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What Makes a Narcissist Tick?

Published
May 9, 2011
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Do you know someone who is narcissistic? Or, perhaps more to the point — do you love someone who is narcissistic? This can be a real challenge. While narcissists can be fun, witty and outgoing in public, they slowly destroy the relationships with those closest to them. Never-ending streams of demands for attention — and punishment when that attention is not given — make life an emotional roller coaster for those who love a narcissist. For these devoted people, the challenge becomes how to maintain their own sense of self in a world where they are required to focus fully on someone else.

WHERE DOES NARCISSISM COME FROM?

While narcissism is hardly unique to our 21st-century lifestyles, there’s much about the way we live today that nurtures this tendency. Contributing factors include indulgent parenting… technology that allows immediate gratification of every whim… a culture built on fame for its own sake… and, now, social networks that enable people to issue news reports on everything from what they ate for breakfast to their opinion on some celebrity’s marital spat. On the one hand, a recent survey from Flagler College and Western Kentucky University points to online self-promotional behavior as fuel for a growing legion of narcissists… on the other, the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the fifth edition, due out in 2013) has eliminated it as an official personality disorder. Narcissism, it seems, is thriving, and is well on its way to becoming “normal.” I spoke recently with Karyl McBride, PhD, author of the book Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers (www.NeverGoodEnough.com), who shared her insights into how you can best maintain your well-being if you live with a narcissist.

WHO ARE NARCISSISTS?

Narcissism derives its name from a character in Greek mythology — Narcissus, who was so enchanted with his own reflection in a pool of water that he was unable to stop staring at it. While narcissists appear strong and confident, the truth is that their bravado is rooted in a deep insecurity and need for reassurance. It is this insecurity that has them seeking constant attention, like an infant who must have attention from his/her mother because he lacks the ability to control his world. As is true with most aspects of personality, narcissistic behavior exists on a continuum. Intensely narcissistic people become deeply destructive to those around them, and few people find them tolerable to live with. But, said Dr. McBride, it is possible to live reasonably happily with someone with mild narcissism — as long as you recognize his/her behavior for what it is. Narcissists are characterized by the following…

  • Grandiose, exaggerated sense of self-importance and belief that they’re better than others.
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of power, success or beauty.
  • Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships.
  • Need for constant praise and admiration.
  • A strong sense of entitlement.
  • Expectation that other people will go along with their ideas and plans.
  • Inability to recognize the needs and feelings of others.
  • Tendency to take advantage of people.
  • Jealousy of others and/or the belief that others are jealous of them.
  • Fragile self-esteem and extreme sensitivity to criticism.

Making these characteristics even more difficult to live with is the fact that narcissists tend to not have any idea of the impact that they have on those around them. They won’t understand your complaints, and they won’t change. So you can either choose to leave or must figure out how to make the most of a difficult situation. Should you choose to stay, it will require time and energy to make it work while — and Dr. McBride emphasizes that this next point is critically important — preserving your own sense of self-worth. To do this, she recommends the following coping mechanisms…

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Learn more about the condition.Understanding what makes a narcissist tick and the root of how he/she got that way may help you accept the person’s limitations and modify your own expectations.

Demand respect.Be clear that you will not tolerate disrespectful language such as belittling remarks… constant criticism… controlling behavior… and unreasonable rages. Any behaviors that veer into physical or emotional abuse are not acceptable — for instance, yelling and name calling, isolation from family and friends, or other possessive or manipulative behavior.

Don’t blame yourself.A narcissist will value or devalue you according to what you’ve done for him lately, putting your own self-esteem at risk, warns Dr. McBride. If the perception is that you haven’t done enough, the reaction may be to put you down — but don’t accept the blame. Never lose sight of the fact that you are a good person and that the “noise” from the narcissist is simply his distorted point of view, not reality.

Put your well-being first. Don’t lose yourself while tending to the narcissist. Define your own wants and needs and figure out how to get them met. Guard your self-esteem at all times:Be firm and consistent about expressing your wishes and requirements.

Build a support system.Since narcissists lack empathy, they are not going to be able to give you understanding or support. You need to have others in your life who can provide friendship and emotional connection outside of your home.

Realize that you can’t change a narcissist.You can encourage an individual to gain more self-awareness — e.g., see a therapist — but for the most part you need to accept him as is… or move on.

When It’s Too Much To Take

Sadly, it’s not uncommon for narcissists to eventually behave in ways that are destructive to themselves and the people they purport to love. Changing one’s personality traits — which is the challenge that faces a narcissist — is a very difficult proposition. If a person has a few narcissistic traits on the continuum, psychotherapy can help by offering him a more realistic self-image. But be forewarned — those with a full-blown narcissistic disorder will not go into therapy. And if you drag them there, they will spend their time discussing how bad you are.

For better or worse, many of us have narcissists in our lives. If you care for a narcissistic person, be true to yourself and try to accept your partner as he is. As a last resort, keep in mind that you can always separate yourself from the situation if it becomes intolerable.