Narcissist vs. Asshole: There IS a Difference (Part 1)


Welcome to another episode of the exEXPERTS’ Divorce etc… podcast, where we give you all kinds of information and tips on everything divorce. Why? We’ve lived it, so we get it. We’re Jessica and T.H. And keep in mind you can get exEXPERTS in your inbox by signing up for our newsletter. Get the latest news and find out all about our events before anyone else, plus, access to special discounts and prices. Head to to subscribe.

T.H.: For today’s show, we are thrilled to have Ina Hansen here. She is We met her through a group that we’ve become a part of called B.I.G, Believe, Inspire, Grow. She was participating in some of the events that we were co-moderating and we found a great connection. She is an expert in all things related to narcissism so today’s podcast is narcissist versus asshole. There is a difference. We don’t mean to offend anybody with the A-word. I just really wanted to say it because there really is a difference. We’re going to dig deep and Ina is going to help us get there. Welcome.

Ina: Thank you.

Jessica: Thanks for being here, Ina.

T.H.: Okay, so define a narcissist, because I’m on all these groups and everybody, not everybody, but a lot of people are referring to their exes as a narcissist. There really is a difference between a narcissist and an asshole. You can just be a total jerk, but a narcissist is something different. Explain what it is, please.

Ina: Yes. I absolutely love the title and I definitely agree with you. There are so many support groups and focus groups and all of that on it and yeah, everyone is an asshole, everyone is a narcissist, but there really is a difference. All the studying and researching I’ve done, I find that I really define narcissism as it’s really a result of emotionally arrested development. That means that the narcissist is sort of stuck in a childlike state and they have no self-awareness and they really only manifest and grow in terms of what they want and what they need. Narcissism is also believed to be caused in childhood. It develops in childhood due to abuse and neglect usually, or it could be excessive parental parenting, the golden child that really could do no wrong, or really unrealistic expectations from the parents. The difference too between a narcissist and an asshole is that the narcissist really lacks empathy. They have an inability to handle any criticism or receive any feedback. They really have this sort of protective mechanism and that’s what they need to portray, this inflated sense of self-worth. They live in this constant state of entitlement like constantly they just have to be better than anyone else. They’re not interested in any sort of resolution or peace or anything. They really just thrive on drama. I really call them like they’re just an empty self. They don’t have a self. The difference between that and an asshole is that an asshole usually has emotions. It might be very different emotions to you, but they have emotions, and they have feelings, and they know what’s right or wrong, and they have empathy usually. They just they show off in this asshole way. Whereas a narcissist just doesn’t have that.

Jessica: I feel on the one hand men are always like, ‘My ex is crazy’, and then all the women are like, ‘My ex is a narcissist.’ But why do you think that so many women are under the misconception that their exes are narcissists? As a coach, how do you help people break through like, no, he’s really just a dick?

Ina: Yeah. I mean, that’s a really good question too. It’s almost a checklist that I like to go through with my clients to figure it out because you absolutely right there is a difference between that. I think the term narcissism is also just a great word to use to be stuck maybe in a victim mentality to say, well, my ex was a narcissist and all I went through was just so awful. Again, some of the questions on the checklist could be: How does he respond to any sort of conflicts that arises in your relationship? Does he show empathy towards you or your family if you have children together? Is he consistent and reliable, for instance, because those are all the things that a narcissist is not? Does he show up when he says he’s going to, usually? Or does he give you an excuse as to why he didn’t show up that’s believable, that you actually truly really believe? Just how does he treat you? Does he treat you with respect? Does he treat you with kindness? Everyone has arguments, so when you do have an argument and a disagreement, are you able to come together and talk about it and deal with it and be mad at each other and take that space that you actually need? Because that’s normal life, but a narcissist will never do that. They’ll just walk away and they’ll just pretend that you’re not there. They’ll discard you for a long period of time if an argument or an explosion has happened between you. Usually, either they leave you for new supply, or they’ll just keep silent for a long time. Then they might return to you pretending that nothing has really happened. They start complimenting you again, or they might bring your presents, or they might be really, really nice to you again. That’s a vicious cycle. That’s called a narcissistic cycle where you start with the love bombing, then an incident happens, then you get discarded again. That doesn’t happen in a normal relationship even if you’re with an asshole. That doesn’t happen in a normal relationship. You can have your fight, you have your explosions, you can have days where you don’t talk, but eventually, you do get back together. You’re able to say that was a really shitty thing you did and it made me feel that way, and the other person is able to express that too. But you can never do that with a narcissist. I would say that’s the biggest difference between that.

