A narcissist as a person who has “buried his true self-expression in response to early injuries and replaced it with a highly developed, compensatory false self.” – Psychologist Stephen JohnsonWhen mental illness becomes a prevailing narrative, unpackaged and held to the light by mainstream media, the reasons are almost always troubling. As narcissism continues its breakout role on the highest center stage with the gravest of possible consequences, the general populace has been held captivated, affected, and stunned by the symptoms. Previously clumsily disregarded as a cartoonish exaggeration of self-absorption, narcissism has now begun to command the dark and concerning legitimacy of its more famous mental illness counterparts. Perhaps as such though, narcissism has historically been one of the least identified personality disorders. It has always had a serious set of criterion outlining its parameters which got lost behind its rather innocuous reputation. But now narcissism has our attention, and people want to know what it looks like in their own lives, and what makes it tick.
Psychologist Stephen Johnson describes a narcissist as a person who has “buried his true self-expression in response to early injuries and replaced it with a highly developed, compensatory false self.” That false vision of self is often expressed as someone indeed appearing self-absorbed and superior. Today’s selfie and social sharing culture can also seemingly encourage basic narcissistic behaviors, making narcissistic traits harder to identify when they seem to be becoming less abnormal.
Being in a close relationship with a narcissist can be an especially painful experience. While continually trying to navigate someone else’s skewed view of reality and events, victims can wonder if their own interpretations are off-base. They can wonder why their love and attention never seems to be enough for a narcissist, or why they can’t share honest feedback with their partner. But because narcissists can have trouble accepting negative responses that may pose a threat to their constructed sense of self, they can be extremely reactive to what may actually be very mild criticism. If someone you know displays a few of these criteria outlined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for narcissistic personality disorder, you may be dealing with a narcissist.
1) Conversation Domination
Having a tough time getting a word in edgewise? Did you start talking about the weather, only to find yourself talking about them? Narcissism can come across as a communication defect. They only want to, or can, hear what concerns them and their fears. The process of being expected to listen to others’ challenges can rub them entirely the wrong way, provoking odd conversational habits combining some of the traits below. Examples may include bragging about their health to someone suffering health difficulties, or rubbing an ex-lover’s nose in the fact that the narcissist is in the best relationship of their life.
2) Unreasonable Expectations of Favors
A narcissist has “buried his true self-expression in response to early injuries and replaced it with a highly developed, compensatory false self.”
– Stephen Johnson, Ph.D.
When a person views themselves as superior, they can also perceive themselves to be above the rules too.A narcissist has “buried his true self-expression in response to early injuries and replaced it with a highly developed, compensatory false self.” – Psychologist Stephen JohnsonNarcissists can frequently have episodes in their past (and present) which could illustrate a pattern of sidestepping rules, which can range from simple theft all the way to assault. Narcissists can believe that those charged with enforcing codes or laws should not punish the narcissist themselves for breaches of protocol, because in their minds, they are special, and rules are for normal people. If you’re interacting with a narcissist and have concerns they may have had previous brushes with the law, you can run a background check online to look for public records like arrest records and court filings.
3) Marked Sense of Entitlement
This is a big red flag. Just as the rules shouldn’t apply to them, narcissists can often be characterized by feeling entitled. A narcissist may overstep boundaries, then attack the victim for being too sensitive about his or her actions. This can lead to an erosion of confidence in victims, as they can begin to question whether their expectations of social behavior are too strict or somehow incorrect, because the narcissist appears so confident that he or she should be entitled to be given more leeway, to have more of his or her behavior excused, etc. If the victim grew up with a narcissistic or emotionally complicated parent, this behavior can be especially important to learn about, as the victim might not recognize it the associated actions as abnormal or unhealthy.
4) Preoccupied with Success and Power (or Illusions Thereof)
Often charismatic individuals, narcissists’ preoccupation with success and power (or the tokens of having them) can give the alluring impression of ambition to their partners. Narcissists may crave others’ attention and charm them at first. However, a narcissist’s motives may lie in manipulating others’ feelings, if this is a
necessary step to getting what the narcissist wants—admiration. If someone seems obsessed with the appearance of success and power, or they expect to reap rewards with little to no accomplishments, these could be signs that something is amiss.
5) Exploiting Others for Personal Gain
The narcissistic habit of taking advantage of others has been described as being “interpersonally exploitative”. Narcissists tend to only like interacting with others who can bolster their own sense of self, inflate their self-esteem, or advance their goals. When others do not deliver this experience, narcissists are confused, and can even react with anger. Narcissists can unduly expect deep devotion from others and overwork people because the narcissist views his or her goals as superior to all concerns, so narcissists feel no empathy for causing a diminished quality of life for those around them.
6) Their Way, Immediately, or the Highway
A narcissist is known for inflated feelings of self-worth, and often only associates with others he or she deigns to view as similarly elite. From this perspective of superiority, the narcissist can believe his or her ideas are better than anyone else’s and as such, everything simply must go his or her own way. In deeply believing their own specialness, narcissists can view this as an objective reality. As such, others surely must understand the higher priority of the narcissist’s ideas, goals, and feelings, at least in the eyes of the narcissist. So a lack of immediate and wholehearted support in furthering these goals can be quite an affront to a narcissist, who often do not react kindly to the perception of being openly slighted.
Some common reaction tactics are:
Anger: Personal attacks, ridicule, outbursts
Coercion/Manipulation: Narcissists are well-practiced manipulators, so beware of being blamed, enduring name-calling, or for theatrical displays of victimhood
Passive-Aggressiveness: Cold shoulders, sarcasm, silent treatment, withholding of affection
Gaslighting: Narcissistic abuse can get intense, and gaslighting—the process by which someone makes you feel crazy for thinking something is wrong, or that their abuse didn’t happen in the first place–can indeed be confusing, maddening and painful to the victim. If you catch someone behaving in an irrational way, yet they deny (or downplay) it, it is wise to be especially cautious.
7) Unrealistic Expectations of Recognition
Because of their inflated sense of personal achievement, narcissists also expect to receive the commensurate level of adulation that accompanies such greatness. They do not grasp that others may, in fact, view the narcissists’ accomplishments as average, or even sub-par, so when fanfare does not follow, narcissists can jump to the conclusion that others are cruelly and willfully snubbing them.
If you think someone in your life might be exhibiting narcissistic tendencies, take care to ensure your own personal mental well-being. Don’t rush to blame yourself for challenges in the relationship if you feel you’re being pressured to do so, and try to leave yourself enough personal space to if you feel yourself pulled into any negative cycle of questioning your perceptions.
For more resources on constructively addressing narcissism for both those afflicted with it, as well as those close to them, check out “Good Resources for Dealing with Narcissism” on Psychology Today.