I usually resist writing about narcissism since it’s The Little Black Dress of self-help these days; judging from Google, pretty much everyone is either a narcissist or has been caught in a snare set by one. That said, dealing with someone who behaves like a narcissist—let’s leave the diagnosis to the pros—especially if you’ve been intimate with him, closely connected, or married to him is a harrowing and damaging experience, as I will attest. (I’m using male pronouns but feel free to switch it up. Both men and women exhibit narcissistic traits.)
People who are insecurely attached as a result of childhood experiences are often drawn to narcissists and recognize them more slowly. When unloved daughters seek out intimate or close relationships—either romantic or friendship—they are often drawn to what they know, a person who makes them feel as they did in childhood. Yes, that makes no sense since they were unhappy then but it’s how unconscious patterns affect us. I call it a comfort zone because it’s familiar, even though it offers no real comfort in the end.
Two new books—Rethinking Narcissism by Dr. Craig Malkin and The Narcissist You Know by Dr. Joseph Burgo—offer up some fresh insights that go beyond the usual vision of the self-aggrandizing, attention-seeking and attractive dude we’re used to considering.
The tip-offs, both authors suggest, are in behaviors which are highly consistent. These behaviors highlight why it’s impossible to make peace or settle with a narcissist, reach a resolution or change the patterns of relationship with one, or to come out unscathed.
There’s no doubt about it: Narcissists are fierce, unyielding warriors when challenged.
- Denies his feelings
According to Dr. Malkin, it’s the discovery of his wounded self that the narcissist fears most, and he prefers to think of himself as fully independent, resourceful, and impervious to emotional slights. If you’re arguing with a narcissist—pointing out his mistakes, for example—you’ll see how he works to turn the tables on you, deflecting his feelings about what you’re saying by enumerating your flaws in a condescending tone. He’ll deny that he’s angry—even though you can see that his face is flushed, his jaw muscles rare working, and his hands clenched—or yelling, even in the midst of an ear-splitting tirade. He likes to think of himself as impervious and there’s no getting through to him, trust me.
- Plays emotional “hot potato”
Again, this insight is Dr. Malkin’s, and builds on the observation of how the narcissist denies his feelings and tries to deflect your attention away from what he’s feeling; in this particular game of hot potato, the narcissist attributes what he’s feeling to you and works hard at forcing you to experience those feelings. This actually happened in my marriage, and feeds into the pattern of demand/withdraw, recognized to be the most toxic in relationship by most experts. In this dynamic, one person makes a demand—for a behavior to be changed or a problem to be addressed, for example—and the partner or spouse withdraws and stonewalls. What makes this pattern so pernicious is that both parties feel wronged: the person making the demand feels ignored and slighted while the person withdrawing feels put upon and attacked. It doesn’t take much for this to escalate even when there isn’t a narcissist involved but when there is—and hot potato is put into the mix—it rapidly gets worse.
The narcissist is angry that you want to talk but he has to make it your anger so he begins by goading you: “You look angry, for a change. You know, you’re always angry about something.” You say that you’re not angry but that you are upset and want to talk to him. He answers, “I don’t want to talk to you when you’re angry.” Now, you are getting angry because he never wants to talk anything through…Anyway, see the pattern? It’s hot potato and you don’t need me to tell you where it will end.
- Exerts stealth control
Because he doesn’t like asking for anything—why should he? He doesn’t really need other people, after all—the narcissist has to take control without seeming to. He’s expert at arranging things—surprise tickets to a movie, changing up plans you’ve made at the last minute under the guise of pleasing you, deciding a French restaurant would be better than the Chinese meal you’d been craving —so that he gets what he wants, when he wants it, without ever asking. Mind you, it doesn’t feel controlling in the moment but many people realize, after the relationship is over, that they’d given up much of what they liked doing, along with their own needs, in the process.
- Practices brinksmanship
This is the modus operandi of what Dr. Joseph Burgo calls the Vindictive Narcissist, and he’s out to win it at any cost because he doesn’t care about any outcome, except winning. He’s convinced of his own truth and perceptions—they are all that matter—and he doesn’t mind, in the course of what began as a regular argument, to up the ante and threaten to leave you right then and there. Nothing matters to him—not relationships, the pain of others, past history and memories—except winning and making sure you lose and that you feel the loss as keenly as possible.
If you are in the unlucky position of divorcing a narcissist, as I was, be prepared for a long, protracted and expensive battle.
- Never takes responsibility
Not his fault, not ever: it’s not more complicated than that. His truth—and it’s filtered through his personal set of lenses which asserts that he is always a victim and always right—comes first and foremost, and he will do whatever he has to do to assert it. Taking responsibility—owning up to your mistakes, realizing that your point of view was wrong or limited, or that you actually did something wrong—is not part of the narcissist’s purview. He’s more than happy to lie to promote his side of things too.
It’s in conflict that the narcissist reveals his true colors. Be prepared and if you can avoid engaging him, do it.
Photograph by Matt Evan. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
READ: Craig Malkin, Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad—and Surprising Good—of Feeling Special. New York: Harper One, 2015.
READ: Joseph Burgo, The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2015.