Whether you are dealing with a narcissist in your family, at work, in your community, or even in politics, you will find that they are preoccupied with the past: bragging about how wonderful they have been, combined with numerous grievances about how people have treated them poorly. This seems like a strange combination at first. If they are so superior in their lives, then why do people treat them so badly? Or are they really being treated badly at all? Such statements and their resulting conflicts are absolutely predictable once you learn the interpersonal patterns of those with narcissistic personality disorder or traits.
Interpersonal Patterns of Narcissists
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), states that those with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) often “expect to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements.” They also frequently “take advantage of others to achieve their own ends” and are “unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.”1
In other words, they truly believe they are superior to those around them—but they are not. They tend to live in a fantasy world that keeps being disrupted by reality. In a sense, they have self-esteem dysregulation: their unstable sense of self causes them to swing widely from their ideal fantasy self-image back to the imperfect or negative image contained in the feedback from the past and often explicitly from others in present time. Therefore, they are constantly defending their actions to shore up their fantasy superior self-image, and at the same time attacking those who criticize them or simply say: “You’re not so hot yourself, buddy!”
In reality, we humans are a mix of strengths and weaknesses, positives and negatives, skills and lack of skills. That’s why we must depend on each other and why those who stand out because of a particular skill often have deficits in other areas. In other words, we’re relatively equal as human beings and few if any people are truly superior people, even if they have a superior skill or quality. However, this concept is unbelievable to narcissists who, for one reason or another (abusive childhood, genetic tendencies at birth, or cultural upbringing), depend on this fantasy image of themselves to cope with life.
The False Self
This fantasy image has been called the “false self” by many psychological experts for more than sixty years, as mentioned recently by psychiatrist Allan Schore as he quoted earlier psychoanalysts Wolitsky and Eagle:
The basic idea…seems to be that under the impact of trauma, certain defensive and defective structures (e.g., false self, a pseudo-adult self masking an underlying ego weakness) developed that are at the heart of the patient’s pathology. According to this view, what needs to be accomplished in treatment is a regression to the point at which these structures developed and a resumption of developmental growth along new and better pathways. (Emphasis added)2
But until a narcissist goes through productive therapy (which they rarely sign up for), he (or she) will be in constant conflict with those around him as he endlessly fights to regain his superior sense of self by complaining in the following predictable ways:
- You don’t pay enough attention to me! Despite demanding endless attention and admiration (another narcissistic trait in the DSM-5), they can’t absorb it. So, they really believe that they aren’t being paid enough attention, even though you may be exhausted from paying them so much attention. There’s a common saying that narcissists suck all the oxygen out of a room, and it can truly feel that way as they demand all of the attention.
- You don’t respect me enough! Narcissists demand disproportionate respect. When they do something small or routine, they expect you to excessively praise them. “Remember that time I fixed…?” You probably could have done it more easily or quicker, but she still wants you to be in awe of her. On the other hand, when you do something really worthy of respect, she may be indifferent or jealous and quickly change the subject. Most narcissists rely heavily on those closest to them to help repair themselves after their numerous “narcissistic injuries” when other people or real life treats them as not superior at all.
- You have too many rules! Narcissists hate rules because they want to be free to do what they want. They consider themselves above rules—since they are superior, why should they have to abide by any rules at all? So, you made an agreement? Since they are superior, they don’t really have to follow it. There’s always a reason, so expect that agreements will be routinely broken or totally forgotten. It’s not a two-way street. You have to follow the rules, but they shouldn’t have to, in their minds. If you’re involved in a court case, such as a divorce, they won’t follow the judge’s orders because the judge didn’t understand how superior the narcissist is and therefore the order doesn’t need to be followed. In business, they consider themselves free to change plans without telling you and are often looking for a better deal from someone else—who will see them for the superior person they are and won’t have as many rules. In politics, they often justify breaking the rules because of someone else’s misbehavior, or they go on a mission to eliminate the rules and regulations that might restrain them.
- This relationship is too confining! Narcissists are often driven to have multiple relationships, to have more sources of “narcissistic supply” (people to fawn on them and give them excessive attention). They may have affairs during marriage, sometimes even two at once. But they want understanding of their superior needs, so they eventually may not try to keep them secret but instead demand your tolerance—since they are someone special with “uniquely strong needs.” At work, they want to come in late or leave early, or not be held accountable at all. They may treat their employees disdainfully but kiss up to their own superiors to avoid having consequences for their actions. They want to be their own boss, but they want the benefits of the organization taking care of them. In politics, they want to attack the government as overbearing and confining. They may think they are superior to the government and that people should just follow whatever they say today, instead of following long-standing rules. Since they are so superior, they should be free to replace the government instead of fitting into it.
- You treat me so unfairly! This may be the most common grievance of all. It usually means that you have treated them as an ordinary person rather than the fantasy of a superior person that they are holding onto. Or, you have criticized them for something—usually well-deserved. Most people have occasional criticisms of each other. (You left the cap off the toothpaste, you left work early yesterday, your workplace policies are lousy, etc.) Yet for a narcissist who believes that he is superior, it feels like excessive criticism when they receive the same level of criticism as everyone else—or more, because of their own disrespectful behavior. Since they tend to claim credit for the work of others and deny responsibility for the work they were supposed to do, they often do get more criticism than others. Yet they can’t connect this to their own behavior, which was the cause of the criticism in the first place. When you’re outrageous, you tend to get negative feedback. Yet for a narcissist, any negative feedback whatsoever feels unfair.
It’s hard to be a narcissist or to be around a narcissist. The individual is always trying to shore up their own “false self” against the realities that they are an ordinary person, just like everyone else. Yet for those around a narcissist, the consequences can range from being severely criticized to being physically abused or killed because of the interpersonal expression of the narcissist’s internal dynamics.
It is important to realize that the extraordinary charm and glory that a narcissist can bring into another person’s or organization’s life is usually just a precursor to the disdain and destruction that those around them may go through in dealing with all of their grievances and the extreme behavior related to them.
In general, it’s best to use personality awareness to keep your eyes open and avoid starting down the road of such a relationship in the first place. And if you’re already in such a relationship, it’s important to gain skills for managing the relationship or easing yourself out of it.
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1. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychological Association, 2013, 669-670.
2. Schore, Allan. Right Brain Psychotherapy, 136. (Quoting from Wolitzky, D.L., & Eagle, M. N. (1999). Psychoanalytic theories in of psychotherapy. In P. L. WAchtel & S. B. Messer (Eds.), Theories of psychotherapy. Origins and evolution (pp. 39-96). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.)