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Help! I’m in Love with a Narcissist!

People don’t walk around with name tags saying, “Hi, I’m a pathological narcissist.” So make sure your partner isn't one of them. Here's how. 

By
Stephen Snyder, MD,
Episode #2
narcissist

Is your partner a narcissist? How can you tell?

The words “narcissism” and “narcissist” get tossed around a lot these days.

At first the idea sounds simple: Some people just seem to be way too self-involved. They drive the rest of us crazy with their constant need to be admired.

Some people just seem to be way too self-involved. They drive the rest of us crazy with their constant need to be admired.

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It’s been estimated that extreme narcissists constitute 1-3% of the US population. In general, these are people it’s best to stay away from, if you can. But self-involvement and the need for admiration are also a normal part of being human. In practice, it’s sometimes not easy to say with confidence who fits the description of a narcissist and who doesn't.

What Exactly Is Narcissism, Anyway?

Extreme narcissists are pathologically invested in themselves. Usually this shows up as grandiosity, lack of empathy for others, and an excessive need to be admired.

The most obvious narcissists are hyper-ambitious people who don't really care about anyone but themselves. They're people who will stop at nothing to get what they want, even if that means they have to lie, cheat, and ruin lots of other people in the process. These kinds of narcissists get a lot of attention in the media, especially when they over-reach and get caught in a really awful lie. Or when they do something massively immoral or illegal in their efforts to get ahead.

Extreme narcissists are pathologically invested in themselves.

But from a therapist’s perspective, there are lots of other kinds of narcissists as well. People you’d never suspect. 

There are narcissists who skulk around in the shadows, quietly infuriated that the world never recognized their brilliance. There are narcissists who lead large charitable organizations and spend their lives convinced that they are more humane than the rest of the world. And there are lots and lots of narcissists who just quietly make the people around them miserable by endlessly criticizing anyone who doesn’t satisfy their standards for beauty, accomplishment, or achievement.

Everyone Starts Out Narcissistic

What all of these different kinds of narcissists have in common is a stronger-than-average need to feel special. Which is another thing that can make the concept of narcissism confusing, since the desire to feel special is a universal human need.

Most of us, if we’re lucky enough to be raised in a loving family, start off life receiving all sorts of special treatment. We get held, and nursed, and hugged, and rocked, and for a brief period early in life treated like the most important person in the universe.

Then reality sets in, of course. You discover that you’re not the most important thing in the universe—and that lots of other people around you are more accomplished, more beautiful, more charming, and more objectively deserving of attention.

Over time, you learn that you don’t have to be the most special person in the room.

If all goes well, you learn this bit by bit, and it’s OK. No, you can’t have Mom’s complete attention all the time. But if you eat all your dinner and take a bath, she’ll read you a story before you go to bed.

Over time, you learn that you don’t have to be the most special person in the room. Just being an ordinarily decent, loving individual is enough to get you all the love and attention you really need.

But it’s a long trip from the extreme grandiosity of early childhood to the quiet self-acceptance of mature adulthood. There are usually plenty of losses and disappointments along the way.

A big part of maturing into ordinary adulthood is learning that you’ll never have everything you dreamed of, but with any luck, you’ll get enough of what you really need. No, you’ll probably never be an NFL superstar, marry the Prince of Wales, or perform in front of millions of people on TV. But with any luck, you’ll still do okay. For most of us, doing okay includes having loving, supportive relationships with people who really matter to us.

How Narcissism Happens     

For a variety of reasons, some people fall off this ordinary path to mature adulthood. For some, it’s because they were unusually talented, beautiful, or wealthy, and so never had to surrender the expansive dreams of childhood. For others, it’s because there was no one around to help them cope with the ordinary disappointments of life.

Whatever the reason, narcissists reach adulthood with a larger than average share of their original infantile grandiosity intact. They often have a kind of magical, child-like enthusiasm that can make them lots of fun to be with—at least at first. If they chose you as a friend or a lover, you can feel like some of their sense of specialness has rubbed off on you. You feel special too—more alive, more full of adventure and romance.

Whatever the reason, narcissists reach adulthood with a larger than average share of their original infantile grandiosity intact.

The first sign of trouble often comes when you see them disappointed. That’s often your first clue that you’re dealing with a narcissist.

Few of us are at our best when we’re disappointed. But by the time we’re adults, most of us have learned that disappointments are part of life, and we accept them with some measure of tolerance and grace.

Narcissists tend to be different. They cling more tightly than most of us to their own specialness and along with that comes the feeling that bad things happen to other people, not to them. They feel entitled to have everything go their way.

When a narcissist gets disappointed, you may see reactions that remind you a bit of a two-year-old having a tantrum. You may see hot rage, cold dismissal, or abject despair.

As psychologist Dr. Craig Malkin writes in his book, Rethinking Narcissism, the need to feel special is a fundamental human impulse. But like many impulses, if you indulge in it too much, it can become a habit. And like many habits, if you rely on it too much for your sense of emotional well-being it can become an addiction.

