Close Encounter with a Narcissist – Part 1 July 5, 2008Posted by alwaysjan in Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Tags: Health, Life, Narcissism, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, NPD, Personality Disorders
When you’re used to writing with a humorous edge, there’s always the danger that when you have something important, albeit serious, to say, no one will take you seriously. I’m willing to take that chance.
I’m writing this because, first, I want to expunge any lingering demons from my own close encounter with a narcissist. Even more important, as an educator, I’d like to see information about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) become common knowledge. Can you remember back to when you first heard about ADHD or OCD? Even now, you might not know all there is to know (that’s what Wikipedia is for!), but at least you know these disorders are for real. So is NPD. There will be a quiz at the end. Hey, I’m a teacher, and I need to check for understanding.
When most people think of a narcissist, they picture someone obsessed with their physical appearance. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall…” I’d certainly never heard of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a real-deal condition laid out in the DSM-IV. But being an experiential learner, I had to learn the hard way. Now I’m an armchair detective in the study of this condition, and I’m finally ready to talk.
I make no excuses for lacking medical or psychological credentials. Narcissists are an elusive breed, so you won’t find them in a therapist’s office embarking on a journey of introspection. When my husband was on jury duty, another potential juror was a therapist. When asked about NPD, the therapist sadly shook his head. “I’ve actually never seen a client with NPD because they’re convinced they don’t have a problem,” he said. “But they leave a high body count,” he added. “Their victims are the people who come to see me.”
No wonder. A close encounter with a narcissist can leave you doubting your own sanity. The victim, and there is a victim, is left shaking her head wondering, “What just happened?” (I’ll use the female pronoun since it’s believed that the 50-75 percent of those with NPD are men). Want to get those party guests who’ve overstayed their welcome to leave? Just start talking about NPD. If you try to explain the disorder to friends or family, they’ll look at you like you’re discussing alien abduction or as if you’ve grown another head.
I haven’t sprouted another head yet have I? Good. Because it’s highly likely you know someone who has NPD. Most likely, they’re flying under your radar. Narcissists make nice to people who are in the position to do something for them, or to people who just don’t have a speaking role in the grand production that is their life. Only those who dare to get emotionally close to a narcissist get to see them drop their carefully crafted social mask.
The DSM – Not A Summer Read
The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) is a hefty tome and the handbook for mental health professionals. I once trekked to the public library to consult it, after I was told by a therapist that a mutual friend suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. What on earth? I imagined someone teetering on the edge of sanity, in danger of falling overboard. When I finally read the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder, all of the pieces fell into place. There was my friend. I had to sit down to catch my breath. If only I’d kept reading, I would have learned about NPD as well.
My friend with NPD, I’ll call him Joe, entered my orbit through a shared common interest. He seemed intrigued by my enthusiasm and talent. In retrospect, I think he was most drawn to me because although I’m a natural talker, I can also be a good listener. He struck me as someone who needed to talk, but was socially awkward. Initially, I found this endearing. If there was a lull in the conversation, he’d blurt out the strangest comment that had nothing whatsoever to do with what we’d been talking about. I overlooked these gaffes or mentally made excuses for them. He’s obviously uncomfortable talking to women. He’s from a different culture. English is his second language. He had a difficult childhood. He’s just outspoken.
Then one day Joe said something so cruel to me, I can still feel its sting. My eyes welled up with tears. “What’s the matter?” he asked, still smiling. “Are we thin-skinned?” I realized he was relishing my discomfort. It was creepy. After he left, I replayed the encounter in my head. Then replayed it again. Maybe I’d read too much into it. Later, I would be angry that I didn’t listen to my gut instinct.
Two days later, Joe stopped by to talk. It was as though nothing had ever happened. When I tried to bring the subject up, he dismissed my concern with a wave of the hand, “Nobody got hurt,” he proclaimed. What an odd comment to make, I thought. It left a bad taste in my mouth. Then, based on a hunch, I googled “narcissism.” I discovered there was so much I didn’t know.
DSM–IV Criteria for Diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
To make a diagnosis of NPD, at least five of the following nine behaviors must be evident.Remember that most narcissists are diagnosed in absentia since they’re loath to seek professional help. The comments in bold italics are mine.
1. An exaggerated sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements) Think- Grandiosity accompanied by its sidekick Magical Thinking. He’s so full of himself, he’s convinced he can do anything.
2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love. Think “The Secret.” My talents know no bounds!
3. Believes he is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions) Think – I’m unique, therefore I’m misunderstood.
4. Requires excessive admiration Think – Look at me Mom! (Any woman can play the role of Mom.)
5. Has a sense of entitlement Think – That doesn’t apply to me!
6. Selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends Think – You’re just lucky I chose you to be of service to me, as spending time in my presence is reward enough.
7. Lacks empathy Think – It’s killing me to even pretend that I’m interested in your life or concerns. Your feelings make me feel uncomfortable so get over it!
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him. Think-You have something I want. Can I borrow it so it can become mine?
9. Shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors or attitudes. Think – All this time I just thought he was an @sshole!
