Risky Business: The Thing About Narcissism
I love writing a good narcissist, and not just because they’re fun to kill (on PAPER, guys, geez). But narcissism is a word that gets thrown around a lot, often to describe those with high self-worth. That ain’t it. As anyone who has been in a relationship with an actual narcissist knows, it is not the self-worth that is the problem but rather a personality style that can be overbearing, attention seeking, grandiose and even downright abusive. Narcissists may be bullies, show-offs or addictive self-soothers. (Dammit, KANYE.) They may show up as martyrs, workaholics or as rescuers proclaiming that they can “save” you if only you listen to them. Narcissists may also use ploys such as vanishing when you need them or confuse you by switching from protector to jerkface at the drop of a hat. (Jerkface–it’s a clinical term.)
All of these traits add up to partners feeling powerless, resentful, intimidated, or flat-out depressed. But partners are not the only ones with emotional issues. Narcissism is often related to early attachment difficulties and trouble with self-regulation. Those with narcissistic traits tend to be victims of their past as much as they make others victims in the present. That said, nothing in this post is to suggest that someone should stay in an abusive relationship. There is no excuse for physical or emotional violence; a partner cannot use their past as a way to justify the present.
But as much as we don’t want to admit it, narcissism doesn’t develop in a vacuum. And by understanding why it does come about, we may be able to identify better ways to avoid it, treat it, and even use some narcissistic traits to enhance society as opposed to hinder it. They aren’t all like the serial killer psychopaths with narcissistic traits that I tend to write about. There’s a wide spectrum, and maybe your wacked-out brother-in-law really is on it. (You know you’ve considered it.)
What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of behavior or belief that begins in early adulthood and includes five (or more) of the following:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance, i.e., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- Believes that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment or expects automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own goals
- Lacks empathy or is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Is envious of others or believes that others are envious of them
- Shows arrogant or haughty behaviors or attitudes
Individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder tend to have impairments in functioning, which may include trouble with relationships, self esteem issues, problems with emotional regulation and extreme moods. They may also show high sensitivity to approval from others, i.e., they may set goals based on outside approval instead of internal drives.
That’s a whole lot of negativity. So why would anyone have these traits?
How to Create a Narcissist
There are a few ways this comes about according to Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving With the Self Absorbed:
• The Spoiled Child: In this case, being better than others was modeled by parents and the child was given special rights and privileges until they believed they deserved them. As they still believe this, they are unwilling to settle for less.
However, most are not purely this type. In almost every case like this I have seen, those “spoiled children” were given things instead of love, privileges instead of attachment, a shitload of toys instead of the hug or support they really needed.
• The Dependent Child: Here, overly involved parents try so hard to protect the child that the kid never develops age-appropriate coping skills. Being robbed of personal competence and the ability to learn those coping skills for things like failure, kids and later adults rely on others to solve their problems and have very low tolerance for failure, vulnerability, frustration or embarrassment.
“Awwww, you got a bad grade because you didn’t study? Let me tell that asshole teacher she needs to change it.”
• The Lonely Deprived Child: This is the most popular, and other subtypes usually maintain some element of this neglecting environment. In these cases, attachment is damaged, and children have issues with self regulation (or controlling their emotions). They have less ability to see things through other people’s eyes because they weren’t responded to appropriately in ways that helped encourage empathy early on. They may even come to see the desire for attention as weak. These factors may may also lead them to see individuals as objects as opposed to people, as discussed more by Daniel Goldman in Emotional Intelligence. For these kids, a parent’s love is contingent on achievements and many are manipulated to do things with criticism or shame for not meeting expectations. Being less than perfect means the child is unlovable and inadequate. That’s too much for anyone to live up to, let alone small children who become convinced that they will never be good enough.
So what’s a kid to do?
For children and adults alike, it becomes a necessity to focus on the self with an attitude of “No one else will ever care for me. I’ll show those assholes and do it myself.” This is logical, rational, and self-protectant because if they can adapt this mindset effectively enough, they can avoid the pain of the rejection as well as shut off painful emotions. And we don’t often see this element as negative because society tends to embrace grandiosity and independence as opposed to vulnerability.
However, as opposed to being simply deprived or simply dependent, most individuals have a combination of these three. Deprived-dependents may come across as more hypersensitive and have more issues with self-soothing behaviors like numbing with substances. Spoiled-dependents may come across as superior and expect to be indulged, while feeling incompetent, perhaps actively seeking praise.
