Even if you’re the biggest narcissist on the planet, the chances are that you won’t know it. The more narcissistic a person is, the less self-aware they are, and the less likely to recognise that there’s anything wrong. Problems? They’re always someone else’s fault.
It’s a different matter for the poor unfortunates who become closely involved with narcissists, whether at work or in a relationship. Narcissists are self-absorbed and manipulative, find it hard to empathise, can be controlling and aggressive – and thrill-seeking to the point of recklessness.
Narcissism is thought to be on the rise, with several studies linking it to Facebook use. It is estimated that the most extreme manifestation, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, now affects one person in a hundred. And the majority of narcissists are men.
In a culture which encourages self-promotion, narcissism blends in beautifully, and social networking can provide a rich nurturing ground.
But is narcissism really that bad? In some arenas, ignoring other people’s feelings is clearly an advantage. One study from the University of Surrey found that narcissistic traits were stronger in high-level business executives than in criminals.
So-called ‘productive’ narcissists are enviably creative and successful: think of Coco Chanel and Picasso.
Behind the confident exterior
Of course, the truth is that narcissists are far from enviable: they’re often miserable, lonely and insecure. You’d never believe it from their confident, even arrogant, exterior, but the few narcissists who acknowledge that they’ve got a problem describe feeling ashamed, hollow, heartless and emotionally barren.
In a culture which encourages self-promotion, narcissism blends in beautifully, and social networking can provide a rich nurturing ground
The sad thing is that because narcissists are so dangerously effective in winning people over to their point of view, it can be hard for those around them to pinpoint what the problem is. Often their loved ones fall for the con that they’re the ones at fault.
Jackie, for example, was married to a charismatic, successful man for 15 years but was deeply unhappy. It wasn’t until she went into therapy that she realised it was her husband who had the problem, not her.
She remembers, “I felt constantly belittled by my partner. He disregarded my feelings entirely and did things behind my back. Whenever I brought up a difficult subject he would burst into tears and start talking about how he felt.
“Everything was about him. He was totally incapable of empathising. In the end I just had to learn to take a step back and say very calmly, this is not about you, it’s about me – or about our son, or whatever. It was hard, because I had to fight my natural instinct to comfort him and make him feel better, which I had been doing for years.”
So why do sensible, well-adjusted individuals like Jackie fall for these emotional vampires? Most narcissists, like Jackie’s good-looking husband, are charming and entertaining. It’s all part of the carefully constructed shell designed to protect a vulnerable core. Unfortunately, it’s just that – a shell – and their warped sense of reality inevitably infects those around them.
Once the honeymoon is over, it can have a devastating effect on the self-esteem of anyone who gets close, and create a destructive imbalance in relationships.
Should you leave them?
Perhaps not surprisingly, partners of narcissists are generally advised to cut their losses and run: after all, if denial is the crux of the problem, how can you even get past first base? Narcissism, which is an aspect of personality and not an illness, is notoriously difficult to treat.
Award-winning science writer Simon Crompton, author of one of the best books on the subject, All About Me: Loving a Narcissist, takes a more optimistic view.
He says: “Living with a narcissist can be deeply traumatic and soul-destroying. But I see narcissism as a continuum. All of us have a vein of narcissism, but it is obviously problematic when it becomes dominant.
“I worry that we begin to label everyone who has narcissistic tendencies as an extreme narcissist, and say the only way to deal with it is to get out. That would be tragic, because a lot of relationships are retrievable.
“Many people with narcissistic traits are still capable of being giving, being sympathetic and trying to understand. When it comes to trying to make a relationship work, these people are very different from extremely egotistical people whose actions seem unaffected by the wishes or feelings of other people.”
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist – or fear you may be inflicting your narcissism on a partner – a practical first step can be couples counselling. This can be a useful entry point into accessing help, and dipping a toe into self-analysis, for people who would never accept that they might need psychiatric or psychotherapeutic help themselves.
“Even if the narcissist can’t see a problem in their personality, they might be persuaded to see that there is a problem in the relationship. And that can be a vital foothold in moving things forward,” says Crompton.
“Having said that, strongly narcissistic people will go on to need intensive psychotherapy if there’s ever going to be an improvement in their relationships.”
Crompton’s book is exceptional because it takes such a compassionate view of narcissism. He spoke to a number of narcissists for his book, and was struck by the terror they expressed if they recognised they had created a world which wasn’t real.
For him the most useful analogy is children: “A toddler is a classic narcissist, incapable of empathy with most other people, totally self-centred and very vulnerable on the inside. They too create an image of the world to sustain themselves. And they can be very hard to live with! But that doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply human.”
All About Me: Loving a Narcissist by Simon Crompton is published by Collins
Are you living with a narcissist? Common narcissistic traits:
Emotional detachment and lack of empathy
Need for constant praise and recognition
Good at creating a favourable impression
A sense of entitlement
Unwilling to acknowledge reality
Further reading Internet ‘friends’? I hate them