Ever had a relationship with Dr. Jekyll? Or was that Mr. Hyde? Whether it’s your boss, your brother or your spouse, if you think you could be dealing with a narcissist you need to read The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Familyby Eleanor Payson. Ellie was kind enough to answer some questions for me — hopefully, you’ll have an “Aha!” moment and know what to do:
How do you define narcissism to someone when they ask you “Hey, Ellie, I heard you wrote a book? What’s it about?”
When people use the word narcissist, or narcissistic in the informal context he/she may simply be referring to someone who is behaving selfishly or is self-absorbed in a given circumstance. On the other hand, in a more pathological sense narcissism references a pervasive preoccupation with self that is out of balance with a healthy give and take in his/her relationships. I should qualify here that this is particularly true of those inner circle relationships such as a significant other, close friends, or family members. In essence pathological degrees of narcissism reflect a disturbance that distorts a person’s relationship between “self and other.” The narcissistic individual is someone who has an undeveloped self, an immature “I,” and is compensating by striving to prop up a grandiose “me” (the false self of the narcissist.) In other words, his/her preoccupation with maintaining a grandiose me distorts and overrides an ability to give genuine consideration and regard for other(s).
When we think of the resources that are called narcissistic supplies we can begin to get a handle on what this means. Narcissistic supplies are those exchanges between people that foster the well being of each person in a relationship – well being that comes from knowing that we are individuals of value, special and important just because we breathe, just because we exist. A person with a healthy self is able to exchange an unconditional regard (verbally and nonverbally) in his/her relationships. This presence of unconditional regard may be seen in the admiring gleam in our eyes, a spoken appreciation, an effortful listening that seeks to understand and empathize, a willingness to hold ourselves accountable for injuries we may have caused, and so on. Someone who is narcissistically defended inevitably requires many more “strokes” of affirmation, recognition, efforts at understanding, support, etc., than they are able to give. In fact, there is a kind of obliviousness to the recognition of these exchanges in the unconditional sense. This is because the narcissistic individual is externally focused on conditional realities for maintaining the grandiose me such as; how much power and status one has, how beautiful or handsome one is, how effective in his/her career one is, etc. These external realities become the source of pseudo affirmation, and the narcissist is inevitably desperately attached to the maintenance of these external realities for self-worth. The individual with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can barely acknowledge what is meant by unconditional regard of self and other. Consequently, the narcissist requires an endless supply of affirmation to keep his/her false, or substitute self, intact. Ironically, the narcissist is unable to make use of unconditional affirmation as true nourishment and similarly unable to give it.
How does a narcissist tip his hand? How do you know he’s a narcissist and not just a jerk?
Often the slang expressions of “jerk,” and perhaps more colorful terms, do seem to be the layperson’s language for describing narcissistic traits in a person. However, once we have “vented our spleen” we may want to take a deeper look at the person and our relationship so that we can act wisely and at times with the imperative for self-preservation. We may discover that there is more healthy substance to the person than we thought, or perhaps the opposite. The surface presentation of a person can appear to have any quality – from “jerk” to “charmer” to “sophisticate, intellectual, drama queen/king, officious professional,” etc. It is what exists under the surface (or perhaps more to the point – what does not exist under the surface) that we want to recognize. Developing discernment in taking the full measure of a person and the full measure of ourselves is what we must learn if we want to have more fulfilling and mature relationships. The misleading facade of individuals with personality disorders is the danger to be on the lookout for, and we can be tantalizingly tempted to forego the effortful discovery process. If we miss the presence of a deeper disturbance such as the narcissistic personality disorder in a person, we may end up struggling for our very psychological, financial, or even physical survival.
A few of the clues that I cite in my book are:
- Requires attention, admiration, special consideration, recognition
- Demonstrates a grandiose sense of entitlement
- Manipulates and pursues his/her agenda (often relentlessly, tenaciously)
- Criticizes self and others
- Holds unrealistic expectations of self and others, alongside an over-estimation of self and his/her needs
- Demonstrates an all or nothing approach to life — win/lose
Limited ability to:
- Fulfill mutually held “understandings.” Agreements seem to morph over time with creative “revisionist” ability
- Self-reflect and take ownership of a problem
- Tolerate anything perceived as criticism, or oversight
- Feel genuine or deep empathy for others
- Recognize the needs of others (except superficially)
- Recognize others as independent agents (separate selves)
These deeper limitations and disturbing defenses are inevitably camouflaged by the façade of some impressive or competent surface presentation mentioned earlier. The greatest danger here is that the outer demeanor often has a powerful aura of seduction emanating from a personality that projects the promise of larger than life charm, power, competence, originality, etc. The potency of this seduction is often so captivating that we can be induced into a kind of suspension of belief where our critical faculties for noticing distortions and inconsistencies are switched off. This is the crossroads, so to speak, of our own codependent tendencies that are necessary to heal if we really expect to steer clear of these dangerous relationships, or navigate them safely.
So, is narcissism treatable with therapy or drugs?
As far as the neurobiological issues that are involved, this is in many ways unchartered territory. However, I am always skeptical of individuals or approaches that lay claim to having all the answers from either the neurobiological side or the psychological side. In truth, we are a complex mix of both. Many individuals with a mental illness or a mental disorder will have what are called co-morbid issues, such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, that are in need of evaluation and treatment. Once we achieve relief from one or more of these conditions (sometimes through effective psychotropic medications) we stand a much better chance to develop a more effective self-observing ego that can allow greater possibilities for growth and change. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder almost without doubt have any number of co- morbid issues that once treated would allow him/her to function more appropriately.
What should someone who’s in a relationship with a narcissist do?
The first thing to do is reach out and get help and not stop until you feel that you have found someone who can validate and understand what you are going through. If the therapist is overly anxious and quick to dismiss the possibility that you are involved with someone with severe narcissism or perhaps full blown NPD then move on until you find a therapist who can appreciate the illusive nature of recognizing the realities of the problem. Then, second, commit to therapy to deal with your own issues (codependency, or a mix of narcissistic and codependency issues, etc.) and stay in the healing process as you utilize all the normal tools of therapy including books that can help with insight and empowerment. In therapy we need to be willing to work through our own blind spots, our shadow self as Carl Jung would call it. This is the only way out of our tendency to idealize which is often unconscious and compulsive. If there is any way of finding a support group or forming one, this is another invaluable tool.
Learning some immediate tools for asserting boundaries to create safety in these relationships is a must, and for this I believe, Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day by Anne Katherine is a must read. Since my book came out, I discovered books that I wish I had listed in my bibliography such as The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize it and How to Respond by Patricia Evans, and other books that have been published recently. Amazon.com offers excellent reviews for selecting these. On the home stretch of the healing process, coaching can be an invaluable tool for maintaining self-care and goals that lead to empowerment. Working with a coach like yourself, Michele, who is familiar with the depth of the issues and the importance for ongoing healing work is a true bonus.
Thanks for the plug, Ellie. To find out more about Eleanor Payson and her work, go to www.eleanorpayson.com