The Narcissists in Your Life: A Guide to Identifying Them

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:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. 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).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e. unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
  6. Is interpersonally exploitive (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. 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.

Opportunism and Its Consequences: “Sunset Boulevard”

Swanson-Holden

Being a has-been can’t be much fun. They are like ghosts of their former selves; and worst of all when they do not know that their day is already done, that the time has come when the shade will not (once again) see the sun.

Those people who are identified by the adjective “former” risk the dissatisfaction that comes with knowing you are no longer who you once were. It is easy to sympathize if someone is out of a job necessary to make a living. But what of the CEO, musician, ballplayer, or actor with tons of money but nowhere to go when the new work week comes, no crowd of fawning acolytes to sing his praises?

The world usually has a short memory for such people, as can be seen in the classic 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard, 16th on the American Film Institute’s list of the Greatest American Movies. It was directed (and co-written) by Billy Wilder, and stars William Holden as Joe Gillis and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. Upon meeting Desmond, Joe, a failing screenwriter says “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big!” She answers back, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And, indeed, fifty-year-old Gloria Swanson was a very real relic of the silent screen, here portraying a rich, overdressed, out-of-date, ex-femme fatale who lives in a Beverly Hills mansion as faded as her movie career.

The world has mostly forgotten Norma, but she has not forgotten the world. She is one of those people we read about on the Internet, in features like “Whatever happened to…?” And then we see that so-and-so is now well-worn and largely out of the public eye and we say to ourselves, “Gee, I thought she was dead.”

The movie provides an answer to the question, “What would you do to get your dream.” Maybe your dream is an estate with a swimming pool, maybe it is becoming a star again, maybe it is directing a movie.

The movie gives us some answers. Joe Gillis is willing to become the sexual plaything of a sad, deranged, controlling woman (Desmond) who is 20 years his senior; and prostitute his writing skills as a ghost-writer for her irredeemable script, one that she expects to be the vehicle for her return to the movie screen. Of all things, it is based on Salome, the biblical tale of a sex-crazed girl in her early teens who becomes obsessed with John the Baptist, to the point of kissing his decapitated head. It seems never to occur to Norma that, at age 50, she is at least 30 years too old for the role; or that she has found her obsession in the writer Joe Gillis and, even more, in her comeback.

Gloria Swanson in a frame from the movie. Not the exaggerated quality of her face and body, suggesting both a silent film style, but also her unhinged mental state.

Gloria Swanson in a frame from the movie. Note the exaggerated quality of her facial expression and gesture, suggesting both a silent film acting style and her unhinged mental state.

For his part, Joe Gillis is also desperate, but unlike Norma he is out of money and on the way out of Hollywood when he accidentally meets her. The movie community’s dismissal of the former star is similar to its indifference to Gillis’s own modest accomplishments. We meet other silent film greats now on the movie world’s discard pile, not coincidentally playing cards with Norma. And they are portrayed by real, but forgotten leading men (Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner) and an ex-leading lady (Anna Q. Nillson). Nor should I overlook Erich von Stroheim, once a famous director in real life, who is cast as Norma’s butler.

None of this is coincidental, as Billy Wilder apparently wished to make a movie about the cruelty of the flesh-market that is the motion picture industry, a place where the question “What have you done for me lately?” is the only one of importance regardless of what you might have accomplished in the past. Narcissism and opportunism are the watchwords for nearly every significant Hollywood character in the movie: self-involved people using people, just as Norma and Joe use each other.

There is much irony in this film, as when Joe Gillis says, “Funny how gentle people are with you when you’re dead,” by way of comparing that kindness to their treatment of you in Hollywood when you are alive. And then there is the movie’s title, Sunset Boulevard, referring to the street on which the mansion is located and the sunset of the careers of Norma and Joe.

Joe Gillis knows what he has become, but can’t free himself from his attachment to the fine things that Norma’s money will buy him, even if it requires the surrender of his independence and self-respect. He has become the consort of a ghost and her ghost-writer, both; a woman who dresses like Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, in a theatrical style as antiquated as the mansion she lives in and the overly dramatic way that she performs. As an actress she is a throw-back to something that literally went out when talking pictures came in and spoken words replaced, in part, facial expression and bodily movements that previously had been the only means of communicating. She remains stylized and “over the top,” despite the movie industry’s long-completed transition to a more natural way of acting.

