He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.
People at war with themselves will always cause collateral damage in the lives of those around them.
John Mark Green
Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all … We are all familiar with the famous scene from the classic movie “Snow White” when the evil and narcissistic Queen’s rhetorical question was asked to validate, not inquire about, her beauty. Today we seem to be surrounded with narcissism in every aspect of our lives, from political and business leaders to the omnipresent “selfies” and the Kardashians, we often find ourselves watching from the sidelines as self-centered leaders, professional athletes, and Hollywood stars ask their rhetorical questions: Who’s more powerful? Who’s more beautiful? Who’s more talented? I believe that this problem is two-fold: 1. According to a recent study, narcissism is at an all-time high with Millennials recently labeled “the most narcissistic generation ever,” and 2. We are often asked to adapt or adjust to someone’s “healthy ego,” “need to express” or “assertiveness.” But make no mistake, narcissism is not a personality quirk. It is a personality disorder. The purpose of this blog is to explore narcissism and to offer suggestions for dealing with the narcissist in your life, whether the dynamic is occurring in your boardroom or your bedroom.
The term “narcissism” comes from the Greek myth about Narcissus, who rejected the advances of the young nymph Echo because he fell in love with his own reflection in a stream. Narcissism was examined from a psychodynamic perspective in Sigmund Freud’s famous essay “On Narcissism” which was a not-so-subtle stab at Carl Jung, with whom he had had a bitter break (the movie “A Dangerous Method” is an excellent dramatization of their relationship). Today, it is classified as a personality disorder and has been recognized as such in the DSM since 1968. And like schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder, it can and does cause significant damage.
Characteristics of Narcissists
Although there are many characteristics of these individuals, such as being pompous, arrogant, and entitled, there are three primary distinctions that set them apart from others. First, they have grand visions of themselves. In this sense they tend to exaggerate their experience and accomplishments, and often overestimate their abilities. Second, they require admiration from others. Narcissists tend to surround themselves with those who are in awe of their knowledge, power, or physical attractiveness and often demand their loyalty and obedience. Finally, they have very little, if any, empathy and usually feel no remorse for hurting others. Psychologists often joke that narcissism is the only disorder where the patient is fine and everyone else is treated.
Arguing with a narcissist is one of the most entertaining, and frustrating, experiences you can imagine. Even when they are clearly in the wrong, the conversation will turn to how you made them feel for calling out their behavior. For example, narcissists are often at their worst in public settings such as restaurants: the table is too close to the kitchen, the wait staff is not adopting the appropriate “server” attitude, the glass isn’t properly chilled, and on and on. If and when you decide to call out their rude behavior, the ensuing conversation will not be about how they treat others. Rather, it will be about how you hurt their feelings for calling them out, or how you don’t appreciate all they do for you (like taking you to a nice restaurant), and the like. The conversation will be lively and animated, and will touch on many topics, except their behavior.
The same dynamic holds true for working for a narcissist boss. When things go wrong, you must be prepared to take the responsibility and when things go well, be ready to step aside so your boss can bask in the glow of the spotlight, alone.
The Secret Weapon of Narcissists
Now, you might be wondering how this dynamic plays out. Given all of the downside and negativity of working and living with a narcissist, why would anyone knowingly stay in such a relationship? Obviously there are numerous reasons for each unique situation but there is one underlying dynamic that is typically the foundation of this relationship: Intermittent reinforcement. Behaviorism essentially states that all behavior is a function of its consequences; behavior that is reinforced will increase and behavior that is punished will eventually cease. Intermittent reinforcement refers to rewards that occur infrequently and at random, and which are controlled by the researcher, the parent, or in this case, the narcissist. Research demonstrates that intermittent reinforcement creates and sustains the highest intensity and frequency of the desired response. In other words, if we know we are going to always be rewarded, or never be rewarded, our responses to a given stimulus, or person, will eventually diminish. However, the narcissist is a master of giving intermittent, infrequent reinforcement that often increases our engagement with them, and our dependency on their approval.
Managing the Narcissist Next Door
There are some steps you can take to more effectively manage this dynamic if you have a narcissist in your life. First, do not criticize them. Your message won’t get through, and it will likely make the narcissist angry, very angry. Try instead to focus objectively on the problem or challenge at hand, and work on creating a solution mindset. Second, related to the first, let the solution or “creative insight” be his or hers. Narcissists tend to have a very high need for control and like to make the decisions. Third, you must set and maintain appropriate boundaries. It’s very difficult to develop authentic relationships or respectful friendships with a narcissist, so you may want to forgo that energy and effort and keep the relationship at a distance. Finally, you must be intentional about bolstering your own self-esteem. Being in a relationship with a narcissist will chip away at your self-esteem, and sometimes your sanity, causing you to question your own judgment and abilities. You must recognize this and make an extra effort to spend time around others who support and encourage you, and help bolster your ego.
Empathy for the Devil
While the above behavioral strategies can help you manage this dynamic by maintaining boundaries and intentionally bolstering your self-esteem, it’s important for you to understand that at the very deepest psychological and spiritual level, a narcissist isn’t really in love with himself or herself. In fact, below their façade of power and confidence lies crippling self-doubt and low self-esteem. Theirs is an inner war being played out between their highest potential and their greatest insecurity. Too often, their Shadow keeps them from being vulnerable and responsible enough to ask for help or apologize. Their failure to connect with others in an authentic way keeps them “safe” but also isolated, and unable to step into the tremendous potential that so many possess. And try as you might, this is a battle that they must fight alone.
When you recognize this insight you can be more effective, and empathetic, in managing the relationship.
Just remember to empathize from a safe distance.