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Understanding Narcissism

There is so much out there, in the online world, on social platforms and in the media to help identify and understand narcissism that it is confusing to decipher what is accurate and what is not. There is also a current trend for self-diagnosing mental health issues. It often seems that someone watches Dr. Phil or listens to a podcast and suddenly becomes a medical authority. With all the hype in our current culture of self-diagnoses, self-help, and overuse of medical terms, it is more important than ever to get accurate information. In this blog and in future weeks we hope to help you understand narcissism and answer some questions that you may have regarding healthy vs toxic relationships; the toxic dance/attraction between narcissistic personality disorder and codependency; child development and the healthy formation of childhood attachments; recognizing warning signs in your relationships, and much more.

Understanding narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder

Narcissism is a hot topic in our culture currently and we live in a society eager to label others with that diagnosis. Although each one of us might have moments of being self-absorbed or enjoy occasional attention or praise and may even act self-centered at times but we certainly don’t qualify as being a narcissist or having “narcissistic personality disorder”. Each behaviour and personality trait falls somewhere along a range or continuum from one extreme to the other and then also varies in frequency from rarely to almost always. However, in those more extreme and chronic individuals, a true diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder can only be made when the individual is seen by a mental health practitioner such as a psychiatrist, or clinical psychologist.

With that in mind it is however helpful to educate ourselves and to understand the warning signs and characteristics so that we can self-reflect and evaluate our relationships and our own behaviours. With education we can then make decisions whether changes are needed or to decide if therapy might be helpful to ensure healthy and happy relationships with partners and loved ones in the future.

Here are some of the pervasive and unique characteristics of someone diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder:

  • They present with an elevated sense of self, having a larger-than-life persona, like a bully.
  • They are arrogant, thinking they are better than others.
  • They are not interested in anything or anyone around them unless directly about themselves.
  • They lack empathy and don’t feel compassion for other people.
  • Driven by anger and rage they do not have emotional regulation skills.
  • They have an intense need for attention and to be admired, flattered, and praised.
  • They are interpersonally exploitive of others for their own gain.
  • Preoccupied with power they focus on other’s beauty, finances, or success.
  • Relationships tend to be superficial and exploitive.

Before there is panic, it is important to understand note that it is normal for a parent in adolescence to feel like you have a narcissist living under your roof based on the points above! Adolescents go through a developmental period of growth where independence, self-confidence and establishing a sense of self are a normal part of individuating. As mentioned above, every behaviour and trait needs to be seen within the context or situation to determine if it is concerning, and to what degree.

There is said to be three overarching categories of narcissism:

  1. Overt Narcissist (Grandiose): This is the classic personality type that is overbearing, dominating, openly displays superiority and arrogance and seeks out the spotlight. This type may also be charming, funny, interesting, knowledgeable, and charismatic. But not behind closed doors.
  2. Covert Narcissist (Vulnerable): Covert means something that is not always immediately obvious and harder to identify and may take a very long time to see. Things are said in a backhanded or underhanded manner, or the individual makes passive aggressive comments and innuendos. They often play the victim to create empathy for themselves. They also want attention and control, but then are uncomfortable with performance and are self-conscious. Envious of others they tend to use gossip and smear campaigns to devalue others and feel better about themselves. Their rage is ongoing and veiled and takes the form of barbs, dismissals, sarcasm, or micro-aggressions. They may also go to great lengths to cultivate a caring, nice, reasonable, thoughtful, helpful, generous type of persona. This creates an identity that is well-liked but the reality at home behind-the scenes is of course very different.
  3. Malignant Narcissist: This group is the most dangerous and enjoys dominating, bullying, hurting, and violating other people.

These descriptions are just some brief insights and snippets of the many behaviour characteristics that can be typical of someone with narcissistic personality disorder. Four Seasons Counselling can provide more information and insight to help you if you are questioning a relationship or someone’s behaviour towards you or others in your life.

How did I not see the warning signs in my relationship?

Narcissists mask who they are, and change their behaviour, so their true self is hidden until the person is much deeper into the relationship. The red flags get missed. Often gaslighting occurs and victims start to believe it’s their fault that their partner is:

  • Being cruel
  • Showing them disdain
  • Degrading them
  • Using their insecurities against them
  • Isolating them
  • Playing mind games with them
  • Making them question their reality

Often there is an ever-changing rulebook that makes it extremely confusing and difficult to trust their own perceptions and therefore makes it difficult to leave an abusive partner. Narcissistic relationships are complicated and most often there are intermittent happy and loving times, as well or periods of hope that the situation will improve or return to the way it was in the beginning. Statistics say that a person will leave and return to an abusive partner approximately 7 times before finally leaving, or finally resolving to stay. There is often also a strong hold over the victim with an enormous amount of shame and guilt that is used to coerce and control them to stay.

What made me susceptible to get into such a toxic relationship with a narcissistic?

As humans we all make mistakes and judgement errors. We often learn more from our mistakes and challenges than we do from our easier wins and successes. Unfortunately, some mistakes are bigger than others and have longer lasting results. Learning about narcissism and becoming aware of your own relationship patterns is crucial to make good decisions and enter into healthy relationships moving forward into the future.

For some individuals, they may have been more susceptible to becoming involved in a relationship with a narcissist because of long standing patterns of having codependent tendencies. Codependency affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship because they are among many other factors:

  • “Other focussed” – There is an over reliance on the “other” person and so they are very sensitive to anything that the other person does that is independent of them and very reactive to things that they do. This causes them to be focused or attuned to the other person and not focused on what they themselves are needing and feeling.
  • Don’t talk about their own feelings but are extremely connected to emotions, especially the emotions of others.
  • Question their sense of reality.
  • Dependent on other’s approval, affirmation, reassurance, and acceptance.
  • Easily give up their own energy to please others and to gain support and protection.

This state flips back and forth with a second state where they deny their vulnerability and try to present as a strong, self-confident, and independent individual who had goals and achieved more. Going back and forth between these two states often results in a struggle with owning and asserting their position, holding their ground, and easily giving up their authority. This shows up as difficulty asking or accepting support or actively resisting help due to the belief that they need to only rely on themselves and have pride. This constant back and forth results in a nervous system that is stuck in constant and chronic stress. Many individuals experience anxiety and complain they can’t think straight and question their own perceptions, which makes one susceptible prey for the narcissist.

What can I do to make sure I don’t make the same mistake and fall for a narcissist again?

For some individuals, during their younger years they did not develop trust in themselves to make decisions. Perhaps they were conditioned through humiliation, devaluation, lack of validation, guilting or shame.

Sonya Gandhi and her team at Four Seasons Counselling Service provide therapy to individuals who may have developed a tendency towards codependent behaviours and have a pattern of unhealthy relationships.  It is important to learn how to make positive changes moving forward. Your therapist will provide more detailed information and work with you to understand some of the personal developmental factors from your past and even childhood that may have made you more susceptible to relationships that are toxic.


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Blog by: W M Hope

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