12 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Narcissism
1. What is narcissism?
This can be a complicated question to answer because narcissism is really a general personality trait. You can have healthy narcissism, or you can have pathological narcissism—for example, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, or antisocial personality disorder. Narcissism is a psychological disorder in which the person focuses or over-focuses on their needs while ignoring, diminishing, or marginalizing the needs of others. Often acting in ways that are hurtful to others.
2. Is there healthy narcissism?
I believe that healthy narcissism, defined as a form that does not hurt someone, can be an outstanding trait. For example, the need to prove to others that your skills, your personality, your abilities are worthy of their attention, or the enjoyment of getting others to want to see you or getting others to notice you. Healthy narcissism really is just a healthy motivation to show off and to have people meet your needs to take care of some psychological function. There is nothing wrong with it. In fact, some of us should do it more often. So, healthy narcissism is when you pay attention to your own needs, are not focusing on others, are feeling good about it, and no one’s getting hurt.
3. Why do narcissists get angry when confronted?
To understand the reactivity or the anger that narcissists have when they get confronted about something they did wrong or they are held accountable is to understand what a narcissistic injury is. A narcissistic injury occurs to narcissists when they are held accountable, confronted, or shown that something they did was not as they thought it was, or was incorrect, or wrong. The narcissist carries a great deal of shame. People would not know that because the narcissist acts grandiose, entitled, and like they are better than anyone. But really, at the core of each narcissistic personality is a very shame-based person—a person with horrible self-esteem.
The difference between someone who does not have a personality disorder, say, a codependent, and someone who does like someone with a narcissistic personality disorder (or NPD), is the person with NPD can’t bear to think that there is something wrong with them, so their natural inclination or reflex is to deny that they did something wrong and blame someone else.
This confuses people who are friends or loved ones to the narcissist because they don’t understand why something as benign as saying “I disagree with your politics” or “no, you didn’t turn all the lights off in the house” would infuriate a narcissist.
To really understand what is behind the anger, the rage, or the narcissistic injury is to understand the trauma that the narcissist endured as a child. The narcissist cannot or will not talk about it because they block it out of their mind. But behind every pathological narcissist is a person who experienced abuse, neglect, or deprivation as a child. The deprivation was so damaging and painful and agonizing that they had to block it from their awareness; they had to create a container of sorts to keep the shame, agony, and pain in a part of their memory or their brain so they could not recall it. So, when you confront the narcissist, they can’t think or reflect that they made a mistake because that would bring them to understand how broken, traumatized, and damaged they are, so the natural reflex is to blame you and to refuse to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with them.
4. Why are narcissists so judgmental?
Narcissists cannot accept what is wrong with them, choosing to ignore their psychological damage from the trauma that they experienced as a child. It is compartmentalized or repressed; it is put back deep in their mind, so much so they cannot recall it, nor do they want to recall it. It is there unconsciously, and they cannot understand how damaged they are, or that they carry shame and self-doubt. It is simply too painful to confront.
So, when a narcissist judges someone, what they are really doing is projecting. In other words, they see themselves in other people. They cannot acknowledge their own mistakes; it is too painful. It brings up too many memories; it brings them to the shame that they so deeply try to push down. But they can see what is wrong with other people. That makes them feel good; that gives them what I call a pseudo-self-esteem boost. When a narcissist points out what is wrong with a person, it gives them a false sense of superiority.
To remind you, narcissists have horrible self-esteem, and they do not know it. To fight those deeper unconscious feelings of being inferior or unworthy, they must find what is wrong with others, to make themselves feel better, and then they project. There is a saying that a therapist once taught me: “if you spot it, you got it.” If you ever notice when a narcissist judges someone and you know that narcissist well, they are talking about themselves, and it is almost always accurate. The narcissists do not like judgmental people, do not like people that show off, do not like know-it-alls . . . well, those are narcissistic qualities.
5. Why do narcissists behave superior and entitled?
To maintain this false or pseudo-self-esteem, narcissists must somehow refocus their innate feelings of brokenness or unworthiness. The narcissist who acts like they are superior to others or are entitled is really an overcompensation of how badly they feel. But they cannot acknowledge it. So, what they do is at any opportunity, they want to show the world, they want to prove how good they are and why they deserve special recognition, why they are entitled to get better treatment than others. Really the inverse is true. They feel much less worthy and more shameful, but they cannot and will not ever think about it because it is too painful. So, what they do is assume that they are better, and they want people to treat them as such. It is just the compensation for that part of them that is repressed, that is connected to how deeply impaired they are psychologically.
