“He’s such a narcissist” – a phrase you’ve most probably heard someone you know say. It is interesting to me how the narcissistic personality has come to symbolise what’s wrong with the modern world. The term has been thrown about a lot more since social media has taken over and it was possibly at its zenith just after Trump was elected. Hot on the lips of so many, but do we really know what it means and how it’s a problem?
I have a more technical understanding of the concept. From a psychological perspective “narcissist/narcissism” is a diagnostic term and it is a term that lends itself from an entire field of study within psychology called Self Psychology. This means that I would perhaps hesitate to use it in casual reference to someone who’s just behaving badly but let’s start there.
If you’re wondering if someone is a narcissist then you’ve probably come into contact with someone who has behaved badly towards you, perhaps repeatedly.
But is this person just being an asshole or can their behaviour be understood as a kind of narcissism?
As a therapist, I only use diagnosis criteria as a way of understanding someone, of giving their behaviours meaning by categorising their experiences in such a way as to make sense of their wounds and how these wounds shape their view of themselves and the world.
In this way, by giving you a diagnosis I actually have more empathy for you, not less. I have a system for understanding you, which helps me to see the aetiology ( the cause) of the “problem” and not just the manifested symptoms.
So let me take you on a journey of how to understand narcissism. Let me show you how I make sense of narcissistic behaviour.
- A wounded child
All adults who step into my therapy office have within them a wounded child part. None of us get to adulthood without some wounds along the way. You may have lost a sibling or a parent, had difficulties at school, struggled with sibling rivalry or were bullied. You have been hurt in some or other way. When we are hurt as children, we learn to overcome this pain via various strategies and defense mechanisms, often relying on our adult selves to think or act in certain ways. This is normal and healthy. But inside us is still the wounded child part that is helpless, scared and alone. Therapy helps us access this part so that we can start to incorporate those feelings and experiences into our self identity.
A person who struggles with narcissism has a very deep wound from childhood. This person didn’t just suffer from an isolated incident. This person struggled to develop adequately. A person with narcissism has a kind of arrested development.
When we are toddlers we are naturally narcissistic. It is very normal for a toddler to view the world as revolving around them. A toddler does not spare a thought for your experience. A toddler is only just learning how to communicate his/her needs and so that is a source of great exploration. As a toddler I just want to know how to get what I want and how to get you to give me what I want. When I don’t get what I want I will throw a tantrum because it is inconceivable to me why I can’t have the thing or do the thing I want. This is healthy narcissism because it is developmentally appropriate.
The tasks of parenting a toddler are simple but hard to execute. You have to follow the child’s needs and be in response to the child as he/she learns how to feel like himself/herself in the world. It is very important to support this self development. You don’t want to break the child’s spirit. You want the child to feel good about being themselves, to feel that they are a delight to you. You get excited when they perform a simple task, you clap and cheer when they execute a new behaviour, etc. This is normal self-development. The self is therefore developing via the experiences of having a caregiver attending to his/her needs while acknowledging his/her achievements and behaviours.
There is also the need for boundaries. A parent has to find a way of communicating to the developing toddler that there are certain behaviours that are not acceptable. The child will test these limits (and the parent’s patience) but the parent needs to stand firm. This is just as important as celebrating and accepting the child. The child needs to know where their self starts and ends. When my parent gives me a limit, I can feel that this is where I come into contact with the world outside of myself. I learn that I am not the whole universe but only a part of it. I learn that I cannot exert my will onto anything and everyone around me. It feels good to get a “no” from my parent because it makes me feel safe and it shows me that I am cared for and protected (although I might protest and throw a fit just for good measure).
The narcissist never experienced this kind of parenting. Just like there are degrees of narcissism, ranging from a tendency towards narcissistic behaviours to full blown narcissistic personality disorder, so there are degrees of poor parenting that result in these tendencies.
Sometimes parents are just inconsistent and unavailable, meaning the child does not get a consistent experience of themselves in relationship to a caring adult who is present to meet their needs and follow their behaviours. A child who is neglected, who is left to their own devices and who is not given experiences where their selfhood is celebrated and nurtured will not develop a healthy self identity.
