Building Empathy for those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

The more I learn about mental illness, the more empathy I can muster for those who behave in abusive and infuriating ways. Understanding bad behavior does not inspire me to accept it. Instead, I find it easier to handle without losing my cool. In addition, I find it easier to “pick my battles,” as I can more adeptly identify those who have the cognitive capacity to see my point of view.

Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder come up a lot as people try to grapple with interpersonal challenges at work, at the dinner table; or, in their social media news feeds. So, I’ve decided to take a quick detour from my focus on child development (although it plays a huge role in Narcissism) to explain how someone becomes a Narcissist and how Narcissistic Personality Disorder is in a league of its own compared to Narcissistic behavior, which we all display to a certain extent. Again, my hope is not to normalize bad behavior; but instead, to help you keep your cool when you suffer at the hands of a narcissist; and/or, to see when it is best to redirect your passion and your energy in more fruitful directions.

What are the behavioral characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

  • have a grandiose view of their abilities and are preoccupied with fantasies of great success
  • are extremely sensitive to criticism and might become enraged when others do not admire them
  • require almost constant attention and excessive admiration
  • are beyond self-centered, arrogant and entitled
  • lack empathy and frequently take advantage of others

What are Personality Disorders?

We suspect that Personality Disorders develop when people with a predisposition toward a certain mental illness are raised in an environment that exacerbates their genetic vulnerability toward that disease. Think of it as a nature/nurture “perfect storm.” The result is a set of disorders that are rare, but incredibly deep seated and very hard to treat.

Why are our early experiences so influential in determining the people we become? To learn more about how our parents shape our brain development, check out this post on child development. The short answer is: Our environment shapes our brain development, and the part of our brain that make us who we are (beliefs, morals, etc) continues to develop until we’re 25. If our caregivers impact that development in troubling ways, personality disorders emerge. Conversely, if negative experiences happen once that development is complete, we are much less likely to suffer mental illness as a result.

What’s the difference between Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

People with NPD are narcissists; however, narcissists rarely meet the criteria for NPD, which affects roughly 1% of the US Population. To put the Greek myth in modern day terms: While we might invest a lot of time taking selfies with flattering filters, most of us know that our Instagram is not who we are, no matter how skinny we might look from that angle. Narcissists know that they don’t reeeeally look that good; but, gazing at favorable pictures of themselves is very rewarding. Sharing those photos with others to get their validation is also pleasurable, because narcissists have a low reserve of self esteem to draw from; thus, they suck it from the praise of others.

In contrast, someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder has no internal, self view. That skinny photo on Instragram is like Narcissus’ reflecting pool to someone with NPD. If you have any internalized self esteem, you can break away from your reflection to get some rest or eat a meal. If you have no internalized self value, that reflection is everything and without it, you’re nothing. You don’t exist if people don’t reflect an image of your back to you. Thus, you seek positive reflections and seek to destroy negative reflections as if your life depended on it; because cognitively, it does.

How does someone develop Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Socialization plays a powerful role in the expression of personality disorders. Again, this post on child development goes into more detail if you’re curious. If not, the Cliff’s Notes version is: We develop our sense of self based on how our caregivers treat us when we’re young. We also learn how to treat others by observing how our family members treat each other. Thus, when children with a genetic predisposition toward narcissism grow up in a home where they are “valued as a means of fostering the parents’ self esteem;” they learn to value other people in exactly the same way. If you are shamed or banished when you make a parent look bad, but praised and exalted when you make a parent look good; you learn to treat others the same way. Other people are FANTASTIC when they make a Narcissist look good and TERRIBLE when they make a Narcissist look bad.

Consequently, while people with NPD are socialized to have an inflated sense of their own abilities, don’t conflate arrogance with self esteem. If you’re raised to believe that you only matter when you make your parents look good, you will continue to require constant, external reinforcement to feel loved. Conversely, you will be completely unable to accept any form of failure or criticism, because negative feedback means banishment and shame. Little kids know that they can’t survive without their parents. Thus, children who are shown that their only value lies in making their parents look good will grow to see criticism as a potentially fatal threat. “If I’m great they’ll keep me around.” “If I’m not perfect, they’ll send me away and I can’t survive on my own.” As a result, a person with NPD’s life depends on seeking out and maintaining contact with his/her flattering reflecting pools, like Twitter followers, an attractive spouse, crowds of adoring fans, loads of money — all of these will do.

Working effectively with a Narcissist.

People with NPD are incredibly reactive because they cannot get any validation from within. When you’re nothing but a reflection of the way others treat you, you spend all of your time seeking praise and attacking criticism. With this in mind, if you encounter someone with narcissistic tendencies, try to approach them with empathy, as their seemingly grand self view is evidence of underlying insecurity. If you encounter someone with NPD; understand that you are dealing with a person that suffers from a severe mental illness, who is not capable of digesting facts and seeing reason to the degree that even a narcissist can. So, how do you most successfully interact with those who have Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

  1. Don’t criticize or shame them. Your negative reflection will become a target that must be destroyed. Your position will not sway their behavior as much as the way you make them feel about themselves.
  2. If you want to influence them, praise them to get their attention; then, give them your suggestions in a manner that allows them to shift positions while saving face. If you build a path toward praise without shame, they will follow you.
  3. If you need people with NPD to admit that they are wrong, you will fail. Instead, spend all that time and energy taking care of you and those who matter to you. You may want the person with NPD to see how they have wronged you, but doing so feels like facing death. If you are only worthy when you’re “winning,” “losing” feels like dying.
  4. Gain strength and muster resolve by appreciating the fact that you value yourself beyond the way others treat you. You at least have the option to take the high road when you disagree with someone with NPD. Relish the autonomy that your self esteem affords you. Be grateful that you aren’t shackled to a reflecting pool.