As a therapist with a specialization in helping sex addicts and their partners heal, the topic of narcissism is something that comes up often in my work. It is also a condition that is rampant in social media, politics, the entertainment industry, and even with our friends, family, professional and academic circles.
Narcissists believe that they are just a little (or a lot) more special than the rest of us. They believe that they are smarter, better looking, more funny, more charming, more seductive, more strategic, more talented, more artistic, or more complex. Because of their self perceived special-ness, narcissists (or Ns) believe they are entitled to more.
Entitlement might look like this to the N: They deserve the best seats at a concert or ball game, they often arrive late and make others wait, they love to name drop, or post photos of their latest and greatest cars, furs or jewelry. Ns flirt with the wait staff, your husband, or your boss. They hijack conversations believing every person is fascinated with them. They go after and expect to win the award (all of the awards), receive the best hotel room, land the business deal, and that their truth is the only truth.
Additionally, Ns are easily frustrated if life doesn't unfold the way the N expects. Conversely, Ns expect that more patience should be extended to them. Traffic, store lines, delayed flights, a tooth ache, a therapist needing to reschedule a session, or stormy weather. These are the regular every day irritants that all of us experience, yet these normal frustrations feel outrageous to an N. How dare the world and the minions in the world conspire against the Ns happiness and important schedule? Doesn't life know who the hell the N is? "Stupid assholes, dumb bitches, low life scum" roll right off of the Ns tongue.
The Two Faces of the Narcissist
The N often falls into these two categories or somewhere in between:
1. The Grandiose N: For example, Donald Trump, reality TV stars, Kanye West, or a Facebook friend obsessed with selfies and outward boasting might fit this category. They are the sun and we are the planets that all revolve around them. These folks have no problem demanding, interrupting, insulting, or even stealing. If they want something or even someone, they are taking it. I knew one lady that loved sneaking the little candle holders right off of the restaurant table and into her purse and thought it was hilarious. When I pointed out that this was petty theft and that she was negatively impacting the business owner's budget, she shrugged and said, "They are lucky someone that looks like me even comes here. I'm good for business!"
Needless to say that was the last meal we shared.
2. The Vulnerable N: Think of that person in your life when you have a differing opinion and dare to express this, they lash out or punish you with passive aggressive anger. Or the person who manipulates with their victim hood. Or the person who arrives late with a million excuses that we must swallow. Or the humble braggart (more on this later) like a Barbara Walters or a Taylor Swift type for example.
The grandiose N may have grown up being the golden child in his or her family. She or he was the special one who could do no wrong. Or perhaps mom or dad came to the rescue over and over - their child was perfect! Thinking about our candle holder petty thief N, likely she was allowed to do as she wished with very few consequences. And, if a consequence occurred, mom and dad rushed in to save her.
And then brought a puppy home to comfort her hurt feelings.
The vulnerable N may have grown up in a rigid system where love was not expressed. Or they were required to be the adult in the family system with too many responsibilities at too early an age. Or they experienced teasing, poverty or bullying. This person believes that their needs will never be met and that they will never be accepted unless they prove their worth through big gestures.
The grandiose Ns have no problem exhibiting the, "look at me look at me" behavior. Let's use an example we can all relate to: The self obsessed selfie addict. This is the man or woman who is in love with their image. The hair, make up, self tanner, muscle shots, provocative photos and so forth are always on display. They line their bookshelves with trophies and famous photos, or, you guessed it, photos of themselves. But never will you see a less than perfect photo without make up, heels or a carefully crafted pose. When the grandiose N posts a photo of self on social media (often one of many that week), it will never be with a person more handsome or more beautiful (unless that person is their mate, date or famous). And, because the N surrounds themselves with 100s of fans and followers vs. heartfelt authentic friendships, they will often receive dozens of likes, and/or shallow praise, and/or or sexually charged responses to their selfie parade.
On the rare occasion when the N receives little feedback on their post, they will begin hooking and baiting for compliments by commenting on their own post or tagging people. Or they will resort to the humble brag. This might sound like, "Rolled out of bed in my sweat pants and wife beater, and had three people hit on me at Starbucks. I guess people need glasses in my part of town, LOL!" Or they will use their pets, "I guess heads were turning today for my cute little poodle Gi Gi" while bending over in short shorts with Gi Gi the head turning poodle. When people point out the obvious, "Um, I think heads were turning because of your bootie shorts" the N will respond with "LOLs" cute emoticons, or "You are SO sweet!"
