Personal Health

A Narcissism Expert Reveals the Secrets to Spotting One in Your Own Life

Dr Ramani Durvasula is a clinical psychologist who specializes in narcissism. On her YouTube channel, she creates content explaining various aspects of narcissistic abuse, shedding light on the insidious behavior and tactics which a narcissist might use to control and manipulate the people around them, and which frequently go unnoticed or normalized in relationships, be they romantic, familial or professional. Here, Doctor Ramani answers everything you wanted to know about narcissists—but didn’t know to ask.

What is a narcissist exactly? What definition do you use in your work?

Narcissists are typically arrogant, entitled, chronically admiration and validation-seeking, grandiose, superficial, very sensitive to criticism, quite controlling, lacking in empathy, and envious of other people. They feel deeply inadequate, and so all of these things are defenses to keep that inadequacy under wraps.

What causes somebody to be a narcissist?

There are a lot of childhood factors, like a lack of adequate mirroring, where parents are inconsistent, distracted, or emotionally unavailable. Narcissists are often people who were never taught frustration tolerance when they were younger, and allowed to do or have whatever they wanted. There’s something we call the paradox of overindulgence and under-indulgence, where children are ostensibly quite spoiled, however they are deeply under-indulged emotionally.

And finally, there’s what I call the performing pony paradox. These are children who are valued for one thing; they’re a great soccer player, a wonderful dancer, a great student, something which gets them attention and by extension makes the parent look really good. In these cases, the child almost gets an overabundance of attention for that thing, but if that shifts, if they no longer want to play soccer or their grades suffer, the parent will stop being interested in them, and the child will learn they are valued solely on external qualities and conditions.

Do all narcissists operate in the same way?

Narcissism presents in a couple of ways. Grandiose narcissists make up a significant proportion; that’s the arrogant, preening archetype, kind of a “used car salesperson” version, who’s constantly like “look at me, I’m great, tell me I’m great.” And then there’s the vulnerable narcissist, who is more victimized, socially, anxious, introverted. And in essence, they walk around feeling that life is never fair, and nothing ever goes their way. When they actually show up in a therapist’s office, nine times out of ten the therapist might think they’re depressed or anxious, do the usual treatments for those conditions, and get nowhere.

In the case of grandiose narcissists, is it possible that those arrogant traits may be misinterpreted as positive qualities, like confidence or assertiveness, in the workplace?

Unfortunately, when somebody’s bragging and arrogant, we conflate that and confuse that with confidence. Confidence is that you’re very quiet quality. It’s people will know they have the goods, so they don’t need to talk about it. They come and they get the job done.

One thing I tell people is that narcissistic people are actually not confident. They play at confidence. They trick us with a sense of confidence, but remember, the underlying bedrock of the narcissistic character is a deep sense of inadequacy, which they’re always trying to overcompensate for. So they can be tremendous actors and they’re giving a performance of a lifetime, because what they don’t want is for anyone to sense that inadequacy.

And if for any reason that inadequacy gets activated, say if they get publicly shamed or criticized, what we see is a very quick bubbling up a shame. And then right behind that is tremendous rage. A classic example is a work group: when someone comes into that group who is bringing better results, or is more qualified, that narcissistic person will start unraveling because they see that someone has in the room that is in fact better than them. Their inadequacy comes up and they might start passing rumors lashing out against that person.

Is the narcissist aware that they’re doing this, or is it unconscious?

It’s not well-processed. One of the core elements of narcissism is that they lack something called self-reflective capacity, which is a fancy way of saying they’re not able to be aware of the impact they have on other people. They say what they want, they do what they want. And then when people are hurt or angry, the narcissist will apologize. Not necessarily because someone else got hurt, but because they now look bad; it’s all about self-preservation. Everything is about self-preservation for them. So an apology from a narcissist is not, oh my gosh, I’m so deeply, sorry I hurt you. It’s. I just made myself look bad, you know? And that’s not an apology—that’s public relations. And yet because they use the word ‘sorry,’ some people get sort of tricked by that.

