Family Matters

The thoughts of a husband, father, brother and son

There’s a Narcissist Round Every Corner

Narcissus as depicted in the mosaics at Paphos

One thing I’ve learned a lot about as the junior partner in my wife’s studies is narcissism.  It’s not a nice thing, but it’s good to understand it.  If you ever come across a narcissist (and it’s likely you will), you’re going to need all the help you can get.

How do you know if you’re dealing with a narcissist?  Here are some of the signs:

  • He or she will have a strong sense of entitlement – a feeling that the world owes them.   They will expect special treatment.  And, boy, will they know their rights.
  • They will exaggerate their own achievements, and take the credit for everything they can.
  • They will have at least one, and probably a little crowd of followers.
  • There will be no conversation or topic that they can’t rapidly bring back to themselves.
  • They will say I more than you (think about it)
  • At first they may be charming and compelling, cosying up to you and inviting you to be part of their world.
  • But if ever they are criticised, their reaction may be out of all proportion to the situation.
  • They will go to great lengths to deflect responsibility if they do anything wrong – it will be somebody else’s fault, or something outside their control.
  • They’ll tell you lies, tell you sweet little lies – if you listen closely, the stories of their accomplishments will have holes and inconsistencies (although they will deny this).
  • They may have a long green body and a bobbing yellow head.

That last one’s not true.  That’s a narcissus flower (or daffodil).  Not the same as a narcissist.

But the term narcissist does come from the story of Narcissus in Greek mythology.  The beautiful youth who became so obsessed with gazing upon his own reflection in a pool that he died of starvation.

Now don’t worry if you’ve read the list above and thought, hang on, I do that. And maybe that sometimes as well.  We all have a little of the narcissist within us – who doesn’t like to be adored occasionally?  You need to tick most of the things on the list, and a few more besides, to be a card-carrying member of the narcissist party.  And if you’ve recognised that you may have faults, you’re probably not a narcissist.  Narcissists aren’t good at acknowledging their faults.

Narcissists do need followers, like those little fish that swim after sharks.  And they need followers because they need approval, admiration, adoration.  Adoration is like a drug to them, a fiercely addictive drug which turns them into monsters if ever you stop being their dealer.  If you criticise them, expect trouble.  Expect narcissistic rage.

My encounters with narcissists have largely been at work.  I’m pretty sure I’ve worked for a narcissist.  I suspect I’m working with one now.  And I’ve definitely had a narcissist working for me.  Am I some kind of narcissist magnet?

The one who caused me the most trouble by far was the narcissist who worked for me.  She caused me trouble out of all proportion to her value to the team.  It turns out that I fell into many of the classic traps:

  • Initially I was charmed by her.  I assumed she would be like most of the other people who have worked for me – dedicated, uncomplaining, driven – and so allowed her special treatment early on.
  • When I realised my mistakes and started drawing boundaries, this caused the horrible situation in which I became afraid of allowing all the other wonderful members of my team to do things (carry some holiday forward outside policy, go home early when they’ve worked endless late nights and weekends, work from home when their children are ill) because I just knew the narcissist would be watching, and storing it up, and waiting for her “me too – I’m ENTITLED!” moment.
  • I think I came close to losing one of my really valued team members when she had to get involved in managing the narcissist.  This seems to be a well-known occurrence – like a cuckoo, the narcissist drives out others with their manipulative and destructive behaviour.
  • I began questioning my own judgment, thinking that the problem maybe lay with me.

In the end, we all struck lucky and she left of her own accord, apparently to fulfill some lifetime ambition (another trait of the narcissist – living in a fantasy world).

Encountering a narcissist at work can be bad enough – awful if they are in a position to bully you.  But encountering one in a family or romantic relationship is another thing entirely.

Because one of the things which really defines a narcissist is an inability to show empathy.  They see the world through their own eyes only, cannot conceive that someone else may have different views or feelings.  Sadly for them, this means that they may find it difficult to love.  Part of love is wanting to possess, but much of it is wanting to give.  Can you truly love someone if you can’t understand that they may have feelings?

As I said earlier, I am pretty sure that I am working with a narcissist now, and he is certainly someone who would love to see me fail. I know that it will be difficult and frustrating to work with him, but this time I don’t feel too worried, because this time I think I know what I’m dealing with. This understanding feels like a shield, and it’s also helped me make sense of some experiences from the past.

Much of the understanding has come from my wife, who has had narcissism loom large in her life at times, and who has had to learn a lot about it on her course.  It is a recognized personality disorder, but there does seem to be quite a spectrum of sufferers – it’s more pronounced in some than in others. If you want to know more about it, just Google “narcissism” or “narcissism in the workplace.”

But with this increased awareness does come one slight problem: we do sometimes start thinking we see a narcissist round every corner. Thankfully that isn’t actually the case, and we do both believe that most people in the world are good people.

Even if the narcissists would sometimes make us believe otherwise.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

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4 thoughts on “There’s a Narcissist Round Every Corner

  1. My (does my count as I?) first reaction after the list was, “Uh-oh,” but then felt better as you explained more in depth. This is a really interesting post. Someone I (dang, there’s that I again) love very, very much has most (all) of these traits. Did you come across any solutions for helping narcissists? It must be a very sad and lonely way to live.

    • I’ve read that therapy can help, but like any therapy, only if the person submits to the process, which means acknowledging there is an issue.

      There is a lot on the internet offering advice on how to live/cope with narcissists. Some of it is very useful, but I would suggest that you read widely before you act on any of it. It’s not a straightforward thing and my feeling is that you will need to choose any strategy carefully. One very useful thing I’ve come across is to try to understand that when a narcissist behaves badly they don’t actually mean to hurt you – they are just acting according to their nature.

      I wish you well in dealing with this. 🙂

  2. Thank you for commenting on my blog about the full-time nature of therapy training – I find it so helpful to read your writings, and find that I’m not alone!

    My last task in my old job was investigating a case of bullying and harassment in the workplace. Chief instigator was a very convincing and experienced manager who, I discovered, to be a narcissist…

    She was able to convince all and sundry that she was wholly innocent of her team’s accusations, while evincing a ‘Poor me, pity me’ approach to it all…

    Either large numbers of her team had been involved in a lengthy incident of mass hysteria, or she was guilty as charged. I know what I found!

    Keep on twitching, Sir – I love it too, although I don’t share the BA’s fantasies, thankfully! Too parky in the north!

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