Sometimes parents are depressed or psychotic. A parent who is mentally ill cannot see the child as they are, cannot meet the child’s need to be present and consistent in their behaviour. A child who is confronted with a parent who’s behaviour is erratic or strange may not have the space to develop their self because they are so busy monitoring the parent’s behaviours and trying to adjust themselves to meet the parent’s ever-changing needs.
Then there are parents who are violent and abusive. A child who grows up fearing their caregiver is a child who has a very disorganized view of themselves and the world. This child lacks positive and coherent self experiences. The self is therefore fragmented, broken. In some way, this child has no real self. In this extreme case, the narcissism develops as a way of presenting an image of a self, a grandiose self, out to the world but this is a false self, a mask that hides a very fragile and fragmented inner world.
2. Adult narcissim
So if we take the assumption that narcissism is a kind of a defense against a fragile, incoherent self then we can see that when an adult demonstrates narcissistic tendencies it is because their wounded child part has not experienced adequate self experiences and they therefore project an idea of themselves out into the world as a way of protecting their true incoherent and fragile self from being seen.
What this looks like is a whole lot of asshole-like behaviours that are in actual fact merely attempts at self-preservation. The narcissist feels constantly under threat unless they can feel superior and dominant and in control.
Narcissism is characterised by grandiosity (a sense of superiority and uniqueness), entitlement (expecting special treatment and privileges), and lack of empathy. If you are wondering if someone you know is narcissistic ask yourself if the person displays some of these characteristic behaviours:
This person talks himself/herself up the whole time, recounting achievements and accolades and emphasizing their worth over others.
This person sees himself/herself as special, unique, superior, powerful, successful, intelligent, attractive.
This person constantly requires admiration and adoration.
This person chooses themselves and their needs at the expense of yours and others’.
This person makes you feel unsafe without any concern for your wellbeing.
This person uses you for their benefit and makes you feel like you owed them somehow.
This person lies and deceives you and others for his/her own gain.
This person cannot see when his/her behaviour has impacted negatively on someone else, or sees it but doesn’t feel concerned.
This person excuses all his/her bad behaviour and blames others for his/her actions.
3. In relationship to a narcissist
You may recognise that someone you know is narcissistic. It is really tough to be in a relationship with a narcissist but many will tell you it is also really tough to get out of!
Without going into it too much, I just want to say that narcissists are actually really easy to be attracted to! Narcissism is not just bad behaviour it is also very cunning and seductive, especially in the early days of a relationship. Narcissists are often the most charming people and are excellent at courting because they bring you into their narcissistic world, which feels great. When a narcissist likes you they make you feel like the coolest thing since sliced bread. The narcissist projects an outward impression of being cool, special, and high-status. So by choosing you, you are made to feel cool and special by association. The narcissist is adept at hiding so he/she chooses very carefully which aspects of his/her false self to exhibit in order to lure you in.
As someone in a relationship with a narcissist, you are probably vulnerable in some way (that’s where you need to understand your wounded child better) and so you are ripe for the picking. Your insecurities, your tendency for empathy and people-pleasing or your need for love and connection are your vulnerabilities and the narcissist smells them a mile away. The narcissist will sell you an idea of “us against the world”, which makes you feel like you have a teammate, an ally, someone who will have your back. But this also speaks to the paranoia of the narcissist. A narcissist feels constantly under threat.
The early days of this relationship will feel mostly really thrilling. There will be crazy adventures and heightened emotions. But there will also be little hints and clues that something more sinister lies beneath the surface. The narcissist is not able to hide their emotions entirely and the fragile, fragmented self will appear at times. This is most often exhibited in moments of jealousy, paranoia, possessiveness, anger, aggression, and control.
The narcissist is also vulnerable and has very few adequate emotion regulation strategies. If something upsets the narcissist you will know about it and you will mostly likely be made to feel it’s your fault.
“why were you laughing at his joke?” “do you think she’s more beautiful than me?” “I won’t stand for someone disrespecting me” “I am sick of people thinking they can treat me like this” “doesn’t he know who I am?” “you can’t go there without my permission” “next time you better check with me first”
These are some things you might hear from a narcissist who is starting to show his/her true colours.
