As this Ted-Ed points out, the DSM-V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition), is the official compendium psychiatrists and mental health providers use to diagnose mental disorders. The symptoms and characteristics of each mental health disorder listed in the DSM-V assures clarity and uniformity when posing a diagnosis.
Let me begin by emphasizing that while most of us may have narcissistic traits –a tendency to exhibit narcissistic qualities– very few of us qualify for a full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) diagnosis. In fact, according to the largest study on personality disorders, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) assess that 6.2% of the general population qualifies for the diagnosis. While it is a relatively small percentage of the general population, we must keep in mind that a greater percentage of people suffer from the consequences of the disorder: boyfriends and girlfriends, spouses, parents, children, siblings, bosses, employees, and in some cases, entire countries when the leaders of the country have a full-blown NPD diagnoses. In brief, we are all likely to come, or have come in contact with people who are on the spectrum, and many of us have been affected and traumatized by their behaviors.
In our cultural era where “me–myself–and–I” reign strong and proud, we ought to refrain from throwing the diagnosis around just because we get irritated by someone we judge to be self-centered, selfish or self-absorbed; all qualities which of themselves do not remotely qualify for the diagnosis. While the information below is as accurate as I can make it, let’s use it mindfully and not attack or judge others for being a full-blown narcisists, for simply showing narcissistic traits at times. When we are honest with ourselves, there is a high likelihood that all of us display narcissistic traits, especially in periods when we feel more insecure about our self-image or sense of self. Again, narcissistic traits do not make a person a full fledge narcissist.
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In order for someone to officially be diagnosed with NPD, the following three personality traits must be present since early adult life:
- An unquenchable need for admiration.
- A grandiose sense of self-importance – whether real or imagined. Therefore, the person constantly exaggerates his/her own abilities, accomplishments and talents, and expects to be recognized as superior.
- A lack of empathy, the person does not recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
Added to these three traits, at least two more symptoms –out of the following list of six– must be present:
- Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, beauty, brilliance, ideal love and power.
- Belief that personal uniqueness and specialness renders him/her fit only for association with, or be understood by, people or institutions of rarefied status.
- A sense of entitlement, the person unreasonably expects favorable treatment, automatic granting of own wishes, or total compliance with his/her expectations.
- Exploitation of others to achieve personal goals.
- Frequent envy of others or belief that others envy him/her.
- Arrogance of haughtiness in attitude or behavior.
One of the many challenges of people suffering from NPD is that their mindset is ego-syntonic. Meaning that they never think or accept they are responsible, if only partially, for the problems they cause and how it affects those around them. They genuinely believe that others are always at fault, or as we have seen above, that those who challenge them are just jealous or envious of them. They can’t conceive that the needs of others are as important as their own. Their lack of empathy prevents them from genuinely putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. This simple fact makes finding win-win solutions to difficult and complex situations nearly, if not totally, impossible.
We must know that at its core, their inflated sense of self is VERY FRAGILE, and that anyone who questions their omnipotence and specialness is perceived as a genuine threat to their survival, their identity and their sense of self. For them, keeping their inflated ego structure intact and unchallenged is literally a question of life and death. Literally. This is what makes this disorder so pernicious. To add to the challenge, their limited ability for self-awareness, along with their very fixed and rigid temperament renders them almost, and sometimes totally, incapable of being accountable and flexible.
It is important to know that when they feel threatened, they shame, guilt, attack back, bully, spins circles to confuse, shift blame, stonewall, make fun of others’ feelings and vulnerabilities; all of these actions serve as an attempt to divert the attention elsewhere. True narcissists are masters at gaslighting those who challenge them. At best, they will apologize while making a snarky remark, roll their eyes and look at you with a contemptuous smile. As we can see, the portrait of a person suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder is pretty dark and grim, especially for those at the effect of their defense mechanisms.
The REAL challenge for most of us is to become aware of our own narcissistic wounds; our deep need to be seen as special, to be admired and adored, and in many cases, to be better than others (whomever “others” are). Those who have very low self-esteem and are on the co-dependent spectrum are at greater risks of attracting narcissists in their lives, and worse, welcoming them in as if they were saviors. Narcissists and people suffering of low self-esteem are a “perfect match” for each other. Who better to heal our deepest wounds than someone whom, at his/her core, truly believes that he/she is very special and better than anyone else? How could someone suffering from low self-esteem doubt a person imbued of inherent superiority? Our newfound best friend, king, or queen will be experienced as a delicious euphoria of being returned, at last, to the garden of specialness. Our value is restored by the attention the narcissist bestows on us. Finally!
As we have seen above, true narcissists only value those who are like themselves – perfect, very special and superior to others. These are the requirements to allow anyone inside their tight and guarded circle. The sad truth is that they don’t see us, as we truly are; our gifts and imperfections, our strengths and weaknesses, special in our own ways without being better or worse than anyone else. NPD only value us, and all of the people in their lives, for what we can provide them, an improved, newer and more exciting version of their awesomeness!
