Narcissists are everywhere you look. They may be in your household. They may be your classmate. They may be your friend or acquaintance. They may be your significant other. They may be your colleague or boss. Many have risen to positions of power, authority, and leadership in society and in the workplace. In fact, our society seems to reward this behavior, even though narcissists are loathed by most who serve with, or under, the leadership of these psychologically distressed people. I can’t help but notice that so many people are motivated to serve a party of one – themselves – with empathy lacking in society as a whole. The question is whether there has truly been a rise in narcissistic behavior lately, or whether a desire for personal gain above everything else has always permeated American culture. In this chapter, I’ll outline, conceptually, the diagnostic framework of personality disorders such as NPD and sociopathy, as well as the characteristics exhibited by those who are either clinically diagnosed, or the undiagnosed who are unwilling to seek self-improvement.
A Personal Journey
As a child who grew up in a narcissistic household, I developed an advanced ability to detect narcissistic personalities and motivations in those I encountered. I was raised without the ability to speak freely regarding my feelings and emotions, and with constant friction between all four individuals as a result of the chaos, uncertainty, and dysfunction that engulfed the family. Tension was palpable, and uncertainty was the norm, in the house in which I was raised. Narcissism, coupled with and exacerbated by alcoholism, provided the backdrop for my childhood and young adult family memories. Gaslighting and deceit were prevalent, used to defend or hide the narcissistic and alcoholic behaviors exhibited by the parent. If I felt a certain way, I was told not to. It wasn’t acceptable to speak directly to the issue at hand. Problems were ignored and hidden, because acknowledgement of the truth would have undermined the already depleted self-esteem of both parents. When our feelings are not nurtured by our parents, we do not develop a healthy sense of self-esteem, and we are left wondering if normal childhood feelings are somehow wrong. Before we are able to fully understand our damaged family dynamic, this makes us wonder if there’s something wrong with us, or if constant strife is the norm for everyone. It isn't and shouldn’t be. We are only able to heal once we’ve removed ourselves from constant interaction with those who undermine our self-esteem, even if it’s family.
As a child and young adult, belittlement was what I felt most around my father. It seems he attempted to project all of his insecurity, lifelong frustration, and disappointment – his externalized narcissistic wound (a concept I’ll discuss later in the book) – onto his family. I assume this is because he never felt understood and never had an outlet through which to express his feelings in his childhood home, nor were those emotions ever validated. As a result, the frustration mounted throughout his life and he attempted, but was unable, to bury them within himself. They instead became part of his personality and an unintentional weapon against those closest to him. Instead of seeking emotional freedom – through openness – and allowing us into his pain and vulnerability, he perpetuated the cycle of disappointment from one generation to another, unwilling or unable to seek support from my mother, my sister, or me. His unresolved grief and shortage of self-esteem hovered over our family, affecting us all profoundly and in different ways. I, as his only son, felt the brunt of the belittlement he projected, as he passed the emotional shackles from one generation to the next. His relationship with my mother was also fractured and there was constant bickering. My mother was constantly forced to pick sides, and, in many instances, enabled his shaming behavior by blaming me for the frustration I felt, instead of addressing the cause. This further widened the emotional gap between us all. In certain cases, my mother would shift blame from him to me to lessen the tension between them. You can see how easily these families fracture at the seams and stay that way, unless all parties are willing to reconcile and forgive through accountability, truth, and openness. However, true reconciliation can only occur if everyone embraces these values. If any one party is unwilling or unable, reconciliation fails.
I cannot recall my father ever speaking to the nature of our relationship, or his relationship with any member of my immediate family. I can never remember him discussing, or being willing to discuss, our past difficulties; nor do I recall him ever asking about my emotional well-being at any point in my life. I was never allowed to discuss with him how I felt about his actions toward me. He would completely shut down the conversation and shift the blame back to me by saying I was “accusing” him. The insinuation was that I was falsely “accusing” him of something he didn’t do; that my perception and feelings must be wrong; that he had not, did not, and could not be at fault. I was constantly berated for my feelings of disappointment, anger, and frustration; feelings I felt were warranted by the emotional pain I was enduring. The underlying cause of my family’s distress was never (and has never) been addressed. Instead, blame was constantly shifted among family members, further alienating each from the other. To this day, we are all isolated in our emotional struggle to cope with our experiences and feelings; ironically, experiences and feelings we all share. I mention my situation to stress the importance of parental validation of natural child and adolescent feelings and emotions. Telling your children not to feel a certain way belittles and undermines their self-esteem. Listening, empathizing, and helping your children address the underlying issues in the family, and in their lives, will support their healthy emotional and cognitive development. I never recall my immediate family members discussing meaningful issues or ideas at any point in my life. These are, and have always been, avoided because my family is either unable or unwilling to go there. As a result, we are all strangers.
As a result of the emotional pain and stress I endured throughout my childhood, I tend to guard myself from narcissistic people as much as possible, whether it’s a family member, colleague, peer, acquaintance, or boss. I’ve also vastly limited the number of people I associate with freely in my personal life. This lack of validation of my feelings and emotions by my parents caused a severe identity struggle for me throughout my childhood and young adult life – always seeking a feeling of normalcy or comfort in personal relationships which I could never attain within my own family. I never felt it was alright to simply be and express myself freely at home. I was always dismissed or chastised for anything other than complete agreement and acceptance of parental behavior or opinions. Even though other members of my family should have been able to relate to my feelings of disillusionment, frustration, sadness, and anger, narcissistic families always have a scapegoat – someone to direct blame toward, instead of at the parental source – which was me, the angry child. Instead of addressing issues with honest, open, uninhibited communication to work toward resolution, my family buried the issues and thus failed to address the root causes.
