Narcissists are all about themselves, not you. They can have traits that include a grandiose sense of self-importance, an obsession with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, and beauty. They may believe they're special and have a need for excessive admiration. But they can also be downright dangerous. Dawn Picken explores the toxic world of narcissism in the Bay of Plenty and reveals the warning signs. And she speaks to two women who tell what it is like living with one – and how it turned their lives into a living hell.
Angie* says a brief fling has tied her to a narcissist forever. She asked us not to use her real name for fear of retribution. The Bay of Plenty mum met a man (we'll call him Joe) she found competent and good-looking. In retrospect, she recalls red flags. "Haughtiness, a superiority complex, quick to put other people down. When he met someone, he'd always criticise them."
She got pregnant and says Joe played mind games. "You start to think you're not being clear enough, not saying the right things. He said, 'I hate you,' and I said, 'I need to talk about this.' Two hours later, he said it was in the past. He said, 'Whenever I say, I hate you, it means I hate the situation." Angie says she became suicidal. Then she had a child.
She's still battling through the court system, and paying lawyers thousands of dollars to answer Joe's court filings. "They love playing with systems and engaging authorities to make themselves seem bigger." Angie says narcissists are notoriously tight with money, and Joe pays no child support. "It's a compliment when they grab on to you. You're kind and intelligent and you're probably solvent. They don't get with poor people."
Counselling helped her set boundaries. Angie says she doesn't react in front of Joe to his behaviour or comments. "You have to go inside and figure out your own stuff, who am I and what do I need and want so that I'm not prepared to put up with the crazy-making crumbs they drop."
What is narcissism?
Psychologists say everyone has some degree of narcissism. The trait exists on a continuum, and people high in narcissism may be fun, charismatic and good at what they do. But Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), say experts, is an extreme manifestation of the trait. The disorder can be diagnosed only by a mental health professional.
Individuals with NPD, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM, 5th edition) exhibit five or more of the following, present by early adulthood:
*A grandiose sense of self-importance
*Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
*Belief that one is special and can only be understood by or associate with special people or institutions
*A need for excessive admiration
*A sense of entitlement (to special treatment)
*Exploitation of others
*A lack of empathy
*Envy of others or the belief that one is the object of envy
*Arrogant, haughty behaviour or attitudes
Narcissists tend to be more aggressive and violent than other people and are at higher risk for depression, anxiety and drug addiction, according to researchers.
Though experts say genetic and biological factors may play a role in forming narcissistic personality disorder, causes are not yet well-understood. A 2015 study in the National Academy of Sciences (US) reported parents of children ages 7 through 11 who "overvalued" children, telling them they're superior to others and entitled to special treatment, were more likely to produce narcissistic children — who could grow up to become narcissistic adults.
Devon Polaschek is a forensic clinical psychologist and professor of psychology and crime science at Waikato University who also works with prisoners. Polaschek says the DSM (4) reports up to 6.2 per cent of people could be classified as having the disorder, and up to 75 per cent of those are men.
A 2016 Psychology Today article said NPD affected only about 1 per cent of the population, a figure that has remained about the same since the term was established in 1968.
Polaschek says narcissism manifests in complex and varying ways. "At its most robust it's a person who regards themselves as special and different... inherently superior to others, and from that follows some potentially nasty downstream consequences, such as thinking you can use other people, and that other people are not worth as much as you are and don't deserve to be treated as well as you."
Conversely, Polaschek says fragile narcissists don't feel as special, are more prone to feeling threatened by other people and think they're not getting respect they deserve. They're introverted, react poorly to criticism and need constant reassurance. "...they can be quite aggressive and vengeful towards people that threaten their high sense of their self-worth. I guess it's a more toxic form of narcissism."
Narcissism may be more malleable and created by circumstances than previously thought, says Polaschek. She says "state narcissism," is the idea people can develop narcissism after gaining fame. "There's been spectacular examples of sports stars who've risen very quickly and gotten themselves in real trouble with women, particularly suggestions of predatory sexual behaviour and the defence is often, 'Women just throw themselves at me.'"
