There are narcissists among us. We love them, go to dinner with them, and tolerate them. They are our bosses, subordinates, and neighbors. I’ll give you three examples and then guidance on how to recognize people so taken with themselves they have little affection left for you.
First, though, the top-line description of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as found in the DSM-5:*
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts … .
Or, as I like to picture it, someone who stands so close to the mirror (the better to admire himself) he can see nothing else of importance in the world.
- TWENTY-YEAR-OLD GWEN DESIRED not only an easy life, but a delightful one, requiring little effort and guaranteeing an avoidance of unpleasantness. She wanted the center of attention, being unconcerned with the wants and needs of others, including her family. This young lady envisioned a world created especially for her, like a custom-designed outfit, where her stunning beauty and innate wit won every eye and red carpets forever laid at her feet. Work, accomplishment, and service sounded distasteful.
Gwen overestimated her gifts as an untrained singer and suffered a narcissistic injury when an accomplished musician deemed her talent modest. She enjoyed the thrill and diversion of risk and reward, never considering that one person’s gain is often another’s loss. The beauty didn’t dismiss the misfortune of her fellow-men so much as fail to notice it. The world of Gwendolyn consisted of a circular room full of mirrors, each one reflecting her image alone. If your approach made her environment less pleasant or more complicated, she dismissed you by smiling you away. Dazed and alone, you wondered what just happened. No surprise that the young woman had never been in love, except with her dazzling self.
- CALL OUR SECOND EXAMPLE, MC. Here was a man who, to use a Barry Switzer quote, “was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” He had the right parents and a fat wallet because of them. MC owned an impressive physical bearing and cold command. The esteemed gentleman reluctantly offered the social niceties, but calmly scouted the passing human parade for those advantageous to him. Without such potential, your presence wasn’t required or tolerated. The job of a fellow-creature was that of a chess pawn on the board of his existence, to be moved about as needed; just an instrument or an object, nothing more. The man had no friends.
Actually, MC was rather a bore. He didn’t read, didn’t study, simply arranged the world to his liking. MC enjoyed yachting, for example, because it permitted total control, escape from the world of obligation, and avoidance of bothersome humanity.
If you studied this man’s handsome face, you noticed eyes of unusual length and narrowness. Later you might recognize the reptilian quality.
Unlike members of his class, MC didn’t subscribe to the idea of “noblesse oblige.” He believed in no requirement to serve others, only to be served. Once in his vicinity, you either bent your knee instinctively or he bent you to his will. He’d charm you just long enough to grip your shoulder and push down.
- MY FINAL EXAMPLE WAS A WOMAN of high middle-age. She rebelled against her father’s wish for her to become a conventional wife and mother in a dutiful, subservient role. Instead, this lady broke free and imposed her own vision on others. I’ll call her Countess. Talented and ambitious, C took the world of musical theater by force and rose to continent-wide acclaim. When she became pregnant she decided she could not love the child: he would be an obstacle to her career. Countess gave him up.
This proud woman knew many men and was loved by even more, but chose those who submitted to her domination, allowing her to set the path of their lives without complaint. Though the Countess recognized the imposing self-love at her core, no motive to be otherwise existed for her. In sculpting her life to exactly the shape desired, this magnificent presence consisted of the hard, dark marble of her own chiseled perfection. Had you seen her in a museum you might look atop her pedestal, but not touch. She owned a dictionary lacking the word apology.
How do these people match up with the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder? In addition to the sentence quoted above, you must meet five of the nine following diagnostic characteristics:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement (i.e. unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
- Is interpersonally exploitive (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
In general, narcissists seek therapy only when they have suffered an affront to their overblown sense of self-esteem. Responsibility-taking is not their forte. Treatment gives them a place to vent and provides bolstering support. Once reinflated to their out-sized vision of themselves, they most often itch to end counseling. The therapist merely is expected to find sufficient wind to inflate the balloon back to normal.
I don’t advise taking on a narcissistic business partner or mate in the hope of remaking him into a person who is reciprocal: to create something close to a 50/50 relationship. On the other hand, the woman in the first example was one who did begin to recognize her self-involvement after a major trauma. She and the others are, in fact, not real people, but characters in George Eliot’s towering novel Daniel Deronda.
Eliot was a master psychologist long before the profession and its diagnostic categories existed. Read her (yes, her) for knowing sympathy with and optimism about the human condition, as well as beauty of language. The antique notion of a woman’s inability to write well caused her to take the pen name by which we know her.
Her real name was Mary Ann Evans.
*The acronym DSM-V refers to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.
The first image, I Love Me, is the work of Misky.
The second visual is named, Cliché of Narcissistic People, by Nephiliskos. Its German text is translated as:
The mirror speaks to the youth: ‘I love you!’ The youth speaks to the mirror: ‘I love myself too!’
Finally, It’s’ All About Me: Me, Me, Me, … is the work of Gürkan Sengün.
All three are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.