I am sure you have heard the ancient tale of Narcissus: he fell in love with his reflection in the water, lost his humanity and turned into a flower. This is where the term “narcissism” comes from, although the story itself is somewhat misrepresentative. Narcissism is not just about someone’s obsession with their own appearance; it is far more pervasive, and far more damaging, than a preoccupation with one’s looks. In this week’s blog and podcast, I talk to professor of psychology, licensed practitioner, international speaker, consultant and best-selling author Dr. Ramani Durvasula about the many facets of narcissism, how it damages relationships and leads to abuse, how the culture of narcissism and entitlement is making the pandemic worse, and why we are so fascinated by stories of narcissists and psychopaths.
In its simplest form, narcissism can be defined as a pathological insecurity that is characterized by grandiosity, superficiality, a lack of empathy, entitlement, arrogance, validation and admiration-seeking behavior, dysregulation, hyper-sensitivity, antagonism and mismanaged emotions. It is no respecter of persons. A narcissist can be rich or poor, or from any race, gender or nationality. These are people who believe they deserve special treatment—the rules don’t apply to them, they get what they want, and they should be put before everyone else.
As Dr. Ramani describes in her book "Don't You Know Who I Am?": How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility, these “don’t you know who I am?” personalities are becoming more and more commonplace in our world today—just think of the recent college admissions scandal. Unfortunately, our society is particularly adept at fostering and encouraging narcissistic tendencies and a culture of entitlement. Reality TV, our fascination with lives of other people, social media (and pathological attention-seeking behaviors) and the way we worship and venerate the rich and famous are trends that have enabled the growth of narcissism in our society, and now many narcissists are running the show! Indeed, our consumerist society values the traits associated with a narcissistic personality because it is all about “me, myself and I”, promoting a lack of empathy, a sense of entitlement, extreme sensitivity, the inability to listen to others, a self-centered worldview and the desire to fight and cause conflict.
This sense of entitlement often goes hand in hand with hypocrisy: the notion that the rules don’t apply to me, but they do apply to everyone around me. And nowhere has this been more evident than during the current COVID-19 pandemic, as Dr. Ramani pointed out in a recent article. In countries dominated by authoritarian and narcissistic leaders and an entitled culture, there tends to be worse COVID-19 outcomes and statistics. Take wearing masks, for example: the data shows that wearing a mask does more to protect others than ourselves, but entitled and narcissistic people do not care about other people, so why should they wear a mask? People like this also tend to be sensitive, paranoid and see themselves as the victim, and are far more likely to believe pandemic conspiracy theories (like the relationship between 5G and COVID-19, which has no grounding in reality).
We have to realize that the public health message of “do this to help and save others” during this COVID-19 pandemic has very little buy-in in a highly individualistic and entitled society. Essentially, we all must do our own risk assessment and figure out how to keep ourselves and others safe; we cannot believe that people will protect each other unless it is written in law and supported by consequences. Narcissism and entitlement throw public policy out of whack; there will always be people that will not make a decision for the greater good. When narcissism and entitlement take hold in a society, people are less likely to do things that help others, and more likely to be consumed by their own needs, desires and freedoms.
This does not, however, mean that more collectivist societies are off the hook. In these societies, family or community groups often enable the narcissist in their midst. This person is usually an authoritarian figure who demands obedience and respect—nobody says anything or challenges them, because it is just assumed that what they do or want is “for the good of the family/community”. If we really want a healthy society, we must move beyond an “individualism vs. collectivism” mindset. We need to have a strong community focus: how do you see yourself and your community? This focus needs to be characterized by mutuality, reciprocity, compassion and empathy. There is no easy out. This is inside of us, but it must be cultivated, developed and grown.
This is especially the case with children. We need to teach our children to have empathy for others and self-awareness of how their communication and behavior can impact the people around them. This is becoming more and more curtailed in our world today—at our detriment. We must build in this empathy from young. We need to do the work, and not just expect that it is there and ready to be used. Empathy and self-regulation are two of the most important things we should teach our children. They are critical life skills that lay the foundation for healthy adulthood.
Why is this so important? In many cases, the beginnings of narcissism and entitlement can be traced to a person’s childhood years. Narcissism is largely developmental in nature, although certain temperamental elements can play a role. An overindulged childhood with little attention to a child’s emotional needs or development, trauma or neglect, learned behaviors from family member that they model later in life, and a society that is all about exterior accomplishments and competition can all come together to create a perfect storm that wreaks havoc on people’s lives and relationships. This is why we, as parents and guardians, have to pay attention to how we live our own lives, what we teach our children and what values we cultivate in our own homes and communities.
