In surfing through the possibilities of potential dates on a favorite site years ago, Barbara, divorced, spied a tall, age-appropriate possibility whose witty profile caught her interest. She emailed, he responded and within a day or so they chatted live on the phone. More conversations followed as well as a string of clever emails. She was having fun, he seemed to enjoy himself, and they agreed to meet.
All went well at the first rendezvous. But when he called to plan a second get-together, the first red flag surfaced. In a phone call, he told her he was dating other women and had been seeing one person for several months. “I remember telling this to a friend,” Barbara recalls, who offered a response similar to this: “You can’t go out with him. You don’t see someone who’s seeing someone else.” Barbara responded with a reply, something to the effect, “But he’s so interested in me. I know he’s going to dump the others, and he’s being honest!” The friend didn’t care; she wanted to protect Barbara.
Barbara can now look back and realize how naïve she was. She seriously believed they had quickly developed a strong connection. Long, deep conversations and tons of flattery followed. Communicating with him was intoxicating and fun. He seemed so charismatic, smart, sincere, hilariously funny, and so interested in her. Had she hit the jackpot?
And then it all started to come crashing down. Barbara observed quirky behavior, experienced ghosting, heard what she was convinced were exaggerations and then probable lies, felt uncomfortable with his buckets of compliments that were too over-the-top, and worse--felt dejected as he started to criticize her. The relationship became frustrating and confusing.
Before long, Barbara mentioned all this to one friend over lunch, who quickly said she had had a similar experience and warned Barbara that she was becoming involved with a NARCISSIST! The friend said something to the effect: “Beware of this guy. I was involved with one, and your potential relationship has all the same patterns--and obsessions. You’d be smart to get away now!”
A lightbulb went off, and Barbara’s reporter instincts kicked in. She bought seven books that gave her a crash course in Narcissism, as well as the related and often co-occurring Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Both disorders often exhibit a distorted sense of self, a struggle with anger issues and vacillation between idealizing others and putting them down.
What Barbara read mirrored many of her experiences. It was when she began challenging and questioning his actions and words that the relationship started to unravel. He ghosted her more; ridiculed her. He was never the 2.0 version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, portrayed by Matt Damon, but he was a superb actor. “How could I have missed so many red flags?” Barbara asked Margaret. She knew the answer. She hadn’t. Her gut had warned her multiple times—and early, and the initial flurry of positive traits kept her returning for more of the good stuff, like an addiction. Reading a quote of actress Laura Linney’s about a former boyfriend also stuck in her brain. “Charisma isn’t character.” Barbara decided to make a break, which was far from easy, like sticking with a diet. She looks back on the time as a fantasy romance with equal doses of fun and disappointment.
Barbara’s experience represents an almost text-book example, chronicled in Rebecca Fishbein’s article, “How to know if you’re dating a Narcissist?” in lifehacker.com, an online blog. The piece points out that the Narcissist first places their prey on a pedestal, and later tries to fix the person to make them even “better” since the improvements will reflect well on them. They have no qualms about doing so, because Narcissists feel entitled to make choices without heeding boundaries. During disagreements, they don’t hold back, rarely apologize, manipulate and gaslight their victims. And they can hurt others not just in romantic relationships but in their family and in business. As Stanford Business professor Lee Simmons says in an article published in the April 20, 2020, Stanford Business magazine, “When Narcissistic Leaders Destroy from Within,” Narcissism can adversely affect a business, too: “When the person at the top is malignant and self-serving, unethical behavior cascades through the organization and becomes legitimized.”
What exactly is a Narcissist as defined by two professional psychologists, since the term is bandied about so casually these days as more of them seem to surface—particularly among a younger demographic, according to Peter Gray, Ph.D. in a Jan. 16, 2014, article in “Psychology Today.” Sandy Hotchkiss, PsyD, LCSW, a psychoanalyst in private practice in Southern California, who is author of Why is it Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism specializes in the interpersonal aspects of personality disorders and recovery from relational trauma. She says with so many Narcissists in leadership positions—heads of state, corporate and community leaders and more—we need to understand this topic and to be aware of how they and their decisions impact our lives “rather than bury our heads in the sand.”
Aah, you may begin to think about all those bosses, co-workers, family members, maybe parents and friends, who have Narcissistic tendencies or full- blown Narcissistic personalities. They have wreaked havoc in your life or at least caused great distress at times. They think everything is about them and only them. And rather than just make themselves the center of conversations and activities some of the time, they take center stage often! Seth Menachem, MA, LMFT, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, CA, defines Narcissists as having an “inflated sense of self-importance,” which like all personality disorders exists on a spectrum in the same way autism does.
