It’s one of the most talked about and misunderstood subjects in the world of psychology at the moment. So what is narcissism, how can you recognise it and what’s the best way to handle it?
Narcissists are not always easy to spot in the first instance. They often appear to be very charming and alluring; warm, generous, amusing and entertaining, even loving. It’s only once you’ve been bamboozled by them that you may start to notice the bad behaviour; the selfishness, the entitlement, the arrogance, the hair trigger temper, and the litany of other behavioural clues that hint at the dark void that lies within. For the reality is that true narcissists, that very small percentage of the population whose narcissism has or would be clinically diagnosed, are empty on the inside. Desperately insecure, damaged people.
So how did they become like this?
Were they born like it? Well, yes, actually. We all were.
When we were born we were completely dependent on our parents or carers. We were very vulnerable and very needy, but hopefully grew up with lots of love and attention and appropriate boundaries, and developed into well balanced individuals. Now imagine a child that gets no love or attention or appropriate boundaries. They’re fed and clothed, but ignored. They crave attention but just get dismissed, so they develop a fantasy world in which they do get the love and attention they so desperately need. In their fantasy world they always win because they deserve to win, because they’re better than everyone else. And if they don’t get what they want they just have a tantrum, and they get away with it because there are no consequences. Welcome to the world of the grandiose or malignant narcissist.
There is another variety – the covert or fragile narcissist. I’m the one who learned to play the victim. The game is the same; being the centre of attention, but instead of gaining it by pretending to be amazing and fantastic I’ll cry and be pathetic, and when that stops working I’ll fake illness or an accident. As long as everyone pays attention to me and what I want and need, that’s fine. The moment that attention starts to slip away I’ll find some way to regain it. And it doesn’t matter how, or how much inconvenience I cause, because it’s all about me, all the time.
It’s all about me
And that’s the telltale sign of narcissism. It’s all about the narcissist, all the time. It can be tempting to feel a bit sorry for the narcissist because they’re victims of neglect and have genuine cognitive impairment; an inability to empathise. Grandiose narcissists can play the victim card if necessary, but beware, none of it is sincere, it’s just manipulation. They are often masters of appearing to be warm, generous, kind and loving, but it’s all just for appearances. Beneath the surface they really don’t care, they’re just getting their need for attention met, whether through admiration and adulation, or playing the victim.
Fast forward twenty or thirty or forty years, and they’re still stuck playing the same game. Still a needy toddler on the inside, but they’ve been playing the game long enough to have developed some really sophisticated strategies, really clever ways to manipulate and play people to get what they want and what they need. They’ve constructed a very convincing, very persuasive, very charming or very needy persona. A character whom they pretend to be in order to win the game. And you’ve become a player.
The red flags
At first you probably won’t realise; narcissists are masters of deception, up to a point. They are extremely convincing liars and manipulators, but because of their own arrogance they get lazy, and eventually slip up. They believe that they can just make something up to get out of it, and that you’ll fall for it because they’re so clever, and you’re stupid. This though is the biggest chink in their armour; their overestimation of themselves and underestimation of those around them.
Once the penny drops and you realise what or whom you are dealing with, there are a few truths that you need to take on board.
1) The narcissist doesn’t really care about anyone apart from themselves. They’re very good at creating the impression that they do, but really they don’t.
2) They lie. Frequently. About what they’ve done, what they didn’t do, and what their intentions are. A promise from a narcissist is meaningless, it’s just something they say in the moment to fob you off.
3) They never take responsibility. It’s always someone else’s fault, never theirs.
4) They’re control freaks. They expect everything to be on their terms. This is because what you want doesn’t matter to them.
5) They expect special treatment because they see themselves as special, on their own elevated pedestal, looking down at all the ordinary people beneath them. (That includes you by the way.)
6) They are very unlikely to change. Why would you change when you’re the embodiment of perfection?
7) They have very little insight, self-awareness or empathy, so usually don’t see how their actions or words impact on other people. When it’s pointed out to them they’ll most probably flatly deny it. If they can’t, they still won’t take responsibility.
What happens next depends on your relationship with the narcissist.
If you’ve grown up with a narcissistic parent, that’s a tough one. You most probably need therapy with a damn good therapist that has a really good understanding of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
If you have a narcissistic partner or ex, you need to get away. As far away as possible. As I mentioned above, they’re control freaks, so they won’t let go. They won’t allow you to end the relationship, how dare you! That’s their prerogative. If you attempt to walk away they will do everything within their power to lure you back in. They’ll promise the earth; turn back into the warm, wonderful, loving, generous person they were when you first met. Don’t be fooled, it’s only temporary; a cruel, cynical manipulation tactic to seduce you back under their control so that they can punish you, either by ramping up their old selfish, manipulative ways, or by dumping you in the most humiliating, hurtful manner they can come up with. Even then they still won’t let go, they’ll continue twisting the knife as long as you allow them to. So if you can, go completely “no contact”.
If there are children involved it gets more complicated. Narcissists play dirty and won’t think twice before using children as pawns in their game. Expect game playing, unreliability, emotional blackmail and dirty tricks. It’s essential to establish your boundaries and keep them very firmly in place.
And if it’s a work colleague or your boss, don’t trust them. They will try to take credit for anything you achieve and throw you under the bus if anything goes wrong, so document everything. If its difficult to distance yourself from them at least know what you’re dealing with. Narcissists love to be the centre of attention, they will often have a fan club of friends and hangers-on; “flying monkeys” whom they can also deploy to do their dirty work, spreading gossip and misinformation or applying social pressure to get the narcissist what they want.
Playing the game..
Ultimately while you’re still playing the narcissist’s game you can never win. The only way to win the game is to not play. So here are the rules:
1) The narcissist’s challenge is to get a response from you, the more emotional the better.
2) They can do anything they like to get a response.
3) If they get you to respond in any way, they win.
4) If you attempt to “out” them as a narcissist, they still win – because you’ve responded!
5) If you manage not to respond at all, you win. Eventually, when the narcissist moves on.
It may look easy, but it can be extremely challenging to not respond to their emotional blackmail and underhand dirty tactics. If you succeed you may well emerge emotionally battered and bruised, but ultimately your dignity and self-esteem will remain intact. Good luck!
Peter Phelps has been working as a psychotherapist in the UK since 2001 and has practices in Central London, East London and Essex. He also runs Online Counselling UK, providing online face to face therapy worldwide.