Doing this may require some serious soul-searching when it comes to our own values and our relationships. Because we live in a society that values external accomplishments and competition, it is often hard to spot the narcissist in our midst…until it is too late. It is always important to remember that good on paper doesn’t always mean kind and compassionate in real life. By their very nature, narcissists are often highly accomplished individuals, because their external successes are how they present themselves to the world. They hate to fail, so they are usually quite good at winning and getting what they want—their desire to be the best drives them forward.
But success is never an excuse for emotional abuse, as Dr. Ramani points out in her book Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist. Saying something like “but she is the best designer…” or “but he is such a good football player…” does not give someone a reason to be nasty or abuse the people around them. Yes, some people develop narcissistic personalities or tendencies because of past trauma, but this is not an excuse to traumatize or abuse other people. They need help facing and dealing with this trauma, not using their behavior to cover up or suppress their pain.
Unfortunately, many people find it hard to leave abusive, narcissistic relationships. They should not be judged or shamed for this. Rather, if you or someone you know is in this kind of toxic relationship, it is important to be okay with facing your pain and getting uncomfortable (a great therapist or psychologist like Dr. Ramani can really help with this). Ignoring the situation will only make things worse, causing cognitive dissonance, where you try to rationalize the situation by saying something like “well they are under a lot of stress” or “but we have such a nice house”, and trauma-bonding, where you start associating abuse or neglect with love and seek this out in other relationships.
I cannot emphasize this enough: don’t be ashamed if you find yourself in a toxic, narcissistic relationship. Recognize that this is common, be okay with being uncomfortable and seeing the situation for what it is, and work on finding a way out, whether this is a certification to get a job so you can leave the relationship, or a way of protecting yourself against this person by becoming “boring” and not taking their bait (this is especially necessary if you are in a culture or situation where leaving is impossible). Remember, all narcissists want to win, so arguing with them never gets anywhere. Many times, they want to humiliate or destroy the other person; toxic energy builds them up. They are incredibly insecure, which means they always need to know that they are better than you.
If you or someone you know is in this kind of toxic relationship, it is important that you:
1. Embrace radical acceptance.
Acknowledge that the narcissistic most likely won’t change—as Dr. Ramani point out, change is very rare among these kinds of personalities. Just hoping that things will get better may make you stay in an abusive relationship longer than you should, make you feel guilty if you want to leave or make you fear the consequences if you do go.
This kind of acceptance is not hopeless. It is a way for you to see and acknowledge what the relationship really is, which will help you break through your cognitive dissonance and find a way out; it is a healthy wake-up call.
2. Have realistic expectations.
If you can’t leave the relationship, it is important that you see the situation for what it is, which allows you to find ways to protect yourself and deal with the narcissist. For instance, if you are in a relationship with someone who is incredibly deceitful, don’t trust them or tell them anything they can use against you. This won’t be a satisfying relationship, but it will be safer and better for you.
***If someone is physically abusive and your or your family’s life is in danger, report this person to the authorities. The national domestic abuse hotline for the USA is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). The national child abuse hotline for the USA is 1-800-422-4453.
3. Don’t explain or defend yourself.
When it comes to narcissists, less is more. The more you talk and give away, the bigger the hole you dig yourself. Don’t let them in; protect yourself and don’t let them see where you are vulnerable.
4. Don’t try to solve things.
Narcissists are never happy, no matter what you say or do. Trying to please them will exhaust you, so just focus on your own needs and keeping yourself safe and protected.
5. Don’t personalize it.
Remember, it’s not you—it’s them. Making it work with a narcissist in impossible, because they are never satisfied or happy unless they break you.
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2:50 How Dr. Ramani went from health and wellness to dealing with narcissism
4:38 High-conflict, antagonist personalities and narcissism
5:36 What is narcissism?
8:38 The culture of entitlement and narcissism in our world today
13:05 Entitlement, Narcissism and COVID-19
20:51 How collectivism can enable narcissism
23:50 The two most important tasks of a parent or guardian
27:00 How narcissism and entitlement can out the brain and body into toxic stress and cause brain damage
29:14 The definition of narcissism
32:20 How to deal with a narcissistic person
45:00 Cognitive dissonance and narcissism
46:00 Trauma-bonding and narcissism
55:00 What causes narcissism?
59:22 Dirty John, psychopaths and narcissism
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