Follow the Leaders
Pro-social narcissists want to be seen doing good in the community. Polaschek says some attributes correlating to narcissistic personalities can be seen as positive leadership qualities if they help the team accomplish goals. She says pro-social types feather their own nests while benefiting other people, but grandiosity and extreme self-belief can backfire. "So if you have a chief executive whose board is telling them they're going in the wrong direction, and they don't believe that because they're so sure of themselves... that may not be good for the board and for managing the group."
The world has no shortage of leaders displaying narcissistic traits, according to pundits and psychologists. The list includes US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (who was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder with aggressive features by a psychologist during the annulment of his marriage in 1998, according to records uncovered by biographer Jonathan Miller).
The 2019 edition of the book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President asserts, "Donald Trump is a danger to Americans and to the rest of the world." Psychological profiling expert and author of Narcissism and Politics Jerrold Post wrote an essay in Dangerous Case claiming Trump has a special relationship with his base. "Trump is a mirror-hungry leader, that is, a narcissist whose private feelings of inadequacy must be quenched by the constant adulation of his followers…"
On the democratic side, a 2017 New Yorker article says John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton might have been characterised as "extreme present hedonists," narcissists, and hypomanics.
Polaschek says there's question among researchers about whether narcissism is increasing. As a term, Google Trends reports usage has been rising for a decade.
Psychologist Kati Ludwig talks to us about narcissism from her Omanu retreat centre. Among a rainbow of cushions and the smell of incense, she lays out her case that Western society's values of individualism and achievement have been pushed harder during the last 50 to 60 years. "And that has a strong correlation to me of those underlying issues of self-esteem and self-worth that are very much related to narcissism."
She says while narcissists present as grandiose and arrogant, they have an underlying sense of insecurity and a weak sense of self-worth. "I think it's very much a systemic concept, and us as human beings... go in communication with this cultural vibration of certain values that we perceive as important."
Ludwig says technological distractions such as social media provide people with narcissistic traits that are a "fantastic playground of who do I want to be today? What would the world like?" She says excessive device use or other addictive behaviours like drug and alcohol abuse also allow narcissists to side-step connecting emotionally with others or examining their own behaviour.
"The whole selfie culture is another offspring of that and if we don't like it, we delete it. But unfortunately, we can't delete conversations or conflict, we can only avoid them."
While much has been made of Millennials' and Generation Z's self-promotional activities online, experts are divided about whether our culture is becoming, on the whole, more narcissistic. Polaschek says a California-based researcher who has studied student cohorts for years has published research suggesting US students were getting more narcissistic each decade. However, she says other researchers say the data has flaws and people are interpreting questions differently than they used to. "Furthermore, every generation thinks the next generation is more narcissistic than we were...We always think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, every generation. So it doesn't necessarily look like it's increasing, but it's fashionable."
Yet a recent study shows a rise in narcissistic traits may be an unwanted result of sharing images, including selfies, "excessively" on social media. Findings appearing in
The Open Psychology Journal late last year show participants who posted large numbers of photos and selfies on social media developed a 25 per cent rise in narcissistic traits over the four-month study period.
Tauranga native and University of Canterbury engineering student Larissa Wilson is a digital native (she's 22 years old) who recently got a crash-course in self-promotion. She won a spot last year as a contestant on the TVNZ2 show The Great Kiwi Bake Off.
Wilson says she wasn't allowed to tell anyone she made the show for three months, but as soon as the official announcement was made, producers had a list of publicity tasks.
"They sent us all a photograph of ourselves we had to post on all our social media sites and a general outline of a blurb we had to post. We were told to post between certain times of day... They didn't say you had to do it, but it was heavily implied you should and everyone did."
Wilson says fellow contestants were laid-back and a baking show with no prize was unlikely to attract people whose main goal was fame. "In New Zealand, you definitely see contestants from other shows try to grasp their 15 minutes, but I don't think Bake Off was really like that."
As for the assertion young people are more narcissistic than their parents, Wilson says probably not. "I think we've been given a medium that makes those things more easy to see. If it [social media] had appeared when previous generations had been young, it would've been just the same."
Historians remind us self-marketing started long before Instagram. People for centuries have commissioned portraits, biographies and held grand events to showcase their beauty and/or status. Self-portraits have been around for as long as we could draw: German artist Albrecht Durer painted his earliest self-portrait in 1484, and Vincent van Gogh painted more than 30 self-portraits between 1886 and 1889.
