By Maria Hess
The good news is that the world is full of thoughtful people who value others, give attention rather than seek it, and own their weaknesses. We see our value in their eyes and learn to recognize it in ourselves.
Yet even the most inspiring people are a little narcissistic. In fact, we all are, and that’s a good thing.
Healthy narcissism equals healthy self-esteem, which helps us recover from failure and work toward goals. A healthy narcissist can love because she’s learned to love herself.
Pathological narcissists, on the other hand, are toxic. “Narcissists who are pathological have very low self-esteem, so they require excessive amounts of admiration and cause suffering for other human beings,” said Dr. James Walsh, a licensed professional counselor of mental health and assistant professor for the M.S. Clinical Mental Health Counseling program in Wilmington University’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. (WilmU’s M.S. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling is the only program in Delaware accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.)
Pathological narcissists, herein referred to as narcissists, “are recognized by their need for social dominance, arrogance and sense of entitlement,” said Dr. Todd Grande, also a licensed professional counselor of mental health and an associate professor for the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. “At the clinical level, those who exhibit extreme traits are diagnosed often with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).”
According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a product of the American Psychological Association, prevalence estimates for narcissistic personality disorder range from 0 to 6.2 percent in community samples. The 2018 U.S. Census reports the U.S. population at more than 327 million. This suggests that millions of people could fall prey to narcissists.
Whether through marriage, friendship or at work, a narcissist will probably blow through each of our lives. They won’t comprehend the destruction they left behind, nor will they recognize the need to apologize for it.
“Personality largely doesn’t change,” said Dr. Grande. “Normally what starts to change is a realization that someone needs to change and a narcissist never has that realization. So you’re left with changing yourself. We have to make our own adaptations to survive what is called narcissistic abuse.”
Which could be mitigated by reacquainting ourselves with the people we were before the abuse. Drs. Grande and Walsh believe there are ways to lessen narcissists’ control. Victims have to embrace change, and change is hard — until they decide definitively that everyone, including themselves, deserves happiness.
Ebenezer Scrooge was the ultimate narcissist, says Dr. Walsh. (Scrooge is the protagonist and antagonist in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.) He has the perfect victim: his impoverished and compassionate assistant, Bob Cratchit, who today might be described as an empath, the narcissist’s polar opposite.
“Scrooge diminishes and ridicules Cratchit regularly, but Cratchit takes it in stride,” said Dr. Walsh. “He enjoys the richness of his family life and refuses to bring Scrooge into his happy home.” Cratchit can barely feed his kids yet holds no animosity toward the man who pays him.
This is fiction, of course. Ghosts have reportedly never visited a narcissist and facilitated his transformation into a benevolent person — overnight. In reality, Scrooge would not have changed. And Cratchit would’ve been thrown to the wolves the moment he stopped idealizing him.
A narcissist “feels entitled to make all the decisions, even if they’re simply incorrect,” said Dr. Walsh. “They wield power with complete impunity. They’re so deserving of your admiration and so lacking in empathy that they get into a fantasy world. And in that world, they are never at fault with anything.”
Even a decent relationship with a narcissist can erode. “When they have someone in their life who’s really admiring of them, they think of them highly,” said Dr. Walsh. “But the moment that person disagrees with them, she will be proclaimed an idiot or moron, usually in a very public manner, leaving intact the narcissist’s damaged ego.”
“Narcissistic Personality Disorder bleeds over to the clinical arena when it’s extreme; when they display a highly exaggerated sense of superiority, grandiosity, fantasies of unlimited power, and the constant need for special treatment,” said Dr. Grande. “Their relationships tend to fail. They’re vulnerable to the slightest criticism, so if they’re challenged, they become unhinged.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, people with NPD present certain traits: They react with contempt and try to belittle others to make themselves appear superior. They can’t regulate their emotions, so they experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change. They become moody when they fall short of perfection.
Narcissists appear confident, but inside they’re extremely insecure, said Dr. Grande. “They feel shame, vulnerability and humiliation, and try to hide that by monopolizing conversations. With narcissism, we see other related traits. One of them is psychopathy, which is usually thought of as scary or serial killers, but most of the time it isn’t anything like that. Psychopathy can be subclinical, as can narcissism, and both have destructive characteristics.
“Within psychopathy is superficial charm. That means that narcissists, if they’re psychopathic, which often they would be subclinically, have very good initial presentations. They do well on interviews and with social situations where they greet people, smile and shake hands. What they lack is any depth or sensitivity. They build an efficient shell that mirrors what they see other extroverted people doing.”
