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Although narcissists (those with NPD – Narcissistic Personality Disorder) account for only 5% of the population, they inflict damage almost everywhere they go and on everyone they meet. Here is how to spot them and defend your mental health against their toxic behaviour.
It will be no surprise to most people subjected to abusive behaviour that narcissists make up between 1/5 and 1/4 of the prison population. The more extreme the crimes and wrongdoing of a person in prison, the more likely they are to be narcissists. That is, almost all serial killers and multiple sex offenders are narcissists.
Narcissists who have not been removed from the normal population continue to inflict emotional and psychological damage on all those around them throughout their lives. For every narcissist who rapes or kills, there are many, many more who destroy the mental health of huge numbers of people.
If there were an offence to destroy a person’s mental health through narcissistic behaviour, it would probably be the most widespread crime, with huge convictions and an even larger number of victims.
- First rule of mental health self-defence against narcissists: get them out of your life ASAP.
- Second rule: refer to the first rule.
- Third rule: if you can’t get them out of your life, minimise your contact in all forms.
- Fourth rule: if you can’t follow rules one, two, or three, ensure you have a good
therapist; you will need one.
How do you identify a narcissist?
- Narcissists are almost always right and seek to make you almost always wrong.
- They invalidate your opinions, emotions, perceptions, needs, and wants.
- They gaslight you. That is, they will try to persuade you that in any difficulty, you are the problem; it is your fault; if only you hadn’t behaved in this way or that; you brought it on yourself. They will invalidate your reality.
- They will DARVO you. When you challenge their wrongdoing or abuse of you, they will Deny it, Attack you for challenging them, and then Reverse the Victim and Offender – making you the offender.
- They will project all their problems onto you: you are the cause of any of their problems.
- They will seek to isolate you and/or turn others against you.
- They will seek to control and manipulate you, including who you talk to and what you say or don’t say.
- Narcissists deflect, distort, and project (and use many other psychological manipulations). That is, they will deflect away from anything they don’t want to do or discuss. They will distort what is said to suit their purposes. They will project on to you their wrongdoing.
- They are pathological liars and will lie to cover up lies and cover up the cover-ups.
- They have delusional level opinions of their worth compared to yours; you are bad, they are good.
- They are never wrong, even when engaged in obvious and verified wrongdoing.
- To mentally ‘normal’ people, this will sound odd. Many narcissists are so narcissistic that they will boast of being a narcissist! They will tell you if you ask them: are you a narcissist? That might be the only word of honesty you hear from them.
For those who want more information about the psychiatric characteristics of narcissism, the DSM – V entry for Narcissistic Personality Disorder is at the end of this article.
3 types of narcissists
The rarest type seems only to behave in certain contexts in the characteristic ways listed above. For instance, in the workplace. They may be manipulative and Machiavellian and only behave like narcissists when their wrongdoing is challenged.
Many specialists in performance coaching will be familiar with this phrase: the way someone does something is the way they do everything. That is, be cautious, you may think someone is only a narcissist in one context, but rarely is such deep-rooted dysfunction isolated to one context.
Uses passive-aggressive tactics. For instance, they will start crying when they don’t get their way or when their wrongdoing is about to be exposed or challenged. They will ask: ‘Why are you doing such things to me?’ They will play the victim of your unreasonable conduct.
Seeks attention and affirmation and often appear charismatic, charming, confident and competent, but the reality is that their abilities are all bluster and hype.
Narcissism is not an all-or-nothing disorder. Many people have several narcissistic traits, severe enough to damage those around them but have not yet done enough to be incarcerated in prison or a psychiatric facility.
They are high-functioning narcissists in that their narcissism is toxic to many but does not attract the enforcement attention of the authorities. Many can function well enough to end up in positions of power. The history of countries and organisations is littered with people who have been destroyed by high-functioning narcissists.
How do narcissists damage the mental health of even the most mentally healthy?
When narcissists are challenged, they experience narcissistic injury. Narcissistic injury is experienced by narcissists when they receive any kind of criticism. This includes any critique a narcissist perceived as a slight, even if it wasn’t meant that way.
The injury also occurs when a narcissist is faced with judgment, is held accountable, or when boundaries are placed upon them. Narcissists often react with anger and rage once an injury is inflicted on them.
Their self-inflated self-esteem perceives that it has been attacked by the person who has deigned to challenge them.
They tend to look for opportunities to get revenge and make issues for the inflictor of the injury. Narcissists believe they are victims (though their grandiose sense of self doesn’t allow them to show genuine vulnerability), so they hide it and quickly try to get revenge.
Normal, rational people are pleasant, empathetic, make each other feel emotionally safe, and try to see and bring out the good in others. Narcissists manipulate that.
When challenged about their toxic behaviour, the narcissist will accuse the rational person of lacking empathy, hostility, or being emotionally toxic. Normal, rational people are not used to being accused and have a well-practised tendency to look to themselves before blaming others. Narcissists exploit that to sow the seeds of self-doubt.
Narcissists never blame themselves, always blame others, and do so with such total confidence that they are often believed. Their absolute conviction that they are right and you are wrong comes from their belief that they cannot be wrong, and you almost always are.
They believe so strongly that they are right that even the most rational person is driven to question their perceptions. That damages the rational person’s mental health.
