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If you’d asked me a few years ago whether the person I was involved with was a narcissist, I would have answered “absolutely not.” He had none of the hallmarks that make it relatively easy for a layperson to spot a narcissist—the grandiosity, the need to be the center of attention, the haughty or overbearing remarks and competitiveness. He didn't display the preening, the need to manipulate, or, of course, the lack of empathy. He didn’t appear to fit any of those definitions; in fact, if anything, he was quiet and not that into socializing, intent on not drawing attention to himself. He was insouciant about his appearance except in professional situations, and relatively laid-back. He was a thoughtful giver of gifts, willing to accommodate to my needs and—for me, at least—perhaps a bit too happy being by himself and away from the company of others. Does that sound like a narcissist to you? It didn’t to me.

He had other flaws I didn’t know about and discovered, none of which flashed a neon billboard that said NARCISSIST.

What I didn’t understand at the time and do now is that the narcissist shows his true colors in conflict. That point is brought out with clarity by two new books on the subject, Re-thinking Narcissism by Dr. Craig Malkin and The Narcissist You Know by Dr. Joseph Burgo (both are also bloggers on this site), and borne out by my own personal experience. Both of these authors take the position that the narcissist is, in fact, emotionally wounded. The behaviors he or she evinces are efforts to disguise or assuage the pain of that wounded self.

It’s in conflict—when even the healthiest among us becomes defensive and self-protective—that the narcissist reveals him or herself in fullness. They fully expose their lack of empathy—the cornerstone of the narcissist—because when the narcissist feels threatened, winning or succeeding to protect him or herself is all that matters, not consequences. A narcissist’s focus and determination to win at any cost underscore the shallow nature of their emotional connections—to you and to all others.

What kind of conflict shows the narcissist’s true stripes? The answer is all and any, ranging from the petty tiff to divorce court. If it’s the latter, abandon all hope of a reasonable negotiation or mediation; the true narcissist does neither. To borrow a term from the military, the narcissist’s policy is scorched earth, destroying everything and leaving nothing behind as he or she advances or withdraws—not a shred of connection or memory, respect for past connections, relationships, or the welfare of others involved in the conflict. The narcissist’s willingness to lie is nothing short of extraordinary and he or she will be completely unconcerned whether someone finds those lies out or not. It’s lack of empathy on steroids or, to put it better, aggrandized and entitled. The motto of the narcissist? “What you think of me is none of my business,” and he or she really means it.

If lack of empathy is one of the narcissist’s key characteristics, I think we often misunderstand it. Some of the difficulty may have to do with distinguishing fully between sympathy and empathy. When we are sympathetic, we connect largely through intellectual understanding and feel badly about the situation in which a person finds him or herself. Empathy is an emotional response in which we literally feel another’s pain as opposed to understanding his or her pain in the abstract. The truth is that most of us are not consistently empathic, nor are we equally skilled at this most important trait.

So what, precisely, makes the narcissist different?

The answer is his or her utter separateness. It’s not simply that he or she doesn’t feel for others and their pain; it’s that the level of connection, of attunement, is utterly foreign. Since you can be sympathetic on a very superficial level (writing a check and contributing to charity; being helpful by dropping off your neighbor’s dry cleaning; recommending your attorney to the guy who needs one), many narcissists appear quite sympathetic because they like looking good in the eyes of others. More important, they like reassuring themselves that they’re nice guys or gals. Empathy is another matter entirely.

Here are four behaviors that might tip you off to the real personality you’re dealing with:

1. Plays emotional “hot potato”

Kudos to Craig Malkin for giving this a name and for singling it out as one of the narcissist’s behaviors. Malkin identifies “hot potato” as a form of projection, as in the following scenario: You try talking to your partner about his dismissiveness and lack of connection and he responds by saying that he’s not dismissive but he’s just not willing to respond to your anger and constant complaints. The reality is that what you are saying is irritating the daylights of him—his jaw muscles are working and he’s on his way to being really frosted—but rather than own those feelings, he assigns them to you. (This explanation aligns with Malkin’s view that keeping the inner wound hidden is one of the narcissist’s primary motivations.) It’s entirely possible, of course, that if this continues, you will feel angry even if you didn’t start out feeling that way. Playing hot potato permits the narcissist to gain the upper hand.

Since the narcissist isn’t actually interested in what you feel or think—or making things better between you, for that matter—the game of hot potato will work to your disadvantage, especially if you care about him or her. You will probably feel guilty—“He wasn’t wrong, I was angry—until the moment in time when you have an epiphany and finally get it.

