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

8 Responses to “Human Nature Books: Disarming the Narcissist”

  1. really good post- i personally would think itd be great if u could post more on how to change these negative attributes for readers (like myself i guess after seeing this and identifying with some of it). I think i might fall under the “deprived-dependant” category, and i see some of these problems manifested in my own life, especially the part about,

    “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…”

    yeah i feel like that sums me up pretty well sometimes unfortunately. I have trouble trying to find that fine line between “jousts” and head on shit talking, and i tend to get pretty easily offended (but in my mind its always been just defending myself from unnecessary BS). How do u differentiate these things, and how do I change this? I also, as of late, have pretty much been in my little stonewalled abyss as u put it so well, but how do i get out…? I feel like every time i try to connect with those around me, i end up getting burnt, and it hurts to the point where i just want to be alone all the time, which is obviously not good. Feels like im surronded by narcissits, but that cant be true, so i guess the problem lies within myself… Im pretty young too (early 20’s), and being in college made me feel cemented in this. Its like b4 i got there i was open minded and wanted to meet and connect but now i feel like moving VERY far away and trying to start over again. I know i cant entirely blame my surrondings on how i feel but at the same time…. i dunno…..

  2. It takes a lot of work, and I’m not even sure I’ve figured it all out myself, but I’m going to talk about that in later installments throughout 2011.

  3. This article and the prior article dealing with Cluster B personality orders have opened my eyes to something I did not realize before. T, when you stated that Cluster C disorders are coping products of Cluster B disorder, it made me raise an eyebrow due to my associating Narcissism with out of control egos and Cluster C disorders with damaged egos.

    However, after pondering it for awhile, the fact that Narcissism, at it’s core, is not an out of control ego, but self-absorption, hit me like a ton of bricks. It made me realize that low-self esteem is either a product of Narcissism or a producer of the aforementioned.

    What does a low self-esteem person do? They spend most of their time and energy beating themselves up: “I’m so terrible.” “I hate myself.” “I’m such a loser.” “I wish I was more like that.” “I’ll never fit in.” “Why can’t I do that?” “It sucks to be me.” I. I. I. I. I. Myself. Myself. Myself. Myself. Me. Me. Me. Me. etc.

    Those with healthy self-esteems do not focus on and over analyze themselves in the manner of a perfectionist or obsessive-compulsive, nor do they aggrandize their faults or are hypersensitive to the point of not wanting to be around others like an avoidant. They focus a lot more outside of themselves and on the present moment, and are willing to let the little things slide.

    This also makes me ponder a chicken or egg argument: Being overly self-absorbed and sensitive can indeed lead to being shy and avoidant, as well as perfectionistic and overly detailed oriented.

    Nevertheless, can the following scenario also occur?: A person who is otherwise normal goes through something traumatic/ego destroying that damages their self-confidence, makes them go into themselves more, and thus ignite a low-self esteem related form of Narcissism? (in contrast to the earlier theory of an innate Narcissistic disorder nature being triggered by negative events?)

    In other words, are Narcissists innately narcissistic down to the genetic level and thus merely become who they are in response to negative stimuli, or are Narcissists created by trauma applied to otherwise normal people, or do both situations occur parallel to each other?

    Overall, I know that I’m probably preaching to the choir, but this has been quite the revelation to me.

  4. Is Michael Scott a good archetype for narcissists?

  5. That checklist describes my older sister to a tee.

    I think she may have grown up as the depended child, since my mother has done everything in her power to destroy any since of responsibility she has.

    She sets herself up to be the center of attention and the victim.

    She’ll complain about having no privacy and people intruding on her life, but will makes information about herself easily accessible and depends on others to get her out of jams.

  6. Yep, I’m guilty of not being able to empathize with others, self-absorbed, emotionally detached, approval-seeking, and addicted to self-soothing behaviors. Growing up an only child probably didn’t help. I’m working on trying to be other-focused more now. Looking forward to your other articles on how to correct these issues.

  7. 1. Since most behavior (and the emotions that make sense of that behavior) is aped, you may be missing the most common cause of narcissism, which is that one parent exhibits it.

    2. In keeping with the Hobbesian view, we expect to find incidence of narcissism much higher in beautiful women. Why wouldn’t we? Since early in their lives they have been taught by men and women that they ARE the center of their universe. Further, whereas for most of us normal feedback mechanisms kick in which tell us when we are wrong or right, many beautiful women are deprived of those experiences given that most men give them positive feedback regardless.

    3. The lonely deprived child. This section in your post appears muddled as I understand it. The most likely emotional responses to loneliness, deprivation or continual exhortation to perform are either withdrawal and capitulation or self-reliance. Both these responses are incompatible with narcissism.

    It is coddling that nurtures narcissism. Many social scientists have it entirely backward; the past generation’s obsession with ‘self-esteem,’ and their denigration of competition has produced more narcissists than ever before, even while they can no longer write a sentence.

    To illustrate, Asian cultures tend to place comparatively high expectations on their children. Yet as a culture, we see less incidence of narcissism. On the contrary, our western culture’s recent obsession with how children ‘feel,’ rather than how they ‘do’ in education has produced a generation of self-absorbed 20-40 year olds still trying to figure out ‘who they are.’

    Which brings up another point regarding narcissism; it is generally a state of the immature or undeveloped mind. IOW, all children are narcissists. Why wouldn’t they be? But we grow out of it as we socialize unless we are encouraged not to, which is what dependence and continued emphasis on the self retards.

    4. It would be possible to make the synergistic argument that as our culture grows richer, it delays entry into the working world, which also retards feedback on emotional immaturity (work rewards discipline, responsibility, timeliness, delayed gratification, etc.). Therefore teenagers without work retards individual development and the society as a whole. Our bodies and minds evolved to produce maturity somewhere between 12-18. Treating them as children until 25-30 is worse than unhelpful.

  8. Great, but i’d add a few points to narcissism check list.