6. Can Narcissistic Personality Disorder be cured?
Sadly, not often. The reason for this is you need to know what is wrong with you to get help. If you cannot see what is wrong with you, if you can’t reflect on your faults or those parts of your personality that need help or work, then it’s almost impossible to make progress in psychotherapy.
There is clinically proven recent research and validated therapy techniques that work very well with narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder, not so much with ASPD. The problem is that the person must commit to the therapy process and must work the program. Narcissists that do start in these programs will sometimes drop out because someone in the program, for instance, their therapist, challenges them, they experience a narcissistic injury, and that is the end of that therapy. A lot of therapists know this. When giving marital therapy with someone with NPD and you hold a narcissist accountable, in that therapeutic environment, often the narcissist is insulted. They are horrified that you would even allude that they may be a part of their problem. Because of this personality disorder, they not only deny it, but they push back, and they will say: “it is your problem, you’re a bad therapist,” and that’s the last time you see them.
So yes, narcissistic personality disorder can be treated, and yes, there are positive outcomes, but the statistics are sadly very low.
7. Does our society celebrate or value narcissism?
Absolutely. Our culture is about achievement; it is the American Way. If you are just smart and motivated enough, you can achieve whatever you put your heart and mind to. It is a part of the American dream to be successful and to compete against others, and to win, because that’s capitalism. So, in a sense, a part of America or the culture of the United States has some narcissistic qualities.
Our culture also celebrates narcissistic personality disorder. The reality is that narcissism and perhaps narcissistic personality disorder are pervasive in Hollywood, professional sports, politics. Why? Because these careers reward narcissism. These careers are based upon someone’s ability to get you to love them, to want to see more of them, to see their pictures, to hear their voice, to get their signature.
The problem is that a lot of these narcissists often fail because their insight or judgment is impaired. When they get into their entitled and grandiose mode, they cannot see the world as it really is. They can only see the world as it impacts them, and often that puts them in a place of making mistakes that are harmful to their career, and these narcissists will fall from grace. We see this in politics, sports, and so on.
I do not think it is ever going to change because our society and perhaps a lot of other Western societies really adore these narcissists, and they just cannot get enough of them.
8. Does narcissism get worse over time?
It is my experience that it absolutely does. Narcissists are psychologically damaged individuals. I know that is a very strong term to use for a human being, but psychologically they suffered so much trauma as a child that their psychological development was stunted, and they never grew in a way that most people grow in order to have healthy, loving mutual and reciprocal relationships. So over time, the narcissist is going to be attracted repeatedly to individuals that will take care of their needs, and they are the codependents.
It is my experience as a therapist that codependents want and do get better. They just need help, guidance, and support. So, when these codependents get better or when the narcissist goes too far, the relationship ends.
Similarly, they often go from job to job because of their narcissistic injuries, projections, judgmental approach to life or jobs, entitlement, grandiosity, and vanity. Typically, narcissists go from one job to another to another because either they get infuriated, the narcissistic injury, and they quit, or someone gets tired of them, and they are fired.
So, does it get worse over time? I believe so. I believe the narcissist cannot understand the impact that their own behavior, their own psychopathology has on him or herself, and over time they get beaten down more and more and never really understands that it’s really about them. Many narcissists end up alone and broken because they burned too many bridges and often because the narcissist is not open to seeking psychotherapy. It’s a disorder that feeds upon itself and cycles into misery, and either the narcissist is able to trap a codependent and have that person for the rest of their lives, which is the saddest of all stories, or the narcissist ends up alone.
9. When does reality catch up with narcissists?
That is a question that is difficult to answer because narcissism is so varied in its presentation. You can be the devious hurtful malignant narcissist, where you rise to power and trap people using your power and hurt, murder, and rape because of your narcissistic need to be in power. You can be the covert narcissist, who on the outside acts altruistic, kind, loving, and giving, but behind the scenes have deeper motives to conquer to take, to steal, and to deceive others in order to get what you need. You can be the productive narcissist, where you are so brilliant that you can make your grandiose dreams come true. Think of Steve Jobs, or for that matter, some of our famous politicians that created grandiose fantasies because of their narcissism. Their intellect and gifts enable them to bring these narcissistic grandiose dreams and visions into reality.
