Disclaimer: This outline cannot and does not constitute medical advice. For informational purposes only. Mental health conditions are complex, and individuals vary greatly in their interactions with others, physical condition, and response to treatment. If you suffer from a mental health issue, consult a mental health professional.
Today, everywhere you turn online you see pieces about narcissists. Popular websites like Psychology Today feature dozens of articles on the topic. Check out #narcissisticabuse on Instagram and you will see more than a half million posts tagged this way. Considering the platform, and social media generally, this fact carries more than a whiff of irony.
Narcissism has become a meaningless term, a catch all that is an everyday insult, a term of offense when someone does something that seems self-absorbed, displays something about themselves that others find irritating, or simply behaves in a selfish manner. To call someone a narcissist has become commonplace, a standard insult tailor made for the world of Facebook, TikTok and Instagram. We are bombarded by perfect people living perfect lives. When is the last post you saw of some beauty puking in their toilet after a long night out? There is no conversation, just a lot of social media platforms that turn each of us into mute voyeurs.
But what is narcissism? Is it the man/woman who takes too many selfies and lingers at the mirror a little too long? Your boss who acts like s/he is god’s gift and manages like s/he has not a shred of human decency? Maybe. Having just recently ended a 23-year marriage, I was surprised that my ex-wife informed me that I am a narcissist. My first reaction was, “Am I? What would that look like?” I did some research, including reading the excellent book by Craig Malkin, Rethinking Narcissism, and I concluded that I probably was not a narcissist – which would probably be exactly what a narcissist would determine. However, having been in the care of a professional psychologist for more than a year, the conclusion is that I am not a narcissist, or at least not yet.
Last year, I was ghosted by a girlfriend and then turned on in a particularly unpleasant way, all without quite understanding what the person doing these things to me was thinking or even wanted from me. Her behavior, which seemed selfish and vindictive, made me wonder – is she a narcissist? To this day obviously I do not know. My guess is she a rather immature person, who, like many people, does not deal well with complex life situations, tends not to self-examine, and is not particularly self-critical. Welcome to 90% of the American public…Are we a nation of narcissists?
While most people know the term Narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, whose physical beauty was mesmerizing. Narcissus loved beautiful things, and beautiful creatures in turn loved him. But the love of his suitors was always unrequited, and when Narcissus scorned them, more than one would be lover of the world’s handsomest human took their own lives. When he stared into a glassy pool in a forest glen, Narcissus saw himself reflected in the water and fell madly in love with his own visage. He finally realized that he could not love anyone more than himself and he then committed suicide. A more G-rated version has him turning into a flower. But I digress…
Narcissism is a real psychological disorder. It falls under Cluster B of Personality Disorders, which include Antisocial Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Histrionic Personality Disorder. All of these personality issues are serious and it often takes skilled professionals years in the therapeutic environment to diagnose and treat them.
The American Psychiatric Association defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as “a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” Narcissists tend to be glib, hard-minded, exploitative, and superficial. Again, the problem with these characteristics is, if you are the partner of someone in a troubled relationships, it is all too tempting to pigeonhole certain incidents as fitting into one or other of these behaviors and therefore it is easy to draw false conclusions. If you find yourself thinking about the time that your date poured a drink on you for looking at another woman, you need to check yourself, think twice, and recall that patterns are repeated and need to be present over many facets of life, not just one-off incidents. Men and women who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, as with other Cluster B disorders, often appear emotional or erratic. According to the DSM-5, narcissistic types often reveal moments of being socially withdrawn, suspicious, or alienated, and these tendencies seem to be linked to their fears of their flaws or imperfections being revealed.
Narcissistic personality disorder sufferers do not include characteristics like impulsivity, aggression, and deceit. Thus, while you will find tons of youtube videos and webpages where people discuss the horrors of ‘narcissistic abuse’, it does not seem that the label really fits. The research indicates that invidividuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder generally do not have a history of conduct problems in childhood, and they also generally lack any criminal activity in adulthood. Rather, it seems like those who engage in this kind of abusive behavior possess a comorbidity, with another personality disorder also present.
The bad news for people involved with these types of individuals is that Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial-, Dependent- and Borderline Personality Disorders are often co-occur, meaning that if the description I provided above strikes a nerve with you, but it missing some of the more, ahh, flavorful interactions you have witnessed, you may well be dealing with someone with comorbidities.
What to do?
You must remove yourself from these people. As I stated earlier, I was briefly involved with a woman with whom I had an intense romantic relationship. When things did not go quite as she planned, she accused me of lying to her and set about attempting to destroy me professionally. That is a story for another article, (or ten), but I warn you – you cannot reform these individuals. They need serious, sustained professional help. Most crucially, they must want this help. Self-awareness and the recognition of your innermost troubles, weaknesses, and personal demons, are difficult for the best of us. For those who deal with deep-rooted trauma, abuse, unaddressed childhood issues, self-esteem problems, fears of exposure and a host of other mental afflictions, the burden cannot be on you, the partner. If you are committed to the person long term, understand that this is a difficult road that may not end well for you and your partner. My former spouse of 23 years has been in intensive counseling for four years or more, and the changes are modest, if any. There has to be a willingness to let the old brain die, to shed the skin in which the individual has lived, sometimes for twenty, thirty, forty years. This is extremely difficult, and requires immense willpower, support, and the caring and understanding of family and friends.
If you are just starting a relationship with someone and you see some of the warning signs I have outlined above, get away. You cannot save this person, nor ‘fix’ them, nor really do anything, except end up suffering blow back from the consequences of their life choices and attitudes. Had I known then what I know now…How many times have you heard that one?
Take my advice and cut the cord as soon as possible. Cut this person out of your life. You are not helping them by pandering to their insecurities – you are prolonging their suffering and their lack of required self-recognition and self-improvement. Don’t try play the role of a savior like I did. Get away from the toxic individuals. Be careful not to label them and if they ask you in sincerity what you think is wrong with them, be honest, but just stick to the facts and tell them you think they have unresolved issues for which they need professional medical attention. Since odds are you are not one, be as kind as you can but put plenty of distance between the two of you. Otherwise, things will end up being far more complicated and painful for the both of you.