The term narcissist gets used quite a bit these days. It carries pejorative connotations and people use the tag to describe family members, workmates or media personalities who act in an obnoxious and overly self-involved manner. Like any personality trait however, narcissism lies on a continuum, spanning from what might be healthy narcissism (e.g., a confident self-assured leader who cares about others) through to toxic or pathological narcissism (e.g., a self-absorbed bully who has no empathy). If a person’s narcissism gets in the way of their work, relationships and life in general, then they may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD (for a comprehensive coverage of narcissism and how to deal with it, see “Disarming the Narcissist” By Wendy T. Behary).
In a romantic relationship, a narcissist is one type of emotionally unavailable partner whose failure to meet your emotional needs is going to be especially damaging. Narcissism can manifest in different forms and there can be different surface or behavioural presentations of the narcissist. Some narcissists demonstrate quite obvious grandstanding and entitled behaviours, whiles other lack these ‘showy’ behaviours and instead may be more passively self-absorbed and quietly belittle others. There can be many surface behaviours or coping styles of the narcissist.
While it may not look like it, most narcissists are suffering on the inside. They are often very fragile people who are caught up in an unending cycle of needing to elevate themselves while putting others down. This is done so they can protect themselves from accessing deep seated feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. One of the most effective (yet destructive) ways to do this, is to launch into over-compensatory behaviours which aim to keep people in their place (i.e., well below them) so that they can feel secure and/or superior in themselves. Needless to say, narcissists usually have few true friends and have a lifelong struggle with relationships. They are very often deeply dissatisfied on the inside, but their persistent struggle to avoid feeling any form of vulnerability keeps them separated from others. A narcissist will rarely, if ever come along to therapy so that they can modify their personality. They really only seek help when their world collapses in the form of occupational losses, family and relationships failures and of course chronic depression. In their mind, it is always other people’s fault and other people who are causing all the problems.
Both men and women can be narcissistic although the behavioural displays can look a little different across the sexes. Anywhere between 2 – 6% of people in the general community will qualify for NPD, although in mental health sample this is considerably higher. More men than women tend to have narcissistic personality disorder both in the general community and in clinical samples.
But what of relationships? How might you tell if your new partner is narcissistic? The first thing to emphasize here is that anyone can get into a relationship with a Narcissist, but not everyone stays in such a relationship. If you choose to stay in a relationship which is not good for you, there is another agenda going on for you. If this is the case, your own schemas are getting in the way of you making wise decisions. Future blogs will look at this in more detail.