Years to untangle from a narcissist's web - Michelle's story
Michelle* says she spent years with a man who turned out to be a violent narcissist. She met Rich* and found him charming, the life of the party.
Her ex bought luxury items he couldn't afford and relied on her to pay his living expenses, says Michelle. "They reinvent themselves into new careers, manipulate, lie, are vain and have sense of entitlement to material things without doing work to earn them."
Michelle describes Rich as a "love bomber" who put her on a pedestal and said he was attracted to her looks, sociability and kind heart. "There's a hole they're trying to fill inside themselves... the problem is, after a while jealousy starts and they don't like that you're attractive and popular and fun." He blamed fights on "passion."
A 2016 article in Psychology Today says the narcissist wants you to feel special not because they really care about you, but because they want something from you.
The Bay of Plenty woman woman says for years after the relationship ended, Rich broke into her home, plagiarised websites; stole and damaged property and reputations; made false accusations costing thousands to investigate; extorted money; blackmailed, threatened, cheated on and physically abused people. She says even though he's been in and out of court many times, he continues reinventing himself.
"They're going for empathic people because they don't have empathy themselves. It's usually a daddy issue. Every narcissist I know has horrible daddy problems where they feel ill-treated, abandoned... other caregivers end up overcompensating by making up for it elsewhere and spoiling them. But it never quite fills that hole left by their father."
A 2012 Psychology Today article says many fatherless children, "...develop a swaggering, intimidating persona in an attempt to disguise their underlying fears, resentments, anxieties and unhappiness..."
"They start to put you down to make you lose self-esteem. Did I give somebody the wrong impression? Was I flirting? Do I really look fat in this?" Michelle says she was gas lighted - told she was imagining things when she questioned Rich about anything. "You end up being a shadow of your former self."
Experts say narcissists see themselves as victims and blame everyone else for what happens in their lives. They're also prone to cheating on partners and accusing the partner of having affairs to cover their own infidelity. Michelle says Rich falsely accused her of liking other men and was threatened by her social media connections. He made her quit Facebook.
One night, she says he bashed her, then strangled her after she accused him of being with another woman. "He stopped me driving off and said, 'I love you, don't go, and anyway, you'll be caught drink-driving.' He knew if I went to the hospital they'd want to know what happened. I never ended up going."
Michelle says she felt powerless to leave. "They control you. You're controlled because you've lost all self-esteem, you've lost all confidence. They've taken over your life so much they're running your finances, you've got no control over anything." After the relationship ended, Michelle says counsellors didn't mention narcissism; she learned about it herself - on Facebook (a page called After Narcissistic Abuse - There is Light, Life & Love has 146,000 followers).
Her advice for spotting a narcissist, "If they look too good to be true, they probably are. At the start, they're full of flattery and encouragement, the best listeners and 100 per cent into you. They put you on a pedestal but will eventually knock you down into the gutter."
Michelle says beware the quiet narcissist at work, too. "They've usually got jealousy, resentment and bitterness brewing inside them."
Michelle wants people to be aware of narcissism so they understand the danger of staying with a partner who displays a high degree of the trait. "It's not just the immediate harm it's doing to you and often your children in the form of physical, verbal and mental abuse; the emotional damage takes a lot longer to recover from."
Psychologist Kati Ludwig says narcissists don't act in isolation; each relationship has a dynamic where both parties make choices. "It's not about it's your fault, but it means you are doing things to keep it alive and you can also do things to step out of that dynamic."
She says sometimes that means the person who feels they've taken on an inferior role to a narcissist must leave a personal relationship or job. It requires a process of acceptance and may require learning new skills, she says.
"I've seen and heard lots of stories around companies where in the end people decided, no I have to leave because it can be a never-ending fight. Because often the person who carries these strong, grandiose narcissistic traits is in a position of power and can't be easily pushed off their throne."
*Names of women and men they've identified as narcissists have been changed.
Where to Get Help:
Tauranga Women's Refuge Helpline: 0800 86 733 843
Suicide Prevention/NZ Lifeline: 0800 543 354