You may have heard the term “narcissist” being thrown around the arena recently, perhaps in relation to a friend, family member or partner. It’s a descriptor of someone’s personality that we hear quite often, and we see it a lot in the world of family law, particularly when negative traits come up over positive ones.
Lots of our clients talk to us about narcissism and so we understand that living with, or trying to separate from a narcissist can be particularly tricky. In our view, it’s always good to try and understand personality, so that you can adopt the best approach to any given scenario.
What is Narcissism and where does it come from?
Narcissism can be defined as “an excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance.” The term itself comes from the Greek myth about Narcissus, a handsome Greek man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Hence, the association with ego, or with being obsessed with one’s own looks.
However, in psychological terms, there is a much wider definition and psychologists often look for other pointers, or personality traits, in order to categorise the type of narcissism in question. Pointers might include:
- high-level arrogance
- a grandiose sense of self-importance
- selfishness, at the complete exclusion of others
- an inflated sense of entitlement
- the lack of ability to empathise
- an excessive need for admiration or drama
- a preoccupation with power or success
Narcissism can be defined as one of a number of different personality disorders. In this case, the complete term is Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Narcissism as a personality disorder
Personality disorders are more common than we might think. According to Rethink Mental Illness, “around one in 20 people live with some form of personality disorder.”
If someone has a complex personality disorder, they may need help from a community support team, or a specialist personality disorder unit. Thus, if you identify with any of the narcissistic traits, or you think someone you know is displaying them, tread carefully. It could also be the tip of the iceberg pointing to a ‘cluster’ of different personality disorders.
Narcissistic behaviour that falls into the spectrum of being a ‘disorder’ can manifest itself in different ways and there is usually a pattern to the behaviour. People with the disorder often engage in gas-lighting, manipulation and abuse.
Often, we find that a divorce or separation can bring out the worst in someone with narcissistic traits, because they react particularly badly to criticism. This is especially true when they come under fire or when their world-order is challenged. Equally, narcissists thrive on attention and when their ‘source’ is cut off, they can adapt their behaviour. For example, someone with narcissistic personality traits may set out to paint their ex-partner in a particularly bad light via a third-party, even once they’ve separated from them or cut ties.
How to tell if someone is a narcissist
Narcissists are often described as “toxic” – that is, they seek to manipulate, or abuse in a way that gives them a greater sense of power. They cannot be wrong because, of course, they can only be right. They might believe they are special, or unique, or present views which they believe to be superior to other people’s views. To the outside world, they can be charming, too and often, even very successful. They sometimes believe they deserve a ‘higher status’ or ‘special treatment.’ They often get animated during arguments, particularly when they can see they are winning, or getting the upper-hand. The more they can do to elevate themselves to a position of power, the stronger and happier they feel. They like to talk about their own achievements and may get agitated if you try and take away their limelight. They often don’t ask how other people are doing, because they are too absorbed in their own world.
Underneath all of this is an over-inflated ego and there is usually a very insecure person inside, although it can be really difficult to see that because the narcissist will fight so hard to show the world they are unbreakable. In order to deflect their own inadequacies, they will often attack other people’s insecurities instead.
If you are living with, or trying to separate from someone with narcissistic traits, it is important to realise: you are their oxygen supply. You might be fuelling them. Remember: their goal is to knock you down, to disempower you and make themselves feel better.
Can you change a narcissist?
The short answer is no. Unless you are a highly-trained psychologist, you will likely not be able to ‘fix’ or change someone’s behaviour. The best you can do is to change your own reaction to their behaviour.
Don’t make their personality disorder, your disorder. Let them be who they are and focus on how you want to respond to that and on how you want to be. Step away from the room or the conversation if you have to.
If you’ve already stepped away from a narcissist, keep in mind that they will try and exploit your weaknesses to reel you back in. They are expecting you to fail, they have likely told you that you can’t win.
If you have to continue living with a narcissist, or perhaps there’s a family member with narcissistic traits that you simply can’t get away from, the best thing you can do is to protect yourself by limiting the highly-charged or dramatic interactions (remember: the narcissist feeds on this). Be kind to yourself and try to develop stronger boundaries.
Don’t allow them to see they are getting to you. Practice good self-care. Limit your ‘exposure’ to their narcissistic tendencies and seek as much support as you can. A good family lawyer will be able to spot the signs and help you through.
For more information on the issues raised in this blog and to learn more about what support is available, please do not hesitate to contact one of the team at Rayden Solicitors.