Opinionista Daphine Agaba 8 October 2019

Engaging with a narcissist can be a risky undertaking

Donald Trump, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler – they all have one thing in common: they have been described as having or having had narcissistic personality disorder. But what happens when you come across a narcissist in real life?

Have you ever dealt with a narcissist in your personal or professional life? Would you be able to tell if you were engaging with one?

These people display a false sense of confidence (sometimes masking low self-esteem), an unhealthy self-obsession characterised by continuous attention-seeking and self-praise, superiority complex, exaggeration of one’s accomplishments, a lack of empathy, refusal to take accountability for anything, poor self-awareness, self-pity (victimhood) and so on. If these signs keep showing up, you might be dealing with a narcissistic person.

It’s been said that leaders or successful businesspersons require a healthy dose of characteristics usually associated with narcissism. Some of the positive traits attached to good leadership include self-confidence, high self-belief and high self-esteem. These are much-needed characteristics for influencing others, but they are very different from full-scale narcissistic behaviour as well as disorder.

The likes of President Donald Trump, Adolph Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte have been noted as presenting traits of narcissistic personality disorder. Trump’s grandiosity characterised by self-praise and promotion interspersed with his aversion or vulnerability to criticism is highly symptomatic of narcissistic personality disorder.

You don’t want to deal with a narcissist in your professional life — even more important, you don’t want to deal with them in your personal space.

A range of psychologists including Caligor, Eaton, Aslinger and Ackerman refer to narcissistic behaviour as a personality disorder. They acknowledge a wide range of severity of extremes that characterise narcissistic pathology. They categorise narcissism into two major categories: grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism.

Grandiose narcissism “is usually characterised by arrogance, entitlement, selfishness, status-thinking, lack of empathy, desire for admiration, exploitative behaviour, need for excessive attention and troubled relationships”.

On the flip side and even more challenging to notice, is vulnerable narcissism characterised by; self-loathing, depression, fragile self-esteem, emptiness, social isolation, self-pity (victimhood) etc.”

Kaufman points out the core of narcissism that binds both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism is known as interpersonal antagonism characterised by manipulativeness, entitlement, reactive anger and callousness.

This article sheds some light on narcissistic behaviour and is inspired by a personal encounter with a narcissist. It focuses on the process of trying to build an intimate relationship with a narcissist, not discounting the fact that they may also be encountered in work situations or elsewhere.

Having pointed out the wide-ranging and sometimes contrasting characteristics of a narcissist, this piece leans strongly towards an encounter with grandiose narcissism, taking into consideration the fact that narcissistic characteristics in an individual may contrast sharply as one may possess qualities belonging to both categories.

For instance, a self-obsessed individual may still be overly sensitive to feedback, may be charming on one hand, yet insensitive to others’ feelings and needs. Morf and Rhodewalt sum this up as a grandiose yet vulnerable self-concept. Thus the most outstanding narcissistic traits may contrast from one individual to another.

Psychology scholars such as Corry, Merritt, Mrug and Pamp point out that gender differences also factor in the expression of narcissism. The symptoms of grandiose narcissistic behaviour are highly similar to the stereotypical sex-role of males in the social culture. Characteristics such as an authoritative leadership style, the way in which anger is physically expressed, drive for dominance, an obsessive need for power and so on. They conducted a Narcissistic Personality Inventory which revealed that men were more likely to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder compared with women.

Due to the wide-ranging nature of the characteristics mentioned above, it is vital to point out that to some extent, every human being possesses at least one or two qualities that may be considered narcissistic. The extent to which they affect an individual and whether more than one of them exists is the issue of concern.

Furthermore, the lack of awareness by an individual of their narcissistic behaviour is the most corrosive aspect of a narcissist. Kaufman highlights that even when they are aware of their behaviour, they view these traits as positive or desirable rather than detrimental and will never term it “narcissism”. Narcissists, especially those in the grandiose category, are often satisfied with their lives even as they continue being potentially harmful to others. They have no desire to change as they not only feel good about themselves, but also regard themselves as superior to others.

Buss and Chiodo set out that grandiose narcissism is associated with looking talented, competent and superior to others. It is characterised by an inflated sense of accomplishment and an overestimation of one’s abilities.