They appear charming at first and people are drawn to their charisma — until their true colors pop. “Narcissists aren’t respected; they’re tolerated,” said Dr. Walsh. “That doesn’t mean they’re not good at what they do.”
In fact, adds Dr. Grande: “They’re often intelligent, productive people. They may do things so crucial that they can’t be replaced. They can have high conscientiousness. And being disagreeable can be an asset, depending on their professional roles.”
Perhaps most painful to people who become disillusioned by narcissistic spouses, parents, friends, coworkers or managers — anyone they once admired — is the realization that their relationships are built on shaky ground. In time, “their” narcissists will devalue them in order to feel good about themselves.
“They tend to leave behind a trail of broken relationships,” said Dr. Walsh, which he attributes largely to their lack of compassion. “Narcissists don’t have the emotional experiences most of us have when we feel empathy. If I walked into a room and you were tearful, I would feel something. The empathic behavior comes naturally and internally. Narcissists don’t get that feeling.”
Again, the stats suggest that millions of people could suffer narcissistic abuse. “But the number of victims would actually be higher if one were to consider vulnerable narcissists (not captured by the definition of NPD) and subclinical narcissists (not captured anywhere),” said Dr. Grande. “Given the prevalence of NPD — and the probability that it’ll only get worse — victims would be well served by learning to cope with them.”
The first step involves personal space. Drs. Walsh and Grande agree that it’s critical to set boundaries, whether the relationship involves a spouse, friend or work colleague.
That’s not always possible, but Julie L. Hall, a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and author of The Narcissist in Your Life, offers suggestions: Document your feelings to become more self-aware; give yourself permission to say no; take time for yourself; and don’t become isolated. Seek support from a therapist to release feelings you’ve kept buried. She also notes the importance of being direct, so learn to communicate what you will and won’t do. (Sometimes difficult to do in a professional environment.) Finally, be patient with yourself. Healing takes time.
When you date a narcissist, you can call it quits. “But when people get married, it gets more complicated,” said Dr. Grande. “Couples believe it’s for the long term. Society demands that they intertwine financially and logistically; a wife may take a husband’s name, children may be involved. It’s a very engrained social construct. Even when a spouse discovers she’s married to a narcissist, leaving is not always a viable option. Narcissism alone actually dissolves very few marriages.”
Dr. Walsh adds that couples considering separation or divorce can choose counseling. “It’s possible for the narcissist in the relationship to become aware of his behavior. The disorder can be treated.” If narcissists can get to a point where they own their weaknesses, and that’s a big “if,” a mental health professional can offer strategies to help manage them. Professionals also can guide them in the realization that they’re not perfect and some things actually are their fault. Dr. Walsh says it’s a long and difficult journey — for both spouses — but possible.
Professional situations get tricky. “It’s about managing the narcissist, yes, but more often, being managed by the narcissist,” said Dr. Grande. “The narcissistic personality is driven toward self-aggrandizing efforts and sometimes that can be achieved through work. Because their social skills are so lacking, work is the one place where they can gain rank and status.”
Dr. Walsh says that you can manage up, but carefully; you’re dealing with a fragile ego. “A narcissist may feel entitled to call you at 4 a.m., and get an immediate response,” he adds. “She’s not going to have any sense that she doesn’t deserve to have you do that. If you respond without any pushback, it just reinforces her behavior. You can say, ‘It’s 4 AM, and I’ll do this, but I’ll be coming in late.’ You’ll either earn respect or get fired. Making bold moves like this can be empowering, but they may come at a cost.”
Victims tend to avoid confrontation. Like bullies, narcissists are better at it. They’ll argue till they win. Plus, they will undermine people once they target their weaknesses.
According to Dr. Leon F. Seltzer in his article for Psychology Today, “When approaching disagreements with a narcissist routinely results in feeling punished, you soon learn that to achieve any peace in the relationship, you’ll be required to keep your frustrations to yourself. And the manner in which most people accomplish this superficial harmony is through accommodating or pacifying them.”
Yet pacifying them too long can be psychologically devastating. “The narcissist may demand more of you than you can actually produce, and then if you fail, she’ll blame you,” said Dr. Grande.