In the afterword to Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (page 248), he writes, “The best defenses against the terrors of existence are the homely comforts of love, work, and family life, which connect us to a world that is independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs.” However, when the terrors of narcissistic rule exist within our homes, work environments, and family lives, we are unable to find any sanctuary from the difficulties of this cruel, damaged world. We, then, become guarded against everyone, because our expectations of people are substantially diminished. Our general stress is heightened and we are forced to accept emotional and psychological isolation from an early age in the case of a narcissistic home and family life. The stress of this environment delays and confounds the otherwise normal process of self-individualization and the search for true identity, which takes place in the adolescent and early adult years. Self-esteem is developed in our childhood homes, and if the foundation of self-esteem is so unstable – based on the terrors of dealing with a narcissistic parent(s) – we are unable to function as a confident, emotionally-healthy human being. The result is more dysfunction in every aspect of our lives.
It is naïve to assume that the tension will somehow vanish miraculously in a narcissistic family. Walls are built around each member of the family which can never be removed without comprehensive effort from all parties involved. While many people tend to somehow adopt and imitate the narcissistic behavior of their parents which they experienced as a child, I vowed to learn what not to be, and what not to do, from my parents. While I greatly love my parents and sister, I have always felt myself to be a stranger in their company; feeling more comfortable around those I don’t know. While each situation is different, my immediate family members are completely emotionally guarded from one another, to this day, because of three factors. Firstly, the narcissism, pain, and emotional damage within the family was never discussed and resolved. Secondly, my parents remained married much longer than they should have, causing more anger, frustration, and toxicity within the household. Thirdly, we were never free to feel and express our full set of emotions at home. We were taught, in many cases, that we shouldn’t feel a certain way. Instead of engaging each other intellectually and emotionally in a healthy environment, we were shielded from such conversations, which causes resentment.
As an adult, I am still somewhat tormented by the past – we are never able to fully reconcile our issues from childhood – but I decided, as a younger adult, that I was finally at peace with the person I had become; that it is alright to be me, which is something I never felt throughout my childhood and early adult years. To me, this is the great epiphany we can achieve within our own minds and as spectators and participants in a damaged world with great pain and suffering; that it is valid to be ourselves and pursue our own avenues, hoping to find what we are searching for in this life. My hope is that I have been able to break the familial curse of narcissism. One thing I know to be true about myself is that I do care about the plight of others, and I feel a strong sense within to fight against injustice and to support those who struggle and are belittled, marginalized, and oppressed by others. If you are not angered by the abuse and manipulation of others, something is definitely wrong psychologically. I am thankful for the emotional struggle I endured in my own family, because it helped me develop empathy and humility, which are both admirable traits. I also developed a strength in the ability to have difficult discussions and address the issue at hand; an unwillingness to allow issues to fester until they become full-blown disasters. I am also willing to stand up for what is right and fight against the manipulator and oppressor, which is necessary in a world filled with damaged people, many of whom are in positions of power and authority. If we are not willing and able to stand up for ourselves, we will be completely sidelined by damaged people.
Breaking the Chain of Narcissism
Unfortunately, many who experience narcissism in their childhood tend to follow the narcissistic template. For the rest of their lives, they do to others what was done to them – even if they hated it. Breaking the chain of narcissism in the family seems to be a monumental task, as many children seem to rationalize as normal the manipulative and degrading behavior inflicted upon them by parents. Since these are the people that are supposed to love us most, they must have our interests at heart in all situations, right? This is the mentality of the child in a damaged household. They feel the narcissistic behavior, no matter how painful and confusing it is to endure, must be the way it’s supposed to be. If you feel strange, the issue must be you, not the parents. Our parents couldn’t be damaged people, right?
Unfortunately, damaged people are everywhere in our world, and may even be in your own household. If you experienced emotional abuse, this might indicate a narcissistic parent, and it is not acceptable. If you remember how painful actions and behaviors were to you as a child, don’t engage in these behaviors and inflict the same pain on other people. Validate the feelings of your children. It is always alright for us to feel the way we feel; emotions are unique to us all. Let your children express their emotions openly and don’t tell them how to feel. Do the opposite of what was done to you. Reversing the flawed instincts developed while growing up in a damaged household seems to be the single greatest obstacle for many people; an obstacle which can seem insurmountable.
Narcissus was a hunter from Thespiae in ancient Greece who was known for his beauty. He fell in love with his own image, reflected in a pool of water. Narcissus was proud, in that he disdained those who loved him, causing some to take their own lives to prove their devotion to his striking beauty. Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one's physical appearance or public perception. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines narcissism as “undue dwelling on one’s own self or attainments; love or sexual desire for one’s own body.” The Mayo Clinic, one of the leading health care providers in the U.S., defines and describes NPD as, “A mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism. A narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs. People with narcissistic personality disorder may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they’re not given the special favors or admiration they believe they deserve. They may find their relationships unfulfilling, and others may not enjoy being around them. Treatment for narcissistic personality disorder centers around talk therapy (psychotherapy).”
The nine characteristics listed by the Mayo Clinic are
· a sense of entitlement
· requirement of constant, excessive admiration
· expectation to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
· monopolization of conversations and the belittlement of people perceived as inferior
· belief that they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
· an unwillingness or inability to recognize the needs and feelings of others
· They may also have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism. In response, they may tend to react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves feel superior.
· secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability, and humiliation
· significant interpersonal problems where they easily feel slighted
Stephanie Eckelkamp, in a September 2018 article in Prevention, offers 9 Major Warning Signs You’re Dealing with a Narcissist. She provides an in-depth look at the narcissist’s playbook and some of the reasons why they behave the way they do. Eckelkamp notes research suggesting that anywhere between one and six percent of the population may have NPD, and about 50 to 75 percent of those are men. In her article, she quotes Cory Newman, professor of psychology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who states, “A narcissist, by definition, is someone with a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, whose symptoms begin in early adulthood. These traits can present in a number of ways.”
