We tend to call anyone we find exceptionally annoying a narcissist. Indeed, the word has become the ultimate insult for modern times. It’s used so much that, I’ve found, most people truly don’t know what it actually means.
This was even true of me. I didn’t completely understand what a narcissist was or was not until I worked with Mary Ellen O’Toole, PhD, a former FBI profiler, on the book Dangerous Instincts. Now when I think back over my life, I can think of just a few people who qualify as full-blown narcissists. As for the rest of the people I found exceptionally nerve racking? They were probably just a bit selfish with a touch of an anger problem.
I find the topic of narcissism intriguing. I’m guessing you do, too. Even more intriguing is this: how so many people end up in relationships with narcissists. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon first hand. One of my best friends has been in a relationship with a narcissist for many years. She’s no dummy. She’s also not weak or lonely or desperate. So why does she stay? And can she be happy with this guy?
To find the answers to those questions and more, I tapped the mind of Meredith Resnick, the author of the Narcissism: Surviving the Self-Involved – A Little Primer on Self-Care.
Q: Just about everyone thinks they know someone who is a narcissist. I’m guessing, however, some of the people that we think of as narcissists are just your common everyday jerks. How can you figure out if you’ve accidentally married a narcissist?
Meredith: Though a common everyday “jerk” is not necessarily someone who is great to be in a relationship with, what might set him (or her) apart from the narcissist is that, despite the stupid things they do or say, a particular “jerk” might still be able to feel and express empathy for others. If one feels the protracted absence of empathy in a relationship, and feels a cold frost in its place, this could indicate that narcissism is present.
Q: Why can people seem so great in the beginning, but soon everything falls apart?
Meredith: In the beginning, particularly when there is a strong physical attraction, we tend to see the terrific parts of the other person’s personality. I’ve read and heard that, in fact, this “seeing the best in the other” is actually us projecting our finer qualities (I call this reverse projection) onto the other person. You might have heard it called the honeymoon period.
At some point in the relationship, both parties will acknowledge their own assets and liabilities (we hope), and move forward as two individuals coming together in a union–but remaining the individuals that they are. The alternative is one feeding off the other, which is what happens when you are involved with a narcissist. This is where the term “narcissistic supply” comes from.
If you are involved with a narcissist, you’ll notice signs of trouble when you take back your own assets, which means you have stopped “seeing” and projecting them onto the other person (so, ceasing the reverse projection). Trouble is, narcissists like the reverse projection; it makes them look better. The narcissistic person has begun to wear the projected assets as his or her own mask, and will experience your assets as his or her own! Then, when you attempt to own them again, he or she might say that you are copying them, stealing from them, trying to be like them.
Once this happens, you can become the object of the narcissist’s rage (which can be very loud or icily quiet) and soon finds yourself apologizing, because this rage (again, loud or quiet) can be frightening and intolerable.
Q: What are some of these traits?
Meredith: According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR, 2000): “The essential feature of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following (which can be viewed in DSM-IV-TR, page 717):
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love
- Believes that they are special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- Requires excess admiration
- Has a sense of entitlement
- Is interpersonally exploitative
- Lacks empathy; is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Q: So let’s say someone is reading this, sees that checklist that you just gave, and says, “Oh em gee, my spouse has every single one of those traits!” Then what? Is it even possible to have a happy marriage if one’s spouse is a narcissist?
Meredith: Understanding the disease of narcissism is a must. Read about it, do research, educate yourself. The other important step is to understand why and what led to developing the blind spot that led to falling for this person who is unable to truly, authentically show empathy and be in a relationship with another person. The support of a licensed, trained clinician can help you grow and heal. (Typically, when it comes to couples, one therapist will see the couple; two other individual therapists will see the individuals separately.)
Q: I have a friend who is dating a narcissist. He’s really good at convincing her that she’s the problem. It takes an army of friends like me to prove to her that it’s the other way around. Do you have advice for people who are probably married to narcissists but who blame themselves for their failed marriage?
Meredith: One of the underlying themes of narcissism – though not said directly – is the sense that it is always the other person who is responsible for the narcissist’s happiness, contentment and, more globally, life. Since the partner cannot provide the cure to make the narcissist happy, devaluation comes next.
It’s important to understand that the interior life of the narcissist is equivalent to a black hole. Narcissist’s have a very fragile internal life. Deep within they feel a dense of profound emptiness, of being null, void, empty, a shell.
Think for a moment how frightening that would be, to live like that day in and day out. But instead of finding a way out of the hole, the narcissist projects his or her fear of nothingness on another person. Once we take it on – always unknowingly – we feel their pain and desperation. But we cannot fix it because the original problem does not belong to us.
Narcissism is a slippery, and convoluted slope. It can take years for one partner to realize the other is narcissistic. In fact, it can take decades. One of the greatest gifts we give ourselves is becoming aware of its effects, and how, in turn, it affects us. This we do have control over, which is very good news.
Meredith Resnick is the author of Narcissism: Surviving the Self-Involved – A Little Primer on Self-Care. She is currently working on Stronger Every Day: 366 Thoughts, Meditations and Ideas to Help You Overcome the Effects of Narcissism (2013).
Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Psychology Today, JAMA, Orange County Register, Culinate and many others. She is the author of Narcissism: Surviving the Self-Involved. Visit MeredithResnick.com and YouAndN.com for more information.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.