According to Dr. Malkin’s reasoning, the 1-3% of the US population with severe narcissistic issues are simply people who’ve become addicted to feeling special. Like any addict, they come to rely on a steady supply of the thing they’ve become addicted to, to protect them from the ordinary sadness and disappointments of day to day life.

Essentially, they’re stoned all the time on self-admiration.

When you witness the hot rage, cold dismissal, or abject despair of a severely narcissistic person who has been frustrated or disappointed in their wish to feel special, what you’re really seeing is an addict who’s been deprived of their drug of choice.

When you witness the hot rage, cold dismissal, or abject despair of a severely narcissistic person who has been frustrated or disappointed in their wish to feel special, what you’re really seeing is an addict who’s been deprived of their drug of choice.

How to Find Out if Your Partner Is a Narcissist        

Unfortunately, people don’t walk around with name tags saying, “Hi, I’m a pathological narcissist.” By the time you suspect that someone you’re with might have a narcissistic problem, the two of you may already be deeply involved. They may have met your family, accompanied you on the most wonderful adventures, and given you the best sex of your life. You may already be in love with them.

By the time you suspect that someone you’re with might have a narcissistic problem, the two of you may already be deeply involved.

But when you start to see your partner’s dark side, it’s time to take stock of the situation. Have you just caught your beloved in a bad moment? Or is this someone you’d best break up with?

To find out, Dr. Malkin recommends “the empathy prompt.” That means just telling your partner, gently but firmly, what you’ve been feeling in their presence. Then waiting to see how they react.

Empathy, as you may know, is the ability to see beyond your own immediate needs and concerns. People in the grip of a severe addiction tend to lack empathy. The narcissist’s addiction to feeling special is no exception. Severe narcissists are notorious for lacking empathy for the people around them.

Dr. Malkin’s “empathy prompt” —or you might say, “empathy test” —is a good, practical way to distinguish a severe narcissist from a normal person who just might have some narcissistic issues and is having a bad day.

Severe narcissists are notorious for lacking empathy for the people around them.

Let’s say you’ve arrived at a restaurant for dinner with your new boyfriend. There's a particular table he wants, but it happens to be reserved for someone else. With a wink, he tells you to wait while he fixes things with the restaurant owner, whom he knows personally.

A few minutes later he comes back, with a cold look on his face. “Let’s get out of here,” he says.

You tell him you’d really like to stay. You’d looked forward all day to coming here, and it doesn’t really matter to you where you sit.

He sulks a bit, then says OK.

You sit down to eat, but he’s upset with everything. The soup is too cold, the service is too slow. You’re feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed. Let's take a look at how Dr. Malkin's empathy prompt would work in action.

The Empathy Test in Action

You realize that now might be a good time for Dr. Malkin’s empathy prompt. You summon your courage, take a deep breath, and say, "I just want you to know that I’m feeling really uncomfortable right now.”

“Why?” he says.

“Because of all the fuss you’ve been making about how unhappy you are with the restaurant. It’s making it hard for me to enjoy myself. It’s also a little embarrassing.”

Does this get his attention? Good. You lay down your silverware and you continue what you were saying. You watch closely to see how he reacts. 

“Our relationship is very important to me,” you say. “I’m scared that if you ever feel that disappointed in me, that you might treat me like you're treating people here in the restaurant.”

There. You’ve just given him a nice, juicy empathy prompt. Now let’s see what he does with it. 

If you’re lucky, and he’s just someone with a few narcissistic issues—what Malkin might call simply a narcissistic habit rather than a true addiction—he’ll realize he’s in the company of a genuine human being who’s taking a big risk in opening up to him. He’ll understand how blind he’s been to your obvious signs of discomfort and he’ll ask your forgiveness. Maybe he’ll even appreciate your waking him up from the infantile narcissistic daydream he’s been living in, where it really mattered what table you sit at.

That’s assuming he’s just a more or less normal person with some narcissistic problems.

On the other hand, if he’s one of the roughly 1-3% of the US population with a more severe narcissistic problem, your “empathy prompt” might provoke a very different reaction. He might get even more upset, or tell you that you worry too much, or that you’re too sensitive. 

You want a partner with whom you can face disappointments together, not someone who can’t tolerate disappointment because it threatens their self-esteem.

Don’t jump to conclusions based on the result of just one empathy prompt. But if you do this over and over again and the results are consistent—he never drops his guard long enough to see your distress—then it’s probably a good idea to leave before you get any more involved.

It’s disappointing to realize you’re in love with a severe narcissist. But it’s far better to face your disappointment now than to continue hoping he’ll change. Remember, you want a partner with whom you can face disappointments together, not someone who can’t tolerate disappointment because it threatens their self-esteem.

We’re all born with a wish to feel special. But save your affection for someone who doesn’t have to feel special all the time.

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