Recognizing, Treating, and Coping With Narcissism
Help for Your Mental Health
Despite working as a certified drug and alcohol counselor for several years, I had never treated a narcissist. While I'd noticed certain narcissistic traits in some people, it wasn't until I stumbled into an unfortunate relationship with a man who exhibited all the classical symptoms of narcissism that I was able to deeply understand the ways this disorder can affect a relationship.
Fortunately, I was able to get away from that relationship in about a year—though it proved costly to my finances and self-esteem. It took several years before I fully healed from the emotional damage I had experienced. Many people don't have the luxury of escaping. The narcissist in their lives may be a parent or sibling. It may be a spouse who controls the purse strings and emotionally abuses them until their self-esteem is nothing more than tattered shreds of a once-healthy ego.
That's why, for my 100th HubPages article, I'm tackling a tough topic to help others pinpoint whether their loved one has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), how to cope with narcissism in their lives, and what the experts have to say about treating it.
What Do You Think?
How does someone become narcissistic?
It has been said that we in an "age of entitlement" that has created an epidemic of narcissists in our society. University of Michigan professor Sara Konrath's studies appear to validate the claim.
One line of thinking claims that over-coddling, controlling parents contribute to the personality disorder. Others believe that toddlers whose emotional growth is traumatized right around the time most children learn to have empathy are more prone. A third line of thought is that narcissists are born egomaniacs.
While I am not an expert on the precise mechanics of how narcissists develop, the signs and symptoms are reasonably simple to pinpoint once they are suspected. Although there is a free online test available for people who are interested in discovering if they may have NPD, it's unlikely that a person with NPD will willingly take the test for a loved one or acknowledge its results if it does indicate the possibility of NPD. Narcissists aren't willing to fess up in therapy, either, if they can avoid. People with NPD aren't stupid! They know it's not politically correct to acknowledge that they feel superior to others, believe that it's perfectly okay to manipulate everyone else, and have no empathy in the process.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Revision IV (DSM-IV), identifies nine characteristics of NPD. The presence of five or more of these characteristics is indicative of the disorder, but because everyone has some narcissistic traits, it can be easy to think another person is narcissistic when they don't actually meet the full criteria.
Informal Identification of Narcissism
Narcissists tend to avoid therapeutic relationships, except when they want to manipulate someone into taking on blame and avoid responsibility for damage in the relationship. As soon as a therapist probes their contributions to problems, a person with NPD becomes angry and stops valuing the therapist. He or she may stalk from the room in a rage.
However, by gently asking these questions (which are highlighted in the video below) in an innocent manner and at different times, without being judgmental about your loved one's answers, you can suss out whether he or she has five or more characteristics of NPD:
- "Do people often fail to appreciate your special talents or accomplishments?"
- "Have people told you that you have too high an opinion of yourself?"
- "Do you think a lot about the power, fame, or recognition that will be yours someday?"
- "When you have a problem, do you almost always insist on seeing the top person?"
- "Is it important that people pay attention to you or admire you in some way?"
- "Do you feel you deserve special treatment?"
- "Do you often expect others to do what you ask without question because of who you are?"
- "Do you often find it necessary to step on a few toes to get what you want?"
- "Would you say that you're not really interested in others' problems or feelings?"
- "Are you often envious of others?"
- "Do you find that there are very few people that are really worth your time and attention?"
If you're not a mental health professional and you want to ask these questions, taken from the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM IV Axis II Personality Disorders, avoid any hint of a reaction at the answers you hear! Narcissists are extremely prone to rage at any implication of criticism. You should never use these answers to prove a point to anyone but yourself - and you most certainly should not disagree with a narcissist's beliefs on any of these issues.
In a moment, I'll talk about how to cope with narcissism. First, this 47-minutes video documentary provides an excellent review of narcissistic traits, and how dangerous they can be for those around them.
Can You Spot a Narcissist?
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Why Do Narcissists Behave the Way They Do?
Narcissists literally feel shattered by criticism, as if it negates their very existence. When they perceive it, even comments that are designed to be helpful, they feel they must reassert themselves in the world. To achieve this, they must find ways to validate their poorly formed egos by finding something that's now called "narcissistic supply."
The phrase "narcissistic supply" refers to the way narcissists bolster their fragile egos by creating pain in others. They have created a fantasy version of the world in which they are special, powerful, and talented, and they must prove their perceptions again and again. To do so, they must cast others as "weak," "stupid," or worthless. Their behaviors reflect this attitude.
