What is a Narcissist?
Narcissists are individuals who tend to go through life – refusing to take responsibility for their behaviour’s and actions. Are quick to blame others for their own short comings. Show a complete lack of genuine empathy for others. Feel they are entitled or special and have difficulty in maintaining meaningful relationships.
Types of Narcissism
When we hear the term “narcissist”, a character who is loud, arrogant, full of self importance with big ideas comes to mind. There are however 7 distinct categories:-
- Grandiose – the classic stereotype of narcissist, arrogant, validation seeking, big ego and full of their own importance.
- Malignant – has the traits of the grandiose narcissist but has more psychopathic tendencies. They are deliberately mean and have little remorse for their action. They will steal, cheat and lie.
- Covert – this narcissistic type is passive aggressive in their behavior towards others. They portray themselves as the victim (the martyr complex) and are put upon by others or the world and are hard done by.
- Communal – involvement in community and public work but needs to have lots of recognition for their efforts. Often tell everybody how wonderful they are at helping groups they see as vulnerable or less deserving than themselves.
- Toxic – There’s a range of toxic narcissism, and none of it is good. A toxic narcissist “continually causes drama in others’ lives at the very least and causes pain and destruction at the very worst.
- Psychopathic – A psychopath is an unstable, aggressive person, and these traits also show up in the psychopathic narcissist. A psychopathic narcissist, which is a type of toxic narcissist, will often be violent and show no remorse for their behaviour.
- Closet – This one can be trickier to spot than other types of narcissists because the person isn’t always obvious about their disorder. “A closet narcissist is one who doesn’t inflict their personality upon others or society but firmly believes in the characteristics of narcissism.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
From a clinical point of view, for an individual to be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) they need to meet certain diagnostic criteria outlined in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders) . The difficulty, however, is the majority of individuals who would be diagnosed do not see themselves as having a problem and are therefore unlikely to seek treatment. For the few that do its usually in relation to depression, alcohol or drug use or other mental health issues. Once in therapy, the narcissists inability to take responsibility for their actions along with feedback internalized as unjust criticism it is almost inevitable that they will not continue and soon end contact.
As a therapist I often find myself working with the casualties of the narcissist and the majority of cases involves the more subtle but just as devastating covert type.
Key behaviors and characteristics of the narcissistic personality
- have an exaggerated sense of entitlement and importance – narcissists feel they are superior to other people, they know more than others and their opinions hold more validity than anyone else. They often exaggerate their accomplishments and talents and always do something better than anyone else. There is a “been there, done that” attitude displaying arrogant, haughty behaviors.
- lack genuine empathy for others – they really do not hold a high regard for anyone. They may display “a show” of concern in certain situations but it is rarely long lasting. It relates more to “being seen” as concerned to outsiders or within a social situation as opposed to really genuinely caring.
- unable to accept responsibility for their behaviors, actions or choices – particularly when something they have done does not work out as they had planned. Instead, they blame their bad decisions at someones else’s feet. For example, “its not my fault the business didn’t work out, you didn’t do enough / work hard enough”.
- the rules do not apply to them – this relates to them feeling “special” or “superior”. So unlike other people they can disregard the rules. This often means they can behave recklessly or act impulsively.
- bend the truth or lie outright to suit their needs – the narcissist is very good at adapting the truth. They will resort to outright lying to defend their position or to get their needs met. For example they may only tell half the information or distort it to more extreme measures such as committing fraud.
- change their minds continually so are unreliable – narcissists often involve themselves in lots of things but never for very long. They may go through a variety of jobs or get involved in schemes that fulfills their preoccupation of the fantasies they hold of unlimited success, wealth or power. They can change their mind as often as their socks without any care of thought of the consequences particularly on others.
- take advantage of others – people are exploited to meet their own needs. Narcissists are charming manipulators and have very few friends (that stick around). What they do have are “useful” acquaintances.
