This is an edited version of a podcast episode. If you prefer to listen, click Make Me Whole Podcast to find this and all my other episodes.
Welcome back, and thank you for joining me! Today I really wanted to get into a conversation about narcissism. People have been throwing the word “narcissist” around a lot, and I thought it would be helpful to get a deeper understanding about what narcissism actually is, how to protect ourselves, and how you can heal when you have been affected by a narcissist. And I will tell you, I have a lot of experience in this area. Not only with clients, but also in my personal life. I think it's important that we understand what tools we need and how to recognize what triggers narcissists set off for us. I want to let you know that narcissism by itself or calling someone a narcissist does not give them a mental health diagnosis. Narcissism isn’t necessarily a diagnosis. Just as me saying, “You’re so sweet and agreeable!” isn’t diagnosing you. It’s a personality style. A problematic one that shows that you haven't adapted well, but it is a personality style.
The official diagnosis is Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and there are a lot of factors that come into play when officially determining that. People just seem to be really worked up over the word, and no matter what you say, not everybody is going to actually qualify for a diagnosis. They may show narcissistic behaviors, but they don’t have NPD. They're the kind of person that has no empathy. They feel very entitled. Sometimes they come off as arrogant, or they need validation and admiration all of the time. They need to be in control, and their emotions are poorly regulated. These are the type of people who have moments of rage when they're frustrated or disappointed and especially if they don't get their way. They are very easily provoked, have very thin skin, and don't take feedback very well. The core of narcissism is really deep insecurity. They don’t truly believe they are better than others. The behavior that they exhibit serves as a way to protect themselves, almost like a coat of armor, and they're always fighting this battle against feeling shame. They lash out so that they can maintain control and dominance. It gives them a sense of safety, and the people who are affected most by their behaviors are the people who are close to them, like family and friends.
So what are the warning signs that someone may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Well, as I said before, they're very reactive to any kind of negative feedback or criticism. They'll say things like, “Well, fine! If you don't like what I did, why don't you try to do it better?” They are opposed to so many things. They don't like being told what to do. They engage in what's called performative empathy, which is surface-level interest and care. At the beginning they'll say, “Oh my gosh, I can't believe you're going through this!”, but once you actually start describing what you're going through and speaking about your situation in any sort of detail, they quickly disengage because that level of emotion is just too much for them. When they need you, they'll be great, and after they’ve gotten what they need, they check out. Usually they're nice just to get what they want, and they're really engaged with their egos. It's hard for them not to jump into your conversations or interrupt people and make things completely about themselves. Another problematic behavior is constantly having to put people down in order to lift themselves up. It stems from feelings of inadequacy. They act snobby so that they can dominate or hurt the other person and remain in charge. Or there are the kinds of situations where someone will say something demeaning and follow it up with, “Oh, I was just joking!” These are also people who are constantly trying to edit reality. They tell you, “That never happened!” They are masters at the art of gaslighting. When you address whatever issues you might have with them, they push back. They believe that they deserve special treatment because of who they are.
What's the impact of being around adults like this, especially if they're your parents? I'm telling you, it's not good. Any narcissism that you experience as a child creates issues with your sense of identity and autonomy, and leaves you feeling like you can't believe in yourself. It causes shame, making it nearly impossible to express your needs. The result is adults who are anxious and unaware of their own self-worth. The child eventually devalues their own emotions and experiences and doesn't trust themselves. The narcissist's stance here is, of course, that the child should have no needs outside of the parent. So if the parent decides something, everyone goes along. Once the child has thoughts of their own, the narcissistic parent does not have interest in hearing them. The child isn't allowed to have a pleasant life outside of their family because to the parent that implies that they are lacking something .
So here's the thing: as much as you might be evolving and understanding yourself better, you can't call out a narcissist by telling them about themselves. The result is going to be raging and screaming. It can result in the person lashing out, inventing stories about you, or telling everyone that they need to stay away from you. They may call you the narcissist. I'll tell you right now, they are not going to change. The way you handle them is to see them and change YOUR behavior. You have to stop being that landing port for them. Stop engaging with them. Stop taking the bait. An example I can give you was actually presented in a podcast with Mel Robbins, but, gosh, did it speak to me! She told a story of calling home and the parent who picks up the phone says, “I haven't heard from you in a while.” Normally that's a trigger. You want to say something like, “The phone works both ways!”, but when you're dealing with a narcissist, that's just fuel for their fire. Instead you can say something like, “No, you haven't,” and that leaves them nowhere to go.
There's a concept called True North, and it involves considering what in your life is worth fighting for, what's healthy for you. So in the same example, when you're keeping yourself protected by someone who has narcissistic behavior, you might feel guilty. However, you have to ask yourself, “What did I do wrong?” Remember that sometimes our actions, especially when we're protecting ourselves, aren’t what the narcissist wants us to do. So, no matter what action you take or what course you decide on, you will always be seen as in the wrong. So how do you protect yourself? Don't give in to the abuse, because when you do, you reinforce the cycle. You have to work at being authentic and drawing those boundaries. Now I know this isn't easy because you're going against the grain. You're usually alone when you're weeding out the people who cause you more harm than good. Remember, you can't change them, and because insecurity is their core, they will always find something to be upset about. I know we feel bad because they're not happy, but having empathy for these people doesn't mean that you have to take the punches, especially in our families.
The narcissists we’re related to are committed to the look. They want to have the right picture perfect moment for everyone to see. Look at me, I have 20 family members in my house celebrating the holidays! Let's take a picture! There's no room for compassion or individual understanding. No narcissist will do that. They feel entitled to you being there when they want you there, so consider that the only way to make change in a relationship, especially with a narcissist, is to change your own behavior. Don’t give in to the things that you normally would. Change the story. Give yourself the room to do something different, something they don't expect. As we're getting ready for the upcoming holidays, let’s remember all the work we've done on ourselves this year. We deserve to make things as pleasant and as peaceful as they need to be.