Why talk about narcissism?
One of the most widely underestimated problems in our world today is the small group of people among us who display narcissistic tendencies in their attitudes, outlook, and behaviour.
They pose a major challenge to social groups—such as families and coworkers—because even though their numbers are relatively small, each person with narcissistic tendencies can make an enormous negative impact on his or her surroundings. This negative impact can be passed from generation to generation in families where one person affects multiple family members, or can spread from peer group to peer group. Some people never escape the influence of their narcissistic friends and family, or, when they finally do, have lost too many years to unnecessary but hellish interpersonal suffering.
If you think your problems are bad, just try living with a narcissist for a few years. I promise you that most of your difficulties will seem pieces of cake in comparison.
That’s why I decided to address this topic head-on in my blog.
So, what are narcissistic tendencies?
How are they created and spread? What can you do to cope with or avoid them? Those are the questions we’ll be dealing with today.
The causes of narcissism
Being a narcissist means being your true self is never enough for you. What this means is that the roots, or causes, of narcissistic behaviour are the same as those of ego protection mechanisms: in both cases, your brain overreacts to your environment in early episodes of life. Specifically, the major triggers for narcissistic tendencies are emotional trauma and abuse; a lot of time their source is another narcissist, thus perpetuating a cycle of damaging interpersonal behaviour.
These experiences produce narcissistic tendencies by damaging your sense of self, and your self-confidence. What this means is that narcissism is usually created as a result of these abusive behaviours, which can be directed toward both oneself and others:
- Attacks on self-belief/self-confidence. This is especially likely to occur in environments where people need to fight each other for resources.
- Attacks on self-image/self-esteem. This typically occurs when your natural, healthy vulnerability is perceived as weakness by those around you, so that, in response, you perceive your own openness to others as a weakness, and push it away.
- Not receiving enough attention. This most commonly takes the form of the feeling that nobody cares about you.
I will now dive into each of those causes in a little more depth. First, narcissistic tendencies start to occur when someone in our life convinces us that we are not good enough, that we are inadequate and unworthy. We can even do this to ourselves, when the expectations and burdens placed on our shoulders are too great for us to bear. This leads to beliefs like the conviction that you have to be a lawyer or a doctor in order to be an accepted member of society. And so, for instance, many people with artistic gifts—who want only to express themselves—suffer from their parents’ imposition of their own standards of happiness onto their children.
Second, narcissism can also find roots in assaults on our vulnerability and openness to others. When a person is abused or manipulated as a child, the only way they learn to relate to others is through abusive behaviour. It is the only option such a child sees or knows. Part of this reaction to abuse is the so-called ‘hardened skin’ effect, where people become numb to their own emotions over time as a means of avoiding suffering. Later in life, they don’t even realize that they aren’t experiencing the full range of their feelings; too much time has gone by between the inciting events and the present. As a result, they can be abusive to others without realizing it. For them, abuse is simply the norm, what they have been brought up to. Whereas for the people around them, in their new environments, abuse is out of place and unexpected. Confusion is created. A person brought up to live in the abusive world will project this belief as a norm on everyone he or she meets, hurting them in the process.
The final mechanism for creating narcissistic tendencies relates to how much attention we receive, and involves the idea that there are only two options in life. One is to be a manipulator, and therefore strong, and the other is to be manipulated, and therefore weak. This is how people with narcissistic tendencies see the world. And so, from their perspective, the only choice that ensures their survival is to become a manipulator. Such people may not want to do this, but feel that they have been offered only these two options, both of which are really bad. And so, with no good choice, they decide to be dominant rather than victimized. As this process takes place, it activates a reaction mechanism in the brain, one that builds your personality on the idea that if you don’t take, you won’t have. The idea of cooperation becomes non-existent, or appears not to be valid. It is replaced by the idea of competition. This is the biggest landmark on the path to becoming a narcissist.
All these decisions happen unconsciously. They are quickly taken on as new and stable personality traits, which become seamlessly integrated with the rest of someone’s personality as time goes on. From these beginnings in abuse, neglect, and negative ideation, narcissistic tendencies quickly grow to affect every aspect of someone’s life. We’ll now explore how they work when fully developed.