Eckelkamp notes, “A true narcissist, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual (DSM-5), will display five or more of the following characteristics: 1) A narcissist has an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Newman notes, ‘People with NPD want to be recognized as being superior without the necessary achievements that go along with that.’ 2) A narcissist believes they’re special or unique. Newman notes, ‘When they come in for some type of therapy, they’re very specific about only being seen by the best person. They don’t want just any therapist, they do not want a student, they want the best person. And they’re adamant about it.’ 3) A narcissist requires excessive admiration. Newman notes, ‘It’s like narcissists love you as long as you’re idolizing them. They seem lovely and wonderful and shower you with attention until you assert yourself. Then you might see a mean streak you didn’t see before. And it’s scary.’ 4) A narcissist has a sense of entitlement. Newman says, ‘…a big sense of entitlement. You could plan an entire event around this one person’s schedule and then they might not even show up. It doesn’t even occur to them that they just pissed everyone off.’ 5) A narcissist lacks empathy. Newman notes, ‘Sometimes a person with NPD can seem totally reasonable until they say something that’s just outrageously insensitive. They’d be the person that complains about how annoying their father is to someone whose father just died.’ 6) A narcissist is envious of others and believes others are envious of them. Newman states, ‘Narcissists are constantly comparing themselves to others, especially very successful people, which can trigger feelings of envy. And if they achieve success in their lives, they often (happily) think others are jealous or envious of them.’ 7) A narcissist behaves in an arrogant or haughty manner. 8) A narcissist is preoccupied with fantasies of success and the perfect mate. 9) A narcissist takes advantage of others. Newman notes, ‘A narcissist’s sense of entitlement combined with their lack of empathy makes them ripe for taking advantage of people for their own benefit. This is one reason people with NPD can be terrible to work for. If you have a narcissistic boss, they may work you into the ground without giving you the respect or compensation you deserve’.’’
I notice, in today’s social networking age of self-presentation and digital friendship, an overwhelming desire to promote oneself instead of engaging in dialogue and true conversation. By true conversation, I mean asking questions and a focus on both parties; not simply presenting your own story, ideas, opinions, and activities, without regard for the other person. It seems people have been trained to perpetually compete, seek approval, and build their low self-confidence by “marketing” themselves to others in conversation. The irony, however, is that by engaging in this one-sided presentation, they are actually repelling others. True approval from others is achieved through authenticity, selflessness, and humility. People feel closer to those who put others first, not those who self-promote and have an exaggerated sense of self.
Could narcissism be gaining a foothold in today’s society, or has it always been prevalent? It seems to be an instinct, ingrained from childhood, designed to fill the void of shame and pity within. Often this self-absorption does not allow them to see how others perceive them, and even if they are able to notice how their actions are turning off the other party, their instincts will not allow them to be more inclusive.
In a 2018 Psychology Today article, Darlene Lancer, LMFT, relationship and codependency expert and author of Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People, reported certain specified criteria for the diagnosis of NPD and antisocial personality disorder (APD). Lancer asserts, “Narcissism exists on a continuum, but someone with NPD is grandiose (sometimes only in fantasy), lacks empathy, and needs admiration from others.” She states that someone with NPD will exhibit at least five of the following characteristics:
· has a grandiose sense of self-importance and exaggerates achievements and talents
· dreams of unlimited power, success, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
· lacks empathy for the feelings and needs of others
· requires excessive admiration
· believes he or she is special and unique and can be understood only by, or should associate only with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
· unreasonably expects special, favorable treatment or compliance with his or her wishes
· exploits and takes advantage of others to achieve personal ends
· envies others or believes they’re envious of him or her.
Lancer identifies several types of narcissists: common exhibitionist narcissists; inhibited narcissists or closet narcissists; and malignant narcissists. Malignant narcissists “exhibit all or most” of the characteristics listed previously, “intensely and/or frequently.” Lancer also states, “Narcissists who have fewer and less severe symptoms, along with narcissistic people who don’t have full-blown NPD, can have insight, guilt, remorse, and an ability to connect emotionally, as well as to love.” Therefore, varying degrees of narcissism do exist. Lancer also notes that “loving a narcissist is extremely painful. Malignant narcissists are the most malicious and destructive” and can seem sociopathic, while not necessarily meeting the clinical parameters for a diagnosis of sociopathy.
In a Psychology Today article, titled Are You a Narcissist? 6 Sure Signs of Narcissism, Susan Heitler, Ph.D. states, “Narcissistic functioning, at its core, is a disorder of listening. Think of it as one-sided listening, with multiple features that emerge as a result. The desire to sustain a friendship – never mind a love relationship – can quickly fade with someone who does not seem to see or hear you, who dismissively pushes away what you say, and who may be quick to anger if you nonetheless attempt to express your viewpoint.” She offers six dimensions for assessing narcissism: 1) Unilateral listening. 2) It’s all about me. 3) The rules don’t apply to me. 4) Your concerns are really criticisms of me, and I hate being criticized. 5) I’m right and you’re wrong. So when things go wrong between us, it’s always your fault. 6) I may be quick to anger – but when I get angry, it’s because of you. We’ll explore unilateral listening in more detail in the next section.
In Christopher Lasch’s book, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, Lasch writes – and quotes Otto Kernberg – about narcissistic patients (pages 39 and 40): “Although the narcissist can function in the everyday world and often charms other people …his devaluation of others, together with his lack of curiosity about them, impoverishes his personal life and reinforces the ‘subjective experience of emptiness’. Lacking any real intellectual engagement with the world – notwithstanding a frequently inflated estimate of his own intellectual abilities – he has little capacity for sublimation. He therefore depends on others for constant infusions of approval and admiration. He ‘must attach [himself] to someone, living an almost parasitic’ existence. At the same time, his fear of emotional dependence, together with his manipulative, exploitive approach to personal relations, makes these relations bland, superficial, and deeply unsatisfying.”
