These days, the term “narcissist” is used so loosely that it's almost become interchangeable with “ex-boyfriend”, “president I didn't vote for”, or “just plain jerk”.
But what is a narcissist really, and how can you tell if you are one? Clinically speaking, a narcissist is someone who meets the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It is not a value judgement and isn't synonymous with being a bad person. Instead, this is a severe psychological condition. It’s more than behaving like an arrogant, overconfident ass and often applies to people in pain and struggling.
Narcissism isn't always easy to spot. Sure, some narcissists flagrantly display an exaggerated and oblivious sense of self-importance, but not all. Some are meek, withdrawn, and easily injured. Others hide their grandiosity in private fantasies about beauty, power, brilliance, or success.
Warning: If you are starting to get uncomfortable, don't panic. Many people enjoy fantasies of success (they are fun and motivating), and everyone overestimates themselves at times. Also, we need a certain amount of narcissism to function. As with most things psychiatric, it comes down to a matter of degree, rigidity, and impact on functioning.
Fantasy or fact
So, what is it that defines a narcissist? A true narcissist has a disorder of the mind (using the term as an insult is as politically correct as calling someone retarded). While the symptom checklists focus on behaviours, these indicate something that is underlying. Narcissists confuse feelings and wishes (fantasy) with facts. They are not delusional, but their view of themselves, their needs, and others is easily distorted.
It's as if they’re caught up in a not always pleasant fantasy that blinds them to facts and the difference between ridicule and reason.
How does this play out? Being in tune with reality means being aware of the limitations and strengths in yourself and in others. You appreciate your gifts, but you are also mindful that others bring value and have much to offer. This makes people interesting. The narcissist, on the other hand, might see themselves as the source of all good things (a ruse that hides vulnerability). From their point of view, others are not interesting. Instead, they should be grateful for the opportunity to listen to the narcissist’s entertaining wisdom.
Bursting the bubble
See how vulnerable this leaves the narcissist? There are a great many people who are willing to listen to and admire confident, intelligent people. But many more eventually want a dialogue, a share of the space and to be acknowledged. Also, being narcissistic doesn't equal being smart. This only increases their chances of being called out, which is never pleasant.
It's especially not pleasant if it bursts the bubble upon which you base your identity. There are two common responses. Thick-skinned narcissists disown their vulnerable feelings and turn the tables by denigrating others or accusing them of feeling threatened or jealous. Thin-skinned narcissists plunge into agonising self-doubt, often in ways that provoke you to console and comfort them.
Turning the tables is common with narcissists, and it's one of the reasons people in relationships with narcissists feel gaslighted and broken down. A consequence of narcissists acting as if they are the personification of everything good is that they simultaneously behave as though others are the opposite. Instead of ever feeling inferior or guilty, they triumph over others, pointing out their faults, shifting responsibility, and cherry-picking facts. Arguments become bewildering and confusing; words are twisted, memories distorted and blame misplaced.
Self-awareness not a strong point
Relationships don't do well under these conditions, and those that do are often shallow or transactional (based in material gain). Love, closeness, intimacy, trust, and respect can't thrive unless both parties see each other and acknowledge their need for and appreciation of one another. How willing are you to have warm feelings for and speak openly with someone likely to ridicule you, blame you, and deny that you mean anything to them?
If you are on the receiving end, you'll understand why narcissists don’t get much sympathy. But I hope this might help people to see how painful and tragic the narcissist’s existence can be. They desperately crave love and admiration, but fail to achieve it, often without understanding why. Instead, they are caught in a cycle of acting as if they already have these things only to crash into humiliation each time reality asserts itself.
So, are you a narcissist? Self-awareness is not the narcissist's strong point. If you are one, you might not know it, or you may have already dismissed what I have to say, and possibly the entire realm of mental health as an idiotic practice.
Answering yes to the following questions could point to narcissism, but don't take them too seriously. The items encourage self-reflection. Diagnosing a narcissist is complex and requires professional evaluation.
• Do people frequently argue with you, even though they know you are right?
• Ever get the feeling that you KNOW what other people are REALLY thinking?
• Do you struggle to believe ordinary people have something to offer you?
• Have people repeatedly told you that you behave narcissistically?
• Do you dislike others being the centre of attention?
• Do people judge you because you threaten them?
• Are you answering these questions dishonestly?
• Should people do what you tell them to?
• Do you need admiration to feel okay?
• Are you better than other people?
• Do you overreact to criticism?
• Do you put people down? (Very important)
What to do if you are a narcissist
If you are, the first step is to be kind to yourself. Chances are you have faced many humiliating, painful, lonely, and shame-filled episodes. There is also a good chance your early years were far from perfect. Many narcissistic behaviours are strategies that you learned to protect you from feeling horrible and ashamed.
Fortunately, help is available. While few narcissists are willing to attend therapy, it has much to offer. Good therapy provides the chance to form a trusting connection with another person (the therapist) and then work with them towards facing the truth of who you really are.
When successful, psychotherapy not only helps you feel better about yourself, it also helps you enjoy and appreciate the people around you.
Vincenzo Sinisi is a psychoanalyst/clinical psychologist and founder of TherapyRoute.com
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