People with narcissistic personality disorder often present themselves as intricate puzzles for you to solve, and just when you think you have the pieces in place, they shift abruptly.
“As the only person in the world to yourself, you cannot be generous because anything you give is a loss, not a gain.” – Telaina Eriksen
Imagine going through life with the oversimplified notion that people are either “winners” or “losers,” the drive to tear down perceived competition through juvenile outbursts, and the constant need to boast about your greatness because the slightest flaw or criticism will shatter your ego like glass. This is the world of someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which appears in roughly 6% of the population and has recently gained attention via the behavior of Donald Trump. “[Narcissism] is a sense of profound grandiosity designed to cover up its exact opposite, a profound insecurity, even a self-loathing in some people,” Time’s Jeffrey Kluger explains, “and I think we’re seeing this in Trump’s case.”
Having dealt with narcissists extensively over the years, and knowing many others who have as well, I want to draw a distinction between annoyingly selfish or arrogant traits and full-fledged NPD by pairing three common rationalizations of narcissistic behavior with the contrasting realities.
Rationalization #1: “They’re very complex and hard to understand.” OR “They just feel things so deeply that it’s hard for someone else to get close.”
Reality #1: NPD is characterized by the absence of empathy.
The moody, distant, “tortured soul” of the Byronic Hero has been a literary staple for centuries—think Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights or, more recently, the “complicated” Christian Grey who puts Fifty Shades’ Anastasia through a torrent of mental anguish.
Involvement with a brooding narcissist in real life, however, is unlikely to play out like a storybook romance. People with NPD often present themselves as intricate puzzles for you to solve, and just when you think you have the pieces in place, they shift abruptly. It’s an endless game designed by the person with NPD to garner sympathy and give you a false sense of closeness: If the puzzle keeps changing, you will naturally work harder and try new methods to solve it. This is also known as traumatic bonding, the emotional roller coaster that propels Cathy to cry out, “I am Heathcliff!”
According to psychotherapist Les Carter, “narcissists do not consider the pain they inflict on others; nor do they give any credence to others’ perceptions…they simply do not care about thoughts and feelings that conflict with their own.” In other words, telling someone with NPD that you are hurt and expecting them to empathize is useless. People with NPD value others only in terms of the narcissistic supply they provide, which is why many men with NPD, in particular, surround themselves with a “collection” of women whom they can rotate in and out of their lives at will. One person with NPD explains in Psychology Today that “people are tools I use to get what I want. No one cares what a hammer or nail thinks, nor do we even notice anything unique about them unless they don’t work right. The only nail I would notice is one that bent when I hit it with a hammer.”
A hallmark of any abusive mentality is the inability to humanize others—no matter how close the relationship—regarding them as interchangeable parts that either function or don’t.
Rationalization #2: “If I put enough work into this relationship, the ‘nice person’ from before will come back.”
Reality #2: The “nice person” was never there to begin with.
People with NPD are exceptionally adept at drawing you close to get what they want. They are often charismatic, charming, and outwardly social while you’re getting to know them, and seemingly very interested in your life. If you are or have been in a relationship with someone with NPD, you may have felt overwhelmed with gifts, text messages, and other gestures of special attention in the beginning only to watch such treatment suddenly vanish without explanation. This is because NPD relationships follow a clear three-stage pattern: idealization, devaluation, discard. The transition from being put on a pedestal to being abruptly ignored, chastised, or otherwise undervalued is disorienting, and it’s meant to be. If a person with NPD builds you up only to break you down, it’s natural to throw yourself into overdrive trying to appease them again.
The kindness, attentiveness, and generosity of the idealization stage are part of a smoke-and-mirrors act to build false intimacy and trust. Think about it: If you wanted something from a new friend, you wouldn’t shake their hand, introduce yourself, and tell them how horrible their outfit is. You would praise them so that they will enjoy your company and stick around. Underneath this false persona lies the crux of NPD: There is no well-rounded, emotionally intelligent essence to give you what you need and deserve; only anger, entitlement, and emptiness in its place. Remember Patrick Bateman, Christian Bale’s character in American Psycho? He holds a job, goes to restaurants, and makes conversation like the rest of us, but in his own words: “I am simply not there.”
Rationalization #3: “Maybe it’s not them; it’s me. Maybe I’m crazy.”
Reality #3: People with NPD use a variety of techniques to make you doubt your perceptions.
This kind of rationalization typically arrives after you approach the person in your life with NPD about their behavior. It is perfectly reasonable for any of us to reach our limit and set boundaries, no matter how many times we may have excused controlling, manipulative, or downright malicious actions in the past. Unfortunately, because people with NPD firmly believe that the world revolves around them, your thoughts and feelings are considered irrelevant, and any hurt you experience is regarded as a sign of weakness to be used against you. If you are concerned, frightened, or upset, they will often go out of their way to let you know that they don’t care. But if they are the cause of your pain, and you stand up to them, they will fly into what is known as narcissistic rage.
Narcissistic rage is a defense mechanism designed to protect the narcissist’s fragile ego. I mentioned before that people with NPD cycle through stages of manipulation to hide the fact that underneath, they have no identity or maturity beyond that of a perpetually angry, tantrum-throwing child. This fact is too dangerous for them to face, as they will feel exposed. When you bring a person with NPD’s behavior to their attention, no matter how delicately, they experience narcissistic injury—a devastating blow to their façade. For this, the narcissist may attempt to punish you in one or more of the following ways:
- Gaslighting – making you doubt your recollection of events and conversations, telling you that you are overreacting, shifting the focus to your faults, or otherwise flipping the script to trick you into believing that you are “crazy.”
- Triangulation/Badmouthing – pitting you against another source of their narcissistic supply in order to induce jealousy and competition, or attempting to turn other people in your life against you.
- The Silent Treatment – ignoring you completely, without explanation. This punishment is meant to cause you to break down, manage down your expectations, and come crawling back with an apology of your own (thus reinstating their power over you).
If you believe that someone in your life has NPD, I encourage you to consult the DSM criteria list, check out support groups on Reddit or Facebook, and read material from certified counselors and psychologists. Most importantly, if possible, detach yourself from such toxicity.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.