First, narcissism occurs on a continuum from healthy levels of self love to pathological views that “it’s ONLY about me”. Only the really more extreme levels meet criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. That’s not to say that “lower level” narcissism doesn’t create a lot of pain in every day life. It does–often and in sometimes confusing ways. Let’s talk about the more typical traits of narcissism that create problems for others.
This term comes from a 1940s movie where, basically, a husband intentionally makes his wife crazy by messing with the gas lights in their house and then acting like it’s not happening when she questions it. Gaslighters not only have just a sketchy relationship with the truth, but they intentionally use the willingness to lie to keep others off balance. They want you to question yourself and your experience of reality. Mostly gaslighting is about maintaining power. The best way for gaslighters and narcissistics to maintain power and control is to keep the other person feeling crazy. When shown proof of objective reality, they will simply deny it or they will act as if they never said anything different than that. They will also often act as if the other person is the one who engaged in the deceptive behavior.
Narcissists view the world transactionally. That is, it’s basically all about what they can get or how they can win. The ends justifies the means much of the time. The goal is about the narcissist coming out ahead, looking good and feeling superior. In order to have all that happen, narcissists may only present the information that will give them what they want. This often goes hand in hand with gaslighting but sometimes it’s also about withholding information. Lying by omission isn’t considered a lie, especially if it produces the outcome the narcissist wants. Making someone feel guilty or worthless are other methods of manipulation to “win”. Lack of remorse for the emotional pain inflicted is a classic “symptom” of narcissism. Rationalization and justification are part and parcel of the lack of remorse.
Never Good Enough:
A person dealing with a narcissist will often feel they aren’t measuring up. Not being good enough is standard. Criticism and blame tend to be fairly constant. Narcissists will rarely, if ever, take personal responsibility when they behave badly or things go wrong. Their demands of the other person are unreasonably high. Perfectionist behavior is a common outcome for someone who lives or works with a narcissist as a result. This is especially true if the narcissist was your parent. The thought is “maybe if I just do better or more, s/he will be happy”. Generally it either won’t happen or it won’t last.
Rules Don’t Apply:
Entitlement is the norm for narcissists. They feel they deserve special treatment or people going out of their way to meet their needs-no matter how extreme. Within that, people with narcissism often don’t follow rules. Not following the “rules” can be small social behaviors like cutting in line or chronically disregarding other people’s time. They can have more consequences like not paying taxes or following the law.
Self absorption is at the root of breaking the rules. Again, it’s whatever makes the narcissistic person feel good, look good or “win” that matters. If being unfaithful feels good, the narcissist will likely do it. If lying gives the person a leg up or brings in more rewards, by all means do that. If using someone for what they can do for you, give to you or enhance your life or career brings a win, then that’s all good. As you can see, having a narcissistic person in your life likely means you don’t count all that much except as a “supply” to feed the narcissist.
Lack of empathy:
Because narcissism is really excessive self absorption, empathy is challenged. It’s hard to care about what another person experiences if one’s primary or sole lens is self. Lack of empathy may show up in small ways, like not understanding that not actually listening to someone isn’t that pleasant for the person doing the talking. It may be more dysfunctional when a narcissistic partner may not mean to harm the other person but isn’t really all that affected when harm is done nonetheless.
Lacking empathy can get really destructive when narcissism combines all the above traits. In such an example, a person may use and manipulate another without remorse as long as the outcome is a net positive for the narcissist, and may lie, cheat or steal to get there. Rather than react with empathy for the harm done to the other, the narcissist will distort reality, blame the victim and/or rationalize their own behavior with a kind of cold calculation. Caring for the other person’s experience isn’t part of the process.
Whether you are living with a narcissist, working with one or have one in your casual social circle, chances are you recognize some of the traits listed. You may feel confused and crazy at times. You likely feel hurt, angry or used at others. You may go from feeling supremely important to totally insignificant in your own right except for what you can give to the other person. Experiencing someone else’s narcissism is painful. Seeking professional help to address coping, escape or recovery can be helpful.
“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm [that they cause] does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” ~ T. S. Eliot