Narcissism, itself, is not inherently bad and is even developmentally appropriate. Children until the age of six are naturally narcissistic. They’re inherently egocentric and “Mine!” is their mantra. This is normal. As children grow older, they become more aware of the needs of others. Prodded by their parents, they learn to share. They learn to take turns. Reluctantly, they relinquish the spotlight.
Adolescents are also prone to narcissistic behavior. “You can’t tell me anything I don’t already know!” punctuated with a slamming door. This kind of narcissism is remedied when real life smacks them with a dose of reality. Mom and dad sever the financial pipeline, or their boss doesn’t find it cute that they were late to work again. Adolescents don’t grow out of it. They grow up.
Many adults show narcissistic traits, which can render them fairly obnoxious at times. But that doesn’t mean they have NPD. If you’re wondering about some of your own less-than-admirable traits, that’s proof positive that you’re NOT a narcissist. Narcissists are convinced that they’re perfect just the way they are. It’s other people who have the problem. Other people, as in the rest of the world. You just need to accept them the way they are. But that’s your problem.
Personality Disorder vs. Mental Illness
How is a personality disorder different from mental illness? I had a hard time initially wrapping my head around this one. A mental illness (schizophrenia being the most widely known) can be treated, with varying degrees of success with medications or cognitive therapy. Most mental illnesses are caused by brain cell synaptic disruptions, most of which are believed to be genetic in origin. I have friends who are bipolar and as long as they take their meds, any symptoms subside and they feel and act relatively “normal.” Mental illnesses typically present themselves in late adolescence or early adulthood. The onset of the mental illness is often sudden and profound. A mental illness descends over a person’s personality like a heavy wool blanket feels on an already warm summer night.
A personality disorder, on the other hand, is all pervasive. The DSM-IV describes a personality disorder as “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.”
With mental illness, a person’s personality is blanketed, or suffocated, by the onset of the mental illness. But the personality of someone with a personality disorder is virtually interwoven into every fiber of that blanket. Unravel the blanket and you unravel their personality.
So someone doesn’t have a personality disorder; they ARE the personality disorder. These personality traits are so deeply ingrained that they defy change. That brings me to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
Calcutta, India has the highest population density of any city on Earth, most of whom live in wretched poverty. Because only central Calcutta is serviced by sewers, during the monsoon season, raw sewage floods the streets. Helping the poor of Calcutta was Mother Teresa’s life’s work.
I had a friend who spent most of his childhood in Calcutta. One day we were shopping and he asked me to tell him which cologne smelled the best. He claimed to have no sense of smell. I was incredulous. My friend said rather matter-of-factly that he’d lost his sense of smell when he lived in India. He didn’t seem to view this as any sort of disability, for this “loss” he said had spared him from smelling the stench of humanity in Calcutta.
Now, I lived in New York City for 11 years, so I know first hand that there are smells worse than death. I saw how one homeless man, passed out and simmering in his own juices, could empty an entire subway car during the peak of rush hour. Just a whiff of a decomposing rat could make me retch.
But though this “loss” protected my friend against the putrid odors of Calcutta, it also robbed him of the ability to enjoy the sweet fragrance of night-blooming jasmine, the crisp smell of fresh basil, or the garlicky preview of a dinner to come. It was all or nothing. A package deal.
Are you still with me? Because I’m going to ask you to take a big step now.
Picture a small child, totally dependent on his mother to meet his emotional needs. Now what if it’s not putrid odors that assault the child’s senses, but human interactions themselves? A neglectful, abusive, or even an indifferent mother who leaves the child constantly feeling emotionally adrift. Or a dominating mother who won’t allow the child to be himself.
Just like my friend, who “lost” his sense of smell, some children, as a coping mechanism to survive the pain of emotional abandonment, tune out the very people who are inflicting the injury. But again, it’s a package deal, because the child tunes out all other humans as well. It’s as though the child “loses” his sense of people. People in the sense that they are caring others. It’s a high price to pay, but it protects the child from future emotional hurt. The child’s immature True Self is “safe” behind a psychological mask. This mask is what’s referred to in psychiatry as the False Self. Unable to trust those who should be nearest and dearest, the child turns his attention to someone who will never abandon him – himself.
The False Self not only protects the child from further injury. It embodies everything the child is not. While the child is powerless and vulnerable, the False Self of the narcissist presents itself as all knowing and all powerful. But behind the mask of the False Self lies an injured child – an emotional embryo.
Now if you’re a caring person, at this point you probably feel sorry for this child. Don’t bother – it’s too late. The child doesn’t feel sorry for you. This poor little child is now an adult. And it’s time for the victim to become the victimizer.
After I learned about NPD, I continued to be Joe’s “go to” person for several months. I so wanted to be wrong. It was only with my newly gained knowledge that I was able to fully see him for what he was, or more importantly, for what he wasn’t.
But what about the quiz, you ask? Just answer one simple question. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a _ _ _ _. Congratulations! You passed!
PART 2 The End Game of Devalue and Discard; Meet the Adult Narcissist; Humans = Things, Emotional Vampirism, and the answer to this analogy: As a CROSS is to a VAMPIRE; ____________ _____________ is to a NARCISSIST.
Click on the this link to read “Close Encounter with a Narcissist – Part 2″
Photo credit: Unicorn Mask by Matty on flickr.