Most people have a general sense of what a narcissistic personality is. We meet these types of people in everyday life, from neighbors, to co-workers, to relatives. However, when narcissistic personalities are involved in divorce and custody cases, I often see a toxicity, a malignancy, to these personality types that affects their ability to function as parents, to function under the stress of litigation, and to function without being abusive or toxic to the other spouse. Narcissists can make false allegations, act as parental alienators with children, and take positions in a divorce case that defy fact and logic. My job as an attorney in these cases is to assess the level of dysfunction, and manage the case appropriately so that my clients and the children, are protected.
So, what are narcissists? Melissa Schenker is a writer and consultant that offers some general background on narcissists. Melissa is the author of “Sweet Relief From the Everyday Narcissist.”
Have you heard someone be accused of being a narcissist, but realized that you don’t really know what that means? You know it’s negative. You may think that it probably means someone is egotistical, or self-absorbed. But how do you really know if someone is a narcissist?
Here are the basics you need to know:
A narcissist is a person with a personality disorder. A personality disorder is when a limited range of certain behaviors are applied to all of life’s situations, and the result is unsuccessful long term relationships. Narcissism is not the only personality disorder. Narcissism is part of a few other personality disorders (particularly sociopathy/psychopathy and borderline personality disorder).
There is a specific definition and diagnosis used by the mental health community, but most narcissists are not officially diagnosed. Those of us who live and work with narcissists need to know how to recognize them. For most of us, it’s more useful to know the basic patterns of behavior relied on by a narcissist. You can use this list to help discern patterns that likely indicate the presence of narcissism in people you wonder about.
An everyday narcissist relies on these common, basic patterns:
• Initial charm; chameleon like ability to adapt in order to please people • Quick cementing of personal relationships • Need for attention: Prefers positive, will provoke negative • Brings conversations back around to self • Likes to associate with those s/he (or others) admire or finds useful • Attempts to control people and situations • Emotionally not attuned to others • Lacks emotional self-awareness • Lacks curiosity about others; is a poor listener, doesn’t remember things • Doesn’t handle disagreement well • Unskilled in navigation of complex social/emotional situations • Sensitive to feedback; may hear criticism where none is intended • Blames others when things go wrong, claims credit when things go right • Makes agreements to please people in the moment, doesn’t keep them if the situation changes and it no longer suits him/her, neglects to inform others of change • Seems to feel superior to others, to disrespect them.
This is not a complete exhaustive list, but it is a useful set of behaviors that are pretty easy to recognize. If you notice these behaviors in a person that matters to you (at work or home) then you probably want to dig a little deeper into narcissism and the other basic personality disorders. Rather than jump to conclusions based on this information, it’s wise to keep your hunches to yourself while you do more homework. Never call a narcissist out as a narcissist, and don’t spread gossip around your workplace or family — doing so is likely to backfire on you.
Here are a couple of other facts about narcissism that are important to know:
— Narcissism in adulthood comes from attachment issues in early childhood. An adult narcissist is a person who did not feel safe separating from their caregiver, and who did not fully individuate. As a result, they are merged, enmeshed, with the people in their adult lives. To a narcissist, you are like that original caretaker and your purpose is to help the narcissist navigate the world, and to help them get what they need. To a narcissist, you exist as part of them, not as a separate being of your own.
— A narcissist is not aware of having an internal framework of the world that is different from other people. (Most other people are unaware of this too, and so get confused and aggravated when dealing with narcissists.) A narcissist is not purposefully being disrespectful, aggravating or manipulative; s/he doesn’t realize the effect s/he has on other people.
— People can be temporarily narcissistic when under a lot of stress. If the behaviors listed above happen for awhile, but aren’t really the person’s basic way of being then it could be due to stress or a medical condition.
— To some extent, these behaviors are developmentally appropriate during the maturation process — even into the early/mid-20s as a person completes the work of individuation.
It can be relieving to know the source of trouble in a difficult relationship — recognizing the patterns is a first step toward figuring out how to take care of yourself. It’s useful to be aware that you are very limited in your ability to change a narcissist. Change even be elusive when narcissists engage in therapy. Once you recognize the basics, it’s helpful to learn more before deciding how to handle the long-term future of the relationship in question. You may react by wanting to flee, but thoughtfulness will serve you. Give yourself the gift of learning and skill building as you consider your options. What you learn can help you in this and all relationships.