Describing the pathological narcissist, Lasch writes (page 38) that he is “facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it; unappeasably hungry for emotional experiences with which to fill an inner void; terrified of aging and death.” The narcissist must maintain a constant “narcissistic supply” from those around them in order to function. In psychoanalytic theory, narcissistic supply is a pathological or excessive need for attention or admiration from codependents (i.e. those willing to capitulate to the narcissist’s will), that is essential sustenance for their self-esteem and which does not take into account the feelings, opinions, or preferences of other people.
Types of Narcissism
Crystal Raypole states, in a Healthline article titled, 10 Signs of Covert Narcissism: “Covert Narcissism usually involves fewer external signs of ‘classic’ NPD. People still meet criteria for diagnosis but have traits that aren’t usually associated with narcissism, such as: shyness, humility, and sensitivity to what others think of them.” She also describes several additional signs that point to covert narcissism, such as high sensitivity to criticism, passive aggression, a tendency to put themselves down, a shy or withdrawn nature, grandiose fantasies, feelings of depression/anxiety/emptiness, a tendency to hold grudges, envy, feelings of inadequacy, and self-serving “empathy”. She describes passive aggression as sabotaging someone’s work or friendships, teasing or mocking remarks framed as jokes, silent treatment, subtle blame-shifting that makes other people feel bad or question what really happened, and procrastinating on tasks they consider beneath them.
One direct supervisor I worked for was notorious for the last behavior listed – procrastinating on tasks he considered beneath him. Staff members would have to ask multiple times for simple tasks to be completed; tasks only the supervisor had the authority to perform. This procrastination caused difficulties for me, because people were continually reaching out for updates, and I would have to either direct them to the supervisor or physically ask him to do the task, numerous times in some cases. Even getting your leave requests approved took weeks in most cases, which can be a huge setback when you need to be able to plan trips and time off. Emails were usually not returned. His behavior was belittling and disrespectful to staff.
The same supervisor was usually only willing to assist if it were a task or project in which they would gain credit and visibility from higher-level staff in the organization. The vast majority of the time, if I asked for any assistance – which I only did rarely – they would not provide any assistance, act as if they didn’t have the time to help, and, in most cases, would not even respond.
Heitler describes unilateral listening as follows: “Narcissistic listening dismisses, negates, ignores, minimizes, denigrates, or otherwise renders irrelevant other people’s concerns and comments. A tone of contempt is a particularly strong narcissistic indicator. Another narcissistic indicator is responding to what others say by beginning with the word ‘But.…’ But is a backspace-delete key that negates whatever came before – such as what someone else has said. The but eraser deletes others’ viewpoints from the discussion.” She also states, “How well – or poorly – a person listens is a primary indicator of narcissism. Someone who looks to understand what’s interesting in what others say, and what makes sense about it, is probably reasonably emotionally healthy. Disparaging or ignoring others’ input suggests narcissistic patterns…The bottom line is that healthy folks in healthy relationships are able to listen responsively to their own concerns and also to others’. They are able to be self-centered in the best sense (taking care of themselves), and also altruistic (taking heed of others’ desires). I refer to the ability to hear both oneself and others as bilateral (2-sided) listening. When differences arise, the ability to do bilateral listening enables creation of win-win solutions, sustaining ongoing goodwill in their relationships.”
Let’s go back to Lancer’s narcissistic types to demonstrate this. In conversation, the malignant narcissist typically speaks at, not to, the other person. They dismiss the comments of the other party and don’t engage in a back-and-forth conversation. Their sole purpose is to maintain control in the conversation, which is why they will never acknowledge the valid points made by the other person, nor give the impression that they relate to what they’re saying. The other person’s comments are spoken over and not addressed directly. The narcissist tends to speak in a condescending manner, telling them how to feel and how it is. This is why the feelings of children are never validated by the parental narcissist. The malignant narcissist may fly into conversations when they need attention – which is always – and then slip out again when they are not in complete control of the group, and their narrative isn’t being pursued. They tend to be people with whom it is impossible to have a two-sided, meaningful conversation where the objectives of both parties are nurtured and accomplished. They will abruptly leave if it doesn’t go their way or as planned.
While Heitler notes that narcissistic people can seem generous in certain situations, “At the same time, in a situation in which someone who tends toward narcissism wants something –
and that desire is in conflict with what someone else wants – that’s when the selfish side takes over. Often, narcissistic individuals can show compassionate generosity toward strangers, yet not to the people they are supposed to love. In part, this may stem from narcissistic tendencies to judge everyone as either higher or lower than themselves. Family members may be treated as lowly, while outsiders – or those with high status, such as power or wealth – get treated with respect.”
As this suggests, narcissism is not always explicit and obvious initially. Some narcissists are able to hide their true motivations (covert narcissism) while still attempting to extract from and manipulate their victim(s) into serving the narcissist’s will. Although it can be more difficult to spot, covert narcissism can have devastating effects on the psyche and self-esteem of the victims. Understanding the signs and tactics of the covert narcissist is essential to maintaining your distance with these individuals.
Narcissism vs. Sociopathy: Compare and Contrast
In many cases, people use the words “narcissism” and “sociopathy” interchangeably and seem to think these personality disorders are one and the same. Similarities do exist between narcissists and sociopaths, but these are two separate disorders, with sociopathy being the more dangerous and extreme personality type. Let’s compare and contrast.
Lancer notes that the terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably. The conditions are thought to describe the same personality disorder, clinically termed antisocial personality disorder (APD). NPD and APD are similar in the sense that both are enduring and affect all situations in the life and actions of the associated individual. Lancer notes that personality disorders are “sometimes permanent” and irreversible and very “difficult to treat.” She indicates an individual “with APD must have had a conduct disorder by 15 years old and show at least four of the following traits:
· doesn’t sustain consistent work or schoolwork
· doesn’t conform to social norms, including unlawful behavior, whether arrested or not
· disregards the truth as indicated by repeated lying, conning, using aliases, not paying debts
· impulsive or fails to plan ahead; moves around without a goal
· irritable and aggressive
· recklessly disregards the safety of self or others
· consistently irresponsible, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
· lacks remorse and feels justified in having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another
· doesn’t sustain monogamy for more than one year.”