Normal people empathise with others, try to make their relationships work, and assume that everyone else does. Narcissists do not. They exploit empathy and the desire to get along.
They will turn your empathy against you. When you challenge the narcissist’s unreasonable behaviour or wrongdoing, you are hurting the narcissist, you are a ‘bad person,’ ‘you are unreasonably attacking someone,’ and ‘your behaviour caused’ the narcissist to do as they did, ‘you are causing problems in this relationship.’
The combination of the desire to make relationships work, self-awareness, self-examination, and empathy in the normal person, and the accusations of the narcissist, drives the rational person to question their rationality.
The narcissist knows that and continues undermining and invalidating the perceptions of the normal person to destabilise and manipulate.
Well-adjusted people will try to make reasonable adjustments to ‘fix things,’ which is exactly what the narcissist wants. Before long, you are making adjustments to the point of being controlled and manipulated.
The normal human tendency of trying to see the good in others with a narcissist will be exploited and damage the normal person’s mental health. When you identify a narcissist, it is time to protect yourself and your mental health. Get them out of your life ASAP.
How do you protect your mental health from their toxicity if you can’t avoid a narcissist?
As in medicine, the best cure for any disease or pathogen is avoidance and prevention. Minimise your contact with any narcissists you come across. There are plenty of wonderful people in the world; choose to be with them.
Point out the narcissist’s behaviour. You may be tempted to react with outrage and anger that the narcissist is attacking, undermining or belittling you. Resist that temptation; respond in a logical and factual way. Resolve to keep the focus on their inappropriate behaviour and conduct.
State clearly, and calmly the impact of their behaviour and what you wish them to do about it. Insist that the correction is conducted before further action or discussion on your part. Note of caution: narcissists are quick to make promises deny they made them, or makeup excuses for breaking them.
Remind yourself that their deluded views are not your reality. Remind yourself that narcissists’ stock and trade is deceit and gaslighting, which is exactly what they are doing to you.
Keep your interaction with narcissists as brief as possible. The more chance you give them to speak, the more chance they have to manipulate you and damage your mental health. They are toxic; treat them as you would any toxic chemical.
Defend your boundaries. Narcissists test who can be manipulated by deliberately breaching each person’s boundaries. If they get no push back, the green light is lit, and their toxic game is on. Their latest target has been acquired.
Ensure that the narcissist knows how they can and cannot treat or speak to you. They will, of course, ignore your wishes as and when it suits, so make sure you have witnesses and/or keep verifiable records of all communications with them. If you are dealing with a work narcissist, confirmatory emails are wise and often best copied into others.
Take action, and get help if needed. Your mental health is the key to your overall well-being. If a narcissist is in your life, they will almost certainly damage your mental health. If you are being gaslit, starting to doubt yourself, if your confidence is being affected, if they are impacting your life in any way, gather evidence, and get help.
In many countries, there are laws to protect against harassment, controlling and coercive behaviour, and mental and emotional abuse of narcissists inflicted on others.
What is the impact of collective narcissism or institutional narcissism?
Image if an organisation finds itself led by a group of narcissists. That is more common than we care to think for several reasons. Narcissists are more prevalent in senior positions in most organisations. Since most people recruit in their image (narcissists recruit narcissists), once a few are in place in any organisation, it quickly becomes toxic and unsafe for all normal people.
In such situations, organisations or entire governments behave in narcissistic ways. Imagine the harm they would do if in charge of any organisation.
If you are a student of history, you will not have to imagine; you already know the vast number of cases and the enormous harm they have done and, in many cases, continue to do.
Graveyards and psychiatric wards are populated by people driven there by narcissists. Many well-intentioned people feel tempted to try to change a narcissist; to help them reform. Don’t!
Personality disorders are notoriously difficult to change or treat. Despite years of training and trying, if the world’s top psychiatrists repeatedly fail to reform narcissists, you stand virtually no chance. Your attempts will be used against you by the narcissist, and your help will be twisted and turned against you to do you much harm.
The best way to deal with narcissists is to not deal with narcissists. Here is a quick quiz.
Which of the following statements would be made by a narcissist?
A. How can I possibly be a narcissist when I am so skilled?
B. I am not a narcissist. You are wrong. The only reason you think I am a narcissist is that you are not getting your way and are blaming me for that. You are attacking me based on your delusions. You are evil!
C. You are the real narcissist for accusing me of being one!
D. There is nothing wrong with putting yourself first; everyone does that.
E. All of the above (A, B, C, and D).
The correct answer is at the end of this extract from the DSM – 5.
Narcissistic personality disorder
The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits. To diagnose a narcissistic personality disorder, the following criteria must be met.
A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by impairments in self-functioning (a or b)
- Identity. Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes;
emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.
- Self-direction. Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.
Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b)
- Empathy: Impaired ability to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.
- Intimacy: Relationships are largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality is constrained by little genuine interest in others‟ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain.
B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:
- Grandiosity. Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others; condescending toward others
- Attention seeking. Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration-seeking
- The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expressions are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
- The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expressions are not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
- The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (such as a drug of abuse, or medication) or a general medical condition (such as severe head trauma).
Quiz Answer: E. All of the above (A, B, C and D).
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.
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