When we think of narcissism we often think of the way it looks in the rich and famous, the over-privileged. It plays out in a lack of genuine connection and empathy, an attitude of over-entitlement, and a tendency toward manipulative, deceptive and self serving patterns of behavior.
Narcissism with a capital N is a personality disorder, sometimes called a disorder of the self. And maybe you’ve also heard of healthy narcissism. This is what allows us to take care of our bodies, to enjoy being admired, and to be proud of our talents and achievements. Then there is the “malignant” narcissist, the person at the far end of the narcissism spectrum where it blends into the psychopathic.
But by far the majority of narcissists I encounter in sex addiction treatment are popularly called fragile narcissists. They are the run-of-the-mill insecure, thin-skinned narcissists who keep up a narcissistic “false self.” These are the self-important, the self-centered, the vain. What is the inner experience of such people?
The Are You a Narcissist Test
What follows is my own totally unscientific attempt at a self-test for narcissism. These are things I believe highlight what the narcissist is feeling and responding to in relation to other people. (Please feel free to suggest your own test questions based on your personal or professional experience.)
- Do you feel different and special or that you lead a charmed life?
- Are you especially alarmed when you make an embarrassing error?
- Do you prefer to ignore or explain away criticism from others?
- Do you worry about how the person you are with makes you look?
- Do you feel the need to put on a good show?
- Do you want to seduce people even when you are not attracted to them?
- Do you like it when people listen to you but find it boring to listen to them?
- Do you get irritated when people don’t notice you?
- When experiencing rejection or failure do you get furious or despondent?
- Do you feel mistrusting of psychotherapy?
The Related Behavior Patterns and Processes
- Narcissistic vulnerability
As with all personality disorders, the narcissist has a weak sense of self and is afraid of being found out. The facade of confidence and superiority is very thin and brittle. When this thin veneer is punctured, the narcissist may take things very personally and very hard. The narcissist may hold onto resentments for a long time.
When narcissists feel dissed it may cause them to come up swinging. But if narcissists experience a major reversal or a serious and undeniable blow to their self concept, they may become totally deflated. It is as if once the facade crumbles, the narcissist feels totally worthless and hopeless. They may even become suicidal.
I see a lot of narcissistic sex addicts who are compulsive seducers. These addicts drive their partners to distraction. Even if they are not actually cheating, they are constantly behaving seductively, even to random people. This kind of narcissistic addict may have been sexually objectified as a child and may have come to believe that their worth is tied up in their looks, their charm, and their ability to be sexually attractive to others. Seductiveness covers the underlying feeling that their seductiveness is all they really have to offer.
- The belief in perfection
Narcissists are often invested in feeling they are free of any major flaws. They create a persona that is blessed and find it hard to accept that there is anything wrong with their life.
It is a good bet that narcissists grew up in families in which they experienced a disrupted attachment history. Frequently one of their parents was powerful and themselves a narcissist and the other more submissive or needy (sometimes both parents were narcissists). The narcissist from such a family identifies with the powerful, successful, narcissistic parent, and that becomes his or her adaptation to life.
- Barriers to getting help
Narcissists may never show up for counseling. Often they don’t understand therapy and only seek help to please someone else or because they got in trouble. If they admit to any area of internal distress, they may over dramatize this and play up the victim role.
Narcissists are good at what are called “therapy interfering behaviors,” such as being unpredictable or irresponsible around their appointments.
Since they want to maintain their facade of wonderfulness, narcissists find it hard to believe that they don’t already have all the answers. Many narcissistic sex addicts resist following a treatment plan and instead construct a “boutique” program for themselves.
In therapy sessions with some narcissists it is often difficult to get a word in edgewise and if you do, it sometimes feels like you are putting them to sleep. They may enjoy being the center of attention for an hour but may have difficulty processing input.
Narcissists resist the idea that they are damaged in any way. Hence they have an idealized, unrealistic idea of their upbringing. But being the child of a narcissistic parent means experiencing some emotional neglect. This is damaging to the child, even if they identify with the narcissistic parent.
With any luck, something in the narcissist’s life will propel them to get help. And with a lot of perseverance it is possible to raise the narcissistic addict’s awareness. It is possible to get narcissists to draw the connections from their childhood wounds to their lack of authenticity, their unwillingness to be truly vulnerable, and inability to connect with others.
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