There’s no question that calling someone a narcissist has become a cultural reflex of sorts and that the subject of narcissism has become pop psychology’s Little Black Dress. Type in the word on Google search and you’ll get an astonishing 19,000,000 results! The “narc”—as he or she is familiarly referred to—has become a synonym for the toxic and potentially hurtful person each and every one of us should avoid. Alas, along with the popularity, comes a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding of what a narcissist really is, and how many of us actually qualify for the sobriquet.
Is it someone who is obsessed with self-image, getting ahead at all costs, and grandiose in his or her thinking? Is it someone who, appearances to the contrary, is actually deeply wounded, and preens and controls to hide that inner pain? Is it someone who, while appearing unassuming and uncomfortable in social situations, exercises all manner of stealth control, maintains a tight grip on his or her version of the truth, and believes he or she is better than everyone else? Is it someone who’s devoted to causes and good deeds, and who is quick to say that he or she is more empathic and caring than anyone else?
These descriptions—while wildly different—all describe someone high in narcissistic traits.
Understanding the spectrum of narcissism
We are all on it—you, me, and everyone else, according to Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism. On the far ends of the spectrum are those who lack healthy narcissism—these are people Malkin calls echoists—and those who are addicted to attention, the narcissists we are fixated on. (Visualize it as a line that has a 0 on the far left and the number 10 on the far right.) It’s worth saying that most of the population falls on the middle of the spectrum, with either end being far less populated. It turns out that most of us are more narcissistic in our youth—when the need to feel special and shine is paramount for many—than we are when we get older. Finally, at the right end of the spectrum—where 6% or so of the population warrant a diagnosis of Narcissist Personality Disorder— men outnumber women two to one.
So, is the person in your life really a narcissist?
Again, let’s try to move away from popular view of narcissism which includes basically anyone who dumped you, treated you badly, or led you on. Or anyone who’s been abusive in any way shape or form, or put you down. Or any mother who was and is unloving to you. Or any father who did the same. The term “narc” has become shorthand for a bad person and a constant stream of narc memes serve as daily reminders of how we have to keep our guard up. I’ve been called a narc for disagreeing with someone on social media, and, from what I’ve seen, that’s not usual.
Let’s look closely at what characteristics really distinguish these folks from the people who are merely selfish, uncomfortable with close connection, emotionally oafish, and who disappoint us in the end. Keep the spectrum in mind before you make an unofficial diagnosis as an amateur shrink.
I recognize that there’s something very satisfying about labeling someone in this way— “AHA! That’s why he or she acted that way!”—but it’s also very limiting if what you’re after is understanding what really happened in a relationship that was important and is now over. Or if you’re struggling to maintain a relationship you’re not ready to exit. Or if you simply want to know more about your own blind spots of understanding. Or you’re trying to reclaim your life after a toxic childhood. Sometimes, applying the label allows us to believe that the inquiry is over or that we’re not required to look closely at our own behaviors and how they helped get into a situation or relationship which was hurtful or stunting.
The cultural tropes about narcissism also portray those who fall prey to these kinds of people as simply victims. While that may be appropriate when we’re talking about a parent high in narcissistic traits—children have no power by definition to change their circumstances—it’s not always helpful when we consider adult-on-adult relationships.
6 traits to look for
These really should be defining character traits and behaviors of an individual that are highly consistent and predictable. Most of us can be controlling at times or unable to engage in productive dialogue. Most of us behave badly now and again, using the power of a put-down to gain an edge, but that doesn’t make us narcissists. Just about everyone has self-promoted or self-aggrandized, especially under pressure or stress. We have all lied at one time or another. That doesn’t make us narcissists. So what’s the difference? Again, keep the spectrum in mind.
- Needs always to be in control
This is usually seen only in retrospect because it’s easy to confuse the need to be in control which ultimately will seek to stifle another person’s ability to express him or herself with a take-charge personality. Some of us will be appreciative because the narcissist’s gestures look like caretaking at first; that’s especially true if you’re someone who’s always worried about making decisions or you missed being taken care or protected in childhood. (See my post “Why Unloved Daughters Fall for Narcissists.”)
According to Dr. Malkin, narcissists don’t just exert overt control but are masters at stealth control. This involves changing plans or reversing decisions you’ve already made together and switching them up for something “better” or “more fun.” The end goal is to control you.
- Has shallow connections to others
Close friendships aren’t part of his or world which is largely populated by people who fall into the category of casual acquaintances; his or her conversations stay on the surface, and don’t involve confidences. Moreover, the narcissist doesn’t like direct competition; he or she prefers to be surrounded by those who don’t need to take the floor and voice their opinions and are more of an audience than not.
If you’re in an intimate relationship with a narcissist, you probably won’t notice this because you’re too busy basking in the light of his or her attention. Here’s where love bombing—which is another method of controlling both a relationship and a person—comes into play. Someone who moves fast in a relationship, idolizes you and puts you on a pedestal, is engaged not in tenderness or love but in self-reflection, as Dr. Malkin points out. You are very likely not to see that this is a shallow connection, not a deep one.
- Is undeterred or unmoved by emotional consequences
Unlike most of us who actually care about whether we behaved decently in a situation, the narcissist doesn’t. There’s no inner reckoning for behaving well or badly and as a result, the pain showered on others is of no particular important. Yes, this is a part of what’s called a deficit in empathy. Collateral damage is ignored by the narcissist, and shockingly—if you happen to be divorcing one—can include his or her own children, not to mention you.
- Vindictive, defensive, and ruthless when his or her “truth” is challenged
Responses to perceived threats do set people high in narcissistic traits apart; they are often outsized and disproportionate to the slight or threat. Because someone high in narcissistic traits is notoriously thin-skinned, he or she is very unlikely not to retaliate if he or she feels attacked. They also hold deep-seated grudges, and aren’t about to “let bygones be bygones.” Most people aren’t motivated to keep score; a narcissist is, and is much more likely to exact revenge too. The need for revenge, ironically, often ends up not serving him or her well.
- Needs no emotional recovery time
It’s often astonishing to people who’ve been involved with a narcissist to see how quickly he or she bounces back but that’s a function of the shallow emotional connections which can include everyone, including children. The narcissist is an island who fools you into believing he or she is a peninsula.
- Unconcerned with lying (or its effects)
Ever noticed that this person doesn’t mind getting caught in a lie, no matter how obvious? Or simply resorts to gaslighting or denial, shifting the blame onto you for not hearing right or understanding? The utter lack of shame at being discovered in a lie is, in my opinion, one of the major tip-offs. Again, this is a function of many of the other traits mentioned before but it’s one of the most noteworthy. Those of us who’ve been in the unfortunate position of divorcing a narcissist and have seen him or her lie in sworn documents or even before a judge know this well.
Ultimately, it’s the behaviors—not the label—we need to focus on. And not just the supposed narcissist’s but our own. This is especially true if you were unloved in childhood.
Read Dr. Craig Malkin’s Rethinking Narcissism
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