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Dec 03, 2018

Is Narcissism a Disorder?

Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf

There are many kinds people in the world, and some of them are more difficult to relate to than others. But what happens if someone in your life comes across as a narcissist? What is at the root of this negative behavior? 

First, it is important to note that narcissism not a “disorder”, but a description of a toxic pattern of behavior as the result of something toxic that someone has experienced in their life. The concept of personality disorders, such as the so-called “narcissistic personality”, is predominantly based on social roles and conforming to a norm of what is accepted by a society at any one time. It is not backed up by conclusive scientific evidence, and doesn’t take into consideration the context of a person’s life and what they have been through. Furthermore, such labels consistently discount the evidence base that people’s behavior is the result of experience and changes over time. 

People don’t have a narcissistic personality because there is a narcissistic part of the brain or a narcissistic gene; people behave in a narcissistic way because they have reacted to a toxic situation in a toxic way, and this pattern of thinking, feeling and choosing grows and gets more energy the more they think about it. After about 63 days (see my books Switch on Your Brain and Think, Learn, Succeed for more information on this) this pattern of thinking will manifest in what the person is saying and doing as a habit because whatever we think about the most will grow. The reactions of the people that are the target of these interactions creates a feedback loop that often reinforces the toxic behavior.  

As each person thinks in a completely unique way, which colors how they perceive the world (studies show that not only are our minds unique, but so are our brains!), there is never one single cause for a person’s words and actions. In fact, according to research in neuroscience and quantum physics—there is no “normal” brain which can prove that a narcissistic brain is a deviation from standard neurobiology.  

The dictionary definition of narcissism is a person who has an excessive interest or admiration of themselves, who thinks the world revolves around them, and who has taken the general sense of feeling good about themselves to the extreme. However, someone who displays these behaviors and who, for example, needs to make others feel bad about themselves to make themselves feel good is really displaying an identity crisis from some toxic experience or experiences, such as bullying, toxic masculinity, not being allowed to develop their true selves, and who has been hurt by this. The narcissistic behavior is, in a sense, lashing back at the society that they should have felt safe in. In a distorted way, “narcissists” are almost trying to right a wrong, but obviously in an unhealthy way. As the saying goes, “hurting people hurt others” (although, of course, this is not always the case). 

When a person seems to have little regard for others by not listening to them, diverting the conversation back to themselves or seeming to lack empathy, they may have been so wounded in the past that they over-process pain, which makes them feel worse about themselves, as though it is them that is feeling and experiencing that particular situation. Over time, to protect their minds they block the pain of others out and this can become a toxic pattern. A conflict can emerge in the person: they want to bond with others in a healthy way, but their negative experiences override their desires in an effort to protect their fragile identity. 

When it comes to dealing with someone who has a tendency to be narcissistic, we have to remember that labels and medication do not necessarily “fix” anything; if anything, they create a more severe problem, in addition to fostering a sense of hopelessness for both the person displaying this kind of behavior and for those that are at the receiving end of it. Labels may lock people in, while psychotropic medication can damage the brain and impede healing. 

People displaying narcissistic-type behavior most likely had their identity crushed at some point and they are trying to be something they are not to protect themselves– this can never be rewarding because they will never be at peace within themselves.  Individuals who exhibit narcissistic traits are probably some of the loneliest people, and loneliness increases toxicity, as well as the risk of more mental and physical issues, exacerbating the problem. Indeed, more people die annually from loneliness than any other disease. Lonely people tend to lack hope and peace, and many of them have learned how to put up a shield that says “I am great, I am better than you”, while, in reality, they are desperate to be loved and heard. It is important that we recognize their loneliness, and try reach out even if they say or do something that can be upsetting.  

So how can we help? 

  1. LISTEN. If we stop labeling someone as a narcissist (which implies that we truly understand who they are at their core, which we do not - no-one really understands anyone), and see that this person is a person who has a history, a story, we can try to listen to what they are really saying. In fact, as we listen to people’s stories in a loving, non-judgmental way, we activate a genetic switch that increases this person’s resilience to face what they need to face, and changes the quantum, electrical and chemical energy in the brain and enables a person to have the courage to start seeing and dealing with the results of their behavior in order to get to the root of their actions. 
  2. CONTROL. We need to learn to control our reactions and resist the temptation to lash out or give up on this person, even though this can be difficult. These reactions can perpetuate the cycle of toxic behavior which caused the problem in the first place. Even though it is challenging, we have to try be the “bigger person” in the room.
  3. LOVE. It is important that we let the person know that they are capable of healing and that their brains and bodies are wired for love (see my book Switch on Your Brain for more information on this). We can help them see they are not their brains, and that they change their brains and create their next reality every time they think. By being patient and caring while teaching them self-regulation, and by showing them that their behavior is impacting others, we can be the best kind of therapists! Love really does conquer all!

 

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