We asked Menachem and Hotchkiss to help us better understand NPD and BPD. Their edited, condensed answers are below. If you think you’re involved with a Narcissist, we would love to hear your story.
Question: Are there red flags that should cause anybody to stop, pause and think—oh yes, maybe this person is a Narcissist?
Seth Menachem: The first signs of Narcissism are a lack of empathy, a desire for a great deal of admiration and adoration, validation seeking, grandiosity and a sense of entitlement. I think of Narcissists as blowfish, expanding themselves to look as large as possible, while on the inside they're filled with air and empty.
Why might someone be attracted to a Narcissist?
Sandy Hotchkiss: One’s sensitivity to---and tolerance for---a Narcissist seems to be a function of how much the person has endured up to this point in their life. If they grew up with a Narcissistic parent, they are “to the manor born,” and the chances of dating and marrying a Narcissist---and suffering greatly---are better than average because it’s a pattern they’re used to and know.
How can you prevent yourself from exhibiting Narcissistic traits or catch yourself…everyone is a bit Narcissistic, aren’t they?
SH: The more you are aware of your own Narcissism, the healthier you are. We all have some Narcissistic traits, and sometimes it can be a problem, and sometimes it isn’t. If you can own it, laugh about it, or make amends, you are not likely to be pathological. If you can give as well as take---not just things, but time, space, attention---you are fundamentally healthy. If you can treat others as subjects in their own right rather than objects of your internal world, you are fundamentally healthy. If you can accept the limitations that are part of life, and grow old with grace, you are not part of the problem.
Explain more what is healthy versus unhealthy Narcissism?
SH: Healthy Narcissism is a strong, realistic sense of self-regard that enables a person to enjoy their own talents and accomplishments while also acknowledging their limitations and imperfections, accepting criticism, and making amends. Healthy Narcissism is reflected in a positive sense of humor and respect for others, the confidence and courage to pursue personal goals, emotional resilience in the face of adversity, and wisdom. The absence of these hallmarks of mental health in an unhealthy Narcissist can manifest in many ways: people with an unrealistic or inflated sense of self; the inability to accept constructive criticism or apologize sincerely; a shaming sense of humor; lack of respect for personal boundaries; emotional fragility; rigid beliefs.
But when does it become a personality disorder?
SM: With both Narcissism and BPD, there are abandonment issues at play that often were created in childhood. Narcissistic parents view their children as extensions of themselves and as their children develop their own independent identity, opinions, and feelings, there will be a lot of conflict. NPD or BPD often developed in childhood as a way to cope with whatever issues going on in their homes.
SH: A personality disorder is defined as an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible and leads to distress or impairment. Although Sigmund Freud wrote about Narcissism in 1914, it was not recognized as a cultural phenomenon until Christopher Lasch wrote a book titled The Culture of Narcissism in 1986 in which he explains how an individual pathology came to infect an entire society because of the infamously hedonistic Baby Boomer generation.
Narcissists tend to spin a web and trap those who come under their spell. How do you escape?
SM: Again, there are some extremely attractive, initial traits that pull you in--often they're charismatic, charming and bright. That doesn't mean those are traits endemic to Narcissists, but it can be an initial "tell" and a helpful tool in understanding how you've ended up in a relationship with one. As you move past that initial phase, you'll find a glibness to their personality and interpersonal conflict anytime you operate in a way that they don't like.
SH: First, set boundaries on possible future abuse. Be prepared for how very tough this will be. Eliminate the Narcissists when you can. The fewer you have to contend with, the healthier you can become. Look for reciprocal relationships with people who give as well as take. If you don’t allow others to give to you, you will never know if they are capable. Chances are, that’s how you keep finding yourself in similar relationships. But here are some ways to deal with the challenge:
If you’re the child of a Narcissist, expect to be either the golden one or the shame eater. If you have siblings, expect the role designations to last for life. Either role offers ups and downs. You may need to come to understand how you have been programmed to see yourself through the Narcissist’s eyes. You may need help finding out who you really are.
In business, you are going to have to make some tough choices. You really don’t have much wiggle room, depending on how affected you are by a boss or co-worker. Look for ways to distance yourself, when possible. Boundaries are a must. Don’t get involved after-hours with anyone at work who shows Narcissistic tendencies. It can get very messy and doesn’t usually end well. As a last resort, be non-confrontational with any Narcissists who have power over you to keep your job. Assertiveness backfires with Narcissists, always. Keep your eye out for a healthier work environment.
Friends can be retired or allowed to drift away. Just make the disconnect stick.
