There have been many more articles written on Narcissism in recent times, as it seems to be the age we are living in.
Narcissistic political, organisational, and religious leaders who lack accountability, manipulate information, and deny any wrongdoing has become a normal phenomenon across the world. This is not a new problem – narcissists have always existed and will continue to do so. In fact, every one of us has some degree of it, which is not necessarily a bad thing. A healthy degree of self-belief and self-confidence is in fact necessary. Narcissism of a more problematic kind exists on a spectrum, ranging from higher- than-usual degree of self-centredness to a deluded idea of omnipotence and specialness.
These characteristics are problematic because when the focus is on oneself only, the other simply becomes a means to an end, rather than a relationship between two human beings with differing needs. Clearly, relationships with narcissists can be very difficult. Unless the other is a good reflection of the narcissistic self and helps sustain their self-image, then the relationship will go smoothly. In fact, it can feel good to be a part of this ‘narcissistic bubble’. However, if the person disagrees, has their own opinion, or wants to assert their difference, then things can quickly take a turn for the worse.
The narcissistic character will do everything they can to maintain a good image of him/herself, which often involves projecting anything that is perceived as bad onto the other.
This is usually paired up with an inability to take responsibility, emotional immaturity, and the portrayal of a false sense of self-confidence. The key here is that the person is operating from a self that is idealised, inflated and false, rather than a real self which incorporates good and bad aspects, and is realistic about its limitations.
Deep down, the narcissist feels vulnerable but will do all it takes to protect themselves from this feeling. Unfortunately, people with a strong narcissistic disposition will prey on the vulnerable, using them to achieve their own gains, project uncomfortable feelings onto them, attack, undermine, and belittle them.
At this point you might be asking yourself “why would anyone choose to be in a relationship this bad?” Those in a relationship with a narcissist can go from feeling very special to feeling persecuted, manipulated, intruded upon, and objectified. A typical example would be a situation of domestic violence. It is usually very hard to leave because one is either kept in fear or hopes for the return to a time when things “felt really good”.
Building up self-esteem and self-confidence is an important aspect of making healthy relationship choices. We all have self-doubt, but excessive self-doubt leads to a vulnerability to manipulation and control. A healthy degree of self-belief and self-esteem can help in asserting needs and act as a protective mechanism against self-doubt that can feel paralyzing in the face of coercive, manipulative and controlling behaviour. It also sends a strong message out that your mind is your own and you are not vulnerable to control.
Setting strong boundaries is another vital antidote. Taking more ownership of your physical and psychological space, sending the message that you will not be intruded upon without consequences, and reasserting your boundaries again and again will go a long way towards self-protection. If this isn’t respected, then trusted others may need to become involved in helping you create a strong self-protective shield around you. In the extreme case of violent intrusions, criminal and abusive behaviour, reporting the crime might be the only way to set those boundaries. Even in less severe cases of manipulation and intrusion, it is going to be helpful to set strong boundaries and stick with them.
Don’t be seduced by an illusion of specialness. There are different ways to feel special – are you being seen and respected for who you really are, or because you conform with who the other wants you to be? Do you feel valued or seen for your own virtues, feelings and thinking? Are you being encouraged to be who you are, even if you disagree with them? Do you feel you can be different, separate, do your own thing? Are you often put down, belittled, or told that you are no good?
Psychotherapy can help with assertion, boundary setting and improving self-esteem. Most importantly, it is a space to examine the motivation for relationship choices and unhealthy beliefs about self and others.
Sam Jahara is a UKCP Registered Psychotherapist, Superviser and Tavistock Certified Executive Coach. Sam has recently been interviewed by Talk beliefs on the harmful impact that cults have on children, drawing from her personal and professional experience. See the link to Sam’s interview.
Further reading by Sam Jahara