If you're living with a narcissist, you need to be able to recognize the traits and understand what is a narcissist’s motivation
According to mythology, Narcissus was a self-centered man whose love of himself becomes so overwhelming that he wastes away, leaving only a flower named after himself. In real life, however, narcissists often stick around and leave emotional suffering and confusion in their wake. Learning to recognize narcissistic traits and make sense of their actions can help you to break through the confusion. Let’s start by answering the core question: What is a narcissist?
Version 5 of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as one of 10 personality disorders. The characteristics that make up the definition of narcissism include:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance
- A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
- A need for excessive admiration
- A sense of entitlement
- Interpersonally exploitive behavior
- A lack of empathy
- Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her
- A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes
In order to support a diagnosis of NPD, an individual would need to demonstrate at least five of these nine characteristics. A study from 2008 found that an estimated 6.2 percent of the population was found to have experienced NPD at some point in their lives.
In the psychological community, there are some that push for a more nuanced vision of the disorder, approaching narcissism on a scale recognizing healthy self-esteem as the median and the extremes in either direction as problematic. This definition posits that narcissism can be a response to either an overabundance or lack of self-esteem. They recognize two distinct forms of narcissism:
Overt narcissism: This is the textbook definition of the narcissist, outgoing, arrogant and dismissive of others. They appear happier, more extroverted and emotionally stable, which results in the ability to make casual friendships easily.
Covert Narcissism: Also called introvert, hypersensitive or closet narcissists, covert narcissists replace the grandiosity of the overt narcissist with a quiet sense of smug superiority. The covert narcissist is quiet, and can be polite and respectful when interacting with others, but still possesses a core belief in their inherent superiority covering a crippling fear of outside criticism. A covert narcissist is perfectly willing to become manipulative in order to maintain a feeling of control.
Recognizing the signs of narcissism
While it’s fine for the psychologists to argue among themselves about the subtleties of the clinical definition, people have to rely upon their own experiences to identify narcissistic symptoms.
A narcissist will exhibit:
- A sense of superiority
- The expectation of recognition despite the lack of supporting achievements
- An unquenchable need for attention and validation
- The expectation of perfection from others
- A need to be in control of everything
- The refusal to take any responsibility
- A disregard for other people’s boundaries
- A lack of consideration for other’s feelings
- The use of emotional reasoning
- Difficulty communicating or working with others
- Seemingly magical thinking about their future success and recognition
- A willingness to use others
- An insistence on taking the best for themselves
These symptoms can result in problematic behaviors, including:
- Impatience or anger when they feel they aren’t being treated as they deserve
- Significant difficulty interacting with others
- A tendency to take offense easily
- Belittling others to make themselves feel superior
- Difficulty controlling their emotions and behavior
- Inability to handle stress and adapt to change
- Depression and moodiness over their own imperfections
- Secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability or humiliation
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Suicidal thoughts or actions
Because of the lack of empathy associated with the disorder, the narcissist won’t necessarily understand why anyone else would have a problem with these behaviors.
Testing for narcissism
Of course, people can display several of these traits without qualifying for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, and in the age of Internet-induced hypochondria, it's easy to find narcissists everywhere.
The standard method of diagnosing NPD is to take the narcissism personality index, a 40-question survey. The test asks you to compare two statements and decide which more accurately represents you. Interestingly, the questions are very straightforward and it would be very easy to choose the ‘right’ answer to avoid a diagnosis. Narcissists typically see no problem with their self-absorption and therefore ironically tend to self-identify anyway.
The standard treatment for NPD is psychotherapy, with a focus on:
- Accepting and maintaining stronger interpersonal relationships
- Learning to gauge actual competence to address core fears
- Improving emotional awareness and self-control
- Recognizing and evaluating issues pertaining to self-esteem
- Constructing a realistic vision of goals and how they can be achieved
Unfortunately, the willingness to self-identify their narcissism also makes the narcissist very difficult to treat. Since narcissists see nothing wrong with their behavior, they also see no need to work towards change, and will often quit treatment when they start to feel uncomfortable or judged. In some instances, the narcissist will enter into treatment symbolically, for its effect on others rather than a genuine interest in getting better.
Living with a narcissist
The fear driving the narcissist can push them to verbal or physical abuse of others, and the use of emotional manipulation to control the people closest to them. This can devolve into a nightmare of uncertainty and doubt for people living with the narcissist, leaving them to ask; “Am I crazy?” It can take years to sort out the impact.
If you have to deal with a narcissist you will need to:
- Recognize the behaviors as narcissism: Learn to understand the patterns of behaviors, and how they look from the outside.
- Understand the narcissist: We all have a certain degree of self-esteem, and the narcissist just has a problem. Try to appreciate this, and not blame the person for their behaviors.
- Manage your self-esteem: Being around a narcissist will feel like an assault. Be ready for it!
- Offer compliments: Narcissists crave attention, and will accept compliments as such.
- Avoid criticizing: Be very careful of seeming critical, as it will be interpreted as an attack.
Because of the nature of narcissism, and the narcissist’s unwillingness to see themselves as part of the problem, often the only realistic way of living with a narcissist is not to. The only reliable way to manage the turmoil caused by the narcissist is to avoid the person at all costs.
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