- undermine and blame others – a hallmark trait of the narcissist is to undermine those people they are closest too and involved with. This is about their need to be “in control”. The narcissistic parent will undermine their offspring from a young age in a variety of ways. This includes eroding confidence and self esteem to maintain their own by telling their children they are not good enough, they don’t work hard enough,they are lazy, stupid, ungrateful or too sensitive. The narcissistic partner will behave in the same way with their significant other to destroy their self esteem, value and self worth thus keeping themselves emotionally secure.
- they do not like to be challenged or criticized – this is because they see themselves as all knowing and always being right. If they are they will explode and become aggressive or withdraw becoming cold and distant justifying their position by blaming, undermining or belittling the person who has dared confront them.
When narcissists lose control
When the narcissists position is challenged or exposed and they lose control over others they become evasive, distort the truth or lie outright often contradicting themselves in the process and will re-write history as they perceive it (basically making it up as they go along).
Narcissists who no longer hold control over someone, usually because the person has become wise to their behavior and challenges them, they can respond in one or two ways. They will either be aggressive and disparaging or use the silent treatment. Both of these responses are used to try and elicit emotional pain, confusion and guilt. If this doesn’t bring you back into line the aim is then to exercise as much control as possible. This could include withholding affection, help or finances.
A tactic often used when they have lost control over someone is to try and control how others view that person. This involves talking badly about the person to others, telling half truths or lies about them or the situation and portraying themselves as a victim to justify their position and discredit the person who has stood up to them.
So how to individuals become narcissistic?
Research indicates that environmental and social factors play a significant influence in the development of NPD in an individual. Narcissism can develop from an impaired emotional attachment to primary caregivers that results in a difficult and chaotic childhood. Children who are brought up in environments where one or both parents are emotionally neglectful or absent, overly demanding of their own emotional needs and inconsistent in their emotional responses to their child or children are at an increased risk.
Parents may only give affection and value the child for doing well at something so their affection is “conditional”. One child within the family may be pit against another or there may be a favorite so that comparisons are made. This devalues one child whilst elevating another. This however, can change rapidly and leave children feeling emotionally insecure and vulnerable impacting on their confidence and self esteem.
The adult narcissist is driven by an intense, deep rooted fear that they are inadequate and not good enough. Stemming from early childhood experiences linked to rejection, this fear is so ingrained it is unconscious. The narcissist is therefore preoccupied with keeping difficult feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy and shame at arms length. The narcissist uses defence mechanisms (a way of dealing with painful or difficult emotions) including repression, denial and distortion to cope.
When the narcissist’s fragile sense of self is inadvertently challenged, mini emotional crisis are triggered. Anger, acting out, sulking and withdrawal are commonplace. Regressive behaviors both on a cognitive and emotional level occur seeing them return to a childlike state in their actions and responses.
Responding to narcissistic individuals
Its not uncommon for people to be involved in long term relationships with a narcissistic personality and not see it. Realizing a family member, parent or partner is narcissistic can be difficult and raise a lot of emotions. There are steps you can take ensuring you look after your own well-being and heal from the trauma caused.
- assert your boundaries – narcissists find boundaries difficult and will violate them when given a chance. Be clear and factual about what you will or won’t accept and don’t back down.
- don’t personalize behaviour – the actions and behaviour’s of the narcissist have little to do with you. Don’t take on the responsibility. They need to learn to own it.
- Respond don’t react – learning to respond as opposed to reacting to their unacceptable demands or behaviours is important. When you respond you come from a more adult, considered position and therefore have more empowerment.
- Educate yourself – learning about how narcissistic behaviour works helps you to understand and deal with it. Its unlikely the narcissist will change because they do not have sufficient emotional awareness. However, you can.
- seek support – there is a wealth of information to help you cope with your feelings and heal from narcissistic abuse. Online support through articles and forums. Reading books and watching movies can help to provide understanding. Working with a therapist who understands narcissism provides a good support process.
- self support – looking after yourself is important. Honor your feelings, you may experience a range of feelings from anger to sadness to dismay. Don’t blame yourself. Practice good self care – take time to heal, nourish the self and use mindfulness or relaxations skills.
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