The image most of us have of a narcissist is someone taking a lot of selfies, someone always looking in a mirror or thinks their pretty special, someone who ‘loves themselves’. Yes, these could fall into the spectrum of narcissist behaviour but to be honest, these are really just descriptors of vanity and perhaps superficiality. A lot of us have things we’re a little vain about, a lot of us are superficial – this isn’t inherently resulting in dysfunctional relationships.
Narcissism – in all it’s forms – is really just an inability to see the world outside of yourself combined with a need to feel superior to others. In other words, everyone and everything is ‘about you’ and you’re always looking for the ‘weakness’ in others, the evidence that you’re better than them. Formal definitions refer to a narcissists desperate need to avoid feeling vulnerable – this makes sense. Narcissists are so terrified of vulnerability that they’re unable to ‘take their eyes off themselves’ long enough to focus on other people. Metaphorically speaking.
Narcissists are not only desperate to avoid feeling ‘less than’ others, a narcissist also wants to avoid feeling ‘the same’ as others. Generally, narcissists need to ‘stand out’, to be ‘more special’ than other people. This isn’t a conscious decision – you’re not consciously thinking ‘but my needs matter more than other people’s needs’ or ‘everything you’re saying relates to me in some way’ – this level of self-attention is so deep, so ingrained in the subconscious, that you’re totally unaware of it. You’re not selfish – which is a conscious decision to focus on your own self-interest. Narcissists are selfish, yes. But not all selfish people are narcissists. Narcissism is deeper than that. You simply cannot perceive of anything that does not relate directly to you – you’re not ‘choosing’ to put yourself first, you simply don’t view the world as a place where other peoples’ needs are seperate to your own. And lastly, your sense of self is so intrinsically tied up with this need to be ‘special’ and to avoid any sort of vulnerability, that your self-image is horribly compromised by delusion.
This, of course, is why ‘narcissists’ are so frustrating to deal with and why ‘narcissistic qualities’ are so dangerous – by their nature, they’re so blinding and subconscious that it’s extremely difficult to step back and see that we possess them ourselves. It then becomes oh so easy to project this dysfunction on the people around us. Which is why everyone else in the world appears to be a narcissist, except us.
The other misconception is that there is only one ‘type’ of narcissist – self aggrandising, overbearing, superior. But narcissism can manifest in any range of manipulative behaviours which we think elevate us above others. In my experience -which is certainly not exhaustive – I’ve found people can fall into one of the following two groups (in the interests of full disclosure, this includes myself at different times in my life).
The bully – Malignant Narcissism
This is probably the more ‘obvious’ manifestation that we would all point to as ‘narcissist’ behaviour. Someone overly assertive in their view, unwilling to listen to others, speaks over people, constantly self promoting, or telling stories where they take centre stage. A malignant narcissists is almost immediately recognisable by their almost desperate need for ‘status’. We’ve all worked with or for one of these – and chances are we’ve been in romantic relationships with one or God forbid, been raised by one. In intimate relationships these traits take on a more sinister feel than basic office politics. The manipulative tactics are endless – the sheer inability to see ourselves realistically and the unwillingness to admit to any sort of inferiority or vulnerability results in savage argumentative rebuttal, refusal to let the other person have their say, projection (accusing the other of the exact traits we possess but are unable to acknowledge), verbal bullying, and the most quintessential of all narcisistc behaviours, gaslighting (colloquially known as mind-fucking).
The ability to totally mind-fuck someone has to be the strongest indicator of malignant narcissism that I can think of. It’s not that most human beings don’t have both the ability and the opportunity to mess with someone’s head – it’s just that non-narcissists actively try to avoid doing so. A malignant narcissist will feel so psychologically threatened by any challenge to their delusional sense of superiority, that they quite literally have no choice. And therein lies the problem – a narcissists self perception is often totally delusional and you just can’t argue with crazy. Which brings us to the second group;
The Victim – Benign Narcissism
We’re all pretty familiar with the qualities associated with malignant narcissism. We’ve all grown up with bullies either in the playground or in our adult working environments. What we often don’t see coming are the devastating effects of benign narcissism – often seen hand in hand with the psychological characteristic of victimhood.
The characteristics of victimhood are not new – we’ve all met someone who constantly thinks the world is against them, who can list everything that’s ever gone wrong in their lives and who thinks they own the copyright on suffering. But again, there’s a difference between good old fashioned whinging and benign narcissism (although there’s probably a degree of one in the other).
The same tenants of narcissism apply here – a need to be ‘better’ than others, a need to control by manipulation, an avoidance of vulnerability at all costs and a total absence of a realistic self-image. The same inability to view other peoples’ experiences as seperate from their own is also present. In a nutshell: no-one else on earth as ever suffered quite as much as a benign narcissist has and no-one will suck you down their rabbit hole of passive aggressive emotional manipulation quicker than a benign narcissist.
Less overt than malignant narcissism, the total inability to take responsibility for their own behaviour remains the same. This tends to manifest as what I refer to as tragedy one-up-manship (they will always, always have a story more tragic than yours), the habit of trivialising everyone else’s pain and misfortune while aggrandising their own (this is a biggie), the ability to cry almost seemingly at the drop of a hat – usually when they’re totally and utterly in the wrong and there always seems to be a ‘big, bad wolf’ in their narratives. There is a seeming inability to acknowledge suffering outside of their own – largely due to the fact that they just cannot shift their focus away from their own emotions – and this in itself probably creates the biggest problems with their relationships. If you’re unable to recognise another human beings need for empathy and compassion because you somehow feel it diminishes your own need for love and support, then you tend to find yourself in some pretty emotionally manipulative relationships.
The upshot – where to from here
You might be reading this thinking ‘yes!! I’ve met these people and know exactly what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this craziness!’. Guess what, we all have. But I have found that if you find yourself surrounded by these people with these behaviours then chances are, you’re exhibiting themselves. This is one of those situations where like attracts like. More often than not, we possess the ‘complementary’ narcissistic qualities to the other, in simple terms, a bully will inevitably attract a victim and vice versa.
What I’m trying to get at here is that all of these behaviours all exist on a continuum. At their extreme end they are the result of an almost obsessive need to maintain our self-image – a self-image that is delusional and mired in the need to be ‘special’. That’s all narcissism is – the inability to see other people as being just as important as us. But on the moderate to low end they are simply everyday ego-defence mechanisms deployed to protect us when our sense of self is threatened.
Everyday narcissism is actually ‘normal’ human behaviour. It’s not necessarily ‘healthy’ human behaviour, but it is relatively ‘normal’ human behaviour – in certain degrees. The reality is, the more intimate the relationship, the more vulnerable we feel. And the more vulnerable we feel, the more our ego is likely to deploy defences like the ones listed above. The trick is 1. actually being self-aware enough to see them and 2. owning them as yours rather than projecting onto the other person. The challenge is that self-responsibility is the total antithesis of narcissism so we need to be paying attention and engage in some pretty searing self-honesty to bring it to heel.
These behaviours all exist on a continuum – a lot of us probably engage in a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B from time to time, especially when we’ve experienced some set backs in life and we’re feeling a little shit about ourselves. We overcompensate for how low we feel but trying to feel ‘special’ – which is at the heart of why we engage in these behaviours to begin with.