For the past year or two, for a variety of reasons, I've been reading a lot of books about narcissistic personality disorder. So I'm going to offer my accumulated knowledge about this topic, for anyone and everyone who might be suffering with a narcissist in their life right now.
Because, the fact is, if you have someone with narcissistic personality disorder in your life, you're suffering. On the days when you aren't actively suffering, you're passively suffering, wondering when all the niceness will end. Again. As it always does.
First, a couple of misconceptions. Hollywood tends to represent narcissists as good-looking billionaires or corporate CEO's without a conscience, who amass wealth and power only to glower and gloat over the lives they have crushed.
Not all narcissists are smart and good-looking. Let's start there. Some are rather plain and pedestrian, in both thought and appearance, in fact. I say this, because often people really can't believe someone can be a narcissist if they're not, you know, smokin' hot and sharp as a tack.
Because it's too absurd--where do they get off thinking they're so great?
Exactly. Where DO they get off thinking they're so great? Where does anyone, if you get right down to it? Because we all know smart, funny, intelligent people who are delightfully humble. They just do one amazing thing after another, and you know, they don't even need to tell people about it, for heaven's sake. They just do it because it's who they are.
A major discrepancy between the narcissist's beliefs about him/herself and the evidence of his/her reality (as seen by all of the rest of us) is one of the most immediate cues that you might be in the presence of the disorder.
Narcissists are never really humble. If they do something
good, everyone has to see it. And if they do something not-so-good,
it's everyone else's fault.
Bear in mind, of course, that all of the traits that I'm describing are possessed in varying degrees by all kinds of people--possessing any single one doesn't necessarily make a person a narcissist. Narcissistic personality disorder is about a pattern of behaviors that are exhibited long-term, across the board, in all areas of life--work, relationships, finances, love, marriage, etc.
Which brings me to the next misconception: not all narcissists are successful.
That's right. Just because you think you're amazing, doesn't mean you actually are. This holds true for all of us--including the narcissists among us. The difference is, we all know that and, at some point, we admit that--to ourselves and, if we're confident enough, to other people as well.
Narcissists can't do that, and won't.
What narcissists are good at, however, is drawing people in. Because they need other people to feed their own sense of themselves, they instinctively know how to turn on the charm, get a foot in the door, and hook people in. And they seem particularly good at spotting people who are accommodating and/or at a point in their lives when they're vulnerable to being drawn in by a narcissist.
Once hooked, though, you discover that you're living and dealing with someone who is very different from the person you thought you'd connected with.
Once they've drawn you in, they cycle through a never-ending dynamic that focuses exclusively on maintaining their own overly inflated sense of self. It's a psychological and emotional loop that's designed to keep you working and thinking, 24/7, about their favorite pet-project: themselves.
Over time, however, many narcissists do begin to experience problems in nearly all aspects of their lives. As they age, their work-life, friendships, finances, love, and marriage(s) can begin to unravel at a regular--and at times alarming--rate.
Because while we tolerate a measure of narcissism in the young--we call it "immaturity" and consider it to be a normal part of the maturation process-- as people age, well, to put it bluntly, that shit just gets old.
In the case of someone who is not a socially or financially successful narcissist, the gap between what the person does or accomplishes and what the person claims they can do--and the rewards and accolades that they believe they are therefore entitled to, despite the lack of actual accomplishment--widens. And as it does, the person's narcissistic behavior and tendencies become ever more noticeable to the people around them.
Put simply--and very broadly--the primary attributes of a narcissist are an inflated sense of self (where claims of personal abilities and capacities don't align with the person's actual accomplishments), a tendency to "finger-point" and blame any and all failures on others, and a total lack of empathy.
Narcissists mimic emotion that they cannot actually feel or truly understand because they want everyone else to "like" them and pay attention to them.
At the same time, however, Work/Life consultant Melissa Schenker offers the following useful list of distinctions between a "sociopath" and a "narcissist"--because obviously, the two can seem quite similar, but in fact, they're rather different.
In the case of a narcissist, the focus is never on you, always on the narcissist. Their goals are often pretty short-term: they want the attention, and they want it now. Always. It's about getting the attention and keeping other people involved in a dynamic that fuels the narcissist's desire for attention.
And although they crave approval, if they can't gain your admiration, negative feedback is just fine with them, thank you very much.
They don't really care if you're positively furious with them, so long as you're paying attention to them. Your fury is their fuel. That's what it's all about for the narcissist, really--fueling their own needs despite (or at the expense of) the needs and well-being of others.
A sociopath, however, knows how to feign an interest in you (or in others) to achieve a desired end. Sociopaths are self-aware in ways that narcissists aren't. For example, a narcissist might try to bully you into agreement with their perspective when you register a differing opinion. A sociopath, however, will register your objections mentally and then quietly figure out a work-around strategy to undermine or neutralize your objections. They won't get defensive or angry when faced with your opposition, if such anger or defensiveness won't help them to advance their own personal goal.
The narcissist will react when opposed; the sociopath probably won't--or at least not openly. Narcissists can get aggressive in situations where a sociopath will remain "calm" or "neutral."
A sociopath can focus on long-range planning in a way that a narcissist can't: where a narcissist will get angry or frustrated when his/her needs aren't met, a sociopath won't necessarily bat an eye.
Sociopaths can take other people's emotional input in as "neutral" information and then figure out the best use they can make of this information to advance their own agenda.
Narcissists will "enmesh" people in their lives and are fundamentally unable to see others as separate individuals. As Schenker points out, a narcissist can't really see other people as, well, other people, beings with individual thoughts and desires that don't always necessarily align with their own.
A sociopath can register that others are different and have different needs and desires; they simply don't care because they don't believe those needs and desires matter. A narcissist "cares" insofar as s/he can (and often will) respond defensively when confronted with others' differences, criticism, or lack of admiration and approval.
If you're struggling with a narcissist, I highly recommend Melissa Schenker and Tina Moody's "Sweet Relief" blog or--better yet, their book, Sweet Relief from the Everyday Narcissist (2012).
Both offer all kinds of advice and insight, and all of it is practical and helpful for dealing with real-world situations and problems caused by narcissists and their behaviors. I won't attempt to summarize it all here, but if you're wondering what the key to this "sweet relief" is, it's really quite simple.
Pay attention to yourself instead.
Because believe it or not, the dynamic that the narcissist needs to thrive will function only so long as you pay attention to the narcissist and respond to his/her words and behaviors. To change your life, you have to change the dynamic--which is easier said than done, obviously.
In the narcissist's mindset, the worst thing imaginable is being... ignored. Or considered simply average and not all that interesting. Treated as someone who's basically just like the rest of us. No better and no worse.
In the long run, narcissists will always prove to be pretty ineffectual, once you stop playing their game.
Because really, life isn't a game. It isn't about being right or winning the argument.
It's about realizing that not everything is always about you.