I always relate the simple fact that narcissism exists on a scale to patients and anyone else who is interested. So much in the news lately concerns the malignant or sociopathic narcissist. It’s good that we label these people for who they are and it’s good that we understand that so many of the perpetrators that have been outed in the “Me Too” movement are malignant narcissists. But in fact, all of us have some narcissism in us. If we didn’t, we couldn’t compete for a job, strive to win in athletic competitions or convince our bosses that we can handle that “special project”. Without healthy narcissism we would never ask for a raise, ask someone to marry us or have good boundaries. Healthy narcissism is a way of saying we have self-esteem; we feel we are good enough. It does not mean we break the rules and go through life without empathy.
Moving along the scale from healthy narcissism to more problematic forms, we find people who monopolize conversations, talk without a breath and constantly grab attention. We all know these types. They are annoying and usually don’t have many real friends, although they may be convinced that we are all enthralled with their incessant talking and self-aggrandizement. Often, we see these folks as “egotists”, full of themselves and crashing bores. But the truth is, they are usually benign as their behaviors don’t actually hurt anyone unless you find someone who takes up all the space in the room as hurtful, versus merely maddening. These behaviors, while seemingly narcissistic, are low level defenses and the person can often listen to reason if anyone ever takes the time to speak to them about their communication habits. Unlike someone who is personality disordered, they are generally not without empathy.
People with certain types of autism can also appear narcissistic. Those afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome are a case in point. People with Asperger’s are often bright and function in the world. Their main problem is that they don’t pick up on social cues. They are extremely internally focused. This can appear narcissistic. They can’t read when they are being inappropriate, over controlling, insulting etc. They, like true narcissists, often anger or hurt the feelings of others. Unlike more sophisticated narcissists, they don’t have the ability to charm others so will find themselves rejected and isolated. Because they appear “normal” (in other words, not autistic), tolerance for their behaviors and patterns of interacting are not well tolerated by others. An acquaintance of mine has Asperger’s Syndrome. He will ram through with his ideas, not picking up cues from the rest of us who serve with him on committees, that nobody is on the same page. He doesn’t read body language or even mild objections. Unfortunately, one has to be really direct and firm with people such as this, and many don’t bother. They just move on and reject the individual.
Teenagers and four-year -olds are almost by definition, narcissistic. They are discovering the world and often need to define it on their own terms in order to understand it. Those ages are also characterized by entitlement. They are learning about rules and feel the need to break them before they internalize them. This can be wearing on parents and teachers, but it is a normal phase of development. They child needs to be socialized out of his “narcissism” and take his/ her place in the world of civility, cooperation, compassion and compromise. Most of us manage to negotiate this phase by the time we are in our mid-twenties.
Moving up the scale, we now come to true narcissists. These people have little or no empathy, but again the ability to empathize, exists on a scale. On the lower end of this scale, clinicians speak of these people as having “narcissistic tendencies or traits”. This type of parent, especially, may be one who lives through her children. Their accomplishments are because of her and she deserves the credit for them. A parent such as this may be highly critical in private to their child but looks for all the world to be a “good mom”. The criticism is not public and, in fact, the child may be praised in public because it reflects positively on the parent. “See what a good mom I am. My daughter got straight A’s”. In private, the mom will chastise the child for getting an A-. This is the type of parent who may put on lavish birthday parties or Christmas celebrations in order for others to think them wonderful. But in fact, the birthday party is a show, put on in order to get praise for the parent hosting it. In reality, the kids may get little or no positive attention throughout the year when no one is looking. This type of narcissistic parent may disallow any feelings to be expressed in the family. Children are labeled “dramatic” or “difficult” if they express feelings. Things are kept on a superficial level but often one that “looks good” to anyone paying attention outside the family. Often in this kind of narcissistic structure, the parents are highly successful. Children exist to reflect positively on them and kids are clearly not the priority. Some people have spoken of this as “children as accessories”. The child comes to understand that they can’t take real problems or concerns to this kid of parent because they won’t be understood. What’s happening is that the parent lacks empathy and the child intuits this and keeps their inner feelings to themselves. I recently worked with a woman who only discovered while in college that other girls actually talked to their moms, missed them, sought their advice. She never considered doing this because throughout her childhood, she learned that mom wasn’t really interested or was somehow incapable of being warm and empathic to her. She just thought this was the way it was. While at the same time, this woman’s mother was looked up to by hundreds of others as a leader of their church. Also, on this scale of narcissism, we can see a role reversal. The parent becomes the child and expects the child to be the parent. The child can also be used as a therapist, marriage counselor, best friend/confidant. Here the narcissistic is looking for narcissistic supply and doesn’t really care where it comes from. Rather than being in relationship with their friend, child, partner, they are using them without regard of consequences to that person.
Up the scale from this “behind the scenes” lack of empathy, is the parent or spouse or sibling who publicly humiliates those close to them, seemingly unaware or uncaring of the effect this has on their child or spouse. They seem to take pleasure in embarrassing those close to them while others witness. Some bosses will exhibit this behavior as well. This is the level where we can see overt physical, sexual or emotional abuse. I have a client whose mother used her young, attractive sister to attract men at bars so she could then take them home for sex. It is not uncommon for the extreme personality disordered narcissist to act out sexually. The need for validation to fill the emptiness is so great, that they will use sex and use their own child sexually for that validation. This doesn’t necessarily mean incest but it can. Also, the parent may “pawn out” the child for sex. Another client of mine was in a cult where children weren’t welcome. She was 14 so her father “pawned” her out to one of the male cult members so she could be accepted as an adult in the community. She actually lived, at 14, with a man in his 30’s as per the arrangement of her father. Another young man, who I referred to in a previous post, was used as a sex object in ritualistic sexual activity pertaining to a religious cult his parents belonged to. These examples are clearly in the range of malignant sociopathic narcissism.