In an April 2019 Health.com article, Ashley Mateo quotes Aimee Daramus, Psy.D., a Chicago-based licensed clinical psychologist: “Both sociopaths and narcissists have personality disorders, meaning that certain personality traits are so extreme that it causes harm to themselves or others, or causes multiple losses and failures in life, such as losing jobs or important relationships, or failing in school.” She states, “People with both disorders value themselves above others, can’t step outside their awareness of what they want and need, and consider others’ feelings as secondary or a non-issue for them.” In the same article, Darrel Turner, Ph.D., a forensic psychologist in Louisiana, is quoted: “A narcissist is essentially somebody who is self-obsessed to an extreme degree. This is someone who has a high level of confidence and belief in themselves, but to a very unhealthy and harmful extent – to the point at which it actually distorts their sense of reality about themselves, other people, and the world around them. It can also lead them into manipulative and exploitative behavior, because they will prioritize their own needs above anyone else’s.”
However, not all who manipulate others and seem full of themselves are necessarily narcissists. The diagnosis is dependent on the degree to which these people are motivated by, and engage in, self-service. Daramus states, “Above all is the narcissist’s need to be the most important. That usually comes out of insecurity, but occasionally you get it coming out of a place of privilege, from someone who has genuinely never been exposed to the idea that other people matter.” This notion obviously points to the impact parental influence and guidance have on the development of the disorder. If you are raised by a narcissist, the probability of you becoming a narcissist may be greater. Narcissistic parents often won’t teach their children empathy, stress the importance of others’ feelings, or the effects of one’s actions on others; because these are not values held by the narcissistic parent. Thus, the child will struggle to develop empathy. The indication from the parent(s) is that this is the way the world works; focus only on what benefits you at all costs. Although the child may feel a great sense of confusion and frustration, they eventually come to the conclusion that, no matter how bad it felt to be dealt with by a narcissistic parent, that is the way it’s supposed to be; the people who are supposed to know everything and love them the most engage in this behavior and thus condone it.
Our society, which doesn’t seem to reward humility, also plays a significant role in this crisis, and explains why so few are emotionally honest enough to analyze their own issues and do the work required to reconstruct their flawed instincts. To improve, damaged people must go against their initial instincts in most instances, because these are flawed. Reversing improper instincts is the most difficult aspect of self-improvement for damaged people. Most of the narcissists I’ve encountered were not willing to admit they were flawed in any way. They double down on their actions and opinions, even when they cause irreparable harm to others, or when faced with factual evidence that disputes their viewpoint or actions as incorrect and improper. A simple apology or acknowledgement of a mistake can be an effective antidote in an argument. However, the narcissist would rather experience the most extreme difficulty than acknowledge that they were wrong, which, from their viewpoint, would sway the power scale. Admission of guilt relinquishes power and control, which is the ultimate driver of the narcissist’s behavior. They often have never felt powerful and authoritarian, so they spend their entire lives trying to gain that sense, which, in some cases, was wielded upon them by parents, completely belittling and undermining their sense of self. Their utmost desire is to continually attempt to fill the void of self-esteem within themselves.
Sociopaths, in comparison to narcissists, have narcissistic characteristics but are much more extreme in their manipulation, deceit, and toxic behavior. They also essentially operate with no conscience and do not feel remorse for any pain and suffering inflicted upon others. Turner states, “Whereas a narcissist may occasionally harm people as a consequence of their self-prioritization, the harm they cause to others is usually unintentional. More often than not, it’s a consequence of their self-obsession rather than the motivator which drives them. A sociopath, on the other hand, essentially ‘gets off’ by hurting other people.” Based on Turner’s diagnosis, the sociopath doesn’t merely disregard the pain and suffering they cause others, they’re actually aroused and stimulated by it, which is terrifying. Turner adds, “Sociopaths are especially dangerous because they often go to great efforts to hide their true personality and appear likeable. A true narcissist, on the other hand, often doesn’t – and couldn’t – try to hide what they are.”
This may answer the question of why they continue to drive others away when they want and need their approval. It seems the narcissist is so self-absorbed that they aren’t even capable of understanding or seeing the effect they have on others. They are completely emotionally impotent because of this focus on themselves, and cannot see outside their own immediate needs and desires. They never developed empathy or self-awareness, and, therefore, are incapable of understanding others or themselves. Thus, they are never able to recognize or analyze others’ perception of them. It seems that, because of this, they act out the definition of insanity – engaging in repetitive behavior while expecting different results. Many of these characteristics have been exhibited by senior managers that I’ve worked with throughout my career. I suspect many of you can directly relate to either having a supervisor, senior manager, family member, or someone in your orbit who meets these criteria.
Lancer indicates, “Both sociopaths and malignant narcissists can be charming, intelligent, seductive, and successful.” They can also both be unreliable, controlling, selfish, dishonest, and share exaggerated, positive self-images and a sense of entitlement. Lancer states that “when they are abusive, they believe they are justified and deny responsibility for their behavior. They lack insight, and although they might feign appropriate emotional reactions, it is usually insincere, since they lack empathy and emotional responsiveness.”
