Thoughts and Advice on Better Understanding and Coping with an Overly Used Label and Tolerating the Pain of a “Narcissistic” Interaction.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve begun to see a revolution of articles on the topic of Narcissistic personality disorder. I would say that Narcissism is a fairly common disorder to varying degrees and intensities within our generation and the generation before us; it’s not a new disorder. Why, then, is everyone talking about it? I’ve also have more recently started to see articles on the overuse of Narcissism, on the reframe of “The Narcissist and The Empath” interactions, and on the general meaning of using narcissism as a way to pathologize someone else.
I must admit that I myself am guilty of overusing this word, or using this word as an excuse for very uncomfortable feelings that I am experiencing toward someone when I have felt used by someone or swindled by someone. I am a psychotherapist, I have learned the INS and the OUTS of the meaning of Narcissism, and I can recognize “a narcissist” in a heartbeat based on what I know. So throughout the years of my training, I’ve really began to own why I feel the need to use that word to describe someone, and what pain within me I am defending against, what narcissistic injuries of my own I may be displacing by pathologizing someone else.
Who is a narcissist, what is narcissism, and why are some people narcissistic while others are not?? There are several ways of understanding it. First of all, lets be clear here: Everyone should be a narcissist at a young age. This is the appropriate age to experience “Healthy Narcissism”. Think about a baby or a toddler. It is totally and absolutely essential for a baby or a toddler to be extremely selfish and self centered, for years at a time, and it is the job of a mother to provide absolute and utter selflessness to the extent that they can, in order to buffer an infant from experiencing the pain of not having their needs met. If and when this is achieved, a young child can slowly start to consider the needs of their parent, and therefor, later in life, be able to see past their own needs with other people and partners in their life. When this phase of development is missed, it can continue to be unmet into an adult age, thus on-setting the personality disorder that we know as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It takes being held emotionally to know how to hold others emotionally.
When talking about Narcissistic personality disorder, I would like to make several things very clear. First of all, everyone can be narcissistic in situations or interactions where they feel threatened; i.e. everyone should have the ability to be narcissistic to some extent. Second of all, narcissism is very much so on a spectrum or a continuum. This continuum can range from “healthy narcissistic behavior” on least extreme end to “sociopathic behavior” on the most extreme end.
There are two main types of Narcissism, known as Deflated (Vulnerable) Narcissism and Grandiose Narcissism. Let’s look at Grandiose Narcissism first, as it is the easiest type of narcissism to identify. We have all come into contact with a grandiose narcissist at some point or another. They are highly talented, successful, attractive people. They are highly desirable. They seem to have it all: Looks, money, and a successful career. They want to be, or are, famous; and because everyone idealizes them, wants to be friends with them, are willing to bend backwards for them, they lose the necessary accountability for behaving kindly toward other human beings. Everything is about them because they can get whatever they want. They are very controlling, and thus, will only be in a relationship with someone who is selfless, who can easily be controlled, who is willing to sacrifice their own needs to be with someone “famous” or “special” or “amazing”. How do we feel when we are in a relationship with someone like this? Usually, one feels constantly afraid that they will be abandon. Or they feel idealized “you are the most beautiful, you are the most special” and then devalued “there are a million people who are better than you and can meet my needs better than you”. And at the root of all of this is a harsh, vicious aggression. After all, controlling someone else can be a form of hatred. Also, someone who is narcissistic will often immediately feel attacked when confronted, and will very quickly have a counter attack. What happens the second you have a need with a grandiose narcissist? They leave you, of course, if this need points to them needing to change their ways in any way, shape or form.
Ok. Lets take a second to look at deflated narcissism, or the “vulnerable” narcissist. This person is very kind in most cases, they try very hard to please others, and they are overly concerned about how you view them. They are deeply insecure, very fragile, they may constantly ask you if they did something wrong, if you don’t like them, if others don’t like them. They are overly self-involved buy not in an ego driven way. They are preoccupied with themselves, but in a way where they must constantly check whether or not you hate them. This person is in a victim role, is a wounded person, a person who cannot take care of you when you are going through something because they themselves need to be taken care of. This person is ALWAYS the wounded one. In a relationship with them, there is no space for you to be wounded. Often times these partners or parents are actually quite sweet until you are mad at them for something. They are then too fragile already to admit their mistakes, take on a holding, apologetic role, or let you be a total mess when you are going through something. Lets say that you go through something really serious and traumatizing; you are raped, you lose a close family member, you are held at gunpoint. It would be quite easy to fall into a narcissistic role during a time like this, when you need to be held. That is what Healthy Narcissism in adulthood looks like. But when you are always the deflated narcissist, it seems that you cannot easily bounce back from your wounded place, and narcissism is more of a permanent position for you.
I would like to point out something that may seem very obvious at this point in my article. The disorder can be set in stone, or it can be fluid. People go through things. People can change. Nothing is set in stone. Narcissism seems to sprout out of some deep, early wounding, and it can be inflamed when something bad happens to us. Why do people who are narcissistic seem to have friends? Yes, look closely; they are not narcissistic with everyone. There is a special interaction between you and them that seems to exasperate this dynamic. What does that say about you? It really is a question to bring to a therapy treatment. But, in short, there is probably someone in your life who is very narcissistic. Or, you probably have some narcissism in relation to this person that is exasperated in this interaction. Sometimes two wounded people can create that. You don’t have this problem in all of your relationships, and neither do they.
How do you repel a narcissistic person? The first question to ask is, are you sure that you don’t want a relationship with them anymore? This is of the most difficult questions to ask of course, as some of these relationships are probably very special, deep, eye opening, and meaningful. The thing is that, maybe not so unlike you, people who are wounded can also be some of the most creative, special, well-liked people from afar. Often times Narcissistic people are very productive and very successful people. Losing this relationship may actually be quite sad to you. Can the relationship survive? Or has it reached a point that it is too painful, too confusing, and too hard to work through? Once you have decided, from your heart, that this person isn’t working for you anymore, the next step is to confront them, of course. When confronting someone gently, kindly, softly, the message may not get across. Any negative finger pointed at someone who is truly narcissistic, with a full blast of all of that rage that you have been holding in or all of that blame that you have been directing at yourself instead, will surely insult them to the point of no return. Anytime you directly call someone who is narcissistic out on what they have done, how they have impacted you, why you are so angry at them, that will probably be the end of your relationship for a long time, but probably forever. Be careful what you wish for in this decision. On the rare occasion that they aren’t actually narcissistic, you may be pleasantly surprised to have your anger held and your feelings acknowledged. But it is likely that you’ve at this point been hoping for that fantasy to become true for too long to wait any longer.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that your work here is done once this person is out of your life. More relationships like this will come if you don’t acknowledge and attempt to heal your own narcissistic wounds. There is something within you that somehow attracts this situation. Honestly, not to be a typical psychotherapist, but it probably has to do with your parents or some other close family member. If someone is so intolerable to you that you must not have them in your life anymore, then that means you have unbearable feelings within you that must also be confronted. Therapy is one of the best places to chip away at the defenses that keep you from accessing this pattern and mastering it.
Bianca Aarons is a practicing psychotherapist intern in San Francisco through the auspices of the Grateful Heart Holistic Therapy Center. Bianca’s specialties include attachment, trauma, sexual abuse, posttraumatic stress, relationship issues, depression issues, couples work and work with teenagers. Learn more about Bianca at www.biancaaarons.com, email her firstname.lastname@example.org, or call her at (415) 553-5346 to ask any questions or to set up a consultation session.