This great picture is almost horror movie-like in its portrayal of Norma Desmond’s ultimate descent into madness — from trying to recapture the past to actually living in it — all in a house haunted by memories and photos of her former fame. It is also a film noir in the bleakness (however entertaining it is) of its vision of this segment of the human race. It is a morality tale too, a social commentary that extends beyond the movie industry to the mirror we might hold to our faces and ask, “What have I done to get what I’ve got; and what am I willing to do to get more and to keep it?” Dog-eat-dog behavior is not the exclusive property of a film studio.

The ultimate irony of this video production can be found in its stunning last scene, which I won’t give away here. I will only say that each of the main characters obtains some version of what he has been seeking, even though none of them can be thought of as fortunate in having obtained it.

Two famous quotes come to mind, one from the New Testament: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”

The second is one of my favorite all-around quotes, by the Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it.” As I said, they all get something (Norma, Joe, and the butler), but not quite in the form that they expected it.

A Frame or Production Still Photo of Gloria Swanson in the 1919 Movie "Don’t Change Your Husbanda frame or production still of Gloria Swanson in the 1919 movie "Don’t Change Your Husband"

A frame or production still photo of Gloria Swanson from the 1919 movie “Don’t Change Your Husband.”

The top image is a studio publicity still from Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson and William Holden are featured in this photo, downloaded by Dr. Macro. The second picture comes from the movie itself; again Gloria Swanson is shown, as downloaded by hd-trailers.net/ All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Relationship Crime” or the Man Who Knew a Little Bit Too Much

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Knowledge can be a problem. You know the old saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

I once had a friend who was dating a lovely woman. She was charming, sweet, and fun to be with. And, this lady was very kind, a person who respected others and went out of her way not to do harm. My wife and I enjoyed her company and my friend seemed to appreciate her immensely, as well.

But, not really looking for someone else, he stumbled upon another woman who pursued him; a pursuit to which he succumbed. Rather quickly, it is true. He didn’t put up much of a fight.

She too was charming and perhaps a bit more energetic than his current lover, and I suspect a little bit sexier, too. She had a sleek sultriness that his girlfriend didn’t possess. But since he never told woman #2 that he was “involved” with someone else, he was “fair game” as far as she could see; and he certainly didn’t proclaim any abiding allegiance or committment to the lady he’d been dating.

From this point, my buddy enjoyed the company of both women — enjoyed sex with each of them — and he saw no reason to tell either one about the other.

But he did tell me what he was doing.

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I asked if either one knew that he was sleeping with someone else; and he had to admit that each of them thought she was in an exclusive relationship with him — that she was the “one and only.”

I pointed out that there was implicit deceit involved, since he knew that his lovers were with him only because they did not know the truth.

“No one is being hurt,” was his reply. And he was sure, he said pre-emptively, that he did not have a sexually transmitted disease, which he’d checked out recently with his MD. No one was in harm’s way from physical disease, he assured me.

As far as this man was concerned, he had made no promise of eternal fidelity and believed that a “no strings attached” understanding existed all around.

My friend was not a young man, nor were the two women — the three of them hip-deep into their fifth decade on the planet. Everyone had been around the block several times. All parties had been hurt more than once. They knew the pain of heartbreak. They didn’t need any more of it, not that anyone of whatever age needs more. It was just that the resilience of youth was no longer as available to any of them as it had been a while back, and one would have hoped that the man had thought just a bit about this fact.

I asked him how he would feel if his youngest sister were sleeping with someone who was doing what he was doing: simultaneously having sex with another woman whose existence was a secret?

This sort of thing used to be called “two-timing,” but I didn’t remind him of that.

He pretended that he did not hear me. Better to keep the walls up, the compartments separated. It was the sort of response (or lack of response) you get from someone who doesn’t want to think any troublesome thoughts that might arouse his slumbering conscience. And so he kept the metaphorical blinders on himself, so that he could not see the collateral damage of his self-serving behavior.

