by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
Every few years there seems to be a diagnosis that everyone is pinning on someone else. The past few years it’s been narcissism. Since the main focus of my practice is, and almost always has been, relationship breakups, I hear about this a lot.
As someone who was a psychiatric clinician for years I am always hesitant to write about psychiatric disorders because I believe that diagnosis is a very difficult thing and even well-trained and well-qualified people can and do get it wrong.
So the information posted here is not ammunition to go out and say to someone, “You’re a narcissist.” because for one, it’s not okay to do that, second, untreated narcissists don’t CARE what anyone thinks or says (but in an unhealthy way, not in an “I have boundaries” way) and third, the information on narcissism is for you to decide if you’re involved with a narcissist (clinical or just pretty close to clinical) and if so, what to do about it.
In my books, Getting Past Your Breakup (GPYB) and Getting Back Out There (GBOT), I write that there are only 3 responses to any situation: accept it, change it or leave. I usually tell people you can try to change something but if you can’t, you can only accept it or leave. When it comes to people who are Cluster B personality disordered (narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths), there is only one answer: LEAVE. You can accept they are disordered, accept they are NEVER changing and accept that you need to PROTECT yourself! But it still comes down to LEAVE.
One of the issues I find with writing about personality disorders (and as an attorney and a therapist, I’m currently writing a book about divorcing/co-parenting someone with a personality disorder), is that many times untrained people use a little bit of information to do a lot of damage. So I try to impress upon people, this is just to help you understand what you are / were dealing with. Not to have you try to save anyone but yourself.
This article does not try to be “fair” to narcissists in that some are in treatment and I venture a guess that it is a SMALL portion of the narcissistic population. This article is for the victims of narcissists who think they have done something wrong and are trying desperately to “make up for it” or to figure out how to make things right. If a person is a true untreated narcissist, there is NOTHING you can do but leave.
I’m sorry that there are those who think this article is HARSH toward narcissists but it’s truthful and based on 25 years of being a therapist and 15 years of being an attorney and seeing, in both the therapeutic milieu and the courtroom, what narcissists do to people. This article is for those people. It’s not “fair and balanced,” and doesn’t purport to be. It’s to help the abused victims of narcissists, not to be sympathetic, empathetic or kind to abusing narcissists. If you’re looking for that kind of article, this isn’t it. If you don’t think there are enough “fair and balanced” articles that take the feelings of narcissists into account, go write one.
Most people in the general population have varying degrees of self-esteem/ego/narcissism: low self-esteem, fair self-esteem, good self-esteem, inflated ego, enlarged ego, overly inflated large ego. Some people can seem massively selfish and self-centered and act very narcissistic and yet, not be clinically narcissistic.
Narcissistic personality disorder usually begins by early adulthood and is marked by disregard for the feelings of others, grandiosity, obsessive self-interest, and the pursuit of primarily selfish goals.
Not every narcissist has all of these traits but most have most of them. The ones that have to do with relating to others are signs of an unhealthy person (one you should not be in a relationship with) so if someone you know has it, that is not a healthy person. Even if not truly narcissistic, they are very dysfunctional in the relationship sphere and most likely can’t be helped because they don’t want to be.
There are OTHER symptoms of true clinical narcissism but I’m focusing on the ones that have to do with the ability to be in a relationship.
The signs of a narcissist: bullying, gaslighting, insulting, withholding, blaming are all traits in a person that do not lend themselves to a healthy relationship. If you’re in a relationship with ANYONE who has these traits, it’s abusive and you need to get out. They’re not changing. These are highly disordered people even if they don’t meet the clinical standard for a true personality disorder. So use this information wisely: to gauge your relationships and what you need to do in the future.
Is He or She A Narcissist?
- The narcissist SEEMS to have an exaggerated sense of self-importance and considers himself superior by exaggerating achievements and talents. (But it’s really covering up deep insecurities). They demand an inordinate amount of attention and it’s never quite enough. When they act out or become abusive, it’s because their partner did not give them enough attention (or so they say).
- The narcissist reacts to any kind of criticism (even seemingly small) with anger. Will often lash out to shame or humiliate the person who criticized. They will criticize you (sometimes endlessly) stating they are just trying to make you “better,” but the least little criticism from you will send them into orbit.
When the narcissist mistreats you, it’s your fault. Again, this is a bad trait in anyone. If your partner is blaming you for his or her bad behavior or gaslighting you (If you don’t know what that is, I wrote an article on that HERE), this is not someone who is capable of a healthy relationship.
- They don’t talk a lot about memories or important times of their lives. Sharing the past and nice and pleasant memories and experiences is a hallmark of intimate relationships. You will almost NEVER hear a narcissist wax nostalgic. If they do recount the past, it’s not with any kind of feeling.
- One trait of a narcissist is a capacity for “meanness.” They can be “schoolyard bully” level mean as an adult – jeering /patronizing / haughty/ hateful / insulting. As an adult, it comes across as immature and spiteful. This “schoolyard bully” syndrome is more than just sarcasm or insults; it’s a way of communicating and belittling others that crosses the line of fairness and many times, decency. They pick on others as a child picks on a younger sibling.
- The most telling sign of a true narcissist is the lack of empathy. Almost everyone can exhibit selfish and/or narcissistic tendencies from time to time but the complete inability to really relate to other people or to act, most of the time, as if there is anyone else on planet Earth, is what defines a true narcissist. They honestly have no capacity for compassion or good will. It’s truly frightening.
