partner and distancing themselves from them.
You see, having a hard time responding and/or connecting to other people’s emotions is essentially a lack of empathy, which is one of the defining characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Alternating between clinging to their partner and distancing themselves from them highlights the push-pull dynamic of a narcissistic relationship.
For example, in the beginning stages of many romantic narcissistic relationships there is a love bombing phase.
Once the narcissist senses that the person that they are abusing is hooked, they will begin the devaluation phase.
The devaluation phase is filled with terrible forms of abuse and manipulation.
However, once the narcissist senses that they are losing control of the person that they are abusing, they will use intermittent reinforcement to regain control.
This is the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals.
A simple example of this could be a narcissistic boyfriend taking his girlfriend out on a really nice date after months of abusing and manipulating her.
Unfortunately, intermittent reinforcement often keeps survivors of narcissistic abuse trapped within the abuse cycle, hence the push-pull dynamic of narcissistic relationships.
Narcissists will repeat this cycle throughout the entire relationship and it causes a lot of harm to the people that they claim to love.
What Should You Take Away From This Article?
Generally speaking, the insecure attachment styles that narcissists have are the reason that they hurt the people that they claim to love.
About the Author
Hey, I’m Elijah.
I experienced narcissistic abuse for three years.
I create these articles to help you understand and validate your experiences.
Thank you for reading, and remember, healing is possible even when it feels impossible.
Fraley, R. Chris, and Glenn I. Roisman. “The development of adult attachment styles: Four lessons.” Current opinion in psychology 25 (2019): 26-30.
Narcissistic personality traits in adulthood: The role of experience of childhood parenting, attachment orientation and emotional regulation