Narcissism has been a hot topic in recent years, with many books written on the subject. And interest in Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in particular skyrocketed in advance of the news that the most current edition of the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by mental health professionals (DSM-V, released May, 2013) would be dropping the disorder as an official diagnostic category. Heightened interest in NPD as well as concern and even some outrage over the DSM committee’s decision might well have been expected because even without official recognition as a distinct and valid diagnostic category, anyone who has ever had to deal with a person warranting the label knows NPD to be both a very real and extremely hard to deal with personality disorder.
NPD is not the first personality disorder to be “demoted” from official status, nor is it likely to be the last. Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder met the same fate when one of the earlier editions of the diagnostic manual was published. And of the conditions that have “disappeared” from the fully accepted list, many have done so for the same reasons: 1) the growing realization of the flaws inherent in traditional psychology theories (theories based on the concept of neurosis) and the declining influence of those theories within the professional and research communities with regard to understanding personality; and, 2) confusion and division among mental health professionals (especially those closely aligned with the “medical model”) with regard to the defining characteristics of certain conditions, especially personality disturbances and disorders (I address the confusion many mental health professionals helped perpetuate for years regarding passive-aggressive vs. covert-aggressive personalities in my book In Sheep’s Clothing). Last week’s article highlighted some of the bad advice that’s still being disseminated fairly widely with regard to narcissists and how to deal with them (see: How To Deal With A Narcissist). Both this and next week’s article will provide you some information that will help you better understand who these folks really are, what really makes them tick, and how to maximally empower yourself should you find yourself in some kind of relationship with them.
We all start out in life as narcissists. That is, from infancy through early childhood, we tend to think the world revolves around us and around our desires (Notice, I did not say needs because not all of our “desires” represent true physical or emotional “needs”). And we tend to gravitate toward the people, places, and things that we think will satisfy those desires and reject or distance ourselves from those that don’t. A big part of developing a mature, decent character has to do with overcoming our natural egocentrism and coming to a mental and emotional place where we can truly value, empathize with, and have consideration for the rights, needs, and desires of others. But some people never sufficiently develop such a capacity, and there are many reasons for this, including: an inherent inability to empathize, the experience of being over-valued, the experience of cultivating too much power too early (as is often the case within a dysfunctional family system), a cultural environment that promotes and rewards attitudes of entitlement, and the experience of being overly recognized and rewarded for one’s innate talents and traits as opposed to being credited for the willingness to display pro-social attitudes and behaviors. And that’s why, in my book Character Disturbance, so many of the “Ten Commandments” I advocate for building good character focus on correcting these narcissism-fostering factors.
Most people start thinking about changing the way they relate to a narcissist long after life with them has already become unbearable. And in part this is due to the fact that early on in the development of a relationship a person can completely misperceive (or be deceived about) the narcissist’s true nature. I’ll give you an example: Tom, as I’ll call him, seemed to simply adore Jane. In fact, he appeared to love her even more than he loved his 1965 restored Corvette, and everyone knew how much he loved that car. He and the car were virtually inseparable in that he spent almost every waking minute with it and pampering it – conditioning the leather seats, polishing the chrome, buffing the daily coat of wax to a see-yourself-in-it shine, etc. But once Jane caught his eye, and perhaps for the first time in his life, Tom started spending less time with his car and centering his attentions on Jane. Tom thought Jane one of the most beautiful creatures he’d ever laid eyes on and he doted on her, often sending her flowers, buying her trinkets, and giving her gift certificates to some of the most upscale clothing stores. He had her on his arm at a variety of social events and sung her praises so openly that Jane was both flattered and overwhelmed to the point of near embarrassment with what seemed his deep appreciation for her. It wasn’t until Tom began criticizing Jane for “not caring enough” to look her very best when they went out (after all, this would reflect negatively on him and his image as a person of stature and influence in the community) and picking out her clothes himself that she began to suspect the superficiality of what she once regarded as his “appreciation” of both her and her appearance. And when he began trying to control who she could associate with, she began to feel treated much like he treated his car (which she, among others, was not allowed to touch without permission!) – a possession he adored and protected in some ways, but a possession nonetheless. Later, Jane would learn that Tom’s early “adoration” wasn’t really about her at all but rather about him and the how it made him look to have successfully snagged such a beautiful person. Everyone would look at him and think: “Wow, those classic cars, a beautiful woman, that gorgeous house, and good looks himself besides – boy, does that guy have it all!” Jane would also eventually come to realize that despite all the attention and passion Tom displayed, he did not and could not really love her. In fact, he didn’t really even love his car. Narcissists love only themselves and all those things they see as “extensions” of themselves. Fortunately, Jane realized all this early enough to save herself a lot of heartache. And while for a time she found herself missing the attention and adulation, she knew she was probably saving her sanity when she gave Tom the boot.
The time to test the degree of genuine regard someone has for you as a person and for your needs, wants, and feelings, is long before the effects of their flattery start to wear off. Deep down, most of us want to be loved, not adored. And we want to be cherished, not possessed. So it’s incumbent upon us to “test” those we’re thinking about becoming intimately involved with for certain important aspects of character and to make sure they pass the test before proceeding. Getting involved with a person with narcissistic traits or features of any other character disturbance follows a predictable course and usually results in disaster. So the time to take action is very early on, which is difficult for most “neurotic” folks because they’re typically so overly conscientious and hesitant to make harsh judgments. And remember that lots of things can appear like love and appreciation on the surface, which is why you always have to scratch below the surface and test both how genuine and how mature and healthy someone’s regard for you really is. Just because someone shows high interest in you doesn’t mean they really value you. And just because they might shower you with affection doesn’t mean they really care about you and your welfare. When it comes to someone’s character, the things that really matter must be tested well and over a period of time. And when warning signs do appear, we owe it to ourselves to pay them heed.
Everyone knows that you don’t always have good warnings about someone’s character (because of their skill in the arts of deception and impression-management), and sometimes you find yourself in situations where you simply don’t have a choice about whether to be involved in some way with a narcissist or otherwise character-disturbed person (e.g., a narcissistic boss, supervisor, or co-worker, relative, neighbor, etc.). Next week’s article will focus on the best ways to empower yourself in situations in which in you have no choice but to be involved in some way with a narcissist.
I’ll have more to say on narcissism on my Character Matters program this Sunday night. And in the coming weeks I’ll have some information on a new discussion forum centering on the principles in my book The Judas Syndrome.