Other Ns will lead with a humble boast like this, "Just finished running 10 miles, feeling great!" and yet...they are in full make up and ready for a cover shoot. I don't know about you but if I ran 10 miles (which I don't), I'd likely be covered in sweat, red faced, and my hair would not be ready for a Cosmo cover shot.
Or the more obvious hooks. For example, you might see this from a middle aged N woman, "Was with my daughter at dinner tonight and the super hot young waiter carded me and asked if we were sisters, lol! I am 45 years old people and I can't believe that hottie thought I wasn't even 21!"
Yep. We can't believe it either.
If someone responds with good humor to the humble bragging N by saying, "Dude, I saw you at Starbucks this morning and it wasn't pretty" the grandiose narcissist will be infuriated and lash out with sarcastic digs or insults. Or they will abandon and ignore.
If someone responds to our #2 middle aged female N by saying, "Sounds like your waiter knew how to get a great tip!" The narcissist will respond with defense or silence. Or likely label the person responding as envious. And believe me they will find a way to retaliate.
The vulnerable N often draws attention by the humble bragging or being a "victim." This hook might look like this, "Ouch, I think I need some acupuncture, my hand is really hurting!" When well meaning acquaintances post questions of concern, "Are you OK? Can I help?" the vulnerable N might share, "Is it actually possible to get carpal tunnel from autographing my books over 100 times in one day?" or, "I think it is because I sprained my wrist lifting my trophy for best support for the local homeless." Or another tactic is, "Ouch, worked out so hard today that I bruised my pec!" and then a perfectly lit photo of the Ns "guns" are on display.
And the rest of us vomit just a little bit.
If someone responds to the vulnerable Ns hooks with a dry reflection stating, "No, I don't think you can actually get carpal tunnel by signing your own books", this only feeds the N. The following day, you might read this humble brag, "You all know how shy I am, so you can imagine I wanted to die of embarrassment when I won my 5th award tonight for author with the best body." This is usually followed up with several photos of the award, their book, and their body.
The only person dying of embarrassment is the person reading their post or email.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Self Admiration
The kind of behavior that I have been discussing here is not to be confused with friends, loved ones and colleagues expressing genuine excitement over people, places or things. Or healthy self pride over an accomplishment or sharing about a goal you have met. If a friend occasionally discusses their latest project or relationship, that is normal and healthy. If a colleague posts joy over a new job, a book, or success, that is lovely! If a friend shares about a physical fitness goal, a new car that they have worked hard for, or shares an exciting event, vacation photos, or posts a fun new toy or acquisition, that does not mean that they are a narcissist. It means they are happy and excited. If they do this several times a day, a week, month after month, year after year...well, that might be a different story.
While most of us are excited to celebrate our friends and loved ones, and we are happy for their success, a narcissist will be threatened by this information. Their response is typically what I call one of the 3 S's: Silence or Sarcasm or Sabotage. Here are some examples:
1. Silence: You share on social media that you just got invited to speak at a special professional event. Everyone is excited for you...except your colleague who is in the same field. He responds with radio silence. If you send him a text, "Hey! Did you see my news on Facebook?" He might respond, "Yeah saw it. Oh they just called my flight for the trip I won for being the most awesome everything known to man kind, sorry gotta' run, good luck with your that little gig you're doing dude, it sounds cute!"
2. Sarcasm: You are at a party and someone asks about your the role you auditioned for. As you share your excitement over landing the role, the N throws out a dig, "I am so happy for you. I know how hard it is for you because of your dyslexia and when they called to offer it to me, I turned them down because I knew this was important to you. I sure hope you can remember all of those lines!" Even though it casts the N in a negative light, he or she has now cast a shadow of shame over your happy moment.
3. Sabotage: You post on Facebook that you are half way to your weight loss goal. Suddenly you receive a text from a friend with a photo of a delicious plate of food, "Wish you were here." Let's be honest, the only wish your "friend" has is that you fall off the wagon and stay "less than" your friend.
Fans or Friends?
