Monday, December 7, 2009

Understanding narcissism

At its core, narcissism is very simple. It operates on the principle:
My convenience comes first.
This may look like simple selfishness and, of course, it is profoundly selfish. But the key feature of narcissism is that the principle goes all the way down. That is, it goes right down to what they tell themselves about what happens. The principle is:
My convenience comes first, including how I construe events, how I construe other people, how I construe myself.
As is true generally of people with personality disorders, for narcissists feelings make facts. So, what is convenient for them to believe about something is what they believe.

This is what makes narcissism a personality disorder: that their sense of reality is driven pervasively and fundamentally by their personality needs. Of course, it also explains why creativity and narcissism often go together, since creativity is all about imposing your wishes and perspectives on aspects of reality.

It also means that narcissists can be profoundly charming. If you have something they want (even if it is just being a good “audience”) then they can be heaps of fun. The problem comes when reality conflicts with their reality principle of my convenience comes first.

Suddenly, they can become utterly unreliable. Promises mean nothing, friendship mean nothing. Unreliable, that is, in the sense of keeping to some general code: they remain utterly reliable in terms of my convenience comes first.

If one tries to call them on any of this, you find you can never really reach them. They live in a self-policing fortress of self-serving convenience. Everything gets re-construed to fit their convenience. And because the first person they lie to is themselves, they can be utterly sincere in what they spout.

Their “sincerity” is often what made them so attractive in the first place. And they remain “sincere”. So, clearly, you have to be really the problem if anything went wrong. That is, after all, the convenient thing for them to believe: so events, their actions, your actions, just get re-construed to maintain the principle that their convenience comes first.

Which means that their reality principle operates so they cannot see themselves. They really do live in a self-policing fortress of self-serving convenience.

It is hardly surprising that conventional psychotherapy is likely to make narcissists in particular worse, since it licenses them to take their feelings as being of central legitimacy and gives them better tools to make the self-deceptions—which are at the centre of their pathology—more plausible to themselves and others. Not they are likely to go to psychotherapy. As a friend said:
According to my shrink, however, narcissists rarely end up in therapy except of the most shallow variety. They don't believe there's anything wrong with them so they don't see the need to fix it - whatever problems they encounter are all someone else's fault.
And if they do get treatment, their therapists often find it a deeply unpleasant experience.

The entire existence of human society rests on there being sufficient regularities in human nature to make sufficient reliability in interactions possible. These regularities may come from various aspects of being human—from common bodily form to deep cognitive structures to particular sets of belief. But, without them, human society cannot operate.

This presumption of reliability—including in what words and actions mean—is what makes people with personality disorders so destructive, so disorienting. For the hardest thing to realise is the principle writers on narcissism and personality disorders keep saying in so many different ways: they do not think as you do. Behaviours and words which you would normally construe in particular ways simply do not have the status and meaning you think they do, because the principle my convenience comes first trumps everything, including how they construe events, you and themselves. They are simply not operating on the same reality principle you are.

If you are in dispute with a narcissist, ask yourself the question do I have anything they want? If the answer is “no” then the interaction will have value only in a clinical sense—confirming what you have (hopefully) come to realise.

Linkage
There are quite a lot of useful links on narcissism. In the more populist form, you can seek to test your own level of narcissism. People have assembled lists of the traits of a narcissist. There is some evidence that narcissism may be spreading.

There there are more serious pieces. Unsurprisingly, the children of narcissistic parents are likely to end up in therapy (pdf).

Narcissists tend to have big self-esteem issues, so big they sacrifice almost everything (and anyone) to shore themselves up. That is why their reality principle is their convenience comes first: in a real sense, there is not enough “there” to support anything else.

Which all fits in with narcissist celebrity implosion index.

The key fact about serial killers: they are narcissists. So, an extreme form of the same, sad dynamic. But, as an acquaintance so sagely put it, all narcissists are serial killers of the soul: see above comments about undermining reliability—including, and this can be the really destructive thing, confidence in your own judgement. After all, it is literally true that the normal cues just really do not apply.

But, if you have suffered from a narcissist, and am feeling vindictive, look on the bright side—narcissists tend to age badly.

ADDENDA The Thinker likes the post. Always good to have that sort of endorsement.

25 comments:

  1. One very interesting book (in the realm of popular, but still good, psychology) I read on narcissism was M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie.

    Whenever I recommend this book I always add the caveat that some people may find his obvious religiosity and theology weird/irritating/downright offputting and I've had feedback to that effect, but I've also spoken to many people (and had the feeling myself) that his observations are very insightful. The chapter on My Lai in particular is a masterpiece. He is also very good on the effect narcissistic parents have on their children.

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    1. Finally got around to getting Peck's book and am now reading it. Yes, very sensible and enlightening, thank you.

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  2. I have, of course, heard of the book. I will give it a look, ta.

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  3. As the daughter of a narcissist I endorse what you say here - you put it very well indeed. I especially like the phrase: serial killer of the soul. That sums it up so well. Being raised by a narcissist is totally crazy-making as we are programmed to trust our parents and what they tell us - but if they're telling us lies, and primarily lies about ourselves, it's totally head-wrecking.

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  4. Thank you, it is encouraging to have testimony such as yours.

