Human Nature Books: Disarming the Narcissist

One of the biggest requests I get is for book recommendations. I started a Book Recommendation page on the sidebar of the blog but don’t update it like I should because I already have enough trouble posting as often as I’d like, so focusing on that feels like it would just slow me down.

So I decided a good way to kill two birds with one stone was to occasionally post excerpts from good books I recommend within blog posts, which can be a lazy (for me) but useful (for you) way for me to generate content during times I’m too busy to write a proper post, similar to my Malcolm X post.

Today’s book I’m profiling is Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving & Thriving With the Self-Absorbed by Wendy T. Bahary. I came across it when trying to understand the emotional fallout I was experiencing after parting ways with a covert but extremely malignant narcissist. The book was so on point it could have doubled as her anonymous biography. From what she told me of her childhood, there did seem to be a lot of pampering and dependency in it.

One of the biggest tools malignant narcissists use is to pinpoint and exploit your ego needs and narcissistic tendencies in order to feed their far great ego needs and narcissistic tendencies. So this book is helpful not only for seeing narcissism in others but more importantly for seeing narcissism in yourself, which you have a great chance of correcting. And the more you work to correct the narcissistic issues in yourself, the harder you will be for malignant narcissists to exploit.

When reading the excerpts below, try to apply it to yourself, people you know, and stories in the news to see what similarities you can uncover. For example, after reading the excerpts, reread my Tiger Mom Amy Chua post and some of the following comments.

Here are the excerpts:

Narcissism Checklist:

  1. Self-absorbed (acts like everything is all about him or her)
  2. Entitled (makes the rules; breaks the rules)
  3. Demeaning (puts you down, bullyish)
  4. Demanding (of whatever he or she wants)
  5. Distrustful (suspicious of your motives when you’re being nice to him or her)
  6. Perfectionistic (rigidly high standards – his or her way or no way)
  7. Snobbish (believes he or she is superior to you and others; gets bored easily)
  8. Approval seeking (craves constant praise and recognition)
  9. Unempathetic (uninterested in understanding your inner experience, or unable to do so)
  10. Unremorseful (cannot offer a genuine apology)
  11. Compulsive (gets overly consumed with details and minutiae)
  12. Addictive (cannot let go of bad habits; uses them to self-soothe)
  13. Emotionally detached (steers clear of feelings)

If you checked at least ten of the thirteen traits, the difficult person in your life most likely meets the criteria for overt maladaptive narcissism, the most common and difficult form…

Narcissists are often self-absorbed and preoccupied with a need to achieve the perfect image (recognition, status, or being envied) and have little or no capacity for listening, caring, or understanding the needs of others. This self-absorption can leave them without a true and intimate connection to others – one that offers a feeling of being understood and being held safely and lovingly in the mind and heart of another person. To have a truly loving connection is to experience the difference between love of self and love of another. Learning how to balance self-directed attention with other-directed attention is an important part of childhood development. It is a fundamental tutorial for life – fostering the development of reciprocity, responsibility, and empathy with others. It is found to be sorely lacking in the narcissist’s early development.

The narcissist may journey through life sporting a brash and stridently boastful ego while unknowingly yearning, like all of us, for the uniquely quiet and safe refuge found within the heartfelt human embrace. While you may experience the narcissist as having little or no regard for your needs and feelings, as someone only willing to garner your attention through a self-absorbed sense of entitlement and obnoxiousness, the truth is that he actually longs for a deeper and much more profound connection – a need that he simply cannot realize, comprehend, or accept. He’s likely to view the idea of an emotionally intimate connection as weak and pathetic. As a consequence of his unrealized longings, which he considers unacceptable, his needs are misguided, so he can only seek your attention through his charming yet unnerving behaviors.

The Spoiled Child

One theory suggests that a narcissist may have grown up in a home where the notion of being better than others and having special rights and privileges was indoctrinated and modeled. This is typically a home where few limits were set and no significant consequences were assigned for overstepping boundaries or breaking rules. His parents may not have adequately taught him how to manage or tolerate discomfort. He may have been utterly indulged. This sort of dynamic primes him for reenactments in adulthood. This is what you could call the foreground for the purely “spoiled” narcissist.

The Dependent Child

Another proposal is that one or both parents may have been overly involved in making the child’s life as pain free as possible. Instead of teaching and encouraging the child to develop age-appropriate skills for managing tasks and social interactions, his parents may have done everything for him. As a result, he was robbed of a sense of personal competence and learned instead that he was helpless and dependent. He may have gorwn up to feel entitled to have others take care of everything so as not to face dealing with frustration or the potential humiliation of making a bad or wrong decision or feeling like a failure.