Narcissists’ self-image is preoccupied with succeeding, thus they are usually well-accomplished. Unfortunately, their accomplishments do not help them get in touch with who they are. This is the biggest dilemma with a narcissist. At first, you will not realise that you are dealing with one. They will come packaged so well, charming, with their life seemingly figured out, that they fulfil the “eligible bachelor or bachelorette” title perfectly. Back, Egloff and Schmukle observe that narcissists are so impressive for short-term interactions because they exhibit a charismatic and charming disposition.

They often possess an irresistible charm, have the ability to ably express themselves on a range of topics and are well-groomed. The question that comes to your mind first is, “if they seem to have all their stuff together, why are they single?” You will ponder this question only for a second and then you will forget it quickly, as you will be wrapped up in their engulfing web of charm and manipulation.

On the other hand, they may appear to be extremely intelligent, but can’t keep a job. The reasons for this, as you will later discover, may be their inability to form a bond with work colleagues and bosses as their self-destructive behaviour makes it impossible for them to get along with anyone. They will blame everyone else but themselves for this unfortunate situation. In this instance, their grandiose behaviour may be replaced with vulnerable narcissism that was described above: depression, self-pity, isolation.

This is not to discount the fact that anyone may lose their job or quit because their workplace has become intolerable or they’ve been laid off. However, a narcissist’s unhealthy self-obsession makes them view everything in the lens of “everyone is out to get them”. They thrive on playing the victim when they don’t get their way, never taking accountability for anything. Even when they keep moving from one job to another, a narcissist will maintain that it’s everybody’s fault except themselves.

Lindsay Dodgson highlights that it’s always wrongly assumed that narcissists target the weak.

On the contrary, they prefer someone who is strong-willed with traits that they admire. Associating with strong-willed people helps narcissists feel good about themselves as well as fulfilling perceptions about how they appear to others as a result of being with this person. Due to their wit and charm, the beginning of the relationship with them may seem too good to be true as they will seemingly sweep you off your feet. The warning signs will be there, but they will be far in the background. The signs will actually pale in comparison to the passion and attachment you feel for this person.

Very soon, these signs will become visible. By this time, you are fully attached to the narcissist. They have managed to play with your mind to a point where everything is a blur. They will do something disappointing, then quickly cover it up with something good, leaving you confused. You will wonder whether the person is bad for you or just human. Then you will go through a series of mind-boggling events that you will only marvel at later, when and if you have been successful in putting some distance between you and this person.

The “ghosting” and reappearing, the never-ending excuses, the transferring of blame (nothing is ever the fault of the narcissist). If they bother to apologise, the apology will be short but quickly followed by an excuse or a repetition of the same thing for which they apologised.

Whilst narcissists are usually well-accomplished people, they are also selfish with their time, compliments and money. If a narcissist does something for you, makes time for you or gives you a gift, they are going to remind you about that gift until kingdom come. They will use it as a pawn in their mind-games in that if you ever point out their selfishness, they will remind you when they took time off from work to drive you to your grieving friend’s place.

Even when they give you a compliment, it’s usually in relation to them. Let’s say you perform well at work and you are given a promotion. A narcissist’s way of complimenting you may go like this:

You see, I told you to start going to work earlier and be more vocal.” By saying this, they will have turned your accomplishment into something for which they are fully responsible.

Their unhealthy self-obsession may be confused with confidence, which is a trait you might have said you love in a partner. They love the sound of their own voice. They will talk your ears off, never allowing you to get a word in. In the end, you will know so much about them and they will know next to nothing about you.

Sometimes they have a scattered mind in such a way that their endless chatter is often characterised by their inability to stick to one conversation — they will jump from one topic to another in such a whirlwind fashion that will make you wonder if the person is even sane. In an amusing, but unmatched level of self-obsession, they will accuse you of not sharing about your life. Meanwhile, if you try, they will quickly interrupt you with another story of how they are the greatest thing that ever happened.

A narcissist once told me, “one thing I know about myself is that I’m a very nice person”. I almost fell off my chair in shock. Morf and Rhodewalt describe this unhealthy self-obsession characterised by the constant craving for attention and admiration as a symptom of a fragile self-view which is paradoxical to their grandiose behaviour. They attribute this to a childhood where a narcissist’s self-needs were not met as a result of a lack of early parental empathy or neglect which they try, in a destructive manner, to fulfil in their adult relationships.

Perhaps the most confusing thing about a narcissist is the empty promises that never come to fruition. They will promise to do something, but never do it. If you bring it up, they will accuse you of all manner of things, your impatience, inability to understand them, and your difficult personality.