T.H.: Would you categorize it as like a mental illness? If it’s something triggered by multiple or single life-shifting situations in childhood, they’re not hardwired that way, they weren’t born that way, but are they susceptible to it? Or is it really just a protective thing to feel fulfilled and protect yourself because of that childhood trauma?

Ina: Yeah, the last thing, exactly that. You just said it. It’s really is a protective mechanism that they put up because of what has happened to them. It could be any kind of trauma during childhood. There is something called Narcissistic Personality Disorder that’s known as an NPD, but in order for narcissists to be diagnosed, that would mean that they would admit I have emotional issues that I want to get resolved. I want to go to a therapist with you, I want to go to a psychiatrist, I want to get evaluated and figure out what is really going on with me.

Jessica: That doesn’t sound like something a narcissist would do.

Ina: Exactly. A very small percentage does just because they want to keep the relationship going or they want to hide behind a front and they want to buy a little bit more time. But what ends up happening is if they do go that far, they are so charismatic and charming that they’re able to charm their way through a conversation with a therapist. Unfortunately, really few therapists and psychologists are really trained in picking up traits for it to be diagnosed as ‘you’re narcissistic’ or ‘this person you’re with is a narcissist.’ It’s very, very tricky. I always say a diagnosis is really not necessary. Again, because so few people that are narcissists are diagnosed with NPD, but it’s not an excuse at all for their behavior, abuse is abuse, but it’s an explanation that it is a disorder. It is a personality disorder for sure. It is something that most narcissists will just never be diagnosed with. But if you feel you are in a toxic relationship and you’re not being treated correctly, it really doesn’t matter what it’s called. It’s not a right relationship to be in.

Jessica: It’s interesting. I was not married to a narcissist, thankfully, so I’m not super familiar with it firsthand, but you just used the word abuse in that manner of speaking. Is it fair to say, based on the fact that you said that people who’ve been married to a narcissist are on the receiving end of some type of emotional or psychological abuse because of that? Why would that be?

Ina: Oh absolutely. When you’ve been with a narcissist, you have experienced narcissistic abuse. The abuse there’s a wide range. Narcissism is a big spectrum but it can range from a narcissist devaluing their partner so they feel worthless, right to really life-threatening violence. There are people out there that it gets very ugly and it’s really tough. What happens when you are victimized by a narcissist is we really experience high levels of cortisol which is a stress hormone. What that does is it really can result in post-traumatic stress. It can really result in physical trauma to your brain. It’s a real thing. It’s not just you’re in a toxic relationship, or you’re in an unhealthy, bad relationship that’s really difficult for you, but you really experience physical trauma to your brain. What happens is that physical trauma that you’re experiencing, because you’re always walking around in this heightened state of fight, flight, and freeze, and with a narcissist, we also call it fawn, which means that you’re trying to please the narcissist. You’re trying to make amends and you’re trying to smooth things over so you can continue with this relationship. You’re really receiving just bread crumbs from this person, but you would rather have that than have another explosion or have it not.

T.H.: You’re walking around on eggshells all the time.

Ina: All the time, because you never know when the next explosion’s going to be. What happens is also that physical trauma that we experience, it really shrinks our hippocampus in our brain, and that’s really in charge of learning and memory. That’s difficult. Once that gets shrunk, it’s like you have to relearn a lot of things once you’re out of that relationship. It can also really trigger a lot of emotional diseases, internal diseases. It can show up in the body as chronic fatigue, physical pain, all that kind of stuff, because we are holding on to all of that inside of us, like you said, walking on eggshells. I sort of use the analogy as if we’re being chased by a tiger in the wild or some sort of wild animal. We would automatically go into this fight and freeze mode, and we would gasp and that’s an automatic response to have because we want to protect ourselves. But to constantly live in that heightened state, that’s going to cause some serious damage to ourselves to our brain, and to our body.

T.H.: I was married to one and what you’re saying, there’s still things that happen now, like circumstances come out, and I’m in an amazing, healthy relationship now, but there are things that come up and my knee-jerk reaction is don’t say anything. Don’t say anything. It takes me like a few minutes to be like, this isn’t him, you’re not there anymore, and it’s okay. He’s not going to get mad at you that you made a plan for dinner. A lot of people take that stuff for granted, but also when you’re talking about sickness in your brain and your body, for me, I retained a lot of weight around my waist. But that is stress and that has nothing to do with eating at all. My ex was very quiet. There was no explosion. It was painful silence, which is even more isolating. Then what you were also talking about, for me, you believe the demeaning words that are being spewed towards you 24/7 and the disregard and the lack of respect, and so that for me, I don’t even know who that was. It has to have been an out-of-body-like super self-preservation protective mode I was in because I did withdraw from friends. I just focused on my kids. I did have a job, which I think really helped me a lot, but ultimately, what got me out of the relationship, which I want to touch on with you next, is like how do you get out of this relationship? I was miserable, but I was in such a bad place that I couldn’t–I asked for help kind of and I remember going to see someone and he goes, listen, you have two options. You can stay and be miserable, or you can leave. And I chose to stay.

