How can you tell if someone you know has an unhealthy narcissistic personality? One measure is how you feel around that person.

If you consistently feel on equal footing and valued for who you really are, you are probably not in the presence of a person with narcissism.

On the other hand, if you often feel put down, not seen or valued, or part of a command performance for another’s benefit, you may be in the presence of one of the more than 150 million people worldwide who has narcissistic personality disorder or a narcissistic style.

Like the Greek myth which gave this disorder its name, narcissists are enamored with image. Focused on their own superficial reflection, they are generally uninterested in seeing who others intrinsically are beyond status or appearance.

If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you may struggle to find equality, love, and reciprocity. You may experience manipulation at the hands of a person who uses you for his own needs all the while claiming he cares about you. If you point out this inconsistency, narcissists will act as though they don’t know what you are talking about.

Narcissists seek gratification through winning, feeling superior and, more than anything, getting attention. They seek these because narcissists lack something vital to being a psychologically healthy human: a fully formed self.

Deep in their core, in ways most narcissists are not fully aware of and would never talk about, they feel flawed and empty. Terrified of this emptiness, they seek to disguise or fill this void with a grandiose posture and stance of entitlement. Viewing themselves as better than others, they feel entitled to break the rules and receive special treatment. They expect others to admire, defer to, and take care of them. If their expectations don’t materialize, they can become enraged.

The suggestion that someone close to you who seems so superior is, in truth, terribly wounded may be difficult to accept. Such a larger-than-life persona can be incredibly convincing. Narcissists speak with an air of certainty and conviction that tends to make others doubt their own intuition. After all, as the fable goes, only one small child in a town full of people said the emperor had no clothes.

Some clients ask me, are the inconsiderate, manipulative, and controlling behaviors of narcissists premeditated and personal? My sense is that narcissists operate largely on instinct. Their mistreatment of others is no more personal than a shark seeking a meal, preying on whichever seal may cross its path. The more often you cross a shark’s path, the more likely to are to be attacked. It’s what sharks do.

Lacking a sense of self, people with narcissism clutch at success, fame, attention, wealth, and status to feel worthy and whole – feelings they cannot generate from within. They are generally unaware of how much this pursuit drives them. Lacking empathy, they rarely see the impact their behavior has on others.

As in The Wizard of Oz when the dog Toto pulled back the curtain on a small man pretending to be the great and powerful Oz, the key in dealing with narcissistic people is to see behind their facade. Once you do so, you are at much less risk for being fooled, used and hurt.

Whether they are aware of it or not, most narcissists are driven by fear and shame. Among their key fears:

  • Feeling powerless
  • Losing control
  • Being wrong or having self-doubt
  • Being seen as flawed

As with most people with personality disorders, their lives become an endless chain of disguising and overcompensating. To avoid feeling powerless or out of control, they act invincible. To avoid feeling self-doubt, they must be certain about nearly everything. To avoid feeling flawed, they believe they are perfect and special.

Here are three guidelines I have found helpful in dealing with narcissists:

  1. Try not to depend on a narcissist for important needs. Depending on a narcissist means you are likely to feel let down, used, or that you owe them. Choose carefully whether you let someone have that power over you.
  2. Don’t try to change a narcissist. Trying to change a narcissist is generally a waste of energy and time. Instead, decide what you are willing to accept or tolerate, and at what cost.
  3. You have options. You nearly always have more than one option when dealing with a narcissist, even if it may not initially feel like it. In the face of a narcissist’s demands, put downs, or attempts to manipulate you, you can say no, excuse yourself, say you have to think about it, change the subject to something you know the narcissist loves to talk about, or find other ways to get your needs met.

© Copyright 2017 By Dan Neuharth PhD MFT

Photo credit:  Kevin Simpson / Flickr