Is there a set of demographic traits where somebody might be more likely to be a narcissist? Somebody rich, or white, for instance?

I would bring it down to privilege above all else. We see narcissism in all cultures around the world, so in those cultures, the person who is the most privileged may not be white or wealthy. But privilege is definitely a sociological risk factor for narcissism. You see qualities like arrogance, entitlement, lack of frustration tolerance, the idea that the rules don’t apply to you, and if those really get baked into a person’s belief system at an early age, you can see how that would be sustained into adulthood. We also see that countries that are high in authoritarianism, patriarchy, in inequality or wealth disparity, those are cultures that we see tend to generate more narcissistic people.

Are there more male narcissists?

We do know it’s gendered at this point. Narcissism is more prevalent in men than in women. I don’t know that that’s necessarily anything in men per se, but rather how we socialize men. We tend to devalue emotion in boys, and we shame men for expressing emotion; there’s more stigma and bias against men having mental health issues.

But the fact of the matter is the number of clients I’ve worked with over the years who have really narcissistic mothers tells us that there’s plenty of narcissistic women out there. But I think that sometimes though we might sort of label it differently. We might fail in a way that someone even mental health practitioners may think of it differently because narcissism is such a male identified quality.

How can somebody tell if they are in a relationship with a narcissist?

Number one, feeling as though you’re kind of walking on eggshells, and your partner’s highly sensitive, even to feedback. Like if you say, why did you park so far away from the door? And they’re like, why are you telling me I can’t park a car? There’ll be these really exaggerated reactions. And you’ll find yourself increasingly justifying their behavior. They will also, more and more, seem uninterested and seemingly distracted. They’re not interested in what you have to say.

It’s a very egocentric form of communication. They’ll talk about their day, their interests, their friends. But when you try to weigh in about something you’re interested in, they’ll seem distracted. They might be fooling around with their phone, or staring out the window, looking at the television; they’re really not able to be present in a conversation. You’ll start seeing a pattern called gaslighting; this is where your reality is being denied. So you’ll say something, and they’ll say “That never happened. I never said that. That’s not true. You’re crazy. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I think you’re too sensitive.” And you’ll start to think that maybe you are too sensitive, and then you find yourself scrolling through old text message, and see that it did happen. And so you’re almost wasting this time trying to get linked back into your reality and getting increasingly confused people in these relationships feel confused.

“Gaslighting” has become a much more commonly used word over the last few years. People will say that political leaders are gaslighters when talking about disinformation—is that an accurate use of the term?

It’s definitely not just an individual phenomenon. The word itself actually came from a play [Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton], but for a long time I think only people really deep in the mental health trenches were using it. Then sometime around 2010, it started showing up again, and I think that’s because the political and social media landscape changed so much and became so polarized, and there was constant shape-shifting and denial of other people’s reality.

And so I do think gaslighting is a term that’s not just limited to an individual, it’s just the constant denial of a person’s reality. I would actually say that so many collective abuses even around race and gender consist of people saying “oh, there is no racism,” or “I don’t see a person’s skin color.” Well, how can you not? That’s gaslighting, and gaslighting disproportionately affects the disempowered person.

You can’t gaslight a stranger. It’s such a powerful relationship dynamic because that relationship is predicated on some level of trust. We trust institutions. That’s why institutions can do it. Churches, politicians, and media outlets can gaslight us because there’s some inherent level of trust we have, or had, trust in those systems.

Does it stand to reason, then, that a narcissist might be drawn to those institutions, or positions of power? Are there a lot of narcissistic politicians and CEOs?

The research is really clear that narcissists are much more enamored and drawn to leadership than regular folks. People who are not narcissistic are not naturally drawn to power, unless it really carries some secondary gain like money. But a narcissist will want to be in charge, not because they have a vision for the organization, but to address those feelings of inadequacy and fulfil their need for control and superiority.

How does a narcissistic relationship begin?

Because the narcissistic person is so oriented to getting narcissistic supply, to getting validation and adoration, they have a whole bag of tricks that are designed to help them do that: first and foremost, they can be very charming and charismatic. And they’re curious, they’re often amazing conversationalists at the very beginning. When we’re talking about romantic relationships, they’re known for something called love-bombing, which is this really sort of intense, all-absorbing early courtship time.