But not everyone from these environments becomes narcissistic and there might be a few things that up your chances, including genetics. Researchers note that narcissism is heritable, with some studies going so far as to show links between specific narcissistic traits and specific genetic factors. Of course, as with borderline personalities, psychopathy and depression, genes need to be turned on by environmental factors. And the fact that those with these genes tend to have parents with similar traits to model them makes such puzzles tricky to tease apart.
Because of all these differences in genetics and environment, there is a fairly large continuum on which narcissistic traits fall. But the underlying theme remains: narcissists usually need more assistance than they get because the traits they need to address are the same ones encouraged by our society of independence-minded, corporate take-no-prisoners mentalities. (More on that in my post “When Does Personality Become Mental Illness?”)
The Benefits of Narcissism
Aside from self protection in early years, there may be long-term advantages to some of these traits, both for individuals and societies (though this is less true at higher levels of disorder).
As discussed by the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, our society has been moving quite quickly towards a focus on self esteem and individuality and away from community-oriented thinking, which has informed the way we treat our children. Anthropologist Meredith Small, and author of Our Babies, Ourselves, agrees, noting that the way we treat children tends to be reflective of the society around us, with parents encouraging the traits that will make a child most productive in their particular society .
So, while we may be moving towards entitlement and narcissism, we may be doing it subconsciously as a reflection of a drive to create the most productive, most competitive offspring in a society where those traits actually matter as a function of success. And if the research on psychopathy is any indication, we might be striving towards some of the same traits we believe we logically want to eliminate. (More on that in “Breeding Psychopaths and the Future of Humanity.”)
But this might not all be bad. As authors of The Narcissism Epidemic note, there is a new breed of narcissist on the horizon, those who don’t display the pathological traits normally seen in therapy sessoins. Instead, these individuals use higher self esteem, extraversion, and assertive traits to function more effectively in society, even influencing it in a positive way as seen in some celebrities (think more Stephen Colbert or Oprah, less Kanye). Those who have healthy levels of narcissistic traits may remain engaged and empathic. They may be self-possessed leaders who seek recognition for the good they do while being able to determine negative or destructive qualities or fears. They may also be confrontational in a way that holds others accountable for their actions. As one researcher put it, these well-adjusted narcissists are not so much scary as they are, “somebody who, at the moment of peak sexual bliss, cries out his own name!” Not so terrible in the grand scheme of things, though your partner might not be so excited about it.
I think the point is that before we ban “I’m a princess” T-shirts, understanding why we are encouraging these traits and how they might be necessary for future generations is probably worth looking at, regardless of my personal feelings on said T-shirts (vomits on tiara).
How to Deal With a Narcissist
With regards to how to deal with a narcissist, the advice of many is, “Don’t.” That’s good advice when a partner is emotionally or physically abusive, engaging in (not agreed upon) promiscuous actions, or other dangerous or criminal behaviors. If you are in a relationship with an abusive narcissist, stop reading here, and contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
For those narcissists who aren’t physically threatening, the best place to start is with ourselves. This is not to put the onus of fixing things on the partner of the narcissist–those with narcissistic traits need to help themselves. But understanding how and why you’re being affected by their actions can help you, too, especially since many who leave narcissistic partners end up with another one. Why is not a mystery, at least not to shrinks–if you don’t heal the your issues in relationship number one, you bring them into relationship number two.
Let’s say you have an internal model that triggers you into anxiety when you feel abandoned because your father walked out on your family. (Boo.) When your narcissistic partner says he’s leaving you, this abandonemt fear serves to get you to submit to whatever weird thing he’s pushing. A narcissistic partner knows that this affects you–you should know this as well. And if you know the why, you can address it, or, in the words of Ice Cube, “check yo self before you wreck yo self” in the form of nasty emotional upheaval. I’m sure this was exactly what he was referring to.
Whether a narcissistic partner is using shame, isolation, incompetence, hypercriticism, mistrust, fears of failure, or any number of other internal models to punish or manipulate you, you have the ability to pull back, recognize why it is altering your sense of safety, and address it head-on. (For more on identifying those early models check out Schema Therapy, a Practitioner’s Guide.) You may also be able to see what schemas your partner is using to protect themselves and use this to open lines of communication.
BUT DON’T DO THIS ALONE. GET HELP.
Narcissism is a persistant personality disorder, and it is important to note that most narcissists are not receptive to assistance. A confronted narcissist is not usually a friendly one (understatement of the century), and breaking down walls built during early neglect is not easy. For this reason, it is critical to seek the assistance of a trained professional.
In some cases, it takes impending divorce or some other leverage before a narcissist will agree to attend therapy. But tackling a relationship with a narcissist goes better with an impartial (and well-trained) third party, probably someone other than Ice Cube or Ice-T or really any cold beverage. Find the right physical and emotional support to take the next steps towards healing.