What is a narcissist?
(as opposed to a healthy narcissist)
The term “narcissism” is often thrown around as a synonym for someone who is self-absorbed. While this is certainly a major aspect of the clinical term “Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” the actual disorder involves other components. While this article is not intended to be an exhaustive discussion on “Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” it provides a basic explanation of what narcissism is.
In layman’s terms, a narcissist is someone who has a sense of entitlement, grandiose sense of self along with unrealistic expectations of others and of life itself. These individuals are frequently manipulative in interpersonal relationships, often presenting what appears to be genuine care and concern. Unfortunately, underneath this façade is a self-serving agenda. The narcissist is unable to feel genuine concern or empathy for other people. This person feels no guilt or remorse, and generally blames others for his/her mistakes. If he/she gets “caught” in a lie or mistake, the response will usually be extremely hostile and aggressive. A narcissist has a strong need for excitement (thrill seeking behavior), which can often involve the exploitation of others.
You might ask yourself, who is drawn to someone like this? Sometimes “people pleasers” find themselves paired with narcissists as well as those who may have poor self-esteem. Narcissists are experts at “reading” people to identify their vulnerabilities; this helps them “find a way in.” Individuals who are soft-spoken or who are hesitant to “make waves” will have the most difficulty drawing firm boundaries with a narcissist, since intimidation is another common tactic.
If you think you may be dealing with a narcissist, look over the following checklist and check the characteristics that apply to him/her.
- Self-absorbed (acts like everything is all about him/her)
- Entitled (makes the rules; breaks the rules)
- Demeaning (puts you down; bully-ish)
- Demanding (of whatever he/she wants)
- Distrustful (suspicious of your motives when you’re being nice to him/her)
- Snobbish (believes he/she is superior to you and others; gets bored easily)
- Unempathic (uninterested in understanding your inner experience or unable to do so)
- Unresmorseful (cannot offer a genuine apology)
- Compulsive (gets overly consumed with details and minutiae)
- Addictive (cannot let go of bad habits/ uses them to self-soothe)
- Emotionally detached (steers clear of feelings)
According to narcissism expert Wendy Behary, if someone exhibits 10 of the 13 named traits, he/she is likely to be an overt (maladaptive) narcissist.
While it is understandable that a narcissist would trigger feelings of anger or resentment from even the most patient person, it’s helpful to understand where these patterns originate.
- Subconscious beliefs – Our perception of ourselves and of the world forms very early in life, largely based on what we learn from our caregivers. For example, a young boy who grew up in a home where he was routinely criticized and devalued will likely develop a sense that he is unworthy of love and attention. As he grows older, this can intensify into a deeply-rooted (but often subconscious) view of himself as defective (“There must be something wrong with me”). While this belief may not be conscious, it triggers a deep sense of shame. In order to avoid this awful feeling of shame, a narcissist will often go overboard to present him/herself as worthy.
- Getting needs met – Oftentimes, when a child’s needs are not met for whatever reason (parent may be absent, addicted, ill or neglectful), he/she learns not to trust others to meet his/her needs. It begins to feel like “me against the world” rather than the world being a place for trusting, open relationships. Close, intimate relationships can feel terrifying to a narcissist, whose sense of self is too fragile to risk rejection or criticism. Therefore, he/she becomes a master at “charming” people enough to get his/her needs met without actually risking vulnerability.
- Not good enough – Underneath all of the bravado and grandiosity, the narcissist has a core belief that he/she is not good enough. Unfortunately, this person also believes that being good enough is absolutely essential to survive and belong in the world. Thus, the internal struggle is intense. For a narcissist, there is no such thing as a minor mistake. His/her sense of self is so fragile that it does not allow for the common trappings of being human. The black-and-white thinking pattern of this person (“I have to be perfect, because if I’m not I’m completely worthless) creates a feeling of “no win” all the time, which can turn into the appearance of a “win-at-all-costs” mentality.
- Defend/protect – Every human being is equipped with an automatic instinct to survive. When we feel threatened in some way (whether the threat is real or imagined), our defenses kick in. In and of themselves, these survival instincts are not bad. Without them, we would not have been able to survive as a species. Unfortunately, because a narcissist has a skewed sense of the world (“the world is not a safe place”), it is quite common for him/her to perceive a fairly normal situation as threatening. He/she may perceive criticism, rejection or abandonment where no such thing was intended. Consequently, the narcissist responds in a very hostile, volatile manner as if he/she is “attacking back.” Keep in mind that while it feels very personal, this approach truly stems from the subconscious need to defend and protect oneself. Even though it may not be warranted in the situation, someone who constantly feels unsafe or insecure is far more likely to lash out than someone who feels safe, like he/she belongs.
Disarming a narcissist can be a tall order. If you would like additional support learning effective ways to interact and communicate with the narcissist in your life, we are here to help! Call the Center for Growth at 267-324-9564.