Jessica: You just weren’t ready to leave yet. And that’s a huge thing.

T.H.: But I was miserable. All I’m saying is I was miserable. I do believe in my heart that I would have gotten out, but what ultimately got me out was a phone call from the woman that he was with, checking out some facts about us. She gave me my ticket to freedom and I took it and I ran as fast as I possibly could in my head. I was like, holy shit I’m out, to the point that I told her that day that she saved my life because I was suffocating in my life. I feel like I got the golden ticket that day. But what do you recommend to people who are in a relationship with a narcissist? How do you get out? I have amazing friends, I have super supportive family, but I couldn’t find my way out.

Jessica: But I think it’s actually a two-part question because I think what do you recommend for people to be able to get out, but look, we’re focused on divorce, so it’s not just getting out. It’s like you’re going to now have to navigate what could be a very vindictive and acrimonious process. I would imagine that a lot of people who are in narcissistic relationships, some people may feel like they could leave the relationship, but the misery and the venom that’s going to come down the line now during the divorce may almost not be worth leaving. I think that in that context, what is the advice for people to be able to be mindful of where they are and be able to have the strength to leave?

Ina: Yeah, that’s a really great point. And T.H., I’m sorry to hear about your story and what you went through, but look at where you are now. It’s such an inspiration. That’s why I think it’s so important that we share our stories.






T.H.: Honestly, I wasn’t going to say anything, but I remember there was something Jessica and I were talking about, and she’s like, it’s my story. It happened to me too. I forgot the topic that you and I were talking about.

Jessica: The topic was just other people involved in my ex’s life feeling like I’m talking about him and information that’s private, and I’m like, this is my life and I have the right to tell my story. It’s not that I’m bad-mouthing him or trying to be that person, but why can’t I speak out about what it was like for me? It’s that, and then T.H.–

T.H.: Right, so that’s exactly why I did it. I have not done it before, but I felt like it’s going to help people.

Jessica: It is going to help people.

Ina: Absolutely. That’s beautiful that you could see that. For me, I was in the marriage for 16 years. It was a very long time and we have a child together. I totally understand what you’re saying that I was miserable too for so long, even after I found out that he was a narcissist and I understood it. I was also financially dependent. I had left my business to be home, which was a mutual decision to take care of our child. I was dependent on him so I kept coming up with excuses saying, well, when she’s in college, I’ll leave. When she’s older, I’ll leave. Then I was like, what am I doing to myself and what am I doing to my daughter? What I really want to get across is healing from narcissistic abuse looks different for everybody. Healing is not linear. For some women, having a game plan, either saying, I’m going to focus on my studies so I can generate an income for myself so I can really divorce this person and I can get out of this relationship. For some women like myself, it was literally just a switch in my head that finally went off that went, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I truly just believe that the universe was going to have my back. I knew that there was a law out there which was not going to be easy, but there was a law out there that was going to help me with it was whatever it is that I needed. I understood that I needed to do this for my daughter and for myself, that showing her living in an abusive relationship was so toxic and I no longer wanted to do that for her and for myself. To get out was just so, so important. For a lot of women, they don’t realize they’re in a narcissistic relationship. They might just have a feeling something is wrong. I don’t feel happy. I’m miserable. This is so hard. Why is this so hard? We can’t communicate. We can’t talk. I keep growing. I keep changing. Again, it doesn’t matter if you call it a narcissist, it doesn’t matter what you want to call it. But if you are unhappy, and you just know that there’s no way this is going to get any better, and you will know that by talking to the person, don’t try to do therapy with a narcissist because it does not work. You bring him to marriage counseling and think that’s going to work? It doesn’t because again, they don’t change, or a narcissist doesn’t change. It’s about you and what feels right for you. What I started to do personally is I researched everything that had to do with narcissistic abuse recovery. I found a program that I felt spoke to me. Again, it’s very individual what speaks to you. I did that, but as we were still living together. By that time, it was almost sort of like I was just getting my ducks in a row.

