Narcissism: What It Looks Like and How to Handle It

by | Mar 22, 2013 | Assertiveness, narcissism, Self Care

Being involved with a narcissist is tricky in any capacity, whether you are dealing with a family member, co-worker, or friend. But it’s especially challenging if you are living with one!

It can be damaging to your self esteem and take a real toll on your sense of reality. You may feel like you are crazy.

What is Narcissism?

Judith Orloff describes a narcissists as people who “have a grandiose sense of self-importance and entitlement, crave admiration and attention. The world is reflected in their image. Narcissists are unlikable, flagrant egotists. Others can be charming, intelligent, caring–that is, until their guru-status is threatened. When you stop stroking their ego or beg to disagree, they can turn on you and become punishing.”

To find out if you are involved with a narcissist, ask these questions:

  • Does the person act as if life revolves around him?
  • Do I have to compliment them to get their attention or approval?
  • Do they constantly steer the conversation back to themselves?
  • Do they downplay my feelings or interests?
  • If I disagree, do they become cold or withholding?

If you answer “yes” to one or two questions, it’s likely you’re dealing with a narcissist. Responding “yes” to three or more questions suggests that a narcissist is violating your emotional freedom.

A more clinical definition of narcissism comes from the DSM-IV-TR. In order to be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you have to have 5 or more of the following qualities most of the time:

  • Reacting to criticism with anger, shame, or humiliation.  
  • Taking advantage of others to reach own goals.
  • Exaggerating their own importance, achievements, and talents.
  • Imagining unrealistic fantasies of success, beauty, power, intelligence, or romance.
  • Requiring constant attention and positive reinforcement from others.
  • Becoming jealous easily. 
  • Lacking empathy and disregarding the feelings of others.
  • Being obsessed with self.
  • Pursuing mainly selfish goals. 
  • Trouble keeping healthy relationships.
  • Becoming easily hurt and rejected.
  • Setting goals that are unrealistic.
  • Wanting “the best” of everything.
  • Appearing unemotional.

It’s possible to have traits of narcissism but not be “diagnosable.”( I personally avoid diagnostic labels, but with narcissists in particular the label is really helpful for their loved ones to create distance and realize it’s not their fault.)

Narcissism can be caused by various things: excessive admiration that is never balanced with realistic feedback, and overindulgence and overvaluation by parents, other family members, or peers. It can also be caused by a childhood marked by shame and/or emotional abuse.

What’s interesting about narcissism is that it shows up in different ways depending on the person.  Narcissists are not all people who talk about themselves nonstop or are super cruel and selfish. They can be charming and make you feel very special.

Some common varieties of narcissists are the following types: grandiose, anti-social, amorous (like a seductive Don Juan), compensatory (trying to cancel out feeling of inferiority), elitist, fanatic, or paranoid. So you see they come in many flavors!

Narcissism: What to Do About It!

Here are some various approaches you can take:

  1. Don’t fall in love with a narcissist to begin with. But if you are reading this it may be too late (see number 2). 
  2. If you’ve already fallen love with or remain committed to this person, accept it will always be about them.  Don’t entertain illusions they’re capable of the give and take necessary for intimacy. Are you ok with this? It’s an informed choice as long as you know they won’t change. 
  3. If you stay in the relationship, hold your ground. This means never making your self-worth dependent on them. Do not allow your perceptions to be swayed by theirs. Surround yourself with friends who validate your reality. Get a therapist. Keep a journal. Anything that will help you stay connected to your inner voice. TRUST YOURSELF. Sometimes it’s like dealing with a crazy person: You don’t challenge the delusions, because it’s a waste of time. 
  4. If holding your ground causes rage or emotional abuse, seriously consider leaving the relationship. They will make you feel crazy. Cut your losses. This may be a deal breaker (See my article on deal breakers here).
  5. Frame things according to what benefits them. Stating your  needs rarely works.  Instead of saying: “I’d really love to go out to dinner with my family.” Re-frame it as: “Everyone really likes you. They’d be delighted to have you there.”
  6. Remember, they are fragile, not powerful.  Their traits have been developed as a defense against shame. They cannot handle criticism, and will often try to compensate by belittling others in an attempt to validate their own self-worth. People who are overly narcissistic commonly feel rejected, humiliated and threatened when criticized. It’s okay to support their defenses as long as you know that is what you are doing. 

I can’t say enough about the importance of supporting yourself with viewpoints other than your narcissistic partner. Maintaining your own sense of reality is the key to keeping sane!

Pick your battles and save  your energy. Self-care will go a VERY long way.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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