Before long you’re in a full blown hostage situation. The narcissist has mapped out exactly which behaviours he/she demands from you and which ones he/she prohibits. You find yourself questioning your own behaviours and wondering what he/she would think of you doing xyz. You sensor yourself, start seeing your friends less, start distancing yourself from everyone and anything that makes him/her feel insecure or threatened. This is also a tactic on the narcissist’s part because alienating you from your support network makes you easier to control.
You end up in predicatable cycles of fighting and making up. Each time you think this is going to be the last time and each time the narcissist finds a way of convincing you that you were at fault and therefore deserved his/her mistreatment or convinces you that next time will be different, better. The narcissist knows how to demonstrate just enough vulnerability and empathy to convince you that they are indeed the victim in the situation and you struggle to come up with an alternative narrative to convince him/her otherwise.
One of the best strategies a narcissist has is their woundedness. This is where narcissism in therapy becomes tricky. The narcissist will have you empathizing with their wound over yours. If you try and talk about your feelings or get your needs heard you will be made to feel selfish or even cruel. The narcissist will make you feel like you are the aggressor if you attempt to lay down boundaries. Your boundaries will be perceived as an attack by the narcissist.
4. A way forward
So is there a way forward? Is there a way to get beyond narcissism and discover the true self that lies beneath? Well yes and no.
For most people who exhibit narcissism, they will go through life without too much hassle. They will probably talk their way into good jobs and into relationships and will most likely experience a measure of success in their lives. For the most part, our society actually rewards narcissism.
But for those who struggle on the far side of the spectrum, their difficulties are endless. People who really struggle with narcissism have difficulties holding down a job, have unsuccessful relationships and often struggle with mental health issues like depression.
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you may wonder if there is any hope for a better future. Can a narcissist learn to be different? Well I would say yes but only if the narcissist wants to.
You may have read this post and be more sure than ever that you are in a relationship with a narcissist but you would need your partner’s buy-in if any therapy was to be successful.
And also, don’t forget that being in a relationship with a narcissistic is not simply a classic victim-perpetrator dynamic. You have chosen this person because you have your wounds and you are staying in this relationship because you are part of this dynamic too.
You need to see a therapist to figure out what it is about your psychology that got you here and keeps you here. And if you are going to leave this person, you will need all the support you can get so getting a therapist should be the first step regardless!
A person who struggles with narcissim, struggles with being a self. That is excruciating. As a therapist I can empathize with your pain and with your struggles to feel like a self in a world that doesn’t understand or appreciate you. But I also need to teach you how to see where you start and end. I need to demonstrate to you how your thoughts and feelings are not the only thing that matters, that to function in this world means that you will have to manage your emotions and consider the effects of your actions on others.
Over a long (minimum two years) therapy process these difficulties can come to be understood and worked through. Like all psychological problems, our aim is not to cure but to understand, to be aware of and to manage these difficulties so that they can be tolerated. It’s a long journey that requires a huge amount of commitment and is very hard for most.
In truth, most narcissists are not interested in therapy except to use it as a forum in which to perform grandiosity and feel superior or admired. A narcissist might be inclined to come to therapy if they feel their victimhood narratives will be reinforced or if they feel they can get away with their self-indulgent behaviours. A narcicisstic will be looking to see whether their demonstrations of superiority go unchallenged. There is a balancing act required. You need the narcissist’s buy-in but you don’t want to threaten their defenses and cause them to bail. It rarely goes well. They love a sparring-match and will at first hold you up to their grandiose fantasies.
“You are such a smart therapist, you’re perfect for me because I need a very smart therapist” “I saw you come recommended. I only want the best”.
Then they will start to prove that you’re against them and that you actually have some kind of malicious intent. They especially hate it when attempts are made to threaten their grandiose self image. For a narcissist, truly coming into contact with the wounded child part would be intolerable and would result in a kind of disintegration so therapy is very painful and threatening. It is an unlikely choice.