Jessica: You were preparing yourself to leave. You were creating your plan step by step and you recognized, which is kudos to you for having the foresight and the strength to be able to recognize that. I’m sure there are people stuck in a situation and it doesn’t even occur to them that it’s because they’re a narcissist. They try to go to marriage counseling and they don’t understand why they don’t change. But go ahead. So for you, you researched online, you found a program…?

Ina: I found a program and just like what you brought up T.H., the best thing you can possibly do is to learn how to detach from the narcissist, meaning don’t respond back emotionally. This becomes very tricky. What we really want is to block the narcissist completely from our life, ideally. But when we share children, we can’t do that. We have to find a way. Even when you’re in this relationship and you think, and that’s what kept me back for so long too, was how in the world am I going to leave? He’s always going to be in my life because we have a child together. I’m like, what’s the point? I might as well just stay. He’s going to make it even more miserable. But because I learned through my healing journey, which was certainly not easy, but neither was staying in this abusive relationship, was how to heal myself. I created this program that I really used on myself and I followed and was really how to heal myself and detach and just like you were saying T.H., it’s almost like an out-of-body experience now. I can look at him now, I can hear what he has to say, and I sort of just see it through a very different lens.

T.H.: Absolutely.

Ina: It’s like you are a person that’s stuck in this childlike state. There’s no way for you to get out of it. There’s nothing I can say or do that’s going to make this any different. I’m just going to focus on me and my journey and my healing. I learned to set really strong boundaries, which I didn’t know what it was. As you know when you’re in a relationship like that, your boundaries go out the window because no one listens to them. Learning how to set your boundaries and how to detach from this person, what ends up happening is they are no longer interested in you. What ends up happening is you are not a supply for them.

T.H.: You’re not giving them power anymore.

Ina: Exactly. You’re not giving them attention. You’re not feeding into their drama that they like to create. Once you step back, and you just answer yes or no, that’s not going to work, they find you very boring, which is a really good thing. They find you really boring. They go, gosh, I’m not going to spend time on them. I’m going to move on to somebody else that I can continue to cycle with and get my supply and contend on drama with.

T.H.: I didn’t know the term at the time. All knew was that I was miserable. I did go to someone, not that there was someone who told me to stay or go, but that was somebody else. I went to a therapist nearby because then I said to him, okay, well, we’re going to see her so we know what to say to the kids. He followed me. He didn’t have a problem with it and he came with me. She held me back at the session and said he is a narcissist. I’m just letting you know you’re going to have a difficult time in your divorce. What you were saying Jessica about the whole divorce process, I just wanted out. I didn’t care. I just want to know he wasn’t going to be in my living space. I didn’t really understand what that meant. But meanwhile, a gross amount of money, four years later, we settled on the day of trial. It was asinine. If you could settle on the day of trial, you can settle way before that. Every expert, everything, I was like the one on trial. Her purpose, my therapist at that time, was teaching me how to manage him. Become Teflon. It’s only noise. Do not respond to anything. It was out of control. Learning to disengage and not give the power is hard. Your program, that’s like survival mode. If you don’t give the power, what’s going to happen? Well, what’s going to happen, like, what the fuck is he going to do? But I know that there are physical relationships where that’s a bigger concern. For me, he was absent. He was just nowhere ever. I think that you using your program and for me having someone to coach me through, I’d be there and like this happened and that happened [frenzied talking]. She goes, okay, so what’s noise and what’s real? What’s really fact here? And so I learned to respond saying, I only want the facts or I’m not going to respond. 

Jessica: I’m curious when there are kids involved, I mean, look, it’s hard for all of us to leave a marriage when there are kids involved because we’re all worried about that, which is why I think such a large percentage of people try to justify to themselves I’ll wait till they’re this age, I’ll wait till they’re done with high school, I’ll wait till they’re out of college, not recognizing that you are now modeling an unhealthy relationship for your children. How fucked up are they going to be later anyway? But what are your thoughts with regards to at what point talking to your children about the fact that your partner was a narcissist? Is that something to be discussed at all? Kids are always asking why you got divorced. No, we’re not talking about that.

T.H.: I’m very curious what you’re going to say because I…

Ina: I really don’t recommend you bringing up the word narcissist even to the person who did the narcissistic abuse, who was abusive towards you. Because what ends up happening, especially if you do it to children, is very easily and quickly, the narcissist can turn that against you. What’ll end up happening is the child will say wow, daddy, or mommy, there’s female narcissists out there too, mommy or daddy’s a narcissist. Especially when they’re young, they don’t know what that means.

T.H.: It’s like giving them a curse word.

Ina: Even if you try to explain to them and then they will bring that to their mom or their dad and say, mommy or daddy said this about you. What you’re doing is now you’re creating even more of a drama because a narcissist will never say, am I a narcissist? What do you mean? There’s never anything wrong with them. It’s you, right? I have never used that word and I’m never planning on using that word.

