It’s Week 5 of our exploration into mental illness and its impact on dating and relationships. Or I guess it’s Article 5, since I missed last week (bad Christie). So far, we’ve covered anxiety, social anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Today, we’ll cover something different, something that’s common in our culture, that has no known biological origins (unlike the other disorders), and that is extremely resistant to treatment. Have you guessed what it is yet?
According to Psychology Today, those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) show grandiosity, a lack of empathy for others, and a need for admiration. They’re often described as arrogant, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. They may have grandiose fantasies of their own success, beauty, and brilliance, and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment because they’re superior or special. People with NPD seek excessive admiration and attention, and they have difficulty tolerating criticism or defeat.
Narcissistic personality disorder is indicated by five or more of the following symptoms:
- Exaggerates own importance
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence or ideal romance
- Believes he or she is special and can only be understood by other special people or institutions
- Requires constant attention and admiration from others
- Has unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment
- Takes advantage of others to reach his or her own goals
- Disregards the feelings of others, lacks empathy
- Is often envious of others or believes other people are envious of him or her
- Shows arrogant behaviors and attitudes
If you ask anyone who’s had a boss, parent, or partner with NPD, they’ll tell you that this list doesn’t do justice to how difficult, painful, and damaging these people can be. Narcissists are an utter nightmare to live with because they have no ability to empathize or relate to others. Everything is about them. They will do anything to ensure they get what they want and that they protect their fragile egos, even if it means screwing over anyone in their lives, including their family members.
I could go on an on about people with NPD, but you’d probably find it more useful to do a Google search on NPD or pick up a couple books on the topic (here’s a list to check out). In general, people with NPD are destructive to be around. They’re a scourge on society like sociopaths are. When it comes to having an intimate relationship with someone with NPD, the answer is: DON’T. If you’ve already been there, you know what I mean. If you ARE there, get out as soon as possible. And get help from a therapist. Seriously. If the narcissist is a coworker, family member, or someone you can’t necessarily cut out of your life, do your research on narcissism, seek help, and learn to cope without losing your mind. Dealing with people with NPD requires special care, and the usual techniques that work with other difficult people won’t fly.
But I don’t want to focus on NPD today. I want to talk about something more common, which is people who don’t necessarily have NPD but have narcissistic traits.
The Person with “Narcissistic Traits”
In my life, I’ve know some people with NPD. Not many, but some. However, I’ve met a LOT of people with narcissistic traits. What do I mean by this? First, it’s important to point out that all humans are a little narcissistic. We see everything in terms of how it affects us. When we look at a group photo, the first person we look for is ourselves. When we pass a mirror, we check out our appearance. When the boss mentions a bad employee who screwed up (or a good one who rocks), we wonder if they mean us. We love compliments and hate criticism. This is why narcissism is hard to pin down — we all have a little.
However, some have too much. If you view narcissistic traits on a spectrum from mild to severe, the average person is mild and the person with NPD is severe. But what about those in the middle? I bring them up because they’re surprisingly common but harder to identify because they can be good AND bad.
So what am I talking about here? I’m talking about people who need more attention than the rest of us. Who are more resistant to criticism than the rest of us, yet are quick to dole it out. Who brag about themselves while cutting down others more than the rest of us. Who blame others for problems while showing no ability to recognize their own flaws, who feel entitled to have their way while not caring about what others need, who are very into their looks, who want to be the best at everything, who look down on others they perceive as “lesser,” more than we do. They’re the people who can’t relate to how others feel, but want everyone to acknowledge their feelings. They may seek power and money and status (narcissism is common among politicians and Hollywood types), more than us. They may talk about themselves endlessly but take no interest in us. They may take from us and never give back. They may brag but not have the goods to back up their bragging, and then flip out if you call them on it.
They may do some of these things but not all. They may do them sometimes, and then flip-flop and not do them. They may alternate utter self-absorption with giving and caring. They may be great in some ways, awful in others. You never quite know, in my experience. What you do know is that, while no one is perfect and everyone’s a little self-absorbed, these people, even if not NPD, are more narcissistic than others we know. And that makes them difficult to deal with.
And here’s the thing. Like with most psychopathology, when you grow up around narcissistic people, it seems normal to you, even comfortable. And if you aren’t aware of it, you’ll develop some of these traits yourself or find friends or partners who have them. Then you have your own family and perpetuate the cycle. At least according to what we know now, narcissism (unlike most psychopathology) is a learned behavior.
Narcissists often suffered as kids. They’re often wounded by parents or caregivers, either through criticism or abuse. At the same time, many are overindulged as well. For example, one narcissistic woman I know had a horrible, abusive, narcissistic father. In an attempt to compensate for Asshole Dad, Mom overindulged the kids by never making them cook, clean, work, or make any contribution, even well into their adulthood. A narcissistic guy I know was worshiped by his doting mother who thought he was brilliant (admittedly, he was pretty smart), while nothing he did measured up to narcissistic Dad’s impossible standards. Another woman I know had an alcoholic mother who abused and then neglected her, and was then overindulged by Grandma. Yet another had parents who paid little attention to her, simultaneously showing her little love while letting her run wild. See a pattern here? There’s too much damage through abuse or neglect, and not enough good things like love and discipline.
Relationships with Those with Narcissistic Traits
Needless to say, relationships with these people can be difficult. It’s hard to have a relationship with someone who’s self-absorbed, who doles out criticism but can’t take any, who needs to be worshipped, who lacks empathy. Why? Because these traits are anathema to healthy relationships. Relationships require putting someone else’s needs on equal ground to yours. They require learning to see things from others’ point of view, and learning to accept feedback and make changes. They require giving as much as you get. Relationships with narcissistic people can be one-way, and one-way relationships do not work. The person getting less out of the relationship will eventually grow resentful.
The good thing is that these partial narcissistic types can change. (People with NPD usually don’t, although they can mellow with age). They have enough healthy traits to use as a foundation for improvement. It’s the job of their friends and their loved ones to set up boundaries with them. You want to be tough and tender with these people, and knowing which to do when it tricky as hell. What I’ve learned is to be kind in your words, but strict in your actions. I’ve learned the hard way that criticism doesn’t work with these people (criticism is often a bad idea with most people, but that’s a different topic for a different day). You have to gently say, “Hey, X bothers me and here’s why.” You have to ask for what you want, and hold them accountable.
I know one woman (an extended family member) with narcissistic traits who used to interrupt and talk over me, criticize aspects of my appearance, and talk endlessly about herself. I would jump all over her shit for it, and she would offer the classic narcissistic response: make excuses and rationalize her behavior. For a while, I just quit talking to her. Eventually, I began to see cracks in her armor and understand more about her (her mother was terribly abusive and narcissistic herself, for starters). I eventually forgave the occasional interruption or would just say, “Hold on, let me finish” when she interrupted. If she made a remark about my messy hair, I would just say, “I don’t need to hear that,” rather than chastising her bad manners. If she rambled too long about herself, I would change the subject or say I had to go. With time, she began to change. Harping on her sent a message, but it was a certain level of understanding mixed with setting some boundaries that worked over time.
Whether or not you can have a relationship with someone with narcissistic tendencies depends on a lot of factors: how narcissistic they are, how much insight they have into their own flaws, how willing they are to change, and how tolerant you are to their quirks. You’ll benefit from reading about narcissism and learning to deal with them. But in the end, they have to be willing to grow. If not, wish them luck and move on.
Thoughts on this meaty topic? Experiences? What’s worked and not worked with the narcissists in your life?