Ramani S. Durvasula, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, professor and narcissism expert. She's also the author of the book, "Don't You Know Who I Am?" How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. At a recent Genius Network event, Joe Polish chatted with Durvasula. This post details some of the notes I took during that fascinating discussion.
First, by way of background, Durvasula first became interested in narcissism initially because she had had several encounters with, might I say, extremely negative people (I could use other words). After enough bad encounters, she felt a deep responsibility to do something. This ultimately led her to study personality and narcissism. Something that was and continues to be ignored.
Narcissism is exhibited as a lack of empathy, entitlement, arrogance, inability to manage disappointments, and chronic validation seeking. It is rooted in a deep sense of emotional insecurity. On the outside, these people may seem charismatic, charming, confident, and even successful. Yet internally, they have a fragile identity. All narcissistic behavior is protective against a fragile interior. Like a cast that protects a broken arm, narcissistic behavior is protecting unresolved trauma or lack of emotional development.
It’s not surprising, then, that personality is often the by-product of trauma or lack of emotional maturity. As trauma expert Gabor Maté, M.D., says, “What we call the personality is often a jumble of genuine traits and adopted coping styles that do not reflect our true self at all but the loss of it.”
Narcissism Is a Bigger Problem Than You Think
To diagnose narcissistic personality disorder, an individual must be distressed. Given that many narcissists are not "distressed," they cannot actually be diagnosed, and as a result, the prevalence of people diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder is approximately 1-5%. However, according to Durvasula's approximations, the percentage of people in America is closer to 30%.
Joe Polish has a unique position. He has been considered one of the top marketers in the world and one of the most "connected people in business." Given that he's been in the space of direct marketing for so long, he's come across and worked with many people seeking fame and status. Many people seeking to "make an impact" yet, at the end of the day, are true narcissists who live in almost direct opposition to their virtuous image and teachings.
Over the years, Polish has launched the careers and fame of many household names and public figures. Many of these people fail to acknowledge where their success comes from. They fail to continue in the relationships that got them where they are, seeing themselves as the sole source of their success. They "use" people to get where they want to go, and once they've squeezed you of all the juice they think they can, they go on to the next group. Again, Joe has a statement that is relevant here: "Be kind to the people you meet on the way up because they are the same people you meet on the way down."
"How Do I Know If I'm a Narcissist?"
Polish asked Dr. Durvasula how he or someone else could know if they are narcissistic, and what they could do about it. Durvasula's initial response was: Do you have contempt for human emotion? Contempt for human emotions being, for example, if someone says their struggling and you reply, "Oh, get over it."
You can know, or get the hint that you may be a narcissist when relationships in your life begin to fall apart. For most people, they figure this stuff out far too late. As Durvasula explains, she gets several emails per week from people who say something along these lines, "Oh, I think I may be a narcissist." They then recount how their spouse and kids have abandoned them. They may have lost their job.
A big first step is coming to an awareness that you don't have empathy for other people and their emotions. You're not aware of the impact your behavior and actions have on others. It's also an awareness of where you may sense that you are special and deserve special treatments. That you matter more than other people.
According to Durvasula, it usually takes about 3-6 months for a person to finally come to the full admittance that they are narcissistic. This is after they become aware of their own tendencies, or after something in their life has fallen apart and they begin to look inwardly. The level of denial or self-preservation can take a long time to remove. This takes a lot of courage. It takes being in a safe environment where you can process your trauma, neglect, pain, or even the pain you've inflicted on others. Durvasula says that her clients really need to come to trust her before they can come to such a crucial admittance.
A core point that Durvasula made is that narcissistic people deserve deep compassion and empathy. However, in most cases, you should not engage or defend or explain their behavior. Keep a safe distance, because they can hurt you.
A powerful takeaway I had from this discussion is that narcissism involves a deep lack of empathy. Many scholars believe empathy can indeed be taught. I believe it can be taught, although, for some, myself included, it can be difficult. Being a father of five children, three of whom we adopted from the foster system, I can definitely say that I'm not empathetic enough. However, I also can see how my experiences and relationships have helped me become more empathetic.
Although narcissism is a terrible and challenging thing, something we are dealing with in large numbers, there is great hope. There are also useful strategies for not being hurt.
Davis, Carol M. "What is empathy, and can empathy be taught?." Physical therapy 70, no. 11 (1990): 707-711.
Durvasula, Ramani S. " Don't You Know Who I Am?": How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Post Hill Press, 2019.
Jeffrey, David, and Robert Downie. "Empathy-can it be taught?." Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 46, no. 2 (2016): 107-112.
Karp, Lianna. "Can empathy be taught? Reflections from a medical student active-listening workshop." Rhode Island Medical Journal 98, no. 6 (2015): 14.
Maté, Gabor. In the realm of hungry ghosts: Close encounters with addiction. North Atlantic Books, 2011.