Are you living with a narcissist?
There's a fine line between confidence and narcissism
Self-love is a good thing. Take it too far, however, and you become a menace, writes David Goding.
Confidence is an attractive trait in a person. Subconsciously, we tend to gravitate towards confident, expressive people, those who know what they want, what they need and how to get it. Their success is seemingly inevitable and by being close to them, we feel that some of it might rub off on us.
But there’s a fine line between confidence and narcissism. Go too far into the well of self-love and you cease to be attractive – not that you’re likely to notice. Go even further and you could find the only friend you have left is Narcissus himself – a mythological Greek youth who was so pretty, he fell in love with his own reflection and killed himself because his love could never be fulfilled.
If you can relate, you qualify as one of the many people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Or it’s highly likely you know one.
“Everyone can appreciate feeling unique and special from time to time,” says Dr Nina Brown, author of Children of the Self-Absorbed. “Indeed, one of the reasons we fall in love or become attracted to someone is their ability to make us feel that way.”
“However, the person who has an excessive need to feel unique and special expects everyone to make them feel that way all of the time. They can be easily displeased or even angered when others do not act to make them feel unique and special.”
Such specialness is on the increase due to a culture that promotes, props up and preens itself in its own glorious image.
“NPD is increasing as our media and culture rewards it,” says Meredith Fuller, psychologist and author of Working with Mean Girls. “We are taught to feel entitled, society says you can have whatever you want and we’re all winners. We relate to celebrities who are now so accessible with social media and all of this leads to distortion.”
So how do you cope with a narcissist in your life? Ignore them? Stroke their ego and run? And what do you do if you have one in your office? Or even worse, in your home?
Recognising a narcissist
Assessing whether a person does in fact have a narcissistic disorder can be difficult. After all, not every confident, dynamic, ‘special’ person fits the bill. You’re looking for prolonged, repeated, annoying behaviour.
“Even experienced clinicians have difficulty diagnosing narcissistic personality disorder or pathological narcissism at first,” says Dr Brown. “It seems that it takes a period of contact with the person before the pathology emerges.”
Dr Brown says that a destructive narcissistic pattern produces considerable and constant frustration for others on a regular basis, compromises a person’s ability to develop satisfying relationships, and produces “unrealistic expectations that others exist for their personal benefit”.
At work you get plenty of opportunity to experience the narcissist firsthand, day after torturous day. (Ed’s note: for the purposes of this example, we’ve selected a female protagonist.)
“You will notice how the narcissist seems to repeat herself, telling everyone the same old stories, stories that usually place her in a good light,” says Fuller. “She’ll mention all the positive comments she has received from significant people in the organisation, over and over again. She never worries about the repetition, hogging the talk space or boring anyone.”
“She’ll outperform everyone at conferences, meetings or at any opportunity to dazzle more senior staff. The worst thing you can do is try to compete – if you happen to get great feedback, your life will not be worth living – until the spotlight is returned to her.”
Reasons behind the behaviour
Before you write off your narcissistic ‘friend’, remember that behind all the bravado and irritating attention-seeking behaviour could lie a person with some troubling identity issues. Not that they’re likely to seek help.
“Most theories centre around all that relentless self-promotion, masking a poor self-image, and the origins of the behaviour can probably be found in childhood,” says Fuller.
“At some level this is a woman who fears that she might be just like you – an ordinary woman who turns up to work and has a job to do. Rather than looking inward and reflecting on her behaviour, she projects outward. She must put you down so she can feel superior.”
So all this ‘look at me’ behaviour may actually be a result of feeling insecure.
“While it might not look like it from the outside, her need to be revered and held in high regard is the result of having a poor self-image,” adds Fuller. “She doesn’t mind telling all and sundry about her great achievements over and over again – she believes it is reinforcing the listener’s view of her as fabulous. Her superiority is a cover-up for how inferior she actually feels.”
How to deal with narcissists
At work it can be very tricky trying to negotiate your day when a narcissist is lurking nearby. Above all else, don’t get involved in an argument or debate about their insensitive behaviour – it simply won’t work.
“Her specialty is winning debates,” says Fuller. “She will be less articulate when you speak about feeling and emotion. This keeps you on a more level playing field in the discussion.”
“Also, do not allow her to isolate you from other team members, especially anyone more senior.”
If you can, says Fuller, try to get instructions about what she wants you to do in writing, and never sit in a position that is physically lower than her.
“She prefers to be ‘above’ her courtiers, literally. Being lower makes it easier for her to treat you poorly,” says Fuller.
In certain situations it may even be possible to turn the manipulative tables so that it works for you.
“You can’t change her behaviour towards others, but you might get a better reaction from her if she can see what’s in it for her,” says Fuller. “She might not aspire to being a good team player, but you could encourage her to appreciate the merits of having team players on her side.”
“But don’t fall for her pseudo-intimacy when she tries to make you believe that you are special. You might think, ‘Oh I know she can be awful to other people, but we are really close and she wouldn’t do those awful things to me.’ When it suits her, she will.”
How to cope and set boundaries
If your partner or other family member is afflicted with a narcissistic disorder, it can be even tougher. Chances are you have developed long-standing roles of behaviour that can be difficult to break out of.
“A narcissist is hard to live with as they demand to be put first and wear everyone else down to the point where it’s easier to give in,” says Fuller. “It’s exhausting, everyone feels taken for granted and they don’t bother trying to get their needs met as the narcissist has no interest in meeting them.”
“You need to be robust to assert your rights and maintain your boundaries. You need high self-esteem, and since it won’t come from the narcissist in your life, you may need counselling for support.”
If you can drag them along to counselling as well, even better, but that can be easier said than done.
“They are very difficult to work with because the problem belongs to ‘everyone else’ and they don’t see their contribution,” says Fuller. “Therapy isn’t something they tend to stick with. If they can recognise that it is worthwhile, they can be helped. But it takes time.”
“You may decide that the battle is likely to take too much out of you.”
It’s a bit hard to avoid narcissistic parents and there are a growing number of them out there. This new breed of parents are creating a new culture of kids who need to pander to their parents’ selfish desires in order to gain attention, says Dr Brown.
“The child learns by trial and error what to say and do that will please the parent,” he says. “The child who does not tune in to this parental demand or expectation will likely find that they are more often criticised, disparaged and devalued than the sibling who meets the unspoken expectation.”
Disturbingly, this behaviour may stay with them as the child grows up.
“This internalised responsibility is then extended to others, and the child begins to judge their self-worth by the extent to which they can meet these expectations,” says Dr Brown. “Others may not even have these expectations, but because neither is talking about the dynamic, the child assumes that they are supposed to meet these unspoken needs, just as they did with the parent. This unconscious sense of responsibility for others’ welfare can and does persist into adulthood.”