- They are incapable of compassion because they are void of emotional depth. They are quick to anger with little to no emotional control (all the while excusing their bad behavior on those that anger them). They are also deficient in genuine feelings of sadness and mournful longing. They are incapable of depressive or melancholy reactions. When abandoned or disappointed, it manifests as anger loaded with vengeful wishes rather than real disappointment.
- The narcissist never loves or falls in love (though they claim to) and doesn’t really love anyone or anything. The narcissist cannot idealize any individual for too long. As soon as an idealized person responds to the narcissist, that person loses his or her value. The narcissist is purely exploitative in his relationship with others. Groucho Marx used to say, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” THAT is a narcissist. As soon as you show your admiration or affection for a narcissist, they have NO use for you…you are defective. One example is a man who leaves his wife for his mistress and then suddenly, everything is wrong with the mistress. The mistress (usually younger and beautiful) was a prize but now she’s someone who fell for the empty shell and is, many times, just discarded.
Another reason they are deficient in relationships is that they rarely listen when others are talking. They might seem like they are HEARING the other person, but they’re not listening.
One tell-tale sign of narcissism is talking about a partner’s parts or features rather than the person as a whole. This is a method of denigration. By dismembering that person into body parts, they deny the importance of the person as a whole. This isn’t the same as a partner complimenting you on one body part. The narcissist does it to an extreme…always, it seems, breaking someone into parts. This is a big hallmark of female narcissists….talking about her partner’s big ears or ugly feet and never saying things like, “He’s a good guy…” (speaking to the “whole” being)
- They almost NEVER tell the truth. Narcissists tend to lie. A lot. They often contradict themselves and then get angry at anyone who points that out to them. They put others in lose-lose situations. As time goes on in a relationship, it becomes almost constant. The partner, unaware that he or she will never win, has become so focused on trying to do things “right,” that they are unable to step back and realize what is going on. The narcissist keeps them off their pins so they can’t ever regroup long enough to think, “What is going on here?”
The narcissist will tell you what you are thinking or feeling and never listen to you when you deny it. At the same time, they will give you versions of some event you’re arguing over that doesn’t even come CLOSE to reality. They will say things like, “You did that to make me look like an idiot.” when you didn’t do what they are accusing you of OR you didn’t do it with malicious intentions and didn’t think, at the time, there was any problem with what you were doing.
It’s not just lying…it’s about almost living in an alternate universe. They make up situations to argue about, seemingly out of whole cloth, and you feel confused most of the time. They will say, “Why are you looking at me like that?” or, driving home after a gathering, “Why did you give me a dirty look when I was talking about…” and the partner will, many times, have NO idea what they are referring to and then they’re off to the races….arguing over things that never happened.
The narcissist lives in a state of almost hyperarousal, bordering on paranoid. They think you gave them a dirty look and now you have to explain yourself even though you don’t remember a dirty look or even looking at them when they were talking. It’s an endless parade of made-up slights you have supposedly directed at them and you’re going to talk about it whether you like it or not. No sense in denying it, they will insist it happened and want to know why.
Many partners of narcissists become “stuck” at this point, searching for a way to show the narcissist that they truly care and want what is best for them and the relationship. But you can turn yourself inside out, stand on your head and spit nickels and the narcissist will NEVER acknowledge it. It’s a permanent no-win situation.
Now that you have this information, what do you DO with it?
The important thing to know if you’re with a narcissist, there is only one solution: GET OUT. They are never going to change. If you’ve been with one, you have healing to do. You have to step back and look at your relationship and the patterns and realize the early red flags and signs so that you don’t get fooled again. Figure out what IN YOU needs to change: did you give too many chances? Too much benefit of the doubt? Did you not share with people what was going on? Did you lose sight of your life? Did you get so caught up in the narcissistic nightmare you never had time to step back and figure out what was happening?
People who are attracted to narcissists are usually people who were raised by a narcissistic parent (requiring the other parent to be a doormat of sorts). Normal, healthy people can tolerate narcissists for about two minutes before they are on their way. The injured and broken of the world tend to gravitate toward narcissists who will continue the poor treatment that the injured and broken know so well.
Being involved with a narcissist is a sign that something is wrong. Something in you needs to change. It’s nothing to feel guilty about or ashamed about. It happens. If you have had a narcissistic parent or a pattern of relationships, get into therapy, read Codependent No More, Women Who Love Too Much and other books.
In Getting Past Your Breakup and Getting Back Out There, there are Relationship Inventories and Life Inventories. IT’s so important to look at your relationship and your patterns to avoid them in the future.
Most importantly, know that there is NOTHING you can do to change someone with a personality disorder. It’s time to STEP OUT OF THE DANCE.
If you must Co-parent with them, you must have good boundaries and never ever back down on them. As I recommend in my books regarding setting boundaries with kids, if you realize you should have been more flexible with them after initially saying “no,” maintain the NO even if you’ve had second thoughts. A wavering will not be seen as compromise or flexibility. It will be seen as weakness. Set good boundaries, do not let them bully you, and ignore and/or say no a lot. And never ever ever waver in your boundaries.
By understanding that someone is a narcissist is to understand there is NOTHING you can do with them or for them. They will continue to be abusive toward you and you have to learn GOOD BOUNDARIES. Read the literature on narcissists but don’t (I repeat: DON’T) read it with an eye toward “how can I change this person?” because chances are you CANNOT. Read it with an eye toward: “What do I need to do for me to get out of this or to get over this or to change this once and for all?” And then do it.
There is recovery after relationships with narcissists. There really is.
You can do it.
Copyright 2007-2017 Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
All Rights Reserved No Duplication is Allowed Without Explicit Permission of the Author
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