“Narcissist” is a big buzz word right now not only in the field of psychology, but across our entire culture. When you think of the word, I bet you immediately get a mental image of someone. It might be a politician, or a celebrity, or a professional athlete or coach. I find most of us have a very specific, very narrow, idea of what narcissism is and looks like – almost a caricature of it. Narcissism encompasses much more than just the overt, raging, grandiose, “I’m so wonderful” bully we may first imagine.
Narcissism is on a scale
The trait of narcissism falls across a spectrum. Imagine a scale of 0-10. Right in the middle of the scale, between 4-6, is where you’d find a healthy level of narcissism. Yes, there is a healthy level – someone who is equally aware of self and others.
The two ends of the spectrum are anything but healthy. At one end you have the 0’s and 1’s, those with no traits of narcissism, who have very low self-esteem, and no voice to speak up for themselves. Have you read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein? The tree is a great example of a 0. To give and give to your own detriment is a toxic, unhealthy way to live. If the tree really loved the boy, he would have given him a few apples and then told him to plant the seeds and grow his own apples. Instead the tree created the perfect climate to breed a narcissist!
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you find the toxic, malignant personalities with oversized egos and a complete disregard for others’ feelings. Many would put a Donald Trump or Steve Jobs on this extreme end of the narcissism scale. And while that may be true, they certainly aren’t the only ones. Chances are each of us loves someone – either a spouse, parent, sibling or child – who falls beyond a healthy level of narcissism and is a “narcissist”. Here’s what to look for:
Characteristics of a Narcissist
- Their generosity is conditional. Some say narcissists are selfish or stingy but that’s not always true. They can also be extremely generous with their time and money… when it’s convenient or makes them feel good. There is an underlying “WIIFM” (‘What’s in it for me?’) factor. Without the WIIFM, they have little or no interest. For example, consider the dad who makes a big production of taking his son to a football game, but will turn down the same son 99 out of 100 times when he asks to throw the football in the backyard because he can’t be bothered or isn’t interested.
- They have an excessive need of admiration but are slow to hand out compliments. They want to be recognized and stroked whenever they do good but overlook, discount, or criticize the efforts of others – unless by noticing they will receive more admiration.
- Their ‘Give vs Get’ is out of balance. They do not mind asking for favors, but they don’t grant them often. Or, if they do it’s done with complaining. I tell clients a narcissist won’t mind asking you for a kidney, but they’ll be put out if you interrupt their tv time to ask them to run to the grocery store.
- When they tell stories, they’re always the hero or the victim, never the offender. They were always better than everyone else at X, worked harder than everyone at Y, or were taken advantage of by Z. They had to earn everything they’ve received in life while others had an easier road. Narcissists can be history revisionists. They have very selective memory and may say or do something outrageous and then not remember it or deny it.
- They are easily angered and defensive. When you give them feedback, even if you do it well, the narcissist will respond as if attacked. And then they will attack back. As a result, they can end up isolated and their relationships starved for intimacy as loved ones may withdraw and stuff emotions to avoid potential conflict. Many narcissists rage, but not always.
- They lack empathy, especially for those they love. You make them look good if you look good. If you are struggling with achievement of any kind, you make them look bad. I see this most often with narcissistic parents. Mothers who don’t like their daughters to leave the house unless they are perfectly dressed. They also don’t like their kids to be overweight or under-function in school. For dads, I see it with sports or other perceived masculine endeavors. A narcissistic parent gets angry or critical (“You are never going to amount to anything if…”) or contemptuous (“That’s exactly what I would expect of you.”) and provides little emotional comfort or support.
- They are controlling. Narcissists have very specific ideas about exactly how and why things should be done and are upset when they aren’t. Sometimes it’s about the smallest of things – like how clothes should be folded – but they will feel justified in their opinion and even angry if you don’t comply.
- They are often emotionally turbulent. They have big ups and downs. They do not easily self-soothe or regulate and want you to help them, often attacking you to feel better about themselves.
- They have a time urgency issue. They do not like to run late, and they can’t stand to be made to wait. They can have an “I’m going to teach them a lesson” attitude. If the narcissist is the one running late, the same rules do not apply.
- They can be physically abusive. It’s also important to remember emotional abuse often eventually translates to physical abuse if it goes unchecked.
- They play by different rules. It’s okay if they misplace keys or leave their wallet in the car but they will label you as being as irresponsible for the same. They’ll make big decisions like quitting a job or buying a car and announce it after the fact but would be offended if you did the same.
- They have false empathy. They can display what looks like empathy for a little while, especially if it makes them look good. But it usually doesn’t last long, especially once it interferes with what they want or need.
- They cannot connect emotionally. But they think they do. They are often surprised to learn you are unhappy or feel disconnected from them. To them, connection looks like compliance and agreement.
- They will look at this list and not see themselves. Don’t expect your loved one to read this list and feel convicted of their narcissistic ways. A narcissist has a distorted sense of self and will see others on this list, but not themselves.
If you’ve read through this list and recognize many of these traits in your loved one, chances are they are higher on the narcissism scale. While a narcissist can be very attractive and charming, being in relationship with one can bring many challenges. If you are in a relationship with one, you may have lots of questions like “Can a narcissist change?” or “How do I get along with a narcissist?” or “When is it time to leave?”. In the coming weeks I’m going to answer those questions and show you how not only to survive, but to thrive when dealing with a narcissist. If you are currently dealing with this situation in your life and would like customized support, please call us.