You’ve read the horror stories about what it’s like to be married to a narcissist, be parented by a narcissist or be friends with a narcissist. People with narcissistic personality disorder believe deeply in their own importance and specialness and need admiration and flattery to feel good about themselves. They may also struggle to see others as anything more than mere extensions of themselves, which can lead to control issues and abuse.
But narcissistic personality disorder is distinct from the trait of narcissism. People with full blown narcissistic personality disorder are rare — estimates range from less than one percent to 6.2 percent of the population — but we all display narcissistic traits and behaviors from time to time. Depending on how much control you have over the trait, this could actually be a good thing.
“In our modern society, there are times you have to toot your own horn.”W. Keith Campbell
Narcissism is a continuum, experts say, and where you are on the spectrum determines whether you can use it to achieve your goals, or whether you use it as a way to control the people around you.
‘Good’ narcissism presents as self-confidence
Narcissistic personality disorder often co-occurs with substance use, mood and anxiety disorders and other personality disorders. Living with NPD can be a serious setback and require intensive professional intervention.
But on the low end of the spectrum, narcissism can manifest itself in simple self-confidence or bravado. W. Keith Campbell, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia and author of the book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living In The Age Of Entitlement, calls narcissism a tool in our toolbox that can help you nail that job interview, pick someone up at a bar or win that new leadership position at work.
“In our modern society, there are times you have to brag or toot your own horn,” he told HuffPost. “If you can use it, it can be helpful, but only in limited areas.”
If you’re looking to impress at a job interview, people who can rattle off their skills and accomplishments will do much better than people who struggle to explain why they should get the position. If you’re a performer, narcissism gives you that higher-than-average boost of self confidence you need to do well on stage — as well as to continue pursuing your dream, sometimes for years, in the face of constant rejection. Research bears this out; reality TV celebrities, comedians and actors tend to score higher on self-measures of narcissistic personality than the general population.
The benefits of narcissism will only get you so far
Generally, Campbell explained, these narcissistic traits are very useful for the beginnings of things. But people with the personality disorder may find that the narcissistic traits that helped them win the new job or love interest aren’t enough to sustain the relationship. If other skills don’t come surging through things like leadership, compassion and emotional intelligence — things can sour.
“The classic pattern you see with narcissistic personality disorder would be having a relationship or having a leadership position, starting out really strong and then having it fall apart,” said Campbell. “Then they’re finding another person [or] another job, and sort of cycling through people.”
Often times, Campbell said, the only reason people with NPD seek treatment is that their behavior has disrupted their lives so completely that even they have to admit there’s a problem.
What to do if your narcissistic traits are getting out of hand
Dr. John Oldham, chief of staff at the Menninger Clinic in Houston and a psychiatry professor at Baylor college, agrees that narcissistic traits can be helpful sometimes. Oldham, author of The New Personality Self-Portrait, compares narcissistic traits to blood pressure; we all have it, or else we wouldn’t be able to survive. But too much blood pressure, or too little blood pressure, can be dangerous.
“Instead of having a good amount of self-regard, you may develop grandiosity and over-exaggerate your importance.”Dr. John Oldham
“Instead of having a good amount of self-regard, you may develop grandiosity and over-exaggerate your importance,” Oldham wrote. “You may become preoccupied in a way that’s not at all useful and can get in the way, with fantasies about being elected to the most powerful office in the world or position in the company.”
If you find yourself bragging a little too much about yourself, or have gotten feedback from loved ones that they feel like mere objects to you, take stock and reflect. Oldham recommends several exercises to help tame your perhaps oversized sense of self-confidence. They include paying attention to your reaction to criticism, making an effort to truly understand and show interest in someone else, trying to see yourself as others would see you, and to even make a list of all things that are “not totally great about me.”
“These things come naturally to most people, but may take a conscious daily exercise for people with this particular style,” he said. The routines can help people “really begin to shake out of themselves and include others in their values and orbit.”
If you love a very self-confident person, don’t try to change him or her
Oldham even has advice for people who love very self-confident people: Don’t try to change who they are, expect certain behaviors of them and be truthful about how you really feel being in someone else’s orbit.
“If you enjoy being around someone who’s very successful and don’t feel you need to be equally successful, and if you don’t need to be admired the same way yourself, you can become part of the halo of success around this person and find it very rewarding in some ways,” Oldham conceded.
In other words, accept that your partner needs more admiration than the average person. Or move on. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it always has to be about them.
