The term “narcissist” is tossed around a lot these days – I often hear people labelling their current or ex-partners as narcissists.
However, it is important to keep in mind that not all self-obsessed, charming individuals deserve that characterisation.
A “true” narcissist is diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, which is a mental health disorder. It is difficult to get a narcissist to attend an assessment for a diagnosis to be made, however, as (in their mind) the problem is always with others.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) falls on a spectrum, much like autism or Parkinson’s disease. And the more extreme someone is on the spectrum of NPD, the more likely that person becomes dangerous, manipulative and sinister.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) is the document that defines and classifies mental disorders to help with diagnosis, treatment and research. It is in this volume where we find the psychiatric definition of a narcissist.
The Symptoms of Narcissism
The DSM-5 lists nine symptoms of NPD; a person must exhibit five of the nine to fall on the spectrum. Narcissism is classified as a cluster B personality disorder, which is the group of mental health disorders that includes antisocial, borderline and histrionic personality disorders.
The symptoms of narcissism are:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (ie exaggerates achievements and talents; expects to be recognised as superior without commensurate achievements);
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love;
- Believes he or she is special or unique and can only be understood by or associate with other special, high-status people (or institutions);
- Requires excessive admiration;
- Has a sense of entitlement (ie unreasonable expectations of especially favourable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations);
- Is interpersonally exploitative (takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends);
- Lacks empathy; is unwilling or unable to identify with the needs or feelings of others;
- Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her;
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes.
Are you in a Relationship with a Narcissist?
If you are wondering if you could be in a relationship with a narcissist, here is a checklist for you to consider. Does your relationship, or the person with whom you are in a relationship, exhibit many of the following characteristics?
- An atmosphere of caution, knowing criticism will be offered.
- Disinterest in matters that others find stimulating or appealing.
- A tendency to hijack conversations, taking the attention onto oneself, showing low regard for what a person just said.
- A lack of insight, curiosity, or reflective thinking about one’s motives.
- Tendency to excuse or sidestep responsibility for personal mistakes.
- Absence of a conscientious, team-building mindset toward the larger group.
- Expectations for others, even though there is a lack of reciprocation of those same expectations eg “You should respect me,” or “Listen!”.
- Anger is mismanaged virtually every time it is expressed.
- Tendency to ostracise others from those who enjoy their company.
- Exaggerating personal positives, minimising personal negatives.
- A strong need to appear successful or better than others.
- Tendency not to remember or care about others’ key identifiers such as their names, occupations etc.
- Lots of “all or nothing” thinking, little appreciation for nuance.
- Loyalty is required from others, but not given.
- An emotionally reactive pattern; playing off the feelings of others, not able to initiate steadiness in the presence of strain.
- Love or affirmation is tied directly to self-gratification, as opposed to core acceptance and respect.
- Others do not feel free to be whatever they happen to be.
- Others’ decisiveness is interpreted as adversarial.
- Acts of goodness are followed with a “now you owe me” attitude.
- Power communication is prioritised over calmness and sensibility.
There are some tips in my other article breaking up with a narcissist if you are considering divorce or ending the relationship, as well as my other article Post Narcissist Stress Disorder.
However, sometimes it is not an option to leave a relationship with a narcissist eg if the person is your parent or adult child. Here are some tips to help you to live in the relationship.
- Study them.
None of the following tips will work unless a person is willing to step outside of the relationship and study the narcissist.
This is essential for gaining more information, learning how to detach emotionally, and resetting old habitual arguments. When a person can analyse and systematise the narcissistic behaviour in a dispassionate manner, it brings clarity of thought and restores emotional balance.
- Call it out.
Most narcissists are proud of their narcissism, citing it as the positive aspect of their personality. While the initial sharing of diagnosis might not go so well, the after effect tends to be much better. Statements like, “careful your narcissism is showing,” done with a non-sarcastic tone can be quite effective, if the relationship is trusted and valued by the narcissist.
