How is it that he is just so full of himself? Why is it that everything is always all about her? There’s so much self-absorption these days that it’s dizzying. Seems like experts — on just about everything — surround us. People who know it all, get it right, and never think twice about what they leave in their wake. They are legends in their own minds.
And they’re everywhere.
We need some straight talk about narcissism.
The Tale of Narcissus
You’ve heard the story, right? The Greek myth about the gorgeous young hunter who was mesmerized by his own image when he saw it reflected in a pool of water. So focused on getting what he wanted, and grabbing that image, that he stopped at nothing. To the point of exhaustion. To his own end.
This was a guy who thought he should have had it all.
Narcissus lived for himself, for his enjoyment, and for his own success. He gave to no one, and loved no one. Not even the lovely nymphs who did everything to seduce him. They needed him more than he needed them.
But for every narcissist, there comes a moment of crisis
It comes when they’re confronted with their own need.
For Narcissus, it came at the moment that he reached out for his own reflection in a pool and it dissolved. No matter how hard he tried, it slipped out of his grasp. He couldn’t believe he couldn’t get what he wanted … to the point that he wouldn’t stop til he keeled over in exhaustion.
His need just killed him.
Talk about being out of balance…
Narcissists are always out of balance.
But wait a minute.
What are we really talking about when we say narcissist? It’s all over the media these days. Is it someone who does something here and there that is sort of narcissistic — something a little selfish … or a little overblown (just a little) … or maybe something that shows little regard for other people’s feelings or needs? Or is it someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Because they just aren’t the same thing at all.
What is Narcissism Anyway?
Narcissism is a character trait — one of many — and the actions or behaviors that display that trait are called narcissistic. If your ex is full of himself, constantly needs stroking, and doesn’t seem to care about you or what you need … it’s a good thing that he’s your ex.
If you’re healthy and well-rounded, you have a variety of traits that make up you. And you can’t help but display them in your everyday life. You can be careful, conscientious, generous, kind. Flirty maybe, impulsive … indecisive. Just plain lovable. Flexible. Compassionate. You’re 360.
And so if you sometimes do something and need an atta-boy, if you’re thrilled with a win, or sometimes a little too delighted with yourself … we forgive you. So you have a narcissistic moment … a moment when an action (here and there) in someone who is otherwise well-rounded and delightful may seem selfish and self-promoting. We all have these moments.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
But some people have not moments, but days, weeks, months, and years, where this pattern is their prime modus operandi. Where narcissism is all they show. Where there’s no 360. There’s only 1. No matter what the setting, no matter who gets hurt, no matter how ridiculous . . . no matter if the formula (grandiosity + manipulation + lack of empathy) becomes so overused in so many inappropriate ways that what used to work just stops working for them.
Often to the point that they become completely enmeshed in a pathological tangle of self-promotion, insecurity, and disregard for others.
Know anyone like that?
A study of a large population conducted in 2009 determined what size segment of the US population might suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The conclusion was that approximately 6% demonstrate full criteria for this disorder, but many more struggle with the load of these symptoms without fully exhibiting all the diagnostic criteria.
People with full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder can be very difficult to deal with at times. They may come across as “know-it-all’s” or behave with such off-putting superiority that you’re left crushed, seething, or wanting to run screaming in the other direction.
Straight Talk About Narcissism
But, the surprising truth is that people with this disorder use these symptoms to shield their own crippling and painful shame and insecurity. It’s not at all easy to see that underneath because the force of their outward personality can be so overbearing.
And keep in mind, when I say they “use” these symptoms, it’s not a conscious action or habit. Their painful shame is so deep-seated, they’ve subconsciously developed these outward behaviors to protect themselves from the pain … and they don’t even realize it. About 50-75% of them are men.
Big thick wall. Itty-bitty little person inside.
I bet you know one. Let’s call him Brett.
- He probably likes to be the center of attention. Brett’s driven to talk about himself and typically over-embellishes and exaggerates his accomplishments. It’s like little white lies are woven into the fabric of every story he tells about himself. He’s always painting himself as the best, the most popular, the most successful, the most trusted of anyone in the story.