Eventually, reality catches up to them. Their lack of ability to accurately see that they are upsetting or hurting people, or burning a bridge, is going to get the narcissist predictably in trouble. That is when they have a fall from grace, or they are terminated, or someone breaks up with them, or someone in their family or friend decides not to see them anymore. Eventually, most narcissists will face the music and will endure the same pain, if not worse, that they caused others. The sad reality of those narcissists who get hurt by their narcissism is that they do not see it as their fault. They still blame others because they are unable to take responsibility because they are just too damaged.
10. How do you spot a narcissist?
Healthy individuals have what I call a narcissist barometer. In other words, if you are not a codependent and someone who is narcissistic behaves in the way that we understand narcissists do, something is going to go off, it is going to feel wrong, and we call that gut feeling intuition. The charm will wear thin whether it is on the same day, a week, three months, or six months down the road. We know at the core of the narcissist is a broken shame-based person with very low self-esteem, and that is eventually going to come out.
If you are not codependent and are not compelled by the human magnet syndrome to be attracted to the narcissist, there are going to be signs. Eventually, there is going to be an argument, there is going to be a moment in which you challenge the narcissist, and you experience for the first time a narcissistic injury. That charm goes to the wayside for someone who is psychologically balanced and healthy. They are the ones that can spot the narcissist. Sometimes it is right away if you have a fine-tuned narcissism barometer. Or sometimes, if the narcissist is a malignant narcissist or covert narcissist, they have some sociopathic or antisocial traits, and they can fool you for a while, but eventually it comes out because the narcissist cannot hide it.
11. How do you set healthy boundaries with narcissists?
It is not possible to have healthy boundaries with narcissists. Because the narcissist wants so much more than anyone can give—they want who you are, and what you like, and what you need. They want to suck the life out of you to fulfill this bottomless insatiable desire to be front and center and get all the attention. Because narcissists do not have empathy, the narcissist will never get why you are setting a boundary and will get upset and will do everything they can to control you to get that boundary met.
But it is possible to set a boundary with the narcissus. It just takes vigilance, confidence, and support with friends, loved ones, and/or psychotherapy. If you are healthy and you set the boundary with the narcissist, they will experience a narcissistic injury. You, being a healthy person, will not like to be treated badly, and you will separate yourself from the narcissist. After a while, they will back down, not because they understand their narcissistic requests or needs are unfair, but they just got worn down.
So eventually, you are going to wear down the narcissist, and they are going to accommodate you. Because, as I have experienced, narcissists do not like being alone, and they will do anything they can to keep what is important to them. But they will not be happy.
Another way to set boundaries with a narcissist is using my technique Observe Don’t Absorb. I have used this technique successfully and received positive feedback from the public.
12. What happens when you break up with a narcissist?
The codependent that finally breaks off a relationship with a narcissist needs to be in therapy. The codependent needs to understand the psychological forces, the magnetic draw that narcissists have over their life. If they do not do that type of psychotherapy or healing, they are going to suffer out of a relationship with the narcissist. It is equivalent to being a drug addict or an alcoholic and deciding you are just going to stop and not getting involved in any type of support system, recovery, or treatment. You will go through pain, agony, and withdrawal symptoms, and for the codependent who breaks up from the narcissist, the number one withdrawal symptom is loneliness. It is almost a physical manifestation of loneliness. It is deeply painful loneliness. That loneliness can be endured, but it sticks around, and it sticks around long enough for many codependents who are not in recovery or therapy to either relapse (using the addiction analogy) and go back to the narcissist, their drug of choice, or to find another narcissist whom they believe in the beginning is their soulmate, but as my dad used to say, ends up as their cellmate.
Ross Rosenberg M.Ed., LCPC, CADC, is Self-Love Recovery Institute’s CEO and primary contributor. His internationally recognized expertise includes pathological narcissism, narcissistic abuse, and attachment trauma. Ross’s “Codependency Cure™ Treatment Program” provides innovative and results-oriented treatment.
Ross’s expert educational and inspirational seminars have earned him international acclaim, including his 23 million YouTube video views and 235K subscribers. In addition to being featured on national TV and radio, his “Human Magnet Syndrome” books sold over 150K copies and are published in 12 languages. Ross provides expert testimony/witness services.
More about Ross and his educational and inspirational work can be found at www.SelfLoveRecovery.com.
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