A narcissist can be fun in the moment, but over time their constant attention seeking becomes exhausting. They have a difficult time expressing empathy for others, they are passive aggressive, and have very little interest or regard in learning about others. They compliment only when it benefits them, as a form of manipulation, to gain sympathy or empathy, or as a response to a compliment given. Ns will never, ever, ever compliment a person that they perceive to be a threat or competition. And if they do, it is typically for their own gain or advancement.
And on social media an N will rarely support or compliment another person who they feel is a threat. The may stalk, they may read every post, but they would sooner chop off their perfectly manicured fingers than share a compliment or extend support.
Rather than cultivating deep friendships or warm peer relationships with colleagues, the N surrounds him or herself with cheerleaders or fans used as a back drop, staging, or to further business gains. This makes sense as the N believes that they are special, and should have been famous, thus they deserve to have the attention and accolades. Or they believe that they have special information or a talent that only they can share. Or that they have a special relationship to God that only they can understand. And the list goes on and on.
The N loves to be on stage, singing, dancing, or speaking, on you tube, or any other public forum they can jump on. They want to win the scrabble game and will be the first one to volunteer to lead. They may not even be that great at any of these things, but remember, if mom and dad told the N adult that they were perfect growing up, then the N likely believes that they are worthy of this attention. And the performance goes on and on.
The Ns circle usually include: The side kick female friends, the fawning male admirers, the perfect wife and kids, the hardworking husband who dotes on the N, the exhausted wife who is trauma bonded to the N, the lonely men or women who live on Facebook, the employees and staff, the paid yes men or women, the fearful followers who need help.
If you have ever spent time socially in the company of an N (and we all do from time-to-time) as you leave their presence you will realize that not one time have they asked about you and really listened. The conversation will revolve around them, their interests, and their latest and greatest. They have a hard time remembering basic details of your life. If you ask an N to name 5 things about you, most Ns would have a difficult time doing so. The caveat is that some Ns will store up details in order to appear as if they know you well, or to flatter and manipulate for their own gain at your expense.
Some Ns can be highly deceptive as well. This might show up as little "white lies" around appearance, "Whatever do you mean?! Of course this is my real hair, eyelashes, breasts, tan, teeth, and no I never diet, sleep, worry, and yes I am just naturally athletic, skinny, etc" to the more concerning deceits, "Yes, I do have a PhD in brain surgery and rocket science. In fact, I recently turned down a job opportunity for NASA and decided to pass on my nobel peace prize."
Ns sometimes have low attention spans. The moment the spotlight is off of them, they are bored, they will yawn, they will fidget, create distractions, leave the interaction, they will interrupt, or they will create a scene (either through anger, silence, or by showboating). These are the folks that must have the best entrance, outfit, costume, or you name it. Their trucks are not just big, they are REALLY BIG with REALLY loud horns. Their cars are not just cars, they are REALLY FLASHY AND REALLY LOUD. If you upstage the N in any way, they will whip out their phone and begin to check text messages, take selfies, check their appearance, or post on social media in your company. And the very worst thing you can do to an N is not compliment or pay attention to that person.
I recall a time in my 20s when I had landed my first real corporate job. I was in charge of putting together an important celebration event at the CEOs gorgeous home in Pasadena. I arrived earlier in the week with another colleague and at one point he took me into his park like back yard to show me where he wanted the flower arrangements placed. At 25 I had never seen a backyard quite like this before and was in awe. As I took it all in, the floral and fauna, the statues and ornamental landscaping, the massive expanse of rolling lawn, the CEO suddenly snapped, "What is wrong with you Marie? (no, even after 5 years of working there did he ever bother to learn how to pronounce my name), the appropriate response when a person of my status shows a person of your status their home and grounds is to compliment that person!"
And with that, all 5 foot five inches of him stalked off. With a slam of his 500 year old french copper edged door, he disappeared into his 10,000 + square foot mansion. I recall stuttering out an apology later (met with icy silence) and feeling a sense of shame and confusion, and...fear. This was a person who wrote my paycheck after all. And he exacted his revenge a week later by letting me know that I would not be receiving as big a bonus that year. When I reflect on that memory nearly thirty years later as a psychotherapist and a woman with a whole lot more life experience, what I know now that my younger self did not understand then, was that CEO was a grandiose narcissist...or an entitled asshole.