Spouses/(potential) partners become much harder to deal with. If this is the other parent of your child or children, part of your decision will involve whether the children are better off having you around when they are with the Narcissist parent or not.
If you plan to divorce, you will have less control over your children’s environment when they are not with you, and don’t expect a lot of help from the court system or an attorney. You may still want or need to get out to build a healthier life. Just know that if your children are young, they will not be able to divorce their Narcissistic parent, which is a good reason not to marry someone like this in the first place.
If you don’t have children and/or would like to try to “save your marriage,” it is useful to try to find out if your spouse’s Narcissism can be managed and contained with a little help from you. This involves patience, avoidance of shaming no matter how irritated you are, and oodles of self-control.
It can be toxic to be in a Narcissist’s orbit, right?
SH: Expect to be pumped up when it pleases (or perhaps aggrandizes) the Narcissist to do so, but more often used as a scapegoat or repository for their off-loaded shame. Don’t expect kindness, caretaking, or sympathy if you are unable to fulfill the role your Narcissist has assigned to you. Do not compete with the Narcissist. Either you will lose and be shamed, or if you win you will be punished. Get used to shame. It’s always on the menu. If you manage to succeed while in the Narcissist’s web, expect rage and contempt. Hell hath no fury like a Narcissist displaced.
Is Narcissism learned or inherited?
SM: Narcissists are made. They develop their personality because they are empty inside and need to feel bigger than others to defend themselves against that feeling. They do not have the ego strength to self-reflect and accept criticism. They are frightened of you seeing any vulnerability, so their defenses are strong.
SH: Narcissism is a normal part of human development around the age of two or three. That is why Narcissists often appear infantile when they are at their most flamboyant. They really are that young on the inside! I don’t believe it is either learned or inherited. Instead, basically, the period of socialization is faulty in people who become Narcissists. A child who is used as an extension of their parent’s Narcissistic self might seem to have “inherited” it, but really, it is the failure of the parent to limit their own Narcissism and see the child as a separate person. So, the child fails to form a sense of self as separate and becomes weakened.
Is there one group in society (i.e. Boomers or Millennials) that’s most likely to become Narcissistic?
SH: There is no one “generation” that is more likely to become Narcissistic, but obviously parents who are not able to set good generational boundaries and socialize their children are more likely to raise Narcissistically impaired children. Parenting in a time when Narcissistic values are the norm has also contributed to the difficulty of raising healthy children. It is pretty hard to buck an entire culture, as many parents for the last half century will tell you.
As for worsening over time, failures of developmental challenges at every stage of life are problematic for people who are Narcissistic. The adolescent who cannot forge a personal identity; the young adult who has difficulty with intimate relationships; the parent who cannot give; the older person who is fading in all the ways that sustained a sense of self are all vulnerable. These are known as “Narcissistic wounds” that injure a fragile sense of self.
Can a Narcissist be treated and cured?
SM: It is deeply entrenched but not fixed. There is a tendency to pathologize a person as having a personality disorder and assume they can never change. If I'm working with a client with BPD, for example, there are a lot of abandonment issues I work with. I believe people with Narcissism are capable of recovery. But is not easy. The first barrier is willingness to admit there is a problem. They don’t tend to come to therapy unless forced because of a boss, partner or loss of a status.
SH: I am a believer in the capacity for growth in the human being. That said, I will add that I do not find the Narcissism of Narcissists treatable. Narcissists who come to treatment are usually not asking to be cured of their Narcissism. Those who do are likely not profoundly Narcissistic, although they may have been convinced by someone else that they are. The more pathological Narcissists are more likely asking to be relieved of the pain of a Narcissistic wound. Life accepted in all its realistic imperfections is the cure for Narcissism, if one can accept that without feeling diminished.
Is there anything we should know that we haven’t asked?
SH: I will leave you with this thought. If you choose to cross the threshold into a life replete with Narcissism, to paraphrase Dante in his Divine Comedy: abandon self all ye who enter there.
Books for additional reading:
Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself by Shahida Arabi, SCW Archer Publishing (2016)
Disarming Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed by Wendy Behary, New Harbinger Publications (2013)
Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited by Sam Vaknin, Narcissus Publications (2015)
Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists by Craig Malkin, Harper Wave (2015)
The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations by Christopher Lasch, Warner Books (1991)
The Covert Passive Aggressive Narcissist: Recognizing the Traits and Finding Healing After Hidden Emotional and Psychological Abuse by Debbie Mirza, Safe Place Publishing (2017)
Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandy Hotchkiss, Free Press (2003)