Last week, I paid a visit to an elderly relative whom I hadn’t seen for a while. Aunt Elaine spent the entire two days complaining and criticizing, without taking a breath. She offered scathing criticisms of people dear to me, and when I disagreed with her assessments, her voice got louder, her mood grew darker, and I wasn’t permitted to finish my sentence. In fact, she cut me off constantly, even during normal conversation. Later, she wanted me to make her an ice-cream soda and insisted I also have one. When I said I’d make hers but didn’t want one for myself, she told me I’ve “always looked gaunt and sickly in the past” and an ice-cream soda would help me put on weight. She expected to be served three meals a day plus whatever snacks she craved, without offering thanks. And as mentioned above, she never stopped talking.
My husband and I left her house reeling, unsure of what had hit us. A little research made clear we had been witnessing Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in full swing. In contrast to popular understanding, NPD isn’t about a moment of selfishness or even about a general pattern of self-involvement. Rather, it describes an entire complex of hostile and self-serving behaviors so well outside the norm that those living with an NPD individual can develop psychological problems in response. In fact, mental health practitioners describe a condition called “Narcissistic Victim Syndrome” common among those who live with, grew up with, or work for a narcissist. If you’re wondering if someone in your circle qualifies for NPD, here are some common traits:
- Narcissists constantly talk about themselves, with little patience for what you have to say. If you disagree with the narcissist, your comments will likely be ignored or dismissed. If you do manage to get the floor, the narcissist will probably interrupt you mid-sentence, always trying to dominate the conversation.
- They expect others to serve them and generally display a sense of entitlement.
- They enjoy breaking rules and violating social norms. They’ll cut in line, steal office supplies or hotel amenities, and break laws they deem irrelevant.
- Narcissists try to project an image of power and influence that may have little to do with reality. They will invent stories or overplay real events in order to impress others and prove their superiority.
- They feed on negativity. Narcissists enjoy arousing hurt or pain in others so that they can feel powerful and superior. They can be insulting, negative, hurtful, and at the same time become inordinately angry if criticized.
- Narcissists often believe they are special and may have an exaggerated sense of their own importance. They use people to feed their own desires and have no qualms about violating others’ privacy or making decisions for others without consulting them.
- Lack of empathy. This is perhaps the key trait all narcissists share. If you find yourself shocked that someone in your life dismisses your hurt, fear, discomfort or depression about something traumatic that you experienced, can’t offer comfort or abandons you in the midst of your crisis, you may well be dealing with a narcissist.
- Triangulation, which means turning people against each other. For example, Aunt Elaine criticized her son when he felt uncomfortable reconnecting with his ex-wife Doris—who had exploited him and had an affair that caused him great pain. Aunt Elaine blamed her son’s attitude on his “new wife” of 20 years, badmouthing her constantly, and at an event they all attended, she made a point of sitting with her former daughter-in-law (instead of her son) and even resting her head on Doris’s shoulder. This caused problems between Aunt Elaine’s son and his current wife, a situation Aunt Elaine exploited by badmouthing the current wife to her other children. Ironically, when her son was married to Doris, Aunt Elaine treated her like she was the devil.
- Charm. Narcissists can be extremely charismatic and loving, until they have no more use for you, at which time you’re tossed away without a second thought.
Not all narcissists have all of these traits, but if someone you know displays a handful, they probably qualify for the diagnosis. Keep in mind that sometimes it can be difficult to spot a narcissist, at least at first, as narcissism varies in intensity and some may have just a touch while others have a more toxic version. Also, narcissists tend to “love bomb” those new or useful to them in order to gain the support and admiration they crave, meaning they overwhelm their target with displays of affection, gifts, compliments, etc. It can be easy to fall prey to all that attention and ego-stroking, so narcissists often have many admirers. In order to garner that admiration from others, narcissists can put on a good act in the community, becoming the head of charities and clubs, buttering up important people. They do a great job covering up their abusive behavior in order to appear exemplary. They continue to love-bomb those useful to them, but when the usefulness declines, the NPD individual turns cruel, sometimes flip-flopping from loving to abusive in minutes and apparently for no reason.
How common is narcissism? A 2008 study in Journal of Clinical Psychology puts the rate at 6.2 percent of the general population, and slightly higher for men. The worrisome thing is that by all measures, the disorder seems to be on a sharp upswing. A 2009 study found that narcissism had doubled in the US within 10 years and that one out of every 16 individuals had been NPD at some point in their lives. Young people, in particular, seem to be increasingly narcissistic, with an astonishing 30 percent scoring an NPD diagnosis when administered a standard psychological test. Those in their 20s are three times as likely to score an NPD diagnosis compared to those older than 60, although rates of narcissism are increasing within all age groups. Experts blame the self-esteem movement, spending more time on media than on the direct human interactions necessary to develop empathy, and societal emphasis on individualism instead of the collective.
Those unfortunate enough to have an NPD individual in a central position in their lives typically develop certain symptoms that, as mentioned above, have been labeled Narcissistic Victim Syndrome by mental health professionals. While narcissists often resist therapy because they believe they’re better than fine, victims seek it out. Those who’ve been subject to abuse from a narcissist often suffer symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—including insomnia, a penchant for reliving traumatic incidents, avoiding places and things that cause anxiety, and being easily startled and overly sensitive to emotions such as anger and panic. They tend to be anxious and fearful, with low self-esteem, loss of interest in life, and limited hope for the future. They also may be prone to dissociation–in other words, not seeming fully present–and they may somaticize (i.e., turn mental states into physical conditions).
Healing may require separation from the NPD person. If the NPD individual is a boss, it means quitting the job. If a spouse or partner, it’s quitting the relationship. It’s a bit more difficult if the NPD is a parent or child. Leaving probably won’t be enough. The wounds inflicted by a narcissist run deep, and counseling is usually necessary to help victims understand what they’ve been through and to recover a realistic sense of self untainted by the narcissist’s projections.