These accusations will leave you wounded, distracting you from the fact that they didn’t deliver what they promised. Then you will tell them you are fine and you are tired of going in circles about that particular thing. They will take this as ammunition to bring up the next time you ask for something else. They will say crazy stuff like, “I was going to deliver but you told me to let it be.”

This behaviour will slowly but surely start eroding your self-esteem as you will not be certain whether the problem is with you or with them. This fulfils the narcissist’s objective of weakening their victim’s self-worth.

Narcissists have mastered the art of running away from being held accountable for their action or inaction. They become adept at building mechanisms where something is not their fault. A narcissist, they will always turn an argument around. They will say things like, “so what do you want to do?” This is a ploy to make you make the decision so that in future they can always say, “but you are the one who decided that”.

Arguments with them will leave you exhausted and confused because they never go anywhere and you never resolve anything with them. This is because they will conflate issues, never allowing you to stick to the point of an argument, thus managing to completely confuse you.

A narcissist thinks their time is of paramount importance, but yours doesn’t count. If something is urgent to them, they will drive you mad to get it done. Yet when something is important to you, they don’t care. This selfish behaviour can be confused for love in the sense that a narcissist will look for you, wherever you are, when they want to see you, and might even do crazy things like show up at your workplace, and give you exorbitant gifts (which they will never cease to remind you about).

You will think they care so much that they dropped whatever they were doing to find you. In that moment, you forget that they have done this on their own time and when it is seemingly important to them. Now try to be in a situation where you need them. The excuses will be as deep as a river and will leave you so frustrated. You will vow to leave them, until the next time they show up out of nowhere when they need you. This hot and cold behaviour is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of a narcissist as it confuses you for a moment to think that they are human beings with weaknesses, just like everyone else.

Narcissists can spin an almost magical web around you that if you are not careful, you may get stuck in a meaningless and endless cycle for years and might even marry them. If you don’t wake up from this web, they will chip away at your personality day by day until you are a shadow of yourself. Meanwhile, as they do this, they continue to thrive and prosper. It’s almost as if they thrive on your gradual loss of personality. They are like vampires sucking blood out of you to make themselves thrive. This is emphasised by Morf and Rhodewalt who note that, for narcissists, others are only valuable for their ability to help bolster the narcissistic self.

When you muster the energy to leave them, they will use a series of manipulative tactics to make you stay. They might exhibit their best behaviour and become very attentive, even though it’s usually very short-lived. Or they might give you space to miss them and forget the toxic things they have done.

During this time, they may reach out and then talk about something completely different. In this moment you will forget what the issue was and open the door for them again and the cycle starts all over again. For a short while they will manage to be on their best behaviour, making you momentarily forget why you stopped communicating with them, only for the manipulative, self-obsessed behaviour to sneak up on you once again. And you can’t even contemplate developing a friendship with them after the relationship unless there is an unavoidable circumstance such as having had children together. If this is not the case, erase them completely from your life and move on.

Otherwise, this toxicity can become a habit which you get so used to or even derive an unhealthy sense of attachment to, that it becomes hard for you to leave. You will find yourself making excuses for their behaviour both in your mind or even to those who point it out to you. You are so stuck in this cycle that you don’t have the clarity of mind to see how dangerous it is for you.

My advice is: notice these signs early and run before they draw you into their web of deceit and manipulation. While narcissists are not usually physically abusive, the mental, emotional and psychological abuse may be so bad that it even trumps physical abuse. That’s why it’s better to leave as soon as the traits become visible to you because the longer you stay, the deeper you get entangled in their web. Save yourself before you invest all your time and then spend even more time trying to rediscover your lost self.

Every human being has emotional, psychological issues as a result of their childhood, genealogy and life experiences that they spend a lifetime addressing or dealing with. This is why it is so vital for everyone to make it a mission to learn their strengths and weaknesses and then spend a lifetime improving themselves.

If you are doing the difficult work, every day, of dealing with all your self-harming behaviour or behaviour that is potentially harmful to others, it is very unfortunate when you end up in a situation with a human being who has never bothered to undertake an honest, unbiased introspection, and then taken steps towards their continuous self-improvement.

An introspective person not only realises that they have weaknesses, but also that the journey towards self-improvement is a lifelong one.

In contrast, a narcissistic person thrives on his or her narcissistic traits which may even worsen over time. Therefore, if you ever find yourself in a situation with one, I hope you will find the strength and awareness to discover it quickly and remove yourself completely, for your own sanity. DM

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