Narcissists are everywhere, and they can be incredibly draining and challenging to deal with. Here are 7 things you need to know about narcissists, written from my perspective as a social psychologist and also inspired by my personal experiences with narcissists in my daily life.
1. A SIGNIFICANT PORTION OF THE US POPULATION ARE NARCISSISTS
An estimated 6.2% of the US population suffers from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), meaning they meet five or more of the following criteria according to the DSM-V: (as you read these, think about people you may know who might fit with the diagnosis)
-Has a grandiose sense of self-importance, exaggerating their abilities and achievements -Has persistent fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love -Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and should only associate with people of the same status -Has a constant need for attention, affirmation and praise -Has a strong sense of entitlement and an expectation of special treatment -Is exploitative of others, taking advantage of them for personal gain -Lacks empathy for others -Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of them -Regularly shows arrogant or haughty behaviors and attitudes
Many more people do not meet all of the criteria for NPD, but may still exhibit narcissistic personality traits from time to time. For this reason it is difficult to know for sure how many narcissists might be out there!
2. PSYCHOLOGISTS ARE UNSURE ABOUT THE CAUSES OF NARCISSISM
Is narcissism an inherited genetic trait? Or is it something conditioned by parents and teachers during childhood? Is it associated with other mental illnesses? While the causes of narcissism are unknown, psychologists tend to favor a biopsychosocial model of causation that integrates biology and genetics with social environment and psychological adjustment. In other words, environment and society does play an important role in the development of narcissistic personality traits.
3. NARCISSISM IS ON THE RISE, ACCORDING TO NEW RESEARCH
Recent research in psychology shows that narcissism has been on the rise during the last 30 years, especially among young people. One study even showed that 9.4% of 20- to 29-year-olds exhibit extreme narcissism, compared with only 3.2% of those older than 65. Perhaps this is not a surprise in light of how our culture has shifted to emphasize social media as central to our identities, sense of self and self-esteem. Indeed, there is a direct positive correlation between social media usage and narcissism, meaning that the more narcissistic you are, the heavier your social media usage. Even the word ‘selfie’ and what it stands for has a rather narcissistic implication, don’t you think? Sadly, as narcissism has risen with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, too has there been a steep decline in altruism and empathy.
4. NARCISSISTS CAN EASILY SLIP BY UNDETECTED
Unlike people with other personality disorders or behavioral problems, narcissists can easily slip by undetected because they don’t appear to be ‘sick’ or ‘mentally ill’- They just seem to have an over-inflated sense of self-importance, a relentless need for attention and a lack of empathy. When you first meet them or get to know them, they might seem fun, energetic, outgoing and just a little egotistical, but this may or may not raise red flags. After all, it’s good to have high self-esteem right? Often they can lure you into their inflated self-importance and grandiose schemes and before you realize it, you’ve become involved with someone whose presence may be toxic to your well-being.
5. NARCISSISM IS DIFFICULT TO TREAT:
Perhaps one of the most troubling things about narcissistic personality disorder is that it can be very difficult to treat with therapy because the clients are often in denial or completely unwilling to accept that they have a disorder. If someone truly believes that he or she is special, more talented and superior, imagine how challenging it might be for a therapist to convince him or her otherwise.
It is for this reason that people with narcissistic personality disorder rarely seek treatment, and usually only agree to therapy at the urging or friends or family members, or to treat other issues (such as anxiety or depression) that result from the disorder. And sadly many therapists also have to release their narcissistic patients when they reach an impasse and the patient believes they are fine and refuses to see the problem.
6. THERE ARE WAYS TO TELL IF SOMEONE IS A NARCISSIST
If you suspect that someone in your life might be a narcissist, there are things that you can do in addition to comparing their behaviors to the diagnostic criteria listed above. I recommend the following:
Ask Them Questions (Narcissists Like to Talk but not to Listen)
I learned from my partner intuitive sound healer Jimmy Ohm that the single best way to a spot narcissist is to ASK THEM QUESTIONS! Due to their inflated ego, they can’t help but share with you their exaggerated sense of achievement and accomplishments, their beliefs of how special and wonderful they are, and how everyone is so jealous of them. Even more so, narcissists like to talk, but they are usually not very good listeners. Often they glaze over when others are talking, only waiting for their turn to speak.
Examine Their Social Media Presence
Given the positive correlation between social media use and narcissism, if you suspect someone might be a narcissist, one of the easiest things you can do is examine their social media presence. Are they always posting status updates and commenting on everything? Do they frequently talk about themselves, their plans and their achievements online? While heavy social media use alone is not a definite indicator of narcissism, it, if this person is always on social media and also meets some of the narcissism criteria then they might be one of them.
