"IT'S ALL ABOUT ME"
THE NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY
OF ALL THE LABELS THAT are carelessly bandied about, narcissist is probably one of the most overused and least understood. It's a popular term with ancient origins (the Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his reflection), yet what it really means can be perplexing.
Many people think of a narcissist as someone who perhaps names hotels after himself or always wants to be in the spotlight--maybe a character on reality TV. Certainly plenty of people love the limelight. But the kind of narcissist we're talking about goes far beyond self-promotion by acting in ways that are toxic and dangerous. From this point forward, I will use the terms narcissist and narcissistic personality interchangeably.
Narcissistic personalities care only for themselves, their needs, and their priorities. While you and I appreciate attention, the narcissist craves it and manipulates people and situations to get it. While you and I work hard to be successful, the narcissistic personality connives to succeed and may cheat, lie, embellish the truth, or scheme to get ahead, uncaring of how others are affected.
These personalities can be found in every level of our society, right up to the top, where history's grim record shows that they've started wars and exterminated populations. But they're also found in the cubicle or on the bar stool next to you, at home, on the team, in the classroom, and even in your spiritual community.
"Cinderella," the classic tale of the cruel stepmother and stepsisters obsessed with themselves, epitomizes the exploitative nature of narcissism. These are people who live selfishly at others' expense. The most famous version of Cinderella is the Disney one, but historically there are more than 300 variants of this tale.1 Apparently, many cultures have seen fit to warn us about this personality, and with good reason.
Like Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters, these personalities see few faults in themselves and view anyone who doesn't value them as highly as they value themselves as nobodies to be denigrated or tormented. And while Disney's Cinderella enjoys a magical happy ending, in real life there's no fairy godmother or prince to save us from these bullies. When we're dealing with the narcissistic personality, our protection is up to us.
THE WAY OF THE NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY
Narcissism isn't the same as confidence. True confidence reflects admirable strength of character. The narcissist's confidence is really arrogance--a character flaw leading to grandiose ideas and the relentless pursuit of the narcissist's desires, often at others' expense.
Some grandiose ideas can be good for society. Look at the advances that came from Edison's vision of a world powered by electricity and Kennedy's mission to land on the moon, to name just two. Walt Disney, too, had a grandiose idea: a "magical" place for children and adults to enjoy themselves--which would become Disneyland, Disney World, and Epcot.
The narcissist's grandiosity is entirely different. Consider Jim Jones, whose vision for Jonestown in Guyana was to create a place where people would pay tribute to him as a supreme individual. The price of admission? Your life savings and your free will. You also had to be willing to kill your own children and yourself by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid along with more than 900 other followers. 2
In the first instance, a grandiose idea leads to a place where we can fulfill our dreams. In the other, our worst dreams are fulfilled. The difference isn't one of ideas but of personality type and character flaws. One seeks happiness for all. The other seeks adoration and happiness only for himself. This is why I want to warn you about the defining traits of this dangerous personality.
As children, we all go through a phase where we feel we're the center of the world, with a high sense of entitlement. Narcissistic personalities essentially never outgrow this phase. Their childlike need to be constantly attended to leads them to do everything from the ridiculous to the unthinkable to be the center of attention or to get their way.3
They'll arrive late to meetings, parties, and family events, delaying activities, making others wait and even make sacrifices on their behalf. They may storm in or make dramatic entrances just to get everyone's attention. They have no hesitation about letting you know they're the smartest person in the room. Some are shameless name-droppers, habitually mentioning whom they know, whom they lunched with, and on and on, making sure you know that they associate with important people.
Looking good in every sense is vital to narcissists. You may see them preening in mirrors. They're highly aware of their physical appearance (which can lead to fitness or cosmetic surgery fanaticism) and use their presence to have an impact on others, whether it's making sure all heads turn at a party or ensuring everyone sees they've got the best, biggest, or most expensive everything.
Some narcissistic personalities present themselves as being very accomplished, but in fact they've accomplished little--which doesn't stop them from acting superior and seeing themselves as a great inventor, artist, musician, thinker, leader, or singer. When things don't go their way, they blame everyone but themselves. Maybe these individuals made mistakes, are incompetent, or just aren't well liked, but you'll never hear that from them. No, the system, society, the boss, the professor, the electorate, the world is against them. We simply fail to see how great they are.
When others don't treat narcissists as the special person they deem themselves to be, their reaction is infantile rage that ranges from sulking to whining to seething and, sometimes, to violence. They can berate and blame with impunity, hold grudges, and be vengeful--that is their nature.
Overvalues Self, Devalues Others
Because they see themselves as special and unique, narcissistic personalities tend to see everyone else as either marginal or inferior. They become masters at putting others down in order to elevate themselves-- they are the bullies of the world. That's how businesswoman and hotelier Leona Helmsley got the moniker "the Queen of Mean."4 But she wasn't just mean. She was by all accounts a bully toward anyone she deemed below her-- no different from the kind of bullying we see today in schools.
If bullying seems to be on the rise and the consequences of bullying (absenteeism, depression, anxiety, suicide) are becoming ever more dramatic and extreme, it is no accident. Many clinicians are of the opinion that as narcissism has increased in the general population, so has bullying, which is a common characteristic of the narcissistic personality.5 It seems persistent bullying and narcissism go hand in hand.
These days, the narcissistic personality doesn't even have to be with you to bring you down. On September 9, 2013, 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick jumped to her death from an abandoned cement plant in Polk County, Florida, allegedly as a result of being tormented online (cyberbullied).6 This is what can happen when people consistently overvalue themselves and devalue others--a common narcissistic trait.
