You’re probably wondering why I’ve put the word “narcissist” in quotation marks, so let me explain. Google the word “narcissist” and an astounding 60 million links will fill up your screen, despite the fact that only a tiny percentage of people, something like six percent, actually suffer from NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder). The truth is that the word “narcissist” has become a catch-all synonym for a bad person or someone who betrays and hurts you. It’s common on social media for someone to call you a “narc” if you disagree with them or if they feel disparaged.
But the truth is that there’s a spectrum of narcissism, as Dr. Craig Malkin explains in his book, Rethinking Narcissism, ranging from those lacking in healthy self-esteem on one end (the so-called “echoist”) to the middle where healthy self-regard resides to the far end occupied by the grandiose braggart who fits the stereotype perfectly.
What is healthy self-regard?
I will quote Dr. Malkin here because he puts it succinctly: “Healthy narcissism is all about moving seamlessly between self-absorption and caring attentiveness—visiting Narcissus’ shimmering pool, but never diving to the bottom in pursuit of our own reflection.” These people are self-assured but don’t feel the need to tear other people down to raise themselves up; in fact, they often inspire other people to become their best selves. They tend to act in inclusive, not exclusive, ways. Mind you, as Malkin points out, they’re not an especially modest bunch and, yes, they do acknowledge their own talents. Our cultural heritage of Puritanism often has us mistake that kind of acknowledgement as bragging but it’s really not; when you’re good at something, it’s perfectly okay to recognize it. The real question is whether you use your gifts, your talents, or your specialness to achieve your goals, or to beat other people into submission. The latter is what people high in narcissistic traits do.
Healthy self-regard is balanced by caring for others and their needs; on the other end of the spectrum, there’s a blatant disregard for others which is evinced in a complete lack of empathy and an agenda that is only about the self.
How people high in narcissistic traits get the best of you
The people who are more likely to fall under the narcissist’s spell, initially at least, are those who lack in healthy self-regard themselves and who often don’t have a good sense of what healthy boundaries look like or a good mental model of relationships; put in other terms, they tend to have an insecure style of attachment. Some of us are better at spotting the narcissist early in the game in part because we understand boundaries and because we have a strong sense of our own needs being important and legitimate. (For more on how your attachment style affects your relationships, see my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.)
Almost everyone can be taken in some of the time but the following behaviors can consistently trap the unwary. I will be using the masculine pronoun to avoid the she/he grammatical pile-up; be aware that while there are more males at the grandiose end of the narcissism spectrum, there are women too.
- Exerting stealth control
This observation is taken from Dr. Malkin’s book, and it’s really key to understanding how so many people can be taken in with ease. The narcissist wants control but he doesn’t like having his needs out in the open. Rather than telling you what to do, the narcissist makes subtle suggestions or, under the guise of being solicitous or caring, takes command. The example I always use is that of a first date or meeting between a person with healthy self-regard and a narcissist and the same scenario but with an insecure person and a narcissist. You meet at a place the narcissist has chosen which presents no problem. You decide you’d like a glass of Rosé, but he tells you that you really must have the cocktail the place is famous for. Okay, then; why not? But when you order your meal, once again he tells you that the salmon is the only thing to have and he’s rather insistent. The secure woman hears warning bells; she knows what she wants to eat and, no, it’s not salmon. Ms. Insecure, though, is flattered by how solicitous he’s being; wowie, could he be her knight in shining armor?
There’s more, of course—the way he directs and steers the conversation, for example—and only one of these women will see this man again. Guess who It is?
The problem, of course, is that if you’re waiting for a knight, you’re going to read into gestures that are about control and label them as something else such as chivalry and caring. That includes switching up plans you’ve made so as to “surprise” you, pressuring you to spend time with him alone instead of your friends, and more.
Alas, at the end of the day, control is still control, no matter how stealthy.
- Perfecting the grand gesture
The thing is that while narcissists only really care about one person—yup, that would be him-or-herself—they do like thinking of themselves as good people and they love, love, love admiration and positive attention so that, counterintuitively, they may appear to be incredibly thoughtful and caring. That could be rushing to help a neighbor rebuild a fence savaged by a storm, buying you extravagant gifts because you said you were feeling down, and anything else that makes him or her look good. The problem here is motivation, of course; the gesture isn’t about the person who is the object of his largesse but himself.
In the early stages of courtship by a narcissist, this is also called lovebombing and while it may feel good in the moment—who doesn’t like being doted on, told you’re gorgeous and sexy, or having gifts lavished on you? —but it’s all a means to an end.
Once again, the common denominator is control. As you fall under his spell and your own sense of yourself and your needs recedes, the narcissist has you exactly where he wants you to be.
- Exploiting your insecurities
Expert at turning the tables, the narcissist uses your own self-doubt to get the upper hand by blame-shifting when there’s an argument (“If you weren’t always so angry, I wouldn’t have to shout” or “If you weren’t so sensitive, I wouldn’t have to spend my life tiptoeing around you”), turning your words back on you (“I’m not the one who wants things to change; you are” or “Just the same old tattoo. You’re like a broken record and it’s tedious”), or simply denying what happened (“I never said that to you; you’re being delusional” or “Stop making things up to make me look bad.”) The latter technique is, of course, called gaslighting.
- Reeling you in (and casting you out)
The narcissist is in it to win it on his terms and he’s perfectly fine with heading toward the exit because his ties to you are remarkably shallow. This permits him play the take- it- or- leave- it card, which he (rightly) believes will dissolve you into a puddle of pleasing and appeasing so that he doesn’t actually head out. Again, this is usually done with a bit of finesse and after he has you believing that it was really all your fault. It’s very easy to spin like a top under these circumstances if your default position is self-doubt.
And, since control is the name of the game, after the ruckus has died down, he will likely reel you in again with charm and caring. This can be incredibly emotionally confusing for many people; after all, you’re unlikely to register that he hasn’t taken one ounce of responsibility, much less offered an apology, if he’s telling you how much he loves you and bringing you thoughtful gifts.
It’s a masterful performance and, yes, it’s all about control.
If finding yourself in relationships with people who behave this way has become a pattern, it’s time to take a hard look at what you bring to the party. The only person you can change, after all, is you.
Photograph by Jonathan Borba. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.