If somebody says to me, I met someone, we have a magical connection. I’m like, oh my god, get out, get out. If confidences are being exchanged too quickly, if the gifts are too loud, if a hundred roses show up at your door, there are a lot of “good morning” and “goodnight” texts, it’s overwhelming. And in a way it’s like somebody marking their territory.

I think the media often paints romance as being incredibly over the top, and people get so overwhelmed, so bowled over by this charm, that they’re sometimes missing the red flags. But then the blush comes off the rose and we start going into a phase called devaluing. Once the narcissistic person has trapped somebody in a relationship, it’s as though now they almost have contempt for them. There’s a strange dynamic where the chase is what’s intriguing. And once that’s over, they start saving that charm and charisma for other people.

Does it always happen this way, or are there other warning signs?

Vulnerable narcissists are slightly different: they’ll start sharing their tales of woe very early in the relationship. They’ll talk about how difficult their childhood was, how life has always been so unfair to them, talk about their many, many struggles and the person on the receiving end might think that it’s a good thing that they’re being so open and sharing so much. The other person might even feel compelled to start sharing their own vulnerabilities. And then they’ll find themselves trying to “rescue” this narcissist. And then before we know it, within months, you’re constantly babysitting this person’s sense of victimhood, trying to make things right by them. And because you’ve shared your vulnerabilities with them, the narcissistic person can weaponize that against you.

In both cases, everything’s fast, fast, fast. Couples will move in together within months, might even move countries to be together. And when a person says to that narcissist that things are moving too quickly, the narcissistic person will say things like, oh, I guess you’re not that into me that, or I guess you don’t really want a real relationship. And then that other person, who may actually want a committed relationship, will feel compelled to get on board. It’s almost like a treadmill that’s going too fast, and they’re exhausting themselves trying to keep up with this pace.

What can people do to protect themselves in a narcissistic relationship?

The bottom line to the approach I take with clients depends on their answer to this question: are you willing to leave this relationship or not? Not everyone is. And I’m fine with that. I tell people, I need to know what way you want to go. And then we’ll come up with a strategy. And if you’re not, if you don’t want to leave your job where your boss is a narcissist, or you want to stay in touch with your narcissistic parent, then it’s about a radical acceptance that this person is not going to change. You need to have very realistic expectations of what this relationship is about and what their behavior is going to be. And then set boundaries.

How do you set boundaries with a narcissist?

By not engaging. There’s a technique called firewalling: when you think about what a firewall does, it protects not only the information you put out, but it also sets up a wall against the hackers being able to get in your system. Similarly with a narcissistic person, you have to be very careful with the information you share. You absolutely do not want to share anything vulnerable, sensitive, or even important to you.

What happens when the narcissist realizes you’ve stopped engaging?

The way they’re going to come at you is often going to be contemptuous, angry, and abusive. You need to be ready for that. So it’s very much a very careful style of communication, all characterized by setting very realistic expectations about the limitations of these relationships and the bottom line. They’re not going to change. I often tell people, don’t defend yourself to them. Don’t engage with them, you’re not going to win. Don’t explain again, they’re not listening. And don’t personalize, because this is about them, not you. And they’re going to do this to anyone who’s close to them.

This approach, I’ll be frank with you, is not healthy all the time. These are not healthy relationships to be in, but some people can’t get out of them. However, you might stop being disappointed by that person. And I think then you need to cultivate other healthy relationships outside of that friendship. Other mentors, other family members, people who are reciprocal and have your back and are empathic. If utilitarian people stay in marriages, for reasons of children, money, culture, religion, if they stay in jobs because they need the money, I don’t judge that.

Would you recommend the same strategy in the workplace as in a personal relationship?

In the workplace, the game is a little different because you need to document the hell out of everything. And I do tell people, if you think you’re going to walk into HR and say, my boss is a narcissist, no HR person is going to hear that. They need emails, voicemails, text messages. They need evidence. Take your own more detailed minutes in meetings, put read receipts on emails, don’t meet alone with these people. You don’t do drinks meetings with them. You don’t meet in a hotel room with them.