Narcissism, fear, and aggression
A crucial aspect of this situation is that people with narcissistic traits are, deep down, very unhappy. The reason is simple: they are constantly at war with their environments and with themselves. They feel that they cannot show their ‘weak’ selves in public, as showing vulnerability means you are weak and can be manipulated. And so, narcissism leads to constantly pushing down one’s emotions, which takes a lot of energy. In turn, that leads to regular energetic and emotional swings; once the energy needed to sustain their numb, emotionally repressed state is depleted, they feel down, and lost, until they regain the energy and the cycle repeats, never-ending unless deliberately broken. They are never at ease, never at chill; absolutely restless.
In other words, the force that motivates narcissistic behaviour is fear—specifically, fear of showing vulnerability. Driven by this fear, people become toxic to their environments. They become offensive, for defensive reasons.
A quick aside here. I do not believe in good or bad people. Those labels are merely oversimplifications of backgrounds, perspectives, and motivations That we don’t understand in-depth. Everything, and every person, has their own reasons and motives in life. People with narcissistic tendencies do not behave this way because they are bad. Just the opposite; being bad people is the last thing they want. They are formed by experience and react to their environments. It is not in our genes to be bad or hurtful, but it is in our genes to do anything we have to in order to survive. Humans do bad things because they honestly believe those actions are their best options for survival. Now: back to narcissistic tendencies!
We have learned that narcissism is driven by fear, that being narcissistic involves a complete denial of one’s true self because you perceive that self as weak and open to abuse. The immediate consequence of this is that narcissistic people become oblivious to the idea—to the very possibility—of assertiveness. They don’t realize that this approach is possible, lost as they are in a black and white conception of the world where only passive and aggressive options exist. There is no way to be forceful while being disrespectful, no possibility for compromise, walking the middle path, or following the golden rule; there is only winning or losing. So, naturally, they choose aggression, and perceived strength, and numbness.
Over time, narcissism becomes a state where a person is in a constant and unnatural aggressive mode. To escape that mode, the number one thing a person with narcissistic tendencies needs to do is deal with the ever-present fear of being abused or manipulated. In addition, they need to abandon their usual behaviour of forcefully manipulating or demanding attention, and instead learn respectful, interactive social skills.
The best way to help someone take these steps is to show them they can learn to react according to the situation. They can learn to be assertive and confident rather than aggressive. Of course, I am not advocating the abandonment of passiveness or aggressiveness completely—they are both important—but neither can be a baseline behavioural attitude.
Living and working with narcissistic people
Everyone with narcissistic tendencies needs help, and every one of them is incapable of seeking it out. In order to ask for help, they would have to realize that there is something unusual about their behaviour, but they think the way they are is normal, and that everyone else works the same way. As a consequence, they will deny any offer of support or assistance. Given that, it is important to speak about how to deal with them and their toxicity.
My honest advice is to leave them out of your life, if doing so is at all an option. Cutting off contact is by far the most efficient way to deal with a narcissistic person. If that isn’t feasible, though, you have to take a softer route, which involves setting clear boundaries and using effective communication to limit the effects someone’s narcissistic tendencies can have on you.
In my life, I have known three people with narcissistic tendencies at varying strengths of expression. For a while, I myself displayed narcissistic tendencies, having been influenced by one of those narcissists. It took me years to understand and address the source of those tendencies, and to identify the related issues that needed to be addressed. I used to have the highest drive for understanding and solving psychological issues behind it as a result of the direct influence of narcissist.
The key factor that made my progress possible was my true friends telling me, on a regular basis, that some of my behaviours were not acceptable. They accompanied their words with deep, compassionate explanations as to why. Although it hurt, their criticism was an absolute necessity for overcoming my narcissistic neglect of myself and others. Thanks to their steady, reasonable feedback, I was able to force myself to accept the fact that they might be right and I might be wrong.