Or likely both.
As karma (the universe, God, or the powers that be) would have it, this CEO surrounded himself with other Ns as well. One N in particular was an especially charming and strategic person who step-by-step, rung-by-rung, eventually usurped the tiny Napoleonic leader and took his position. The snake eating its own tail as it were.
While it can be very difficult to work for an N, it can also be incredibly challenging to date an N.
I dated a grandiose N man for 4 years. That was 3.75 years too long. He was a brilliant and celebrated attorney, 15 years my senior, who had made his multiple millions by 35. He was the blonde golden boy of Newport beach, and I was a 21 year old naive hairstylist living in a crappy but cozy studio apartment with my two rescue kitties and my Elton John albums. We met by chance at a birthday party where social circles collided. And he swept me (literally) off of my feet. I didn't know enough to be impressed with his Rolex watch and his fancy Porsche (still don't) and art collection. He lived high on a hill in a big house at the beach and doted on me. Or so I thought. What I slowly began to realize over those years is that he had no interest in actually knowing me. Instead, he was addicted to my youth and the status that I provided with his male fans by being his arm candy. He loved that I was young, with a face and figure that he objectified and coveted. He purchased tiny dresses and skimpy bikinis for me to wear, and then demanded that I wear these things on his boat in front of his friends. He did not want me to work, never warmed up to my cats (what was I thinking?), and if I had a pimple, period or gained a pound, he was relentless in making sure that this was covered up and immediately addressed. He limited food in his home and monitored my every movement out of his sight.
Needless to say, as I matured and grew as a woman, and continued to develop and express my own thoughts and opinions, or challenged his thoughts and opinions, things got rocky. Eventually that whole life style, his shallow fans, and his self focused attention grew tiresome. He was outraged when I broke off our engagement, stupefied when I returned the ring and other jewelry, and furious when I moved out of the mansion and into my gay friend's back house in the valley. And he was irate when 6 months later I began dating a down to earth Hawaiian/Latino surfer who drove an old mustang, worked for UPS, and loved my kitties. At one point my ex-N broke into my place, and wrote "loser" over every framed photo of my new boyfriend and I.
Further validation that I had made the right choice in ending things. My surfer guy and I laughed about it over burgers on the beach.
Another trait of the N is that they have a difficult time when other people receive attention for the very thing they pride themselves on the most. For example, a female N who needs to be the prettiest girl in the group may lash out with sarcasm, controlling behavior, or passive aggressive anger if some other girl receives attention. Especially if this is an N who is approaching or past middle age, or is used to being the alpha female. It is interesting to see an older female N woman in action at a social gathering. She will often arrive late, make a big entrance (big voice, big heels, big hair, big bag) march up to the woman she feels most threatened by and attempt to control her by making a demand ("Here, take this photo" or "Help me with my hair" or "Put this in the fridge"). Or she will interrupt the conversation and attempt to take over. Or if all of this fails, she will get physical by touching your hair, or poking your breasts asking, "Are those real?"
This can feel startling and off putting for the person being approached. I call this the Snow White syndrome ,"Mirror mirror on the wall..." This will happen to all of us at some point along our human journey. When this has happened to me, I simply smile, and say, "I'm not all that great at photo taking" or, "The fridge is right around the corner" or, "Would you mind holding that thought while we finish our conversation?", or "I prefer that you not yank my hair or poke my breasts please." You can state your boundary pleasantly and then return to your conversation. The grandiose N will soon leave your presence as they simply cannot tolerate waiting their turn. This feels as if they are being ignored which is nearly impossible for the N to experience.
If the male N believes he is the most successful cock on the walk, and a colleague, team mate, sibling or friend draws attention, he may begin throwing verbal darts or one-up-manship comments, "Dude, you should have seen me when I..." or "Well, that would have meant something 5 years ago, but it really doesn't mean much now." If challenged, the toxic male N will often overtly insult another male he perceives as a threat to his own status stating, "You are an idiot, pussy, bitch, etc." Think of Kayne West or Donald Trump and their latest antics. This is insecurity at its finest.