- Brett may be a little too quick to offer advice, when you didn’t even ask for it. He shows himself as pretty much being “in the know” about just about anything. He may talk about himself and his “insider” knowledge to appear more sophisticated than you are… or than anyone else. In doing that, it shores up his over-inflated ego (which is necessary for his survival) — but makes others feel inferior.
- Brett is offended if he’s not given preferential treatment in just about every circumstance. He detests waiting in line, is infuriated if his beer glass isn’t thoroughly frosted in a restaurant, and as far as he’s concerned, every waiter is slow and lazy. No matter what his need, Brett demands it be met instantly. His ambition skyrockets, he expects everything to revolve around him, and he lives with an undying sense of entitlement throughout his life.
- Some people dream of accomplishing great things, and enthusiastically work like crazy to accomplish their dreams. Brett feels it’s his destiny. He believes he’s just better than others, and prefers to socialize and do business only with those he considers among the elite. It’s clear to him that he’s naturally more special, and as part of the elite class he interacts with, he deserves only the best. This grandiosity is a classic symptom of narcissists, and so is his habit to belittle those who don’t have the status symbols he has.
- He has a knack for making certain people feel important — when it suits his agenda. His relationships advance quickly, and romance is an intoxicating whirlwind. The trouble is, this lavishing of compliments and charm has a hidden flip-side. Once Brett’s won your loyalty, the criticism begins, and he expects you to keep him on a pedestal that you reinforce daily. If you criticize or question him, you’ll get tossed out like yesterday’s garbage. Or fired.
- Competitive sports are fun for most people, but for Brett the competitive drive exists to prove his dominance. He MUST win. He must show he’s superior. By the same token, this profound sense of competition makes it so hard for him to share in a loved one’s success. His loved one’s beautiful home, nice car, or triumph at work is hard for him to applaud because it threatens his own dominance.
- For Brett, holding a grudge is his knee jerk reaction to any perceived insult or oversight … and that grudge puts the offender on the garbage heap of eternal contempt. Sadly, because of his deep insecurity and feelings of shame, the infraction can be as simple as someone not noticing his presence and saying hello. The term, “wearing their feelings on their cuff” is a constant for these individuals, and their reactions to those around them can result in their being held at bay socially, leaving them lonely.
- And there’s more than holding a grudge. As for himself, Brett doesn’t accept responsibility for a mistake. If you know someone like this, you probably have learned that anything that goes wrong is blamed on someone else who was “stupid” or a “poor excuse of a…” doctor, CPA, wife, husband…whatever… just fill in the blank. Their own shaky sense of self can’t bear the burden of an admitted failure, so being wrong about anything slides off people like Brett like butter off hot teflon.
- Along the same line, Brett’s feelings are fragile. He’s easily hurt, and can’t bear feeling rejected. Rejection is terrible for most people, but for Brett, it proves that he’s as worthless as he secretly believes he is. So his reaction to perceived rejection is likely extreme, and possibly even violent. It’s just too much for him to bear.
- One last hallmark of Brett’s disorder is that he uses people as needed for his purposes. Since he views everything from the perspective of how it affects him or has meaning for him, it’s easy for him to miss how he takes advantage of others. Brett is unable to put himself in the shoes of another…to feel that person’s emotions or discomfort. So he’s unable to feel what he’s done to to someone else — but at the same time he expects everyone to feel and be at the ready to remedy his own situation. Beyond that, any obstacle in his way to getting what he wants has to be remove…through manipulation or bullying…whatever it takes.
It’s easy to see why someone with this disorder might have difficulty building satisfying relationships. If you’ve grown up with or lived with someone who sounds like Brett, you may benefit from therapy, too. The atmosphere and dynamics for anyone who’s grown up with, or lives with, or works with a narcissist is often confusing and may feel abusive. It’s a complicated tangle, and you may need your own support to unravel it.
To the emerging and healing of your best self,
Lori Calabrese, M.D.