Do They Involve You in Grandiose Schemes?
Narcissists have this way of convincing us that they know better and that they are the most capable person for any task. If someone repeatedly involves you grandiose schemes that never pan out, or is always talking about plans but ever actually following through, he or she could well be a narcissist.
Are They Manipulative?
Narcissists are skilled at the art of manipulation and getting what they want out of people. I think this ties back their lack of empathy and belief in their specialness and superiority. Often, this manipulation feels like ‘mind games’ where someone tells you what you want to hear but then does the opposite, or when someone leads you on to believe something about them or a situation that turns out to be false.
7. THE BEST WAY TO DEAL WITH NARCISSISTS IS TO LOVE THEM FROM AFAR
Often, the people close to us like friends, bosses, work clients or even family members can be narcissists, and it can be challenging to coexist in this space with them. If you identify someone in your life as a narcissist, the single best thing you can do is to love them from afar. Loving them from afar does not mean that you completely shut them out of your life (although this is an effective strategy for some, especially those in extreme situations), but rather, that you withdraw some of your energy and instead of actively engaging, you hold space for them in hopes that someday, they will change. To me, loving them from afar means that you recognize you are powerless to change this person, and that spending time with them can be toxic to your well-being. Limiting your interactions and time spent, not playing into their grandiose schemes and not allowing yourself to be manipulated are all perfectly acceptable strategies.
In the case of people you see regularly, like work colleagues, bosses, clients and close family, sometimes loving them from afar is a less viable option because you find yourself in constant contact with them. In this case, I recommend the following steps for co-existing:
Practice Forgiveness and Compassion
It can be incredibly difficult to find compassion for someone who has no respect for other people and believes themselves to be superior to others. Even if they lack it, you can always find compassionbecause this person is clearly suffering terribly, whether he or she is consciously connected to the pain. Forgiving someone’s narcissism does not mean your are accepting or justifying their behavior, it just means that you no longer want to hold onto it or allow it to affect you. Remember, the way they act says nothing about you and everything about who they are. Do your best to forgive and not take their narcissism personally!
Let go of the Attachment to the Outcome
Being a compassionate, nurturing person, I often see people suffering and I want to help them heal. I know I am not alone here. Unfortunately, when it comes to narcissists, we must learn to let go of the outcome. Narcissists usually do not think that they are in need of any help, believing instead in their own inflated perfection and superiority. Their behaviors, actions, words, and thoughts have nothing to do with you and therefore, being attached to the outcome or trying to change them in any way does not serve you and will only lead to more pain for you.
Accept that You Gave this Energy Permission to Enter Your Space, and Learn from it
This is a difficult one, but it is true that our outside reality is a reflection of our inner space. So if you find yourself surrounded by narcissists, it is important to explore why you are in this situation and learn how to grow from it. Maybe you have underlying narcissistic traits that you are not aware of? Maybe you lack self-esteem and believe you are only worthy of narcissists in your life? Maybe you have been unwise in your decisions and the people you chose to make energetic agreements with? Maybe you didn’t realize how narcissistic these people were until it was too late? While their narcissism is definitely not your fault, allowing their energy into your space is your responsibility. By learning what brought you here and making changes, you can break out of this cycle.
You Deserve Better
Remember, if you are not a narcissist, then you deserve better than to be surrounded by narcissists! It is OK to assert this feeling and cut energetic ties to people who do not match your frequency. In many cases, this is a necessary form of survival. Many of us have been in positions of low self-esteem or believed that we did not deserve truly loving, caring people in our lives. If you have done this, give yourself permission to remove this agreement on the grounds that you DO deserve to be around compassionate, connected, loving, good people. Trust that you will meet them when you clear the space for them to move into your life.
Art Credit: Echo and Narcissus, John Williams Waterhouse, 1903, Oil on Canvas
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Kelly Neff is a social psychologist, author and educator who has helped thousands of people learn about healthy relationships, love and sexuality. She holds a B.A. in Psycholocegy from Georgetown and M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Claremont Graduate University. A professor of psychology since 2007, she has become an innovator in the field of online teaching with her book, Teaching Psychology Online and her YouTube lectures. Her articles on love, sex, spirituality and wellbeing have been featured by wellness websites like MindBodyGreen, The Mind Unleashed and more. Dr. Neff also gives workshops, lectures and integrative healing services that combine psychological techniques, empowerment training, Reiki, and other alternative therapies. When she isn’t writing, teaching or doing healing work from her home in Boulder, CO, Dr. Neff travels the globe researching transformational festivals for her upcoming book for the Festival Research Project. You can find her daily doses of inspiration and positivity on Facebook and Twitter. Light and Love!