I’d like to add a personal observation about the game of emotional hot potato: They can play consciously to manipulate you but it can also be unconscious behavior on the narcissist’s part. In any case, what emerges from hot potato is the narcissist’s vision of what really happened and it will all boil down to one basic theme: It’s always your fault and never his or hers. The inability and unwillingness to take responsibility for actions and words under any circumstances are also narcissistic hallmarks.

2. Withdraws and then attacks if a demand is made

Some have described demand/withdraw as the most toxic of relationship patterns for good reason: It's part of a downward spiral that often ends in the failure of the relationship. You don’t need a narcissist in the dyad, by the way, to have the pattern take over. Essentially, what happens is that one person (usually the woman, but not always) makes a demand for some issue to be fixed or addressed and the other partner withdraws physically and emotionally—stonewalling, folding his arms, etc. The pattern is particularly toxic because escalation is built into it—needs unanswered, the person demanding will become increasingly frustrated and usually louder. Of course, this simply means the person withdrawing will increase his efforts. Both parties feel aggrieved and put upon.

The narcissist’s habit of playing hot potato means that, put in the withdraw position, he or she will either withdraw or become incredibly aggressive—essentially blaming his or her partner for making the demand in the first place, casting it as sign of his or her flawed nature, etc. That’s hot potato combined with a classic toxic pattern. It not only throws the partner off, but, again, makes her more open to being manipulated into thinking that it’s all her fault. (Again, feel free to change up the genders in the description; female narcissists act the same way.)

3. Vindictive to the max

According to Joseph Burgo, this is actually a narcissistic type. To be honest, it was his description that clued me into the fact that the person I’d married was a narcissist after all. Forget meeting in the middle, settling your differences or, if you’re unlucky enough to be in a situation where you need an attorney, mediating; the vindictive narcissist will do none of the above. Lies are the arrows in the narcissist’s quiver, and it often doesn’t matter how outrageous they are. Perhaps most tellingly, the narcissist seeks to portray him or herself as a victim of injustice—not as a seeker of revenge or someone motivated to win—regardless of the circumstances. As Burgo writes:

"Because of his distorted, defensive relationship to reality, the Extreme Narcissist often believes the lies he tells, both to himself and other people. He doesn’t see himself as a liar but rather as an embittered defender of the ‘truth’ as he has come to see it.”

As Burgo points out (and as I can personally attest), the vindictive narcissist may proceed sounding reasonable, despite the fact that everything he or she says is a lie. This person will do what he or she can to impugn you, spread rumors about you, attack your reputation, or whatever else comes to hand. It doesn’t matter that none of it is true. That makes it hard fighting her or him—in an office, a community, in a family, or especially in a court of law. The usual rules of decent behavior simply do not exist.

The vindictive narcissist's hustle often takes in otherwise capable and intelligent people, including attorneys and judges. Most of us are hesitant to believe that every word an individual utters is an outright lie, especially if it is easily discovered. But that only works in the narcissist’s favor: It’s his words against yours, after all, and he doesn’t mind grandstanding.

4. Indifferent to emotional outcomes

In my experience—as a person who has lived more than six decades but isn’t a psychologist or a therapist—most people want to come out of combative situations losing as few of their personal connections and relationships as possible. They want to feel that they have behaved reasonably well and fairly under the circumstances. That’s one reason mediation works but that’s not true of the vindictive narcissist, who could care less. If he (or she) ends up with scorched earth, that’s no big deal. He will see destroyed relationships as a necessary cost of getting what he deserves.

Of course, discovering that the person you’re dealing with may be a narcissist after all doesn’t help other than to arm you with knowledge as you think about and analyze his or her behavior. Knowing how the person responds in conflict will not only help you prepare and strategize, but help prepare you for the sorry truth. There’s probably no reasonable way to stop the merry-go-round because exhausting you (and your resources, for that matter) is part of the narcissist’s scorched earth policy.

It’s no wonder that recovering from conflict with a narcissist is so hard, frustrating, and sometimes embittering.

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  • Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism. New York: Harper Wave, 2015.
  • Schrodt, Paul, Paul L. Witt, and Jenna R. Shimkowski, "A Meta-Analytical Review of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern of Interaction and its Association with Individual, Relational, and Communicative Outcomes, Communication Monographs, 81,1 (April 2014), 27-58.
  • Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know. New York: Touchstone, 2015.
  • Read Craig Malkin's blog.
  • Read Joseph Burgo's blog.

Copyright 2016 Peg Streep

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