“You can certainly communicate to the self-confident person that it would be nice to have a little less time just focusing on him or her, but it should be in the context of recognizing you won’t change the essential ingredients of this person,” he concluded.
While it’s true that the recipients of the most annoying of the narcissist’s traits”an inflated sense of self-importance, an overwhelming need for admiration and a lack of empathy toward others”suffer emotionally, the narcissist himself actually suffers physically from higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone can lead to health problems like high blood pressure and heart issues.
At least that’s what a 2012 study found when researchers looked at the role of narcissism and gender (narcissism seems to be more prevalent among men) on cortisol levels in a sample of 106 undergraduate students. Why narcissism is not physically taxing on women could be because “men who endorse stereotypically male sex roles and who are also high in narcissism may feel especially stressed,” said the study’s coauthor Sara Konrath, in a University of Michigan press release.
Perhaps it’s the pressure of trying to keep up a front: narcissists, although they come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious, often feel fragile and humiliated on the inside.
According to the Mayo Clinic, some symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder include: believing that you’re special; failing to recognize others’ emotions and feelings; taking advantage of others; fantasizing about power, success and attractiveness; and exaggerating your achievements or talents.
Does that sound like someone you know or have known?
This got me thinking about narcissism, a buzzword of late. If I’m not reading about it, I’m hearing about it from people I know (“Oh, him? He’s a total narcissist.” “I can’t stand her”she’s always talking about herself, her looks and how much power she has. Totally narcissistic.” “My ex-husband? He was such a narcissist. That’s why our marriage fell apart.”)
Throughout my life, I’m sure I’ve met and known narcissists, but I never really labeled them as such. Instead, I thought of them as preoccupied and selfish, with an overwhelming need for attention.
So I turned to the real expert on narcissism”no, not a narcissist herself, but someone who has studied them and written extensively about the subject, Meredith Resnick, a licensed clinical social worker turned author. Meredith was kind enough to answer some of my questions on the subject. Perhaps if you have dealt with, or are dealing with, someone with narcissistic personality disorder, this may give you some deeper understanding into the narcissist (or even yourself):
How do you define a narcissist?
Meredith: The term narcissist is often used to describe individuals who are rude, selfish, self-centered and cold. Not all people with those traits are full-blown narcissists. Many narcissists can also be quite charming, deceptively so. But, because narcissists are always shape-shifting, you never know what you’re going to get. Lack of empathy is a key trait of the individual with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder. Individuals with narcissistic traits can be very difficult as well, without the official diagnosis.
In writing about narcissism I’ve received a lot of email.Â It seems that a lot of women in midlife realize their partner is a narcissist, or has narcissistic traits, and they wonder why they were attracted in the first place.
Why does it sometimes take until midlife to realize this is happening, and what can the individual do about it?
Meredith: First, the why: It seems to me that one reason it takes many until midlife (sometimes longer, sometimes shorter) to fully realize what’s going on is because so much time spent in earlier life is focused on the question,Â “How can I make this relationship work?”
This leads us into the second part of the question”the what.Â There is absolutely nothing wrong with the above question except that one person alone cannot make a relationship work. And, for many of us, when we’re younger, we hear this question”often without realizing it”asÂ “How can I fix the relationship?”A When asked this way, what’s lost or forgotten is the self, the individual who is asking the question. Recovery from the effects of narcissism involves the asker of that question””How can I make things work in this relationship?””turning the question around, at least as a start, and asking:Â “What do I need to do to take care of my own self that does not depend on the other person?”
In what ways can being involved with a narcissist affect your health?
Meredith: As I write in Surviving the Narcissist: 30 Days of Recovery, “Life with a narcissist can take us to emotional places we never thought we’d go and, once there, never believed we’d survive.” The stress, the, the pain of not knowing what will happen next, not knowing if or how the narcissist will ostracize you is bad enough. But living with someone who lacks empathy one minute and charms you the next to keep you from leaving him/her is confusing and exhausting. It is impossible for the non-narcissist partner to understand the emptiness/internal black hole/emotional cavity that provokes the narcissist (or those with multiple narcissistic traits) to act this way, but until they accept this, they will again and again try to fix the person and the relationship, which ultimately causes themselves the most distress. Some of this is the result of the narcissist’s unconscious projection of his or her own inadequacies on the other partner”and the other partner (the non-narcissist) absorbing it (also unconscious).
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