At first, their targets are put on a pedestal and treated as if they're one of the few people worthy of his or her attention, but as soon as the narcissist perceives any flaw or weakness in their target, that person is criticized, demeaned, humiliated, or physically abused. People with NPD will lie, manipulate, cheat, assassinate a target's reputation, career, or life, and feel no compassion whatsoever. Indeed, their abilities to feel are limited to just a few emotions - anger, depression when they don't get their way, and satisfaction (not happiness) when they do.
Coping with Narcissism
Rational thought and logic are a narcissist's greatest enemy. To get along with a person with NPD, it's necessary to put critical thinking skills away in a safe place - out of sight and out of mind.
Trying to reason with a narcissist is impossible. Questioning someone with NPD is like lighting a stick of dynamite—the more you try to use reason, the greater the chance of an explosion. Remember that criticism is the very trigger that prompts their behavior!
There is ultimately just one way to protect yourself from a narcissist. Escape.
However, that's not easy to do with someone who's willing to spread rumors about you, devastate you financially, or hurt you or other loved ones without a moment's regret. What you can do, however, is use their own methods to prevent rational thinking from provoking arguments.
- Become an expert at changing the subject. When someone with NPD criticizes you, do not respond directly, but instead find another topic and ask a question about it. For example, if your NPD spouse asks, "Why did you do that?" you can reply with a question about his or her day that will get them talking about something else. "Hi, dear, how did your meeting go this afternoon?" Getting her talking about what's important to her (which is herself!) the narcissist may forget they were unhappy with something in the first place.
- If you cannot change the subject, respond with a simple, "Okay" to whatever the narcissist says. You're merely confirming that you've heard it, but due to his belief that others automatically accept his influence, he'll go away happy.
- Avoid eye contact and showing emotion when you're under attack. The narcissist sees emotion as weakness, and eyes often betray how we feel. By refusing to fuel the narcissistic supply that reinforces that superiority complex, we deny the narcissist satisfaction of his goals.
- Use their egos to your own ends. For instance, when I was escaping my NPD relationship, I bought a house that required more work than I could perform. The man in question worked in construction, so I acted like he was the only person who could fix the plumbing so I could move. Even though we'd broken up, and he refused to perform tasks he'd previously said he would, he did some work that enabled me to get moved out of his house. He got the adoration he craved, and I got what I wanted - away from him.
While using these tactics, hopefully you're planning your own escape. Fight fire with fire to ensure your safety. Being transparent puts you at risk, so don't be afraid to protect yourself or your family by any means necessary - lying or trickery to get your spouse's name off the deed to your home or to establish an individual bank account, or claiming you're going to the store when you're headed for your divorce attorney's office may be necessary to protect yourself from utter destruction when you leave. A narcissist will not relinquish control willingly and may go into a rage if you assert yourself. False accusations and murder aren't outside of his or her possible reactions, so do whatever it takes.
What's Your View?
Is NPD becoming more common in our society?
Treatment for Narcissism
In the DSM-IV, the American Psychiatric Association defines a personality disorder as "an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that differs markedly from the expectations 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. Personality disorders are a long-standing and maladaptive pattern of perceiving and responding to other people and to stressful circumstances."
People with NPD tend to avoid treatment. After all, it indicates they're not the capable, superior being they believe themselves to be. However, they may have a condition that prompts them to seek treatment, such as depression, or they may be forced into therapy by a loved one. Individual counseling can help them stabilize or improve the "presenting problem," but the jury is out on whether treatment of personality disorders is effective. The very definition of a personality disorder indicates that the patient's inner experiences are unlikely to change - they are part of the patient's character.
With NPD, the personality is more resistant to change than other personality disorders. With some personality disorders, patients are able to respond well to rational confrontation, but a narcissist's ways of seeing the world inherently dehumanizes the therapist who attempts to point out flawed thinking.
Although narcissistic patients are being seen in record numbers over the last few years, there has been little opportunity to study or develop effective treatments. Mild success has been reported with individual therapy after lengthy treatment that continues for a period of several years, but such cases are few and far between.
In other words, until more effective treatments are developed, a person's basic personality traits are likely to remain essentially the same.
If you are currently in any type of relationship with a person who has NPD, I empathize with you. I encourage you to use evasion and accept a non-confrontational role until you can get away from the destruction zone.
If you are afraid that your NPD partner, family member, or friend is going to hurt you, call 9-1-1. Find a safe place to go. Stash money as you're able. But above all, plan to get away. For more tips on escaping a narcissistic relationship, read this helpful article by another HubPages author: How to Leave.