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Narcissism as 'Difficult Behavior'

A broad definition of narcissism, used in therapy, is that it is a pattern of behavior in which self-image is put before the true self. Because the true self is based on feeling, this puts narcissism at war with feelings, one's own feelings and the feelings of others.

A more practical, but still broad, definition for everyday affairs is that narcissism is organizing one's life around the goal of being superior. All other goals in life become subservient to this larger goal. So for instance, one could have a goal of service to others and self-denial. But with narcissism, one seeks to be superior to others in this goal. Narcissism at this level is basic in our culture, and in many groups is considered, despite abysmal results, a proper principle of living.

Superiority is not just about learning to do one or more things well, it is about hiding any evidence of imperfection in other areas. It is this 'war with the evidence of being human' that causes much social, parenting, and relationship friction.

However, there is a important distinction to be made between persons who want to be superior, and those who believe they actually are. This latter type, sometimes called a 'pathological narcissist.' has the inability to feel other people as separate from oneself. Instead, the narcissist perceives only a reflection of his or her needs and desires. From this comes the concept that other people are treated as supplies of gratification or narcissistic supplies.

Pathological narcissism has a deserved reputation for hurting people in its path. Most important to understand is that narcissism is a lot easier to see going than coming. There are at least two reasons for this:

One, people with narcissism often provide a dazzle that could be an element of any satisfying relationship, but the other ingredients that one assumes will also be coming do not materialize. After all, first meetings are never ones in which accountability is expected. But only as time goes on, one begins to feel (or really begins to realize) that one has been cheated.

Two, narcissism is seductive. That is it provides a promise which can't be kept. The promise may be explicit but can be implied. The promise at base is to provide confidence, love. pleasure, or a feeling of specialness. People who have been shown since childhood how to find pleasure and love in solid traditional ways will be less vulnerable to this seduction. People who have been raised in family systems that are tense and essentially pleasureless, even if high achieving, will be more vulnerable to the seduction. As our culture and families have become more narcissistic (focused on being special) the vulnerability to pathological narcissists has become widespread.

A pertinent question in living is how to protect oneself from pathological narcissism. (By the way, anyone with narcissism, besides the limitation that imposes, can be hurt by the narcissism of others) Essentially the answer is to recognize the the seduction or false promise, but that is very hard if one is yearning for it. Largely people hurt by narcissism in others recognize the betrayal at the end but not the seduction at the beginning.

Familiarity with narcissism, either forced or voluntary, usually leads to the knowledge that narcissism is a tough difficult husk around a tender hurt core. But trying only to address the hurt part, as if the problematical part didn't exist has always failed. Empathy is only possible from a position of safety, and never from a position of naivety.

In a way, the damaging element of narcissism is its consistency. Everyone is defensive, unempathetic, conceited, and self-absorbed at times. But with narcissism the defense is so uniformly present, that chances to repair and re-balance relationships never occur. Slowly, the transactions of narcissism become 'normal,' and the effects on other continue insidiously.

A narcissist has an internal locus of control but externalizes responsibility. Stated another way, he or she internalizes credit and externalizes blame. This combination dominates relationships. The narcissist will not style him- or herself a helpless victim, rather he or she will imply that they are victimized by the incompetence or malfeasance of others, and defend his or her aggressive actions as 'setting things right.'

Keeping one's sanity and integrity in the face of narcissism consists of two tiers. The first tier is to keep narcissism and narcissistically traited people at arm's length in casual or 'accidental' relationships. This requires at least recognizing it. This can come both from recognizing behavior in the narcissist, but also more importantly, recognizing how you are affected by this person. This is appropriate for business relationships, casual relationships, authority figures, and distant relatives. In arm's length transactions, everything is spelled or or specified. Nothing is left to work out as one goes along.

The second tier of defense entails learning to skillfully interact with the narcissist. This unfortunately requires a way of communication that is not optimal for other relationships. It is a special skill set, and is not magic by any means. Learning these skills may make sense if one has to interact closely, such as in therapeutic relationships, marriage, or co-parenting arrangements.

At this point, it may be of value to discuss briefly another difficult personality style, psychopathy. There is some over-lap between narcissism and psychopathy, but they are not the same. Psychopathy is composed of strong vitality and self-interest and a functional lack of feeling. That is, unlike narcissism, where feeling is denied but continues to have some sort of 'shadow' or 'reactive' effect, in psychopathy, the person is 'freed' from any guidance function of emotions. In psychopathy dominance and getting one's way are paramount, and how one is viewed by others is not important for its own sake, but only as a tool. Psychopaths are most upset by not getting their way, while narcissists are most upset by being devalued or ignored. Narcissism can be present with depression or 'collapsed states, while this never happens with psychopathy. But psychopathy and narcissism may occur together and form 'malignant narcissism', which is the florid form of narcissism most recognized (and feared) in popular culture. Psychopathy has both psychological and biological elements, as elaborated in this page from my larger website on character analysis.

Defining narcissism concisely yet comprehensively is difficult because it interacts with other personality aspects. Vanity and grandiosity are commonly recognized aspects but they are too simple to define it, and are not always present. There are many strains and different intensities. Some narcissism is deeply structured into personality during development, and some is just learned behavior from early experience. The latter is the least tenacious. Yet from the outside, or 'receiving end' there are several common elements.

