Let’s Talk Relationships: Narcissism ranges from traits to disorder

By AMY NEWSHORE

For the Recorder

Published: 05-05-2023 5:28 PM

As with other mental health challenges that have received a lot of attention in the media (such as autism, bipolar disorder and ADHD), narcissism has become a familiar household word in recent years. Studies indicate that the psychiatric condition diagnosed as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) affects about 1% of the population.

The actual prevalence of this disorder is most likely higher, since narcissists rarely enter psychotherapy, where a professional diagnosis can be made.

Narcissism shows up in varying degrees on a spectrum from having mild traits to full-blown NPD. Many people have narcissistic traits that result in having a very negative impact on relationships, but their functioning is not as seriously impaired as those who meet the criteria for a diagnosis of NPD. Most of us know at least one person with whom we have had difficulty because of their narcissistic behaviors — and these behaviors may fall anywhere on the spectrum.

Differences between traits and NPD

A person with narcissistic traits, although quite self-involved and focused primarily on their own opinions, needs and feelings of superiority, can sometimes still be capable of appreciating and valuing others. They may be able to display empathy at times and develop bonds with people in their lives. They might work in the helping professions in order to contribute to the well-being of others.

However, as we shall see, they possess seriously limited abilities to contribute to a partnership (and other relationships) in healthy, mutually satisfying ways.

People with NPD do not have the capacity to engage with others in a healthy way, where there is give and take, mutual care and generosity, and the ability to listen to another’s sharing of thoughts, feelings and needs. While there are times that someone with narcissistic traits might be able to listen and respond well to another person, with NPD, that just doesn’t happen.

More about narcissism

To one degree or another, narcissists share common thought processes and behaviors such as having an inflated sense of self-importance (exaggerating their talents and accomplishments); putting themselves and their needs first (not being attentive to the needs of others); taking advantage of others to achieve their goals; seeking excessive admiration and attention from others; and lacking empathy for others (not showing warmth, understanding and sensitivity for what another is feeling or going through).

They may come across as arrogant due to an unrealistic sense of superiority (sometimes wanting to associate only with high-status people, places and things). Often, there is a pattern of controlling behaviors that are tied to not being able to tolerate another person’s autonomy and self-empowerment. They can misrepresent reality to others by twisting facts or insisting that things the other person remembers happening didn’t actually happen.

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Very unfortunately, they lack awareness of how their damaging behavior affects those around them. Tremendously frustrating for those who deal with them, narcissists cannot tolerate any negative feedback or requests for change. In a relationship with a narcissist, it can feel impossible to get ones’ own healthy needs met, such as the need for equality, kindness, fairness, healthy communication, cooperation and respect.

Narcissists expend a lot of energy covering up and protecting themselves from their own deep feelings of emptiness, shame and unworthiness. They feel the need to bolster their self-esteem by putting other people down and to appear better, smarter, and more competent than others in order to feel OK.

They can be so removed from the pain and unworthiness inside of them that they actually come to believe the distorted perceptions they have of themselves. Therefore, they cannot admit to their shortcomings and mistakes, or hold themselves accountable for their hurtful behaviors. Their inflated sense of self-importance does not allow for listening to other people’s negative experience of them. Negative feedback goes against what they need to believe about themselves. They have convinced themselves that the persona they show to the world (such as appearing confident, smarter than others, etc.) is real.

Their sense of self is unstable, and since there is an embedded, unconscious belief that they are seriously flawed, they are extremely sensitive and over-reactive to what they perceive as criticism. This often leaves others feeling exasperated when trying to communicate feelings about how they are being treated, and making requests for change.

Where narcissism comes from

Narcissistic Personality Disorder can be the result of childhood neglect, abuse, or even excessive idealization (unwarranted praise) from parents that distorts the child’s perception of his/her value. Although these individuals may exhibit behaviors that others find unpleasant and harmful, or even threatening, narcissists have been emotionally wounded by unhealthy caregiving in their formative years.

It is important to keep this in mind when dealing with narcissists, and to try to have some compassion in our own hearts, just as is needed by every suffering being. However, if you’re being mistreated by a narcissist, it’s important to prioritize taking care of yourself, and not to confuse compassion with accepting mistreatment.

In my  June column, I will focus on what the most common effects are on those who have been or presently are in a significant relationship with a narcissist. I will address ways to handle such a relationship and, if the relationship has ended, how to heal from the mistreatment that prevailed throughout the relationship.

I am cheering you on to learn what you can about narcissism if this is an issue in your life — whether you believe you might be narcissistic yourself, or if you have a sense that you are in a relationship with someone with narcissism. See you next month for more information and support!

Amy Newshore is a couples therapist/coach who earned her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Antioch New England University and went on to train in the Developmental Model for Couples Therapy along with nonviolent communication, which serve as the foundation of her work as a relationship coach. For more information, visit her website at www.coachingbyamy.com.

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