    I also had a problematic upbringing, in that my mother fairly clearly an obsessive-compulsive "emotional vampire" and that certainly messed with my head in a big way. But it was a later, deeply emotionally traumatic interaction, which eventually led to me reading up on narcissism: the post represents me trying to distill what I have read and what I have experienced. So I am glad you find my words apt.

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  5. Well said! I've read many articles, books, clincal studies on Narcissism and I believe your words just about sum it up best. Thanks!

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  6. Thank you, I hope what I say is helpful.

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  7. Good article. I'm currently dealing with a brother who has been heading down the path of narcissism for a while now (his charm kept me from seeing it clearly.) We were together recently for the first time in years, and I found his reactions so out of proportion that I had to call him on it. That didn't go down well, to say the least. He MUST take all the credit for the slightest accomplishments, and when I suggested that perhaps I did play a pivotal role is finding a solution to a family problem, he exploded with: "Okay, you be the genius!" and stormed off. Other unpleasant experiences followed, so when I returned home, I wrote a lengthy email bringing his self-absorbed behavior again to his attention. No answer. Another email, but still no answer. My mother tells me that he told her that he doesn't open my emails anymore...

    So thank you again for the well-written article--helps me understand just how hopeless the situation is.

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    1. Glad to help: it is based on bitter experience.

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  8. Best quote I have read on narcissists: "narcissists are like a human roller coaster--fun for a limited time. Nauseating in the long run". I love that!

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  9. WOW! Scary to come to the realization that the man I fell in love with fits this to the T. Ouch! Now what?

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    1. Not enough information to give any evidence except: judge on behaviour, on actions, not words.

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  10. Lorenzo,

    Absolutely great article! I have been with a narcisist for 22 years and it took me being away from him for 2 weeks (20 years later) to realized how miserable he made me. I wish I knew what he was a long time ago. Now 3 kids later, I am rebuilding my self esteem and removing the word 'doormat' from my back. I keep reading and researching this so i can become a strong, independent woman that he changed into a emotionless robot. Thank you for your insight! It has been extremely helpful. If you have any insight on how to tell the kids that mommy doesn't and can't love daddy anymore, I would greatly appreciate it. I hate to hurt them, but they see him as super dad now that I told him I want out he does absolutley everything to win them over. I look foward to any insight you may have!

    Thanks,
    Erin

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    1. I think this is beyond my level of expertise, not being a parent myself. All I can suggest is to try and explain that how a person seems to one person is not necessarily how they are to another.

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  11. being in this situation for years now, and the only battle i have is this :
    he can be soo lovable and caring...
    does he WANT to be the way he is? does he WANT to understand me?
    i hope my soul is strong enough to get through this.

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  12. I have been rivited to this article today, as I just broke withmy boyfriend of 2 years. Swept off my feet, charming would be an understatement. Besides being a narcissist, here was my list: serial womanizer, pathalogical liar, master manipulater, chronic alcoholic, NPD and grifter! Very slowly, I began to realize something was wrong, as a story I first heard did not sound anything like the second time it was told. I started a journal to track things, and now could write a book! Lie and deny repeatedly. I had briefly read about narcissism, but not in depth till today. you touched on so many points which I had so often observed that you verified all my suspicions.

    We broke up several times and each time he would beg to come back, but with no commitment to change. Now I understand why he couldn't commit, as he did NOT see his own behaviors. I have even caught him using a "bat" phone, texting while in my bed, in the bathroom at all hours, and even heard the vibrating sound coming from my bed! Denied it all, which I now also understand. How often I said, "Your lie becomes your truth." How sad.

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    1. Understanding is the first and biggest step. Keep away; they really do not think as we do.

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  13. But you did not answer - what if you have something that the narcissist wants and you dont know what it is?

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    1. Why does that matter? If their convenience continues to be their reality principle, that they want something from you does not help very much, since it is still ultimately all about them, not you.

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  14. How can you know what a narcissist wants? probably cant! you can wait around and find out-or GET OUT and it doesnt matter what they want. It me 24 years and 3 years separation and 3 months post divorce to finally understand my ex was a narcissist..a cerebral, covert PA type. Constantly lies, totally unreliable, it was all about him.. but he was so `kind' `smart' , a neuropsychologist! etc.I just didn't see it. What finally did it for me was all the emails between us during the separation-3 years worth, that I could finally track the lies -literally denies he said something, right about the email he said the thing! So bizarre. Now Im just trying to `grasp' this- and this article says it best ` My convenience comes first' and that rules their lives. Now.. to figure out how to help my daughters understand what is still hard for me to understand..though the 16 year old won't talk to him since she found out about his child porn habit (that he denies, blames me for) and all she asked is that he acknowledge it, and go to therapy. He won't. So she hasnt talked to him for a couple months. Strong girl!
    To above, if you know you are with a narcissist, just get out. Dont waste time trying to figure it out..really.

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    1. You understand: it is sad that the understanding came at such a cost.

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  15. I am with a Narc....and have been for 7 years.... but sadly..there is something inside me...that can't get away..and when I do he contacts me...... he has hurt me my animals....etc..etc...even attacked others....and always gets away with it.... was destroying my property.... and now my neighbor which i"m close too is getting her property destroyed,,,and we wonder if it's him.

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  16. I don't think this is the perfect definition for every kind of narcissist, but for a certain kind, in particular one that I know of, this is spot on. Perfect description for one person at least: "my convenience comes first"... I heard someone else put it this way: "he only sees what he wants to see".

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