Sunday, June 8, 2008

What is a Narcissist

"The tragedy is that so many people look for self-confidence and self-respect everywhere except within themselves, and so they fail in their search." Dr Nathaniel Branden

We are all familiar these days with some forms of mental illness, or at least we think we are familiar with certain forms of mental illness. For example, almost all of us know someone who is depressed and therefore we think we know something about depression.
I am certain that all of us know someone who has a personality disorder. We just may not be able to recognize the truly personality disordered for they are different from the cultural norm only by the degree that they manifest symptoms. Further, narcissists are generally excellent at the façade; putting on an outward show for the populace in general, the pretence of normalcy.


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, 1994, DSM-IV) which is the “Bible” for psychiatrists, defines personality disorder as follows:

An enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.


What this means is that these people are not “normal” and their abnormality is permanent, shows up in all areas of their life, started in childhood or early adulthood, is continuing and screws up their life.

The DSM-IV defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as follows:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy. The disorder begins by early adulthood and is indicated by at least five of the following:

An exaggerated sense of self-importance.
Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
Believes he is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
Requires excessive admiration.
Has a sense of entitlement.
Takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends.
Lacks empathy.
The patient is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him.
Shows arrogant, haughty behavior or attitudes.

Clinical Features of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Patients with narcissistic personality disorder exaggerate their achievements and talents, and they are surprised when they do not receive the recognition they expect.

Their inflated sense of self results in a devaluation of others and their accomplishments.
Narcissistic patients only pursue relationships that will benefit them in some way.
These patients feel very entitled, expecting others to meet their needs immediately, and they can become quite indignant if this does not happen.
These patients are self-absorbed and unable to respond to the needs of others. Any perception of criticism is poorly tolerated, and these patients can react with rage.
These patients are very prone to envy anyone who possesses knowledge, skill or belongings that they do not possess. Much of narcissistic behavior serves as a defense against very poor self-esteem.

The translation, in practical terms, of the above list of problems is as follows.

An exaggerated sense of self-importance


The narcissist exaggerates his contributions to everything and pathologically lies to inflate his self-importance. When he talks about family, work or life in general, there is nobody else in the picture. No one else contributed. There is no teamwork for of course there is no “I” in “team”. He did it all.
For example, my ex “discovered” Eric Clapton. To hear him tell it, none of his friends knew whom Eric Clapton was until he brought Layla to their attention. Thus, he was the “discoverer” of a great musician.
My ex claimed that he was graduated from high school at age 16. The implication was, of course, that he was so smart that he flew through high school like a regular Doogie Howser. It was not until years later that a girl friend and I were talking about his pathological lying. This graduation date came up and I did the math. He was graduated at 17 ½, not 16. This hardly made him a genius and was far less impressive than being graduated at age 16. He was not, it turned out, Doogie Howser.
During the divorce, my ex told my kids that I rarely worked and that I was just a free loader at “his” law firm where he obtained all the clients and did all of the work. His line was that I stayed home, apparently eating the proverbial bon bons. However, in this same story, my ex told our kids that he stayed home with them when they were sick. Thus, he was simultaneously the sole breadwinner and the quintessential wonderful father. I contributed nothing. However, not only did this not square with my then 15 year old’s memory, but this story defied logic for if I was at home eating bon bons, why was he coming home from his all important work to stay with them when they were sick? This did not add up, not even to a 15 year old.

Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.


Narcissists live in their own little world where they are king. They are the best at everything, according to them anyway. Again, pathological lying comes into play here.
My ex told our baseball-playing son that he (my ex) had been the star of his high school baseball team and had been recruited to play for his college baseball team. When our daughter asked her grandmother about this, she gave our daughter a very puzzled look and said that my ex did not play high school baseball.
My ex idealizes our “love”. Even now, eight years after separation, my ex harbors the fantasy that he and I were “soul mates” until I turned to the dark side (i.e., began divorcing him). He continues to idealize our former life as the best relationship/love/marriage that ever existed on planet earth. The concomitant is that I am the “monster” who destroyed this wonderful true love when I divorced him.

Believes he is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions.


The Narcissist believes that all who are not as special as he is are “cretins” and losers. The non-special “little” people, especially those whom he perceives have “crossed” him, deserve what they get.
For my ex, that meant that he was entitled to cheat and steal from these non-special people.
This bizarre view of specialness also meant to my ex that paying income taxes was something that he was entitled to avoid. He cheated on his taxes by “maximizing” his deductions; i.e., deducting anything and everything including gifts that he had given me, as I discovered during our divorce.
For my ex, his specialness also meant that he could commit acts of vandalism on those who displease him with impunity. This included egging the next-door neighbors’ car and front door in the middle of the Phoenix summer, throwing a rock through the office window of an attorney who sued him for malpractice, tearing down a neighbor’s partially built wall (and leaving a note in his handwriting calling them “cretins”) and letting the air out of a school superintendent’s tires. Each time that he vandalized someone, he eventually would brag about his childish but damaging act. Each time when I found out what he had done, I shocked and horrified. After all, he was an attorney, for God’s sake. He had lots to lose including his license to practice law. His actions were just plain stupid.