- Understand the abuse cycle.
The narcissistic abuse cycle is unique and involves four phases: feeling threatened, abusing others, becoming the victim, and feeling empowered. Learning the identification features of each step, allows a person to stop the cycle.
- Discern abuse tactics.
Fortunately, narcissists are creatures of habit so when they have discovered an abuse tactic that is effective, it is repeated.
There are seven ways a person can be abused: physically, emotionally, verbally, mentally, financially, sexually, and spiritually. Some examples include aggression, confusion, twisting the truth, gaslighting, limiting access to money, sexual coercion, and dichotomous thinking (ie black or white thinking). Observe the tactic as if it were a show instead of taking it personally.
- Play a game.
Narcissists use their charm to draw others in by asking a question about the other person. However, they frequently do not bother listening to the answer and often interrupt with a story about themselves. Instead of becoming angry, time this. Play a game to see how quickly the topic changes and try to better the time with each engagement.
- Be wary of surprise gifts.
The tale of the Trojan horse is a fitting example of narcissistic gift-giving. In order to enter the Greek city of Troy unnoticed, a wooden house was filled with soldiers. Once the horse was within the gates, the men came out and overtook the city. Every surprise gift-giving by a narcissist should be treated with caution instead of naivety.
- Fed the ego.
In order to thrive, narcissists need a daily feeding of attention, affirmation, affection, and adoration. A simple comment of “you look amazing”, “you are so good at that”, or “you are impressive” goes a long way. Discover ways to show appreciation and thanks to the narcissist daily and the raging will subside greatly. This is not manipulation, rather it a basic understanding of how the personality disorder works.
- Reset expectations.
Narcissists are known for their lack of empathy for others. While they expect sympathy for themselves, they will not reciprocate. This empathetic absence is a blinder which keeps others at a distance and limits intimacy. When compassion is needed, find another source instead of demanding it from the narcissist.
- Protect the insecurities.
All too often when a person learns of the hidden insecurities of the narcissist, they bring it up in retaliation as an offensive attack. This only increases the narcissistic reaction because they are forced to be on the defensive and it adds to their perceived shame. Instead, help the narcissist protect their insecurities by seeing it more like a hidden treasure that is not to be exposed.
- Establish boundaries.
One of the easiest boundaries to establish is avoiding the blame game. Narcissists will not apologise for their mistakes but will require such humility from others. They might even exaggerate another’s wrong to minimise their own. Instead, put every error in its proper context, refuse to apologise just to keep the peace, and resist the temptation to shift blame back to the narcissist. Do not become like them while in the process of trying to learn how to live with them.
- Avoid embarrassment.
The ultimate evil for a narcissist is to be publicly humiliated. Sometimes this is unavoidable as with politicians and their countless scandals. Hilary Clinton chose to “stand by her man” and this did not harm her reputation at all. Narcissists appreciate loyalty especially when it is done at their most embarrassing moment.
- Find the good.
A personality disorder does not make a person bad; it just changes their ability to accurately perceive reality.
Some days it may be harder to find the good in the narcissist than others, but with a bit of practice, this exercise becomes easier. For every thought of frustration directed at them, counter it with a positive statement. Even simple ones will do such as, “they clean up well”, or “they tell great stories”.
It is important to have someone outside the relationship that is supportive when things get rocky. Whether it is a therapist/counsellor, friend, or family member, their encouragement can rebuild strength in times of weakness.
Author: Merryl Gee, BSocWk, AMHSW, MAASW, MACSW, MANZMHA, MPACFA.
Merryl Gee is a psychotherapist working from a strengths-based, person-centred framework. With over 30 years’ experience, she has a particular interest people who have experienced trauma such as sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychotherapist Merryl Gee try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422 .
If you found this article helpful you may also want to read: Post Narcissist Stress Disorder (PNSD) or Breaking up with a Narcissist, also by Merryl Gee.