In order for us to remain worthy of our special status, we will be required to mirror back to them how they need us to see them, as perfect as they see themselves and without any flaws whatsoever. If and when we fail, we will be thrown under the bus and definitely kicked out of the garden of their specialness. What once was experienced as a divine or cosmic encounter, in time, will become a relationship from hell – a nightmare we’ll want to awaken from and get out of. The fine print on the price tag of being Very Special will come due, and it will be much more than we had bargained for.
How can we avoid becoming entangled with true narcissists? First we must do what is in our power to manage our narcissistic needs and wounds. If we are suckers for compliments and constantly need others to make us feel very special (and better than others), we become the perfect human magnet whom attracts narcissists into our lives. Our low self-esteem, which is the underlying force that feeds our need to be love-bombed by others –the negative pole of the magnet– attracts the overly (pseudo) self-confident and cocky narcissist –the positive pole. In matters of attraction, positive and negative always look for each other and complement each other. If we don’t attend to the wounds that lead us to feel a “self-love deficit” and don’t work at rebuilding our low self-esteem, we are doomed to sub-contract this personal journey onto someone else. Who better fit to do the job than Mr. Narcissist himself? We will be charmed by her aura of self-confidence and cockiness, and will feel privileged when she asks for our phone number, to do business with us, or for our vote to run our county or our country. Without any hesitations, we will oblige while feeling totally gleeful inside, whole and worthy again!
Obviously, most of us don’t know whom we are really dealing with in the early stages of getting to know someone. When the chemistry and our projections are both really strong as if we had rekindled with a lost part of our self, our ability to think clearly and remain levelheaded is jeopardized. Blame it on our endogenous cocktail of hormones and neuro transmitters flooding our brain. If we are considering letting someone into our lives whom we feel so magnetically attracted to, and seems to be such a great complement to our personality, it serves us well to over-ride our intensely delicious “gut feelings” and emotions, and ask questions such as the following: What are some of your personal struggles? What part of your personality are you working on? What flaws do you consider yourself having? What inside of you still needs healing? What is less than perfect about you? Etc. You get the point! Such questions, and many others have one thing in common. They help us assess a person’s self-awareness, humility, ability to see his or her flaws, and to be genuine. True narcissists are bothered by such questions. Actually, they are annoyed and insulted by them. These types of questions are experienced as if you were throwing water on the flame of passion that burns between you both. Even worse, they show that you are not totally fooled by the magnetic bond between the two of you, and are able to take a step back from the image of perfection they project. In less than a split second, a full NPD will now see you as a threat, a depressive party pooper and a total drag.
If you feel bad or guilty for having asked such questions, keep in mind that it could be the result of the narcissist non-verbal communication for having questioned her awesomeness and her image of perfection. This instantaneously makes you less attractive and interesting to him. In fact, it makes you threatening and as an instinctual response, she may very well have to shame you for having asked it. Responses like “What’s wrong with you to ask such stupid questions?” or a more friendly version, “Let’s not talk about such depressing topics… I like to stay positive and up-beat, don’t you?” Whatever the responses are, the tone will be unequivocal. Don’t go there… ever! Chances are that you’ll be left feeling bad for having asked such “injudicious” questions. At the very least, you’ll feel embarrassed and self-conscious. At worse, you’ll have a full-blown internal critic attack. Either way, you’ll most likely be left wondering what is wrong with you for ruining such a great moment?
If such is the scenario, it will serve you best to remain aware and awake as to what is really happening. Please don’t buy into the shame or the guilt he is serving you. As we have seen above, it is part of the defense mechanism he uses when threatened. Countless clients I have worked with recount situations like these. In retrospect, they also become clear that it’s in such instances that they decided not to speak up and ask legitimate questions so that they would not feel the discomfort/shame they felt then. It is in these moments they unconsciously knew that the tone of the relationship had to remain one of adulation. “You adore me and never question my awesomeness, never. You never ask me to be introspective, self-aware and show any vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies. In return, I’ll make you feel privileged to be with me, I’ll make you feel you matter and that you are special… until I don’t.”
Asking questions that are aimed at eliciting self-awareness in ourselves and others are far from being foolproof. Nevertheless, they may help us weed-out true narcissists. This being said, we must also keep in mind that everyone can manipulate his or her answers to sound self-aware. Even narcissists do that. Many narcissists are aware that in the eyes of some people, sounding self aware can make them more appealing and interesting, more special. The bottom line remains, people who never see a need for self-improvement –not to be confused with the need to improve and change others– should lead us to get our orange, if not red flags handy. If your orange and red flags are out, please learn to cool your enthusiasm and your dopamine neurotransmitters for having found Mr. or Mrs. Right. If you refuse to do so now, the cost of not doing it in the early phase of the relationship will increase as emotions and sexuality gets involved.
On the next Post, we’ll address how to manage relationships with full fledge narcissists. I’ll suggest eleven ways to speak to them, so that you are not victimized by them.
C. Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©