Jessica: Is there nothing to be said though for teaching your kids what to avoid moving forward and here’s why?

Ina: Yes, so that’s a really good point. We keep seeing examples like that all over the world. The first thing that you can tell yourself, especially when you are a mother, and I was in that place, is staying in a toxic relationship, you’re doing the exact opposite of what you want for your child. You’re showing the child that is acceptable to stay in this marriage and be abused, which it is not. The first step of showing them–and kids are energetic little beings. They feel everything in your house, around you, how you react, how you respond, if you’re happy, if you’re tense, they notice, right? When daddy comes home, mommy all of a sudden tenses up. Why does she do that? They sense all that stuff. So absolutely, but what I would say is how does this person make you feel? How do you feel on the inside when you’re around this person? If that person makes you sad, what is your sadness? They learn to name that for themselves what that feels inside of them. As they grow up, and if they encounter a toxic person, there are a lot of them, it doesn’t have to be a narcissist. There are a lot of toxic people in the world. But if they grow up with a great healthy sense of self, which I didn’t, and often, that’s really what I focus on in my coaching too, is that it stems from somewhere and usually your childhood. You grew up not filled up, not with a great sense of self. Maybe that’s all you know, that’s all you’ve seen in your childhood so that’s what you naturally going to attract unless you break that cycle. If you can just feed your children a great sense of self, meaning they learn to acknowledge and understand what it is they feel in their inside. When I’m around this person, I feel this way, and when this person said that to me, I feel sad. Great, so what can you do about that? How can we talk about this? They’ve learned to stand up for themselves, right?

T.H.: 100%. I was going to say communication and not sucking it in because I feel the minute you suck it in, you start to believe it. It becomes almost part of you, as opposed to saying, why would you say that? Why would you do that? And honestly, my kids are in the late–older teenagers in their 20s, and they stand up for themselves to their father and to other people who just might not be okay. What they have learned for me is to stand up for yourself, and if I had stayed in that marriage, that’s not what they would have learned for me.

Ina: Beautiful. That’s beautiful. And that’s exactly what we hope, right? It’s almost the opposite of what you want to do because when you have been in a situation like that for so long before you’re healed, you have so much anger and you think you’re protecting your children by saying oh my gosh, your mom or your dad, they’re not a good person. This is what they do and this is what they say. But it’s not helping them. It’s like you were saying T.H., it’s about them learning to stand up for themselves and feel in their body what they feel and for them to decide as they get older, do I want a relationship with my mom and my dad, and how’s this relationship going to look like? 

T.H.: Right. They’re going to define the kind of relationship that they’re going to have with their parents based on what they’re willing to accept and not accept. That’s the same in any love relationship or friendship, but it’s hard when it’s your dad or your mom. You don’t want to lose them. You’re always afraid you’re going to lose your parent.

Ina: It’s hard to watch on the other end as the conscious parent watching your children go through that. But what I also tell my clients is you have to remember they don’t know anything different, right? They don’t know. They never had a conscious parent. You were the conscious parent, your partner wasn’t, so they don’t know a different relationship than what they had with this person. This person is going to continue in the same role because they don’t change. It’s going to be the same relationship, as you grow up and as you evolve. That’s the tricky part of life isn’t it, to navigate that, what feels right for me and what doesn’t? You are communicating and being honest, and you can always tell me everything is what’s really important, but keep what you feel to yourself, or to your friends, or to therapist, or to your coach, or whoever you talk to, but never bring that around your children. Never talk about it loudly. Never have a yelling match on the phone with your toxic ex for your children to hear that. It’s very, very damaging for them, and it doesn’t solve anything.

Jessica: Agreed. Well, this is such like an enlightening conversation. I mean, it’s an unfortunate conversation, but such a necessary one because so many people are dealing with this, and a lot of people are dealing with it that they don’t even realize that they’re dealing with it. Thank you for talking to us all about that. Anyone who’s listening, is Ina’s website, and you can find her program there. There’ll also be a whole page on our exEXPERTS website completely devoted to Ina, as we do with all of our experts. Thank you so much for your time for talking to us about this. We will have to pick up and continue the discussion next time.

Ina: Thank you for having me. I would love to. I mean, this is such a broad topic so we could talk about this for a long time.

Jessica: Narcissist versus asshole, who doesn’t want to hear more of that? [Laughs]

Ina: I know [Laughs]. To be continued.

Jessica: That’s right. Okay, bye.

Ina: Thank you, ladies.

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