Tuesday, December 8, 2015

What is narcissism?


As I said in my gaslighting post, I have had feedback from readers of Letters To Myself, wondering about the extreme personality disorder exhibited by Nathan. Sadly, this extreme is common, with awareness of it rising. It’s difficult to understand for anyone not living with, or interacting with, someone like Nathan. But many people do, and those are the people for whom Cassie is so important. 

Cassie resonates with readers because her story is familiar to those in similar situations. She is not a counsellor, not a psychiatrist. She is an ordinary person trying to understand why her life is disintegrating and why she feels so bad. By writing her story I am reaching out to all of those people, I’m saying they can find a way off the roller-coaster, and I am saying it’s ok to ask for help. Cassie would not have been able to break free without help.

Nathan suffers from three distinct personality disorders, one of which is Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder are terms that are frequently used interchangeably. Narcissism is an often misunderstood word. Many people equate it with an overdeveloped sense of self-love, or an exaggerated sense of importance. However Narcissism is far more complex than that.

The term Narcissism comes from the myth of Narcissus. Narcissus was the son of the River God Cephisus and the nymph Lyriope. He was known for his good looks and physique, and was loved by the gods and people alike. In the Greek Myth Narcissus spurned a would be lover, and the Gods decided to teach him a lesson. While drinking from a river he fell in love with his own reflection and was unable to leave it, dying on the bank. He either died from starvation (Greek version) or killed himself out of despair (Roman version).

Everybody has some of the traits associated with narcissism, it is a wide spectrum. Those at the lower end of the spectrum are able to function in society with little difficulty. In fact it is considered normal to exhibit some of the traits of narcissism. Without healthy self-esteem the person suffers from crippling low self-esteem. 

People with healthy narcissistic traits are realistic about both their strengths and weaknesses. They do not intentionally disrespect or harm others. They have a strong sense of separateness within a relationship and do not play the one-up-man-ship game (“You’ve had a bad day? Well it couldn’t possibly be any worse than mine, my job is so much harder than yours” etc.) There is a healthy give and take in their relationships.

People with unhealthy narcissism are a different story.

There are common traits of narcissism, as listed below:

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance

  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

  • Believes that he or she is special and unique, and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people

  • Exaggerates achievements or talents

  • Is a compulsive, and plausible liar

  • Requires excessive admiration

  • Has a strong sense of entitlement

  • Takes advantage of others in an exploitative manner

  • Lacks empathy, is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

  • Is often envious of others, or believes others are envious of him or her

  • Shows arrogance, haughty behaviour or attitude

  • Gets hurt easily

  • Difficulty understanding other people’s emotions

An interesting thing about narcissists is that they are frequently masking a deep seated sense of inferiority with a persona that is larger than life – grandiose, self-absorbed (everything always ends up being about them) and conceited. Any perceived threat to this persona is vigorously, and often viciously defended. They cannot cope with criticism or anything that threatens to unmask them, reacting with rage and/or contempt. 

A narcissist will monopolize the conversation, belittle people considered inferior, insist on having the ‘best’ of everything. A narcissist is always ‘right’, so it is pointless to get into an argument or difference of opinion. They will turn the conversation back onto you and make you feel wrong or to blame.

At the beginning of a relationship the narcissist plays the role of Prince Charming. He/she can be the most charismatic, charming, kind, thoughtful, and apparently loving person, but it is all an act. Often the narcissist in unaware of the pattern of woo, charm, belittle, denigrate and then discard, instead rewriting events in his/her own mind and creating a new ‘reality’. Subsequent partners will hear tales of how horrible the previous partners were to the ‘victim’ narcissist.

There is nobody more charming than a narcissist when things are going well and they are getting all the attention. But if the partner begins to give attention elsewhere (and this may be something as apparently minor as not wanting to watch a movie on television with them) they will manipulate the situation to bring all the attention back to them. This may be with charm, or it may be with aggression.

Narcissists are exhausting as the partner is constantly walking through emotional quicksand, never sure what will set them off on a narcissistic rage. They will belittle and denigrate the partner as a way of feeling powerful and superior. They will keep the partner mired in chaos as a means of control. This is why narcissists often engage in gaslighting to control a partner. The partner is there to feed the needs of the narcissist. There is never a balanced give or take in the relationship, only the illusion of one. 

The narcissist can use one hand to help pull up the partner while using the other to push them back down.

One of the issues Cassie had to deal with was the narcissistic rages Nathan would fly into at the slightest provocation. Nathan also had rages associated with the adult ADHD (more on that in another post), but it was the narcissistic rages that did the most emotional damage to Cassie. When a narcissist suffers narcissistic injury – when they feel a threat to their perceived self-image or self-worth – the reaction is rage, often far out of proportion to the perceived slight. 

Cassie never knew what would set him off, so was hypervigilant, looking for hints that he was about to erupt - tiptoing on eggshells. This behaviour is all too common, and serves only to reinforce the belief of the narcissist that he or she is superior, as those around become submissive and try to please. A narcissistic rage is terrifying even if it’s not physical. It doesn’t need to be. A narcissist knows the precise things to say to destroy the victim. The victim is in emotional tatters for days or weeks, while the narcissist is revitalized.

Readers also wondered why Cassie stayed with Nathan for so long. Narcissists create dependency in their partners through manipulative behaviours such as gaslighting. When the book opens Cassie is so deep in the co-dependency that she cannot see how Nathan’s behaviour is affecting her. She blames herself for everything that is wrong in the marriage, since she has been manipulated by Nathan into thinking that. 

Cassie may well have stayed with Nathan indefinitely if events had not transpired as they did. Once out she began to think more clearly and to realise what had been happening. But it was a long process and hindered by Nathan trying to keep control of her. This is also common, the narcissist will frequently try to reel the partner back in, to feed off them like an emotional vampire. Cassie got free, finally, because she had help from good friends and a therapist. But she is damaged, which is why she’s probably driving you crazy with her vacillation in her story (if you haven’t read it yet, Cassie’s story continues in a serial here every Monday, Cassie's Story).

There is a range of advice on the web about narcissism, and all of the webpages will stress that you need to seek help. I fully agree with all of them. If you are relating to this post, if you related to the gaslighting post, then you should seek help. Find a counselor, go to see your GP, take the first step by seeing someone. 

I don’t think that all relationships with a narcissist need to end, but I do think it depends on the severity of the problem. With an extreme narcissist – someone like Nathan – there is very little chance that any relationship will survive. You need two people working together as equal partners to make a relationship work. With someone like Nathan it’s more of a dictatorship that will destroy the partner.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article Sheryl! Great explanations. The book, Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed by Wendy T. Behary http://amzn.to/1NTmC0V is an excellent book for those who love a person with Narcissistic personality disorder.