Lancer also states several distinguishing traits between the two disorders. All sociopaths are narcissists, but not all narcissists are sociopaths. Sociopathy is the more extreme disorder. The main distinction is that sociopaths are “more cunning and manipulative, because their ego isn’t always at stake,” which is a point I touched on previously. Lancer contends that sociopaths “don’t have any real personality. They’re the ultimate con artists,” and are chameleons in the sense that they can assume any personality that fits their need at a particular moment. They can therefore be more elusive and are able to go undetected in many cases, because they aren’t as easily identifiable. They do not try “to impress you” or gain your approval “unless it serves their agenda.” They actually could not care less whether you approve of them or not; whereas one of the narcissist’s primary objectives is to gain the approval of others, particularly those with a higher societal status to which the narcissist aspires. Lancer notes that sociopaths may not brag in conversation as a narcissist will. The “conversation may center on you rather than on themselves.” My assumption is that this may be to gather information about you which can then be used to manipulate you and serve the needs of the sociopath. Lancer states that sociopaths can sometimes “be self-effacing and apologetic if it serves their goal.” Narcissists, on the hand, are usually unapologetic, which serves their desire to always be right and maintain control to inflate their ego.
Lancer notes that sociopaths are “more calculating and might premeditate aggression in advance.” The sociopath seems to have greater foresight and a precise plan, including a contingency, for each situation in order to achieve their goal. The narcissist is more likely to be impulsive and “react sooner with lies and intimidation. Narcissists often work hard to achieve success, fame, and perfection, but may exploit others along the way. In contrast, sociopaths try to swindle, steal, or exploit others financially.” Lancer concludes with the notion that both types are willing to “win at all costs,” but “narcissists are more interested in what you think of them” – including those they are manipulating. The narcissist requires the admiration and attention of others, which “makes them dependent and codependent on others”; therefore, making the narcissist themselves “capable of being manipulated.” Narcissists are “less likely to divorce their spouse.” A sociopath, on the other hand, may “vanish” without a trace “if they’re exposed or don’t get what they want.” Lancer also states those with either disorder are not likely to seek treatment, but some with NPD may seek help if they are experiencing “severe stress, depression, or their partner insists.” It does not seem, however, that there is much hope for the treatment or recovery of those with APD.
Narcissism in Our Families
Narcissism and co-dependent personalities are present within my immediate family, and it has taken me years to understand that I have hurt those closest to me at numerous points in my life as a result of the pain and unresolved frustration this wrought. I believe that I have a great sense of disappointment because I never felt validated and understood by my immediate family, and that can carry over into other relationships. Instead, I felt dismissed – my views, thoughts, opinions, feelings, and emotions. Claire Jack, Ph.D. – a hypnotherapist, life coach, researcher, and training provider who specializes in working with women with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – provides seven signs of a toxic family. While no physical or sexual abuse took place growing up in my household, my immediate family consistently exhibited two of Jack’s signs of emotional toxicity, and other signs to a lesser degree throughout the years. Her fifth sign is, “Abusive behaviour is accepted or masked. Within the toxic family, abusive behaviour is not called out for what it is. Instead, you may be made to feel that you deserved to be abused. You may be told to keep quiet about the abuse in order to preserve the reputation of the family. The abuser is protected within the family and allowed to get away with their behaviour.” Thus, if all abused parties do not band together collectively and call out the behavior, the blame for the emotional abuse can be spread throughout the family, driving a deeper wedge between all members, while protecting the abuser.
Her sixth sign is, “They won’t let you step outside the family narrative.” This describes my family perfectly. She notes, “Toxic families create a narrative and it doesn’t matter whether you’re telling the truth – if it doesn’t fit the narrative, you don’t have a voice.” Anti-intellectualism, fundamental Protestant Christianity, and small-minded traditional views and ways of life pervade my family narrative. They typically only discuss current events in the small Georgia town where my dad has lived his entire life, and where my mother lived the vast majority of her life – a town of approximately 5,399 people in a county of approximately 20,374 people, according to the latest U.S. census. Their conversation consists mainly of small talk about people in the community and their families – who is in the hospital, who is getting divorced, where someone’s child is going to college, etc. You are dismissed immediately if you attempt to take the conversation elsewhere. They are afraid of the truth of what is happening in the wider world, which could destroy the foundation of the views they have held for decades, handed down from one generation to the next. My family is where healthy, critical, and analytical thoughts are stifled. Our common, emotionally-abusive past is also off limits and always has been. As Jack states, “When you try and discuss what happened to you as a child, you’re told it ‘wasn’t that bad’ or that you’re making it up. Toxic family members create narratives which support their needs – even if it means masking over unacceptable behaviour in the past.”
In my family, I was always willing to work to discuss and resolve the issues we faced, but I never felt anyone else was willing to reciprocate, acknowledge the truth, and work toward a resolution. Based on their behavior, I also never felt they knew, or really wanted to know, who I was as a person. This abdication of responsibility was extremely difficult for me to handle, and it can make us feel as if there is a lack of care if others are unwilling to fight to heal familial emotional wounds. As a result, our issues persisted and have been repressed by all involved, culminating in the mental and emotional isolation of all members of the family. We also communicate and see each other much less than most families. We go through the motions, so to speak, and profess our love for each other continuously, but none of us really has a desire to spend quality time with each other, because we are all so different and fractured. Each has dealt with the emotional scars individually, not collectively. As a result, it took me years into adulthood to finally forgive and accept them, the situation, and the damage within us all. This was the first step toward attempting to heal. I share this story, because I want to ensure others do not make the same mistake and drive their family members farther away from one another. I also want to describe, through personal experience, life in a narcissistic family. My advice: simply try to accept each other, despite all your differences and throughout all the damage inflicted. Support each other, which also means allowing everyone to freely express their feelings and emotions in a constructive manner. Anger, frustration, and disappointment are normal. Families should allow healthy disagreement and validate each other by accepting how they feel and giving each other a sanctuary in which to speak openly. I accepted responsibility for the way I handled and expressed my frustration, regardless of whether I felt wronged or gaslighted by family members, and I feel much healthier as a result. I only have control over my actions, no one else’s.