Narcissistic personalities have an uncanny ability to identify weakness or insecurity in others and use it to put others down or make themselves look better. It may be something as subtle as noticing your new watch and then calling attention to their much more expensive one. At a cookout, they'll say things like "No steaks; only hamburgers?" loudly enough for all your guests to hear. They don't care how you feel; they thrive by belittling others.
They are the kind who, sensing someone's nervousness before giving a speech, would say, "It must be tough to follow a great speaker--I wouldn't want to be in your shoes." I know, because this happened to me right before speaking to a group in New Orleans.
Sometimes, these personalities betray their true nature by berating their spouses or children in public, at social occasions, or at kids' sporting events. If this is what they do in public, imagine what they do at home when outsiders aren't looking.
Or they'll make contemptuous comments with caustic indifference about how stupid or incompetent somebody is. They'll bark commands at a passing waiter for service and then turn to you with a smile as if nothing happened. At an event I attended years ago in Las Vegas, a speaker screamed at the hotel staff in front of about 150 attendees, "I didn't come all this way to look like a fool--fix it!" when the microphone stopped working. Everyone's jaw dropped. Such behaviors should serve as telltale clues to all who see or receive such treatment that they are in the presence of a narcissistic personality.
Instead of Empathy, You'll Find Arrogance and Entitlement
A person who feels superior to others will have limited ability to empathize. While most of us learn as children how to understand others' feelings and how our actions affect others, with these personalities, sympathy or understanding for your situation and feelings is limited or nonexistent. You could be in crisis and somehow you still won't be the center of attention, because nothing must detract from the needs, wants, and desires of narcissists. You may have a sick child you need to attend to, but they still want you to take them shopping at the mall. In fact, narcissistic personalities view revelations about needs, illness, or mistakes as weaknesses in others that confirm their superiority and justify their devaluing behaviors.
Some narcissists telegraph their arrogance and haughtiness; it's palpable in how they speak, react, and even carry themselves. Others recognize the need to at least appear to be empathetic. Their empathy, however, has an agenda--such as when a boss calls you at home when you're sick to ask how you're feeling but is only really concerned with when you're coming back to work. It may seem as if they care, until you discover how superficial and infrequent their interest in your life and well-being actually is--except when it affects them.
Still others betray their hypervaluation of themselves only when there is a crisis. Then their egocentric perspective on the world percolates to the surface.
On April 20, 2010, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 rig workers and causing the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry (or the world, for that matter). About the disaster and its effects on others, Anthony "Tony" Hayward, BP's CEO, remarked to a reporter on May 30, "We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused to their lives. There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I'd like my life back."7 The term jaw- dropping would apply here. We're talking about an environmental disaster of historic proportions coupled with the deaths of 11 humans, and he wants his "life back." Sometimes, it takes a crisis to reveal those narcissistic traits that say, "Nothing is more important to me than me."
The more you talk to narcissistic personalities, the more you get the sense that they don't care about you. They're not very inquisitive about you. What they really want is for you to pay attention to them and to their needs and desires, or to do their bidding. But because they're hyperaware of how they appear to others, they can, in many cases, modulate and moderate their behavior to control how they're perceived. They can do this for a while, but in the end, their true sentiments will come out.
Narcissists act nice to get their way, not to express true caring. In the movie Goodfellas, rising mobster Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) uses attentiveness to court Karen, his future wife, treating her to great restaurants, front-row seats, the best food, the best wine, no waiting in line. She is the focus of his total attention. Once they're married, boom, it's over. The narcissist worked for and got what he wanted, so what's the problem when he comes home drunk, smelling of other women? What his wife wants doesn't matter; the only thing that matters is what he feels he's entitled to. He has used attentiveness to ensnare, but he doesn't really care.
In real life, financier Bernard Madoff used connections and friendships to ensnare trusting people in his Ponzi scheme. The crushing difference between what they expected and what they got is the terrible truth of relationships with a narcissistic personality. You expect to be treated as an equal, as a friend, but a narcissist has no equal. For the narcissistic personality, friends are functional. They serve a purpose: to provide the narcissist with something wanted or needed.
The most dangerous narcissists are those whose utter lack of empathy and high levels of grandiosity verge on psychopathy: the ability to do harm without remorse. They have no conscience and will exploit others emotionally, financially, and sometimes physically. If you please them, you are convenient; if you displease them, you're more than an inconvenience-- you're something they must debase or perhaps destroy. When we read about a parent who incarcerates, abandons, or murders his or her own baby so that the parent can have a good time and party, what we're dealing with, first and foremost, is a narcissistic personality: someone who overvalues himself or herself and devalues others with reptilian indifference.
That reptilian indifference is what we see in major cities and elsewhere in the phenomenon known as knockout assaults, in which the unsuspecting (including elderly women) are targeted for a blindingly fast punch without provocation, just to see if the person can be knocked out (usually causing a concussion) with a single hit. To behave with such callousness, one has to be able to devalue others--a trait the narcissistic personality has in abundance.
Takes Shortcuts, Bends Rules, Violates Boundaries
Because they feel entitled, narcissistic personalities may feel they don't have to work as hard as others, that they can take shortcuts to get what they want, or that the rules don't apply to them. This is how you end up with politicians who have affairs, father children, and attempt to deny their paternity (former US senator John Edwards); turn public funds into their own private piggy bank (former US representative Jesse Jackson Jr.); or are willing to sell political favors for a price (former governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich).
One executive told me about hiring a manager who was fairly successful, but who then suddenly started flirting with his female co-workers. It was as if he just couldn't help himself with the sexual overtures. Every employee knew such behavior was not tolerated, but when he was confronted, he was enraged, maintaining that nothing in his behavior violated the terms of his contract and that he was merely being friendly. Remember, narcissists don't see that they're doing anything wrong; they feel entitled. They just get angry that someone's pointing out their inappropriate behavior.