It’s called gaslighting, and it’s one of the most effective strategies narcissists use to gradually manipulate people until they start to question their worth or sanity. Once she drags her victim to his lowest point, she’ll compliment him. It’s a power play; a game that keeps victims off-kilter and narcissists in control. (Gaslighting is also a common technique of abusers, dictators and cult leaders. Its name comes from the 1944 film Gaslight, about a woman whose husband slowly manipulates her into believing that she’s going insane.)
Healing starts when victims ditch the need to be right. If the narcissist insists he’s right, even when you know he’s not, let him win, counselors advise. He needs to be right more than you do. The object is to work hard and lose the resentment. In time, your work should speak for itself.
A set of skills called Resource Management Ability can help with job tension, adds Dr. Grande. “Sidestep the narcissist, whether she’s a coworker, client or manager, and find other ways to get your job done. Find people who will help make your job more efficient; learn to network; find other methods to do your job, like new software or webinars — if possible, at your own expense. Build alliances with non-narcissists who value your strengths. Talk to someone you trust. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being heard.”
“People who choose to stay in toxic relationships are not weak,” said Dr. Walsh. “They seek a higher purpose.” Maybe their love for their children cancels out divorce, or the narcissist-spouse is the major breadwinner. Sometimes people choose to serve an organization they honor and take the good with the bad.
“When you do stay in the relationship,” said Dr. Walsh, “keep in mind that the abuse is not about you. Having a narcissist work for you can be bad for your job longevity. Watch out from below!”
Seek your source of self-knowledge and self-esteem from people who love you,” said Dr. Walsh. “Introspection is fine, but most of us come to know ourselves when we see how others perceive us. Live a healthy lifestyle — actually, live a good life.”
Then, once you’ve taken back your self-respect, you can do something outrageous: Have compassion. “Narcissists have often suffered severe mental or physical abuse,” said Dr. Grande. “It can be very sad to learn how a toxic personality developed.”
To paraphrase a report from Dr. Darryl Cross, a clinical and organizational psychologist at the Institute for Leadership Coaching in Australia, vulnerable types of narcissists had parents who lacked warmth and were highly critical and faultfinding. Narcissistic children develop an endearing sense of self to counteract feelings of inadequacy. Theirs is a lifelong journey to seek the praise and adulation they never got.
“It’s not what’s wrong with this person, it’s what happened to this person,” said Dr. Walsh. “If you look at someone’s case history, you can see that he or she never experienced unconditional love. That’s not to dismiss the agony narcissists cause; it’s just to say that their behavior is the manifestation of their life experiences.” Everyone gets disillusioned at some point; it’s how we handle it that matters.
It starts with forgiveness. “If you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly,” according to researchers from the Mayo Clinic. “By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.”
Cratchit had it right all along — or more accurately, Charles Dickens did. Arguably the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, Dickens was born in poverty. He had no formal education and worked in a factory. Critics say that his empathy for the poor likely inspired many of his characters.
So the lesson comes from his humble Cratchit: Leave the toxicity behind. No one has power over us unless we give it to them. The world is full of people who choose to honor others, not belittle them.
Most of all, find peace in a place you love, with the people you love. That’s happiness.
Narcissistic Personality Inventory
The following quiz* was designed to quickly assess narcissistic traits and is not to be used as a substitute for clinical assessment. For a comprehensive and valid assessment, please see a licensed professional mental health counselor.
This quiz is for your eyes only, so be honest. It may help you recognize traits that affect others negatively.
For each of the following items, indicate whether the statement is mostly true or mostly false.
- Others have acknowledged that I am special or great
- I can talk my way out of problems
- Getting respect from others is crucial
- I will be famous someday
- I enjoy being the center of attention
- I am well-suited to be a leader
- Others are jealous of my talent
- Others can learn a lot from me
- I deserve the best of everything
- When I enter a room, I take charge right away
- Modesty is for underachievers
- If I am not in charge, problems are sure to arise
- People who criticize me are simply jealous
- I dream of being powerful and successful
- I get angry at those who don’t recognize my abilities
- I hang around with successful people
- I am confident that I can accomplish anything
- My leadership abilities inspire people
- It bothers me when ordinary people believe they are my equals
- When I am telling a story, everyone pays attention
Add 1 point for each mostly true response.
- 0 – 2: Low narcissism
- 3 – 5: Average narcissism
- > 6: High narcissism
*The NPI is a self-report scale of narcissism rather than narcissistic personality disorder (Foster & Campbell, 2007).
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