Years ago, as a maturing young adult, I vowed to be a stronger person and to do the opposite of the example set for me. I vowed to myself that I didn’t want to make others feel the way I feel around my family. I vowed to always tackle the issues and have the necessary conversations with others, no matter how difficult; especially with those I love. I hope I can, and do, live up to these vows. Too many people who come from a similar situation are unable to change their faulty instincts and reverse the curse of the narcissistic family dynamic, which shapes so much of our personality in childhood. Thorough honesty, self-awareness, and self-analysis is required, along with the admission of our flaws and mistakes. I have done so, and I am always willing to have any conversation that is necessary. However, when we are continually stymied each time we attempt to resolve the issues, we eventually stop trying because the message from the other side is that they are not willing to meet you half way. We must have the willingness of those we love if we are to resolve the burdens that plague us. All parties must have the strength to discuss the tough topics. It’s how we all heal. If we don’t acknowledge, accept, and discuss openly and honestly, we can never fully heal.
Christianity and Our Damaged Society
Complete religious absorbance – with no focus on learning and analyzing the intellectual aspects of our world – provides an easy, but flawed, interpretation of a complex world for many people. It’s quite simple for people to cling to religious teachings in their local church as a means of understanding a vast world, but it can limit the critical and analytical thinking we all need to truly understand people, history, sociology, psychology, and all the subjects necessary for a well-rounded education. Many are completely unwilling to read anything other than religious texts. It seems the culture of many conservative Christian communities can encourage people to move further and further into a self-righteous bubble. Religion with a healthy intellectual balance can be a fruitful way to live. It can provide an understanding of a wide range of topics, and the emotional therapy and guidance of a higher power to keep one level-headed in a damaged and cruel world. As in many aspects of life, moderation is important. Religious fanaticism is one of the greatest dangers we face. More wars have been fought in the name of god than for any other reason in history. Religion and scripture, used as a tool by damaged people, is the single greatest manipulator in our history, and, when used as a weapon, can destroy a healthy democracy.
I’d like to explore two blatant hypocrisies perpetrated by the evangelical Christian conservative movement in America, which contribute to our damaged society: its marriage with casino capitalism, and the rise of Donald Trump. Nothing could be more hypocritical than someone who claims to worship and live by the example of Jesus – who preached equality, forgiveness, and democratic socialism, and provided to the impoverished and destitute – and then supports a womanizing, self-serving, vindictive, hate-filled demagogue, whose sole purpose is to enrich himself and his family at the expense of everyone else. This is the man who stated, “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?” I am fascinated by the fact that no one on the Republican side – supporters, the right-wing media, or independent journalists – have ever pressed Donald Trump on his religious practice, or lack thereof, throughout his life. If so, it would be quite evident that he is not a religious man and has never practiced in his life. He has simply exploited Christianity for his own political and personal gain, with absolutely no pushback from the faithful Christians on the right side of the political spectrum. They actively support the Republican party’s efforts to essentially reverse democratic socialism – taking from the poor and giving to the rich through deregulation, subsidies, loopholes, and tax benefits – exacerbating income equality, while the masses suffer. These policies bring massive cuts to social welfare programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. This is also a direct indicator of the marriage between capitalism and Christianity. No principle could be more antithetical to Jesus’ message than capitalism run afoul. Unfettered, unregulated capitalism lends itself to the accumulation of massive amounts of money by a small number of people, who also – in this country – have the ability to use that wealth to dictate public policy for the rest of us. It is quite obvious how diabolically complicit the Christian movement and big business are in the increasing income inequality evident in America today. In contrast, nothing is more Christ-like than the politics of democratic socialism, in which services are provided that protect and benefit the majority of society, not just the wealthy.
One is usually vilified by faithful Christian supporters for critically and analytically exploring any aspect of Christian ideology. I know that I certainly was by my family. The conversation will not even get off the ground if any aspects of Christian mythology or doctrine are questioned or probed. I was always viewed as a heathen for introducing any intellectual analysis of these topics. One must completely turn off the rational, intellectual mind to blindly follow fundamental Christianity. Religion is the only topic in which people are praised for their lack of reason.
It seems quite selfish to spend one’s entire existence trying to convert other people to your own view of spirituality. It’s as if the Christian missionary – not one with the purpose of spreading goodwill and helping others, but one with the sole purpose of converting other people to their view of Christianity – is basically saying, “I have spirituality – an unseen, unproven, subjective force – figured out. You should believe exactly what I believe, so you can live forever like me. If you don’t believe exactly what I believe, you are wrong. You are a lost soul if you do not accept my interpretation of spirituality.”
Evangelical Christian conservatism is, by nature, narcissistic and self-serving. Its staggering lack of inclusion, and condemnation of anyone who does not share their specific idea of who god is, aligns directly with narcissism. It seems likely that many have adopted Christian conservative ideology primarily to obtain the everlasting life they believe will be granted to them. I feel like most evangelical Christian conservatives never contemplate questions concerning how sincerity is determined for forgiveness requests; the mutual exclusivity of the requirement to be forgiven immediately before death; and the notion that we constantly sin with every breath we take. However, it seems that if anyone uses their rational mind to query these conflicting notions, exclusive to Christian conservatism, they are branded a non-believer, and destined to the depths of hell. It’s also quite self-serving to believe that your view is unquestionably correct, and others are completely wrong in their spiritual beliefs. Further, the notion that I will live forever and you will not, simply because you believe in a different spiritual idea and do not belong to my exact tribe, seems quite narcissistic to me. If everlasting life were not a component of Christianity, how many would dedicate their lives solely to this ideology? The answer is not very many.
Another interesting component of Christian conservatism is the belief in a vengeful god whose narcissism rains down from on high. What could be more narcissistic than a god who creates the world and all its people and then expects blind allegiance and constant worship from the masses, damning to an eternal pit all those who do not provide the fidelity that is expected? Radical Christian conservatism is destined to have strong narcissistic cultural overtones if its god expects unwavering and unquestioned loyalty, while banishing any analysts, critics, or doubters. Why are people given the gift of a powerful human mind, if they aren’t allowed to use it by their god? The notion that religion, spirituality, knowledge, and intellect cannot coexist is unfathomable to me. A major irony of religious zealotry is that knowledge, intellect, and logic are admirable traits in most cultures worldwide; however, to be an obedient, religious servant, we must not use it.