Sadly, those individuals who are easily swayed by the grandiose male N will see this kind of posturing as powerful because they don't feel powerful themselves. It is similar to boys in a school yard supporting the bully. Best to be on the bullies good side rather than find yourself the victim of his relentless nastiness.
The Fantasy Weaver
Additionally, the N presents a highly edited version of their life in order to craft a fairy tale version vs. the normal life that most every person leads. While some of this can be quite obvious with respect to the grandiose N in that this N's style of bragging is usually pretty transparent, there are other ways that the N presents that can feel disorienting because what they are sharing may seem rather positive at first. Some of these more confusing and subtle N categories can look like this:
1. The Perpetually Positive N: This can feel confusing because the N appears to be a "rah rah life is great" person, Mr. or Miss Popularity. However, after leaving their presence, party, phone call or Facebook page, you feel as if you are a loser or your life is lacking by comparison. And if you dare share a stress or negative statement, this kind of N will chastise you, tell you to keep your negative energy to yourself, or will "pray for you." Blech. It is good to keep in mind that no matter how outwardly positive or spiritual the N is, no one human being is exempt from the highs and lows of life. When the N turns off their computer, or the curtains draw on the stage, they feel all the same high and low emotions just like the rest of us. Without a social media, church, school or other platform or stage on which to perform, it is as if the N is unplugged. Without an attention source for energy (their fans) the N feels alone, lost and sad.
2. The Life of the Party N: By outward appearances it would seem that this N is moving from one party and celebration to the next, surrounded by admirers. However, even the most famous and celebrated people cannot sustain a constant stream of parties and good times. Once the lights dim, and they are alone, the N is in a restless state. They are constantly on high pursuit of fun, fun, fun where they can be on stage and the center of attention. Ask an N what their dream job is and their response will always have something to do with public attention (politics, hero, sports star, movie star, famous singer, even a pastor). Rarely will you find an N who wants to tuck away and write books or bake cupcakes. During the party, the N will grab anyone as a prop, even a total stranger, in order to post another photo of themselves. Often the photo statement will be, "Loved meeting this wonderful person at the famous movie star party I attended, she was so sweet!" The poor hapless stranger often looks dazed and confused, while the N strikes a model perfect pose. Run hapless stranger, run far away. You will never see the N again. It was not a real connection. You were a prop.
3. The Perfect Life N: The N creates an illusion that "my life is perfect." Very little is shared about the personal challenges. For example, the wealthy wife may post about her vacation homes or fabulous whatever, meanwhile dealing with loneliness and marital discontent. The busy male actor may post about his latest project, but won't ask for help with one of his multiple addictions. You will rarely see photos of a less than perfect family unit.
4. The Expert N: The grandiose N is an "expert" in many areas while the vulnerable N has to continually rock the boat with their "special and unique" point of view. Each seem to have total confidence and the last word on multiple topics. Challenge an N on any topic and they will begin quoting (or making up) statistics, scriptures, giving proof through examples, or shake their head in disgust over your banal and pedestrian world view. This kind of N relies on their intellect, their creative special-ness, or an over inflated sense of confidence in order to shame others into silence.
5. The Saint N: This is an interesting and hard to detect trait of the vulnerable N. They are often the person who races around in the public eye from fund-raiser to fund-raiser, collecting praise for their tireless work for the latest (fill in the blank) cause. This might be the super super super sweet lady at church who "everyone loves" because she is a saint who "does it all." Or the retired ex marine in the community who "is a hero to everyone" yet, somehow this hero continues to be on the TV, the newspapers and websites accepting his awards. Behind the exterior mask of this kind of N is often a person who feels fearful and ill at ease, or is attempting to outrun something difficult in their personal life. They only feel worthwhile when filled with the praise and admiration of others.
6. The Perpetual Victim/Humble Braggart N: The is the vulnerable N who appears to share publicly their private struggles with being too pretty, too smart, too whatever. They bake a cake that would put Martha Stewart to shame, and then share, "The frosting is a little too sweet, I guess this should just go into the trash, sigh." or "I just wanted to do a work out. Once again I have to deal with all of these staring eyes." And the friend fans will all line up to comfort our poor narcissist with responses like, "You bake the best cakes ever, you should win an award!" or, "It's because you are so incredibly handsome/gorgeous/sexy!"