The Lonely, Deprived Child

The most popular proposal for the typical origins of narcissism is that the child grew up feeling conditionally loved, meaning that love was based upon performance. His parents may have expected him to be the best, and as a result taught him that being anything short of perfect meant he was flawed, inadequate, and unlovable. He may have been taught that love is tentative and contingent. He may have been manipulated into believing that he could get his emotional needs met if he strived for greatness. His parents may have sought their own sense of pride and attention through his achievements, implying that he was forbidden to embarrass them with less-than-perfect performance.

This scenario may be complicated by different treatment from each parent. These children are often criticized by one parent and made to feel that whatever they do is never really good enough. They may then be doted on, overprotected, or used as a surrogate spouse by the other parent. They may be compliant with their parents’ demands and expectations as a means of receiving their limited attention and dodging criticism and shame. In response to this profound emotional deprivation, manipulation, and control, and the stifling of his precious and vulnerable little self, the child develops an approach to life characterized by such principles as “I will need no one,” “No one is to be trusted,” “I will take care of myself,” or “I’ll show you.”

He was not loved for being the boy he was, and was neither guided nor encouraged in the discovery of his true inclinations. He was not held in the arms of a caregiver who would make him feel completely safe and unquestionable cherished. He was not shown how to walk in someone else’s shoes, or how to feel the inner emotional life of another person. There was no role model for this in his experience, where personal interactions were devoid of empathy. He was instead ridden with shame and a sense of defectiveness, both from direct criticism and from the withholding of emotional nourishment and, often, physical affection. He was made to feel there was something wrong with him, as if he was weak for wanting comfort and attention. In defense, he mustered up whatever safeguards he could in order to extinguish the pain associated with these life themes.

The Mixed Bag

You might also find that “his majesty” and “her highness” are best described by a combination of the origins proposed above. Given the complexity of human interactions (and reactions), it’s hardly surprising that people come by their character as a result of a combination of factors, than a single factor.

Spoiled-dependent. The narcissist in your life might best be characterized as having been spoiled as well as dependent. In this case, not only will he act entitled and feel superior – not surprising given the family modeling of a “we’re better than others” attitude – he may also feel dependent and incompetent, as his parents were always waiting on him and rescuing him instead of helping him develop the necessary skills of self-reliance and functionally appropriate dependence. As an adult, he may show up as entitled and expect to be doted on and indulged. Or he may avoid taking initiative and making decisions because he has an underlying fear of shamefully exposing his limitations and failures when tackling the everyday decisions of life.

Deprived-dependent. Another combination that might characterize your narcissist is being both a deprived type and a dependent type. In this case he will be easily offended as well as dependent, needing others to constantly reassure him that he is great, and to manage life for him. Discreetly, he seeks out others to protect him from a deeply felt sense of shame about his defective, lonely and inadequate self. He may come across as needy and hypersensitive, rather than demanding and show-offish. He may show signs of being addicted to self-soothing behaviors, such as working, spending, gambling, pornography, overeating, and so on. You might refer to him as a high-maintenance type. And while he may have a longer fuse, beware. When he’s forced to face the frustration of a challenging task or finds himself the butt of one too many jousts in verbal repartee, his sensitivity to feeling foolish and defective may either launch him into a tyrannical state of meanness typical of narcissists, or cause him to disappear within his stonewalled, silent abyss…

If your narcissist is a spoiled-dependent type, the implications for change are such that more emphasis will need to be placed on setting limits, as well as on enrolling in lessons in tolerating frustration. For the deprived-dependent type, you’ll need to place more emphasis on ignoring boastful commentaries and instead pay attention to “ordinary” niceties and thoughtful gestures. Such people will also need to be held accountable for angry outburst and be encouraged to develop reflective self-regulating tools for calming overly reactive anger: establishing collaborative exit strategies, such as time-outs, will also be helpful. Of course, the causative factors and problematic behaviors will be unique to each individual, requiring a tailored approach…

“I will need no one” is the resounding and self-affirming mantra of the narcissist, particularly the men. “You owe me” is more often the female narcissist’s recurring refrain…

Here are some of the most common modes, or masks, of the narcissist:

  • The bully
  • The show-off
  • The addictive self-soother
  • The entitled one

…Other masks the narcissist might adopt are the workaholic, the rescuer, and the morally righteous martyr.

Recommended Reading:

Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving & Thriving With the Self-Absorbed by Wendy T. Bahary