Requires excessive admiration


Woe to you if you fail to admire the narcissist’s every action, if you fail to acclaim him the greatest, if you are not in constant awe of him in every way, shape or form. He is the Muhammad Ali of his occupation/profession. Narcissists have a need to be constantly admired and they demand accolades for their alleged accomplishments, which they probably are lying about.

To hear him tell it, my ex was the greatest lawyer that ever lived. He insisted that I simply could not handle our taxes as he did. Initially, I assumed that he was right. After all, he was a tax and business attorney by trade. However, after we separated and I looked at our income tax returns for the first time, I realized that he was right in a backwards sort of way. I would never have cheated on our taxes the way that he did. Thus, I would not have “handled” our taxes the way he did.

Has a sense of entitlement


The narcissist is entitled to everything because he is the best and the only important one in the family or relationship. Thus, he is entitled to have his needs met immediately. You have no important needs. You, the servant, must drop what you are doing and “attend” to him when he wants something. You must do his bidding.

My ex would go into a rage if I did not fix him the food that he wanted when he wanted it. The fact that the kids and I had eaten hours earlier, that I had just gotten home, that it was nine o’clock at night and that I was tired made no difference. My ex was entitled to have me make him something to eat right then and there, when he demanded it.

Takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends


The narcissist uses people, all people including you. Then, when he is done using you (for the moment anyway), he will treat you like dirt. Gratitude is not in his lexicon.

My ex wanted money, which to him equaled success. He was entitled to get money any way he could. This included taking money which we both had earned in “our” law firm and making it disappear into in his own pocket, most likely into a Swiss bank account. He took advantage of me. While I naively thought we were working together for our common good, as a married couple should, he was applying his version of the Three Musketeers slogan: all for him, none for me. He took advantage of my naïveté in trusting the person I was married to take for himself large sums of money that we had both earned and in some cases I alone had earned.

Lacks empathy


Do not expect sympathy from the narcissist for any reason for the narcissist is unsympathetic in the extreme. He has no ability to put himself in other’s places. He, quite simply, cannot relate. He cannot see any side of any issue other than his own. He does not know the meaning of the words “empathy”, “sympathy” or “understanding”. He will never see your viewpoint or empathize with you. Do not bother to try to get him to understand your point of view.
Evil is a lack of empathy. In a television movie shown some years ago about the Nuremburg Trials, one of the characters interviewed the principal Nazis in an attempt to find out how they could have ever perpetrated such horror. He concluded that the Nazi principals lacked empathy, thus allowing the horrors of the Nazi death camps to occur. I agree. Because the narcissist lacks empathy, there is nothing they will not do, no act that they won’t commit, no hurt that they will not inflict.

My ex routinely called me names, even in front of the Judge in our case. Apparently, he did not understand why this might bother me and might adversely impact our “relationship”. Immediately after an ugly, name-calling, threatening email, in his next email he lamented our lost “love” and invited me to go on an around the world cruise with him. Apparently it did not occur to him that the fact that I had not spoken to him in years and would not give him my home address or home telephone number meant that I did not want to be around him ever, under any circumstances. Indeed, he clearly could not understand why I would not want to be around him or speak to him even during those rare occasions when he acknowledges his emotional abuse of me and threats of physical abuse. After all, he says, “I never actually hit you”, as if all verbal and emotional abuse is excused if it did not devolve into physical abuse.

Shows arrogant, haughty behavior or attitudes

Narcissist have no compunctions about canceling appointments at the last minute, not showing up when and where expected, being late or simply walking away from social engagements. As the most important person on the planet, they are entitled to do what they want when they want. The world revolves around them, after all.
My ex was perpetually late, habitually cancelled appointments at the last minute and generally inconvenienced everyone around him. If we had friends over and he got tired, he would simply go upstairs and go to bed, without a prior announcement, discussion or even a good-bye. Of course, this happened primarily when my friends were over. He rarely treated his friends with this sort of complete disregard. Only occasionally would he not show up to meet one of his friends at a restaurant, without notice of course. The fact that they were inconvenienced was, quite simply, their problem.
My joke about my ex’s rather complete lack of social graces and courtesy to others was that he had been raised by wolves, like Romulus and Remus. He simply did not care if about inconveniencing other people.

Ah, the Ns! You, no doubt, have your own stories which illustrate each of these aspects of narcissism.