Narcissist. A term I see being increasingly tossed around social media sites and blogs to describe people who are essentially self-obsessed. In a world with Google and WebMD constantly at our fingertips, it seems almost all of us are qualified to diagnose someone as a narcissist. With this ever-expanding epidemic comes a growing need to carefully consider just what makes someone a narcissist and how, or if, we should interact with one.
Spoiler Alert: This is going to be a long one, but worth your time if you find yourself in any form of relationship to a narcissist.
We have all encountered someone (or multiple someones) whom we would label a narcissist. There are a number of behaviors that clinicians, therapists and bloggers identify as narcissistic traits. Anyone who exhibits such behaviors therefore must be a narcissist, right? Let’s look at this. Get ready, because I’m about to turn the table on you.
You, dear reader, are a narcissist. That’s right. A self-obsessed, self-loving, self-loathing, my-way-or-the-highway narcissist. And that’s okay. It’s part of your humanness. Stay with me. I’ll prove it to you.
As human beings, we are all inclined to experience life as if we are the absolute frame of reference. Our reality is the only true reality. Our perspective is the only “right” perspective. And we are in this game of life, however charitable and philanthropic we may be, for ourselves. This is not to say that we don’t have periods of true apathy and sacrifice. We most certainly do. Because at the core of our humanness is only the desire to love and be loved. However, our primal instinct is to survive. In a world where there is a near-constant need to survive in the way of familial, educational, social, economic realities and beyond, we always resort back to self-interest.
Let me give you an example. Grief. As human beings, we experience the five stages of grief following a deep loss. But what exactly is grief a response to? Well, loss. Loss of what? Something that we had, that we want, that we no longer have. When we experience loss, such as a break-up, we first deny it. We can’t make sense of it, we feel confused. We refuse to accept that it’s real because we can’t cope. Then we get angry because we can’t cope. Then we beg and plead and barter because we can’t cope. Then we wallow in our sorrow because we can’t cope. Eventually we realize we are powerless and accept the loss. And we find someone else to love. Maybe not as much, maybe not the same way. But we find a new lover, best friend, mentor. We go through this process not because we genuinely love another person and want them to be happy, but because we want them to be with us, even if they aren’t happy. Because ultimately, we are all narcissistic and self-serving.
Now consider the tactics we attach to narcissists. A person we would call a narcissist experiences a loss of power. How do they react? They deny reality. They get angry. They manipulate, beg, plead out of desperation. They get depressed. All because they cannot cope. And eventually, when they come to terms with the reality that despite all of their efforts, they simply cannot change anything, they move on.
Narcissism is not a disease or disorder, in my opinion. Rather, it is an adaptation. This adaptation occurs physiologically, emotionally and behaviorally. It is a natural response that occurs in order for an individual to survive a chronic experience of loss. How extreme the adaptation depends on the extremity of the circumstances which caused it. Typically, we see extreme narcissistic tendencies in individuals who either experienced a chronic absence of love, affection and approval in childhood through either a withholding or abusive nature of the child’s primary caretaker, or the child experienced chronic suppression of his/her individuality and self-expression through excessive control, criticism and coddling. Children subjected to such environments grow up to be adults who experience a chronic sense of powerlessness and the seemingly-appropriate (to them) response to the loss of power. This adaptation also occurs in adulthood in people exposed to chronic stress or abuse, but usually only in people with vulnerability or predisposition to extreme narcissistic attitudes. In either case, narcissists are far more sensitive to ego-injury and low self-esteem in daily life. And because of the loop of victimhood that all human beings play out, narcissists are certainly not exempt and will subconsciously and perpetually recreate situations that leave them feeling powerless in order to play out their role of the suppressed, lonely, unloved child.
Taking a deeper look at how narcissists go from normal, narcissistic human beings to diagnosably NPD, allows us to develop compassion for the tremendous amount of pain and suffering that hides beneath their adaptive behaviors. But are these people truly toxic and how should we interact with them, if at all?
There is no right or wrong answer here. Many experts and pseudo-experts will tell you that someone with extreme narcissistic tendencies is toxic and you must resort to limited or even no contact with the individual. In my opinion, this is an overly callous outlook that deems an individual, someone in an extreme amount of pain and desperate for a love they have never been able to access, merely disposable. And isn’t that our attitude toward relationships in general these days?
Consider the narcissist someone with an emotional handicap. While you may never receive the social support you would in caring for a quadriplegic or someone who is blind, narcissism is essentially a severe, post traumatic stress adaptation in which the individual lacks the actual capacity to connect with others, and not because he or she doesn’t want to. Someone with this adaptation is actually desperate for the very thing they can’t seem to grasp. Imagine a life where you did not have access to others. It’s a type of solitary confinement with no hope of release. That is the state of existence for a narcissist.
Being in relationship with any narcissist is very daunting. All relationships are, as we all function on some level as self-interested, self-obsessed narcissists. But with the extreme behaviors and tendencies of narcissism, life can be overwhelming and unstable. If you are not armed with knowledge, power and a solid self-worth, ongoing exposure to a narcissist can be crippling. How much you are willing to give, and take, is solely up to you. And the truth is, that until an individual has the willingness to acknowledge the cost of this defense mechanism in their life, change is unlikely. If the narcissist in your life indicates a willingness to seek help, know how much courage and vulnerability this takes and do your best to support them in beginning the long and arduous journey of healing. You can find some very helpful and hopeful resources below.
If you are struggling with a narcissist and would like support, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For hopeful resources, click the link below.