Look what just happened in New York State with Cuomo. It took 13 women to come forward. Look at Harvey Weinstein. It took dozens of women to come forward. It takes so many people to make a case, unless one person literally has video documentation. And even in those cases, the institutions so often back the powerful person. For every Cuomo, there’s a hundred more getting away with it. It’s still a perpetrator’s world, and we’re all bearing the burden of proof.

Sadly, that’s the reality we’re living in right now. But without that documentation, you got nothing. If you’re going through a divorce, I recommend the same thing: record anything that might show issues around parenting, around finances. If you have to go head to head with a narcissistic person, either in a court of law or some form of employment grievance, you’re going to have a problem without it.

Is it not ever simpler to just confront the narcissist?

No. Never. Once you’ve realized somebody in your life is a narcissist, you might be tempted to tell them: this is the worst thing you could possibly do. This is your little secret to have, to say, now I get it. This is a pattern. I’m not crazy. I can fully disengage. I can set a boundary. I can have realistic expectations.

And once somebody finally decides they want to end that relationship, what does that process look like?

Some people get lucky. The narcissist comes up with a replacement for the supply. They meet someone else. That’s the best case scenario. More often than not, though, I have to tell people: as bad as you think it is, it’s going to be ten times worse. The fear and shame around abandonment that many narcissistic people have results in tremendous rage when somebody leaves them, and that rage can be manifested in many ways, but the most extreme and obviously most dangerous is that in some cases we could see violence. We might literally see stalking, where a person is showing up where a person works or where they live.

They might send lots of emails, lots of texts, call from unknown numbers. There’s a fear campaign in the narcissism world called “flying monkeys,” where they will start telling anybody who knew both of you terrible things. They will spread rumors and innuendo by social media and in backdoor conversations. They are so skilled at operating just under the line of the law, just under what would qualify as stalking or defamation. There’s no kind of entity that can stop this sort of this kind of chronic fear campaign behavior. If it’s a divorce where custody is involved, you can expect the battle of your life. Many times a narcissistic person is not that interested in the child, they just want to stick it to the former partner.

But surely it’s worth it?

It can be really stressful, dangerous, psychologically exhausting, and a lot of people I’ve worked with, when they get to the other side of a divorce or a workplace situation, say “had I known it was going to be this bad, I don’t know that I would have done this.” They’re glad it’s over and that they’re out, but they are forever changed as a person. It changes their sense of what human nature, what human beings are capable of. People get wracked by these processes.

You said that a narcissist will never change. Is it possible that a narcissist might want to change?

There’s change and there’s change. Around 30 percent of my practice is narcissistic clients. And I’ve been treating some of these people for 18 years. A therapist can work with the client, explaining, this is how you affect other people, this is how you regulate your emotions. They can even create a rather strong alliance with the client. The problem with narcissism is that any time there’s a stress, frustration, disappointment, or other kind of shame-inducing experience, the narcissist will always snap.

If you can take the narcissistic person and wrap them and shield them from any problems and give them enough resources and help them feel safe enough and good enough in the world, keeping them in a bubble protected from the reality of life, then maybe you might see enough change. But the fact is the first time somebody looks at them sideways, the first time something doesn’t go exactly their way, they’re going to blow again. That does not change. And again, I’ve watched these folks for decades and it doesn’t change.

I’ve listened to some people though, who say that once they understand the rules of radical acceptance of realistic expectations, things do improve. We call it gray rocking, which is just not taking the bait and not engaging. Once people really get all of that, they’ll recognize like, no, this is not a satisfying relationship, or a happy relationship, but at least we’re not getting into the same kinds of fights. I’m not turning to this person for emotional support. We can keep it going, or could probably fake it until these kids are 18. That kind of thing. You might find people who are able to find some sort of middle road with it, but the idea that this would ever become a fulfilling deep mutual reciprocal relationship, that’s never going to happen.

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