This is not confined to Christianity. I’m simply using Christian conservatism as a microcosm of religion as a whole. Most religions include a life-after-death component. We all want to live forever, but punching our ticket to the promised land by picking – or being born into – the right spiritual movement, based on our environment and upbringing, cannot be a fair method of determining everlasting life; can it? The damnation of millions of people purely because of their different religious persuasions does not seem at all righteous to me. It’s quite convenient for Christian conservatives to feel that they are taking action by simply praying for justice in the world around them, rather than being required to truly help or stand up for others, particularly those who are abused, brutalized, and marginalized. They are absolved of any responsibility, other than to ask god to do all the work. Does this sound narcissistic and self-serving?
To summarize, belief in a higher power is noble and can provide structure, direction, and positive guidance in our lives. I do believe in the existence of a higher power and natural, spiritual, and unseen forces. However, the pursuit and practice of religion solely for the purpose of everlasting life is narcissistic by nature. Spirituality is a subjective force in our lives. Multiple religions incorporate similar values, views of goodwill, and dedication to others and the environment as core tenets. Thus, condemnation of others for simply holding a different religious view is purely tribal, collectively narcissistic, and antisocial. The same can be said for the belief that only those with your religious persuasion are destined for eternal life, while all others are relegated to eternal damnation or some purgatorial state beneath you in the afterlife. One of the greatest accomplishments of the United States and our democratic system is that our founders and early leaders understood the importance of keeping religion apart from government – a clear separation of church and state. Throughout its history, our nation has – for the most part and with certain exceptions – withstood the pressure from religious groups to infuse religion into public policy and legislation, which has allowed people of all persuasions to freely practice their chosen spiritual path. Imposing religious doctrines on the masses, and preferential governmental treatment of a particular religious group or viewpoint, are detrimental for a democratic society and undermine the freedom it provides for all its citizens.
Narcissists/Sociopaths and Religious Cultism
One of the key sectors of society targeted by narcissists and sociopaths is the religious community, where people tend to be easily fooled by, and accepting of, those who proclaim to be faithful in their chosen religious sect. The Christian faith has been a hotspot for this activity, as narcissists are able to ingratiate themselves into a church community and further their own selfish agendas under the guise of spirituality; manipulating the kindness and gullibility of the followers of the church. In no other societal sector is the suspension of logic and rationality more prevalent than in the religious community. Nefarious characters throughout history have capitalized on this, using scripture to their advantage and to the disadvantage of those they seek to control.
Eric B. Olsen is an independent film analyst, literary critic, and author of The E List and The Intellectual American blogs. In his book, The Intellectual American: Observations on Film, Literature, Music, and American Culture, he states, “It has always been the case that adherence to the religious philosophy of any cult, be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism or the thousands of smaller, personality-based cults that have been created in the wake of those three, requires a suspension of intellectual thought on the part of the individual in order to conform to the dictates of the accepted leader of the cult, whether it is a Christ, a Muhammad, or a Jim Jones.”
One’s religious beliefs can be the single most important focus in life, and many believe that piety is their ticket to eternal life. No one wants to jeopardize this, particularly if all they feel is needed is to believe that a spiritual being exists. Therefore, a common strategy used by narcissists and sociopaths is to infiltrate the religious community in order to manipulate the group to their own ends. The narcissist/sociopath can play upon the collective narcissism of the group – the feeling that they are the chosen, righteous, all-knowing few – to gain their approval as its leader and director. This “cult leader” may use flattery to gain their trust, and convince them that everything will be alright as long as they trust in the leader’s direction. I am not saying that belief in religion or spirituality is baseless and ludicrous. I’m simply articulating the fact that any group who is willing to believe in something which cannot be scientifically proven can be more susceptible to gullibility and manipulation.
What better way to take full advantage than to proclaim you are the savior they need to follow? You are the provider of their needs and utmost desires; you speak directly to and for a divinity, and you will ensure they make it to everlasting life. While American history has taught us how dangerous religious fanaticism and self-proclaimed saviors of the flock can be, cults still seem to pop up throughout the land, with many never being exposed because crimes have either not been committed or have been hidden.
Let’s examine a few examples of narcissistic/sociopathic religious leaders. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who fraudulently claims to be godlike and uses the naivety of any religious community to his or her benefit meets the clinical diagnosis of either NPD or APD/sociopathy. To further describe the narcissistic component of a cult leader, they tend to marginalize other groups, such as racial minorities, other religious groups, the government, or the outside world; utilizing collective narcissism to convince their flock that they are the chosen, superior group and that “others” are inferior.
Jim Jones was a self-proclaimed messiah who led the People’s Temple Agricultural Project, moving approximately 1,000 of his followers to Jonestown, Guyana. Jones convinced his followers to give their possessions to the church (him). He emotionally and physically abused followers. He ultimately commanded those left at the encampment to drink poison, ending in the death of more than 900 people in 1978.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is still led by Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet serving a life sentence for molesting at least two underage girls, whom he considered his wives. He told female members of the group that if they rejected him, they would be rejected by god. He was estimated to have about 80 wives and 50 children.
There are many more examples of narcissists/sociopaths using religion to emotionally, financially, physically, and/or sexually manipulate people into following their direction. Several motivational factors are consistent with these types of damaged people. They are usually attempting to extract sexual gratification, financial gain, narcissistic supply, and/or power and control from their followers. The lesson: if you must suspend your logic and intuition to believe someone, you’re probably being lied to. Relinquishing control over your own life and destiny to another human being is not a good idea and does not end well, as these examples illustrate. Those willing to exploit the kindness and generosity of others for personal gain are damaged and dangerous people.