Common 'Problem' Behaviors in Narcissism

The Narcissistic Family System

In this concept, there are three roles, the narcissist, who acts as the 'definer of reality' or 'font of truth', the golden child, and the black sheep. The narcissist is the self-appointed sole authority on what is 'right' and 'good.' The golden child can do no wrong, the black sheep can do no right. Identical actions are treated differently depending on which child is doing it. The black sheep can specialize in either 'misbehavior' or 'failure and inadequacy' but his or her function is the same. In a nutshell, the idealized self-image of the narcissist is projected onto the golden child, and the disowned shame and faults are projected onto the black sheep. This replicates an internal split in the narcissist.

Black sheep, if not driven crazy, tend to go on to become very empathetic, while golden children, without necessarily going on to be narcissists themselves, tend to struggle with empathy. Sometimes the black sheep is a child and the 'golden child' is a grandchild, or vice versa. Narcissists often will try to 'take over' a nephew or niece or grandchild or grand-nephew or -niece to create this system. This can play out in a work-group of course. The narcissistic family system has some similarities with the alcoholic/addicted family system (explained within my page on addiction), and of course, the two often coexist and merge

Early Ways to Recognize Narcissism (Warning Signs)

Narcissists usually have at least one narcissistic parent or grandparent. Accurately complaining about mistreatment at the hands of another narcissist does not by itself indicate that the complainer does not him- or herself have narcissistic functioning. Two unrelated narcissists will tend to avoid each other but two narcissists related by family ties will be quite enmeshed if conflictual.

Also, as touched on above, narcissists will succeed in many new relationships for a fair amount of time, perhaps years, until the reality comes home to roost for the other person. This, combined with seeking attention, means that the narcissist will always have 'social proof' to the effect that they are wonderful to know. It is necessary to honor one's instincts and not just follow the herd.

Also, it is rarely advisable for a survivor to 'call out' a narcissist. Even armed with the awareness that the narcissist him- or herself will never accept the label, trying to expose the pattern to the larger group will backfire on the survivor. Narcissists are experts at agilely arguing from instantly created false premises, especially on the themes of specialness, righteousness, goodness, and victimhood. Narcissists usually offer average quality logic, but logic produces conclusions only as good as premises. Survivors, by nature, will feel compelled to address all points made, and will not be able to keep up. Would-be exposers are made to appear defensive, bitter, and jealous. Moreover narcissists instinctively understand the ploy of counter-attacking and never defending their actions. Survivors will then defend themselves, and the entire focus is on the survivor's behavior. One will never wrest validation or amends from the narcissist or his or her supporters. All that has been given and expended to satisfy the narcissist or to attempt to make the relationship or project 'right' is gone.

Limiting the harm of the narcissist is really based on prevention of the seduction which requires grounding and true feeling. Restoration or repair for the survivor comes from living well after the episode.

As mentioned above, the first tier of defense is often best staying at arms length, or not allowing oneself to be in a vulnerable position vis-a-vis the narcissist. That may not be possible if the narcissist is a family member, a co-parent, a boss in an otherwise great job, etc... In this second tier of defense, working with the narcissist, these are some incomplete ideas. They are not all meant to principles for general relationships (although none are by themselves toxic behavior) but rather special tools.

The 'Collapsed Narcissist

The pathological narcissists described above are usually very well defended in the sense that they rarely experience or express doubt or distress. However, when they are not able to control a situation--through natural events, confrontation by savvy others, loss of a major source of supply--there will be a collapse into a distressed state. Over a lifetime, every narcissist will spend some portion of time in the 'compensated' (or normal narcissistic) state and some time in the collapsed state. A few narcissists actually spend the majority of the time in a collapsed state. What is essential to understand is that in this state the narcissist is not really healing and the exploitation of others continues. Features include

The 'Covert' Narcissist (Or 'Shame-Based' Character)

Although one idea implied in this discussion is that while narcissistic functioning is not well recognized in our culture for what it is, there is a type of narcissism that only decloaks behind closed doors, and is therefore called 'secret' or 'covert,' because naive onlookers do not even get a real chance to recognize it at all. The mistreatment is directed only at family members, or 'trapped members' of a social group. This is a manifestation in which the grandiosity doesn't get off the ground in a smooth way but still functions in the background, building tension and causing eruptions at 'acceptable' targets. The term rageholic is often used.

The 'foreground' acted out by the covert narcissist often is a caricature, but a sincere one, of humility or reasonableness, because there is deep split or conflict that is not buried as it is with the more 'classic' narcissist. Therefore imperturbability or 'untouchability' is not so prominent. The covert narcissist may represent a subset of permanently 'collapsed' narcissists as described above.

The concept of covert narcissism really speaks to the vulnerability of children in the home, many more of whom are deeply wounded by narcissism in their caretakers than is realized. Children are vulnerable because they are not supposed to know what is good for them, or have an equally respected place in the family. Alice Miller has written extensively on this point. Other features include:

The concept of the covert narcissist is included in this page both because many of the effects on targets are the same, and because it helps to understand the growing literature on recovery from abuse. It is sometimes called 'shame-based' behavior. Survivors of a covert narcissist have a hard time getting support or validation since observers outside the family will believe the narcissist is as benevolent at home as he or she is in public. A covert narcissist is best recognized by difficulty with criticism, irritability, nervous family members, perfectionism, and blame. While there is entitlement, it is more of a variety where they feel they should get favorable treatment rather than feel they will get favorable treatment.