We may be scratching our head wondering if we are the only person who can see right through this manipulation. The answer is No. No we are not alone in our amazement over this kind of behavior.
The Narcissistic Wound
As challenging as it can be to remember, narcissists are wounded people at their core. Their self focused behavior is often a result of an earlier trauma in their life which is called a narcissistic injury. The reaction to this injury is that their self worth is threatened. This injury could be the result of feeling different than others because of an "ugly duckling stage", or because they were teased for being smart or tall, or because their family was different - for example a different ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or even a different spiritual belief. Perhaps they felt like the odd man or woman out and this left them feeling less than.
Or the N could simply have been put on a pedestal in the family of origin and given whatever their heart desired, protected from experiencing consequences, or never allowed to experience the real world.
This creates a unseen emotional scar or emotional place of entitlement that informs and motivates the Ns words and behaviors. Forever seeking approval and chasing after the next compliment helps keep the N just ahead of experiencing and healing the original wound. If enough people continue to feed the N, then over time the N begins to ignore that original hurt and scar. Eventually, they may even begin to believe the hype. Yet inside, deeply in their core, they never feel like they are quite enough.
Brene Brown, social worker, author and shame researcher, sums it up this way, "When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, to cultivate a sense of purpose."
This quote reminds me of a character in the movie, "American Beauty" where Mira Suvari plays the part of teenager and narcissist Angela Hayes. Angela's famous line in the movie was, "If people I don't even know look at me and want to fuck me, it means I really have a shot at being a model. Which is great, because there's nothing worse in life than being ordinary."
That is a core fear of an N. Being an ordinary person living an ordinary life.
Self Care and Boundaries
Here are some basic steps in order to take care of yourself if you are in a relationship or friendship with an N:
1. Set boundaries with the N. Let them know if they continue to be late, you will leave after 15 minutes. They won't care, they won't change. The idea is that you take care of yourself.
2. Spend time in small doses with the N. You decide on how much time you can spend with that person. If it is a boss, then do your best to limit time interacting outside of work hours. I had a position working with a N female supervisor that I had to travel with several times a year. When we were on the road, she wanted me to go out to dinner with her every night and sit in rapt attention while she talked. And talked. And talked. I simply let her know that work travel exhausted me and I preferred to eat in my hotel room.
3. Learn about the disorder so you can de-personalize their actions. It can feel incredibly personal when interacting with a toxic N. However, the more you understand, the less you will personalize their choices. I promise you, the N is not thinking of you right at this moment. Or any moment.
4. Don't begin to compare your life against the Ns. Remember the N presents a pretend life. What you are seeing is a mask.
5. Don't think that you can fix the N. Ns don't believe that they need to grow or change. And they usually have a fan base supporting this flawed belief.
6. Manage your expectations of what the N can provide. If you are looking to an N to provide a healthy interaction, keep looking.
7. Take care of your heart and head while working for or dating an N. Ns can leave a person feeling crazy, off center and confused. Surround yourself with healthy people, get out in nature, hang out with solid family, friends and pets. Don't let the N bully you.
8. Stay out of debates with an N. They are not interested in a healthy debate, they are only interested in winning at any expense.
9. Do not compete with an N. There is nothing wrong with healthy competition among fair people with integrity. A N fights dirty.
10. Walk away from relationships with Ns that are undermining your self worth and value. They may punish or threaten you, but in the end, it is important for you to self advocate and take care of yourself.
11. Don't be passive aggressive. Posting veiled comments and digs on Facebook and then thinking, "They won't even know who I'm talking about because they are such a narcissist" isn't a good look. Don't do this please.
12. Do not gossip with others about the N. It is OK and healthy to talk over hurts or frustrations with someone you are close with. We all need a confidant. But spreading gossip or making jokes is not only unhealthy, it is unkind.
Finally, the best advise of all is to simply focus on creating and cultivating relationships with healthy and reciprocal people who will celebrate your successes, and bring joy, honest and loving perspective, and balanced support into your life.
If you have been hurt in a relationship with a narcissist you are welcome to share how you healed below. And if you are reading this and believe that you are a narcissist, I encourage you to seek support so that you can create a life and real relationships that are fulfilling.
Kindly and in support,
Mari A. Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S