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Although he wouldn’t have admitted it, he viewed these women “instrumentally” — in terms of what they were good for and how they could be used, while comforting himself that “no one is being hurt.”

Perhaps you are asking why all this troubled me. Several reasons. I cared about the first woman — my wife and I both cared about her — and were happy to have become her friends. We knew that she was being fooled, even if she was not presently in any pain. We knew that the “relationship” was based on deceit and her lack of knowledge. We expected her heart to be broken before long. And, I felt bad about the moral degradation of my friend, someone who I could no longer look at in the same way as before — could no longer respect as I once had.

My buddy told me all that I have now related to you on the condition of confidentiality. But that was going to be a problem. Not that I would break his trust, but that I now had what might be called “guilty knowledge.” I knew too much for my own good.

My wife and I had a double-date scheduled with our friend and girlfriend #1. At dinner I was uncomfortable. I knew something that his lady friend didn’t know and I realized that eventually she would be left spinning, which didn’t lighten my mood. It was as if I had just read her X-ray and discovered a spot on her lung about which she knew nothing — yet.

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Nor did I want to participate in the sham of their implicitly exclusive relationship, the references to future things that they planned on doing (some with us), or watch the way that this gracious and good woman-in-love looked at a man who, although he was my friend, was ( I now realized) not nearly so gracious and good; and not in love with her.

The day after this get-together, I phoned to tell him that so long as he was dating both of these women I could not go out with him in the company of either of them; I could not pretend that I didn’t know what I did know.

I knew a little bit too much.

It was not long before my friend ended the contact with the first woman. I suspect that his decision to end the relationship had more to do with his developing feelings for female #2, than any unhappiness with his first girlfriend or the flowering of his dormant conscience. And, I’m pretty sure he’d had difficulty coping with the logistical problems of juggling two relationships, each with a woman who wanted as much of his time as he could give. After all, there are only seven days in a week and the task of keeping both women happy (and unaware of the other) began to wear him down a bit.

And just to show how little influence I had on my friend, he repeated the two-timing when another woman came along who found him attractive. Now girlfriend #2 achieved the position of the previous girlfriend #1, and like here predecessor, she too was eventually taken to the relationship consignment shop. I guess practice makes perfect.

Many years before, when I was an intern in a psychiatric hospital, I recall a raving, out-of-control man being brought into the locked-unit to which I’d been assigned. He was suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder, which you might know by the label Manic Depressive Disorder. Clearly, he was in a manic phase — grandiose, impulsive, erratic, exploding with energy, and incapable of making good judgments.

He had been a high school teacher of mine. A wonderful teacher. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to remember me and I made no effort to remind him of who I was and thus risk embarrassing him.

There are things that we don’t want to see in life: the failings of our friends, the frailty of respected parents and teachers, the needless hurt that one person we care about is doing to another one we care about. We don’t usually want to be party to deception, an accessory to even the kind of commonplace “relationship crime” that my friend was committing against a woman he liked very much.

None of this is very earth-shaking, I know. Unless, of course, you are girlfriend #1. But watching people diminish themselves is no fun, even for therapists who see it every working day. Bad decisions, hurtful decisions, thoughtless and self-serving decisions — all of it part of routine human experience.

We’ve all done some of it, but the best among us learn that it is wrong while others just keep on doing it.

As I said at the start, “I once had a friend…” He might now more accurately be described as an acquaintance. Someone about whom I think wistfully, remembering the days when I thought he was better than he turned out to be. Was he? Had I simply missed some things about him, never seen him in the kind of situation that revealed his limitations?

Sometimes the only conclusion to the story is “I don’t know.”

The top image is Two Women with Sink by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The second photo is of Bernard Spindel Whispering in the Ear of James R. Hoffa in 1957, taken by Roger Higgins, a photographer for the New York World Telegram and the Sun newspapers. The following picture of a Saddlebred Stallion in Harness is the work of Steve Fortescue. Finally, the flash-animation Spinning Dancer was created by Nobuyuki Kayahura at the Procreo Flash Design Laboratory. All images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.