Being in a family, business or romantic relationship with a narcissist is living hell. Working for one can be an “emotional holocaust!”
Inspiration for this article comes from Brett Borders, an online reputation management researcher in Colorado.
While you might not recognize them at first, you will almost certainly encounter a number of people during your life with a severe character flaw called Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The psychiatrists’ DSM manual describes it as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.” Narcissists are excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, power and prestige. Everyone has some need for attention, but narcissistic people are pathologically obsessed with it.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is Commonplace
Narcissists have a fragile, deeply wounded self-concept. They puff their ego up like blowfish to hide the flaw and overcompensate for it. Some use their cunning and charm to become materially successful and accomplished in the business world. A significant percentage of venture capitalists (VCs) have high-functioning narcissism … and some of the online “rock stars” and glitterati do too.
Certain professions supply a continual buffet of ego food: politics, acting, modeling, television, pro sports and social media. Social media participation has no barriers to entry and takes minimal skills … just drive and copious free time. It’s the perfect habitat for narcissists to put themselves on a digital pedestal and receive lots of one-way attention (“narcissistic supply”). The exhibitionist aspect provides endless opportunities for narcissists to reinforce their vanity and activate their grandiosity.
Identifying Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Some common characteristics of NPD types:
Narcissists can be irresistibly charming.
They appear to be so deeply in love with themselves that others get taken along for the ride with them. They develop polished communication and manipulation skills that can easily dazzle you like the Wizard of Oz. Narcissists “go big,” leaving an “epic” first impression on many people.
Narcissists are all about themselves.
A relationship with a narcissist is typically a “one-way street.” When the conversation is focused on the narcissist, they become alive and animated. When it’s someone else’s turn to talk or take the stage, they tend to become distant and withdrawn.
Narcissists lack empathy for others.
Narcissists are impostors who are so wrapped up in the drama of their own internal world, they almost completely lack the ability to empathize with others. The best they can offer is “pseudo-empathy” of the type that a telemarketer offers during a closing pitch. They may act nice when they want something from you, but once they’ve gotten what they came for … they”ll drop you faster than a call on the AT&T cellular network.
Narcissists are preoccupied with power, status, recognition, money, followers, fame.
They will stop at nothing to get more fans, more followers, more time in the limelight, more accolades. They are relentless, inexhaustible social climbers who sometimes excel at sales, business development and executive roles. Many high-level narcissists use money and its privileges as the perfect bait to draw the chosen into their inner circle of loyal supporters and admirers. (The ugly side of this cozy equation is the sacrifice of self, the abuse and the humiliations many exchange for their privileged status.)
Narcissists are defensive and hypersensitive to criticism.
Narcissistic people protect their brittle self-esteem by launching biting, harsh attacks on those who dare to criticize and question them. They are also very controlling about how others view and think of them … by positively rewarding the praise and tyrannically punishing dissent. When it’s impossible for them to attack the critic directly, they’ll do anything in their power to block or sabotage the critic’s future success.
Narcissists indulge themselves extravagantly.
They’ll do anything to get first class travel, new gadgets, sexual conquests, spa treatments, exclusive after party invites, fancy swag bags, exclusive club memberships, extravagant homes and cars. All these things provide external proof of their adequacy and help (momentarily) fill the enormous emptiness inside them. When they get them, they’re quick to brag about it and post lots of details and TwitPics.
Narcissists can be exhibitionists.
To keep the life-sustaining supply of attention focused on them, they will metaphorically “drop their pants” and reveal too much information about themselves … way more than you need/want to know, and more than most professionals would ever reveal. They will openly talk about their drug use, sexual life or fantasizes, their income, their enemies or their business exploits. They especially love speaking gigs, interviews, video blogging, karaoke, etc. … because moments in the limelight are life-sustaining soul food for their inadequate self concept.
Narcissists keep score.
They watch rivals with microscopic vigilance, and will come up with cunning ways to sabotage, outdo or humiliate them. Multimillionaire VCs with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are envious of the billionaire ones. On Twitter, you’ll notice that narcissists almost always maintain a very high ratio of followers to friends … reflecting their lack empathy and primal need for their numbers to reflect “one-way” attention. They never “give back” and pay attention to someone else unless they absolutely have to.
Narcissists demand total loyalty from their followers.
No matter how badly a narcissist behaves, their fans and subordinate “yes men” will cheer them on and publicly declare how “awesome” they are, etc. People (unconsciously) sense they have a dangerously fragile self-concept, and are intuitively afraid of getting on their “sh*t list” … so they tend to leave lots of ego stroking (“You rock!”) comments. Once you get on their sh*t list, there is no way off without heavy butt-kissing and contrition. (Unless you get access to something they desperately want.)
Narcissists are control freaks.
In business, narcissists control their subordinates using a combination of threats, intimidations and public humiliations … and will take full credit for all of their outstanding work. In their private lives, spouses (usually wives) and children are nothing more than pretty objects to be shown off in public, just like their other fancy possessions. To survive in these abusive relationships, subordinates, spouses and children become slaves, subject to their master’s every whim.
The Narcissist’s Bleak Inner World
The narcissist selectively chooses an “inner circle” of others who will resonate with her vision of self. The successful narcissist creates an intricate matrix of positive feedback in the form of fans, friends, followers and partners who fulfill their endless needs. When the sources of these ego rewards (comments, accolades, retweets, speaking gigs) become unavailable or fail, the narcissist experience intense feelings of emptiness.
In her excellent book on high-level narcissism [affiliate link], Dr. Linda Martinez-Lewi says:
“The narcissist’s experience of emotional emptiness is beyond longing or sadness. It is a severe and intractable wounding, a pain so savage and deep that it seems intolerable. The psychological landscape of the narcissist is bleak. He has no inner resources to sustain him. He cannot turn to himself or others for real affection or solace. Although he enjoys the transient loyalty of dedicated followers, no one really cares about him.”
Social media addiction is the ultimate dual-action stimulant + painkiller for the narcissistic personality.
Dealing with NPD People
Being in a family, business or romantic relationship with a narcissist is living hell. Working for one can be an “emotional holocaust!” There are some excellent books on the deeper aspects of defending yourself against the narcissist’s insidious nastiness … The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family [affiliate link], by Eleanor D. Payson, M.S.W., is highly-recommended.
In a more shallow social media type of relationship, you must remember that narcissists demand loyalty and perfect ego stroking. If you choose to get involved in their world, prepared to perpetually walk on eggshells and keep your true feelings masked … no matter how disgusting or annoying the person’s behaviors are. Never criticize them unless you are willing to go on their permanent “sh*t list.”
If you don’t need or want anything from a narcissist, it’s best to be cordial and distant from them. Keep firm boundaries. Stay far away, don’t be drawn into their charismatic web of illusion, and if they attack you, you don’t have to attack back. Recognition and awareness of this painful-yet-common disorder can save you intense pain and grief.
- Freeing Yourself from the Narcissist in Your Life [affiliate link], by Linda Martinez-Lewi, PhD
- The Sociopath Next Door [affiliate link], by Martha Stout, PhD
- The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family [affiliate link], by Eleanor D. Payson, M.S.W.