Anyone you know with narcissistic tendencies will need to make the same journey. You will want to start, not by challenging them to change their behaviour, but by challenging them to open their minds. The first step they need to take is the realization that just by challenging their beliefs, they will not automatically lose them. And so, they have nothing to be afraid of in listening to your criticism. If what you say is true, it will prove true in time. If what you say is false, they will be more knowledgeable and more able to adapt. With that in mind, they may be able to challenge everything that they know about themselves, and discover that they are being abusive absolutely unknowingly and without the intention to do so. In that, the person you know is just like most of the narcissist out there, and in fact, they are being just like I was.
Narcissism and self-knowledge (or: do I have narcissistic tendencies?)
The last piece of the puzzle, when it comes to understanding narcissism, is getting to know yourself on a very deep level. Why do you do what you do? Why, and where, and when are you toxic? What are you afraid of? Why? Why are you addicted to attention, or validation? Why do you need to prove to everyone that you are worthy of their respect and regard?
These are the questions that will help you understand your own narcissistic tendencies, if you have them. From that list, the component of addiction to attention—by itself—can be dealt with relatively easily. Like any other addiction, you need to stop doing the core behaviour for long enough that your brain rewires its neuronal pathways, and your subconscious slowly erases the program telling you what to do, and what you crave.
But that’s just the first step. Pausing a behaviour is addressing a symptom, and it doesn’t work long-term if you don’t also address the source of the behaviour. In the case of true narcissistic tendencies, as we know, the source of the behaviours are deeply-rooted fears. These need to be brought to light and dealt with. Otherwise, curing the symptoms and not addressing the cause is like stepping on brakes and throttle in a car at the same time. If you want to reach your destination even if you push down the throttle you still need to let off the breaks.
For most of us, the most deeply hidden fear is the fear of death. Our fear of death is proportional to our self-confidence, which can be understood as our faith in our ability to survive. If someone—or our developmental environment—damages our underlying self-confidence, we are left with a constant fear of death. Narcissism is a reaction to, or a compensation for, exactly that fear. Other relates fears are the fear of not fulfilling our reproductive programming, fear of being judged a failure, and many more. All sorts of overcompensations come into play once these fears are in place, and narcissistic tendencies are among the possibilities.
There are two paths to addressing our fears. The first is to do so directly, identifying them and working with them in isolation. The second is to build our self-confidence and positive self-image, so that our fears affect us less powerfully.
The key thing to remember is that none of these are inborn traits. Self-confidence is not something that comes for free; it is the result of effortful development. It is usually our entitlement which doesn’t allow us to see that, as we mistakenly think that all these positive feelings should be in place from birth. That is simply not true. Nothing is free, nor should it be. Self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-understanding need to be built over time. They are either encouraged or diminished by our parents, but in either case, they are built from the ground up.
Narcissism is a shortcut, so to speak, for people who wish to live a certain way. If someone thinks they should be respected, or influential, and they are not, they sometimes try to force onto themselves and others a projection of who they think they should be. This is narcissism: trying to live out a confident life without putting any actual effort into becoming the confident version of yourself that you dream of.
The point is this. You have to prove to yourself that you are capable, and that requires real effort and undergoing growth and meaningful life experiences. Telling yourself you are what you want to be doesn’t make it true. You need to exert constant effort to keep that projected version of yourself alive. Narcissism occupies the gap between what you are and what you think you should be in the eyes of others. It starts with not being able to show your true, ‘weak’ and vulnerable self, is amplified by entitlement and frustration, and results in harmful, damaging behaviour.
There is a reason why I named this post ‘narcissistic tendencies’ rather than ‘narcissistic disorder’. That reason is that I am very much against any kind of categorical labelling of human beings. If you do this, you almost always forget that you are talking about a person, with their own values, perspective, rights, and history. A person with solvable and understandable problems. Applying an opaque label makes the topic more mysterious, as it hides the personal, individual reasons and sources of the behaviours in question. There are steps to be taken to help yourself—or others—cope with narcissistic tendencies, although leading someone through them is one the hardest things that I know of. Really, almost anything is easier than helping a person with narcissistic tendencies to understand themselves, and eventually recover.
If you are successful, you will eventually help your friend, or family member, or colleague recognize, and then escape, their own narcissistic tendencies.
Have a great day everyone.