What is Narcissism?

Know Your Narcissist

There’s been a lot of talk about Narcissism around our little corner of WordPress lately. EDIT: And n the world in general, since Trump’s election. 

In fact, Narcissism seems to be a buzz-word everywhere these days, especially with this generation that is growing up on social media, taking selfies, the fact that ‘selfie’ was the Word of the Year in the Oxford English Dictionary

You can go read the technical definitions of Narcissistic Personality Disorder on Google U, but they don’t quite capture what it actually feels like to be in a relationship with a Narcissist.

You’d think that narcissism is all about being ego-centric. Thinking you’re the best. Putting all others down below you. Bullying. Self-admiration, self-glorification.

It’s actually about being empty.

Narcissism is about being so empty, so self-less, that you have to surround yourself with others and engage them in all sorts of dramas just to feel you exist.

Narcissists have no actual sense of self. No core identity. Whether due to abuse, neglect, over-praise, genetic hard-wiring, or a disastrous cocktail of all of the above, Narcissists are broken children who grow up never knowing who they are.

But they have a coping mechanism: it’s all about getting attention. Negative or positive, it really doesn’t matter.

Attention makes them feel real.

Narcissists get themselves into a position where they can be surrounded by others, often vulnerable, trusting others. A teacher, perhaps, to throw out a wild and completely made-up example 😉

They are very skilled at creating an environment where people seek their approval: grades, comments, awards, admiration, praises, raises.

By heaping on the praise–hyperbolic praise–they tap into people’s need for recognition and love. And they create a following. Often, a fawning following.

They get power from putting people on a pedestal, publicly, and then being able to knock them down. The rest of the praise-seekers, having only experienced the sunshine of the narcissist’s love, will heap on the abuse and shunning. They don’t know what it’s like to be out in the cold.

Because… that person must have done something to deserve it, right?

Because… their leader is so discerning and clever and beneficent, of course, this must be an exception.

Because… we all want to be on that pedestal, and maybe we’re a little hopeful of getting our chance in the sun.

Having hurt someone that so previously felt valued and special, Narcissists create a new source of attention: the attention of the bitter, angry, and scorned.

They get even more energy from these people. These people can’t quite forgive and forget. They keep coming back, trying to explain their position to the Narcissist. Trying to get forgiveness. Trying to gain understanding. Trying to make amends, and maybe, to feel that sunshine again.

But the Narcissist, lacking a sense of self, also lacks empathy. They are not able to see the other’s position. They are just able to suck energy, and a sense of definition, from these angry others. And that gives them the ability to feel righteous. Self-righteous. To feel a self: that is who you are and this is who I’m not.

They may apologize. They may make the grand gesture. They may say words they’ve heard others say. They may sound impressive, smart, or empathetic. But it’s all just very sophisticated mimicry.

Narcissists also hitch themselves to bigger stars.

They quickly analyze a social group and identify those who are successes, well-known, admired, names.

They follow them. They express their desire to learn from them, express their admiration. Befriend them. Become their right-hand. Enter into joint-ventures. And eventually put themselves on a par–just by association–with them.

They name-drop. Heavily.

Then they turn the tables. They reverse the roles. Suddenly, the Narcissist is the one bestowing praise on those who’ve earned their fame or status through talent and hard-work. Suddenly, the Narcissist is achieving fame and status from… who they know, who acknowledges them, who includes them, who praises them.

There doesn’t have to be any actual substance to the exchanges.

But these relationships can be fleeting: a few years, tops. Narcissists are constantly on the prowl. As people wise up, and leave them, they need new sources of attention. They need new mirrors. New people to mimic and to reflect them back. Without this, they feel dead, and they panic. They must have contact. They must reach out. They will try out old sources of attention first, to see if they can rile them up and get them going again. And they will find new ones.

They are shape-shifters.

You get this odd sense that you don’t really know who they are. They’re inconsistent. They say one thing one day, another the next. They express–vehemently–certain values, but then act completely opposite to these supposed values. It’s confusing.

You start to wonder if your sense of reality is true. You ask them questions, trying to clarify things. Trying to find out the truth. Maybe you even confront them with evidence.

They respond with double-talk. Convoluted arguments that somehow turn it all back on you. They give you whiplash.

“If I had been in your place, and you did what I did, I would have responded differently, so you’re the one who’s actually at fault because of the way you responded. You are always treating me badly. You never think you’re wrong. But you are the one with the problem. You need to be more forgiving.”

You start to wonder if you’re all wrong. If you’ve lost your grip on things. If you have lost perspective, your sense of reality.

This is called gaslighting.

If you’re lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the term gaslighting, here’s the definition from Wikipedia:

Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memoryperception and sanity.[1] Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

The term “gaslighting” comes from the play Gas Light and its film adaptations. The term is now also used in clinical and research literature.[2][3]

Narcissists usually have a primary source of attention: often a wife or girlfriend. They begin by piling on the praise, making this person feel special, extraordinary, the best in the world. Usually, this is a person who has never felt this way before. Usually, this is a person who has suffered some sort of abuse or neglect or loss and who feels disproportionately badly about themselves. They have low self-esteem, and they blossom under this praise.

They quickly become committed: engaged, living together, married.

And then the narcissist starts to neglect them. They stop having sex. They stop having conversations. They are never home. If they’re home, they’re online. They don’t go out or do anything fun. The wife/ girlfriend may feel like the only way she knows what’s going on in the Narcissist’s life is through other people, overheard phone conversations, blogs, Facebook.

This results in the formerly-glorified woman (usually, it is a woman) seeking to find that love again. She desperately tries to recreate that perfect love of their early relationship. Those early days, months, echo in her mind, and she wants to find her way back. She begs. She pleads. She tries to change. She’ll do anything. She’ll wrap herself up in a bow and nothing else just to try to get that love back.

It’s humiliating.

And she won’t get that love back. Ever. He’ll continue to ignore her, to retreat. This sends her into a rage. Ah! Now, he gets the emotional high. He feels wanted. He feels alive. And he feels self-righteous, especially when his ‘friends’ see how badly she treats him.

What a bitch!

And they can so easily take his side because she is such a raging bitch, always complaining, never happy. What’s wrong with her?

She may threaten to leave–again–and then he’ll get on his knees, apologize, grandly, promise to never hurt her again. He sucks her back in. And begins the cycle over. It’s the classic abusive cycle.

And their friends, the people on the outside, will think it’s all her fault. She doesn’t appreciate him. She doesn’t get him. She’s needy. Demanding.

These people are the ‘secondary sources of attention,’ and they are legion!

They have to be: because the Narcissist needs constant fuel, constant feedback, constant reflection, constant interaction.

Or else the Narcissist feels himself getting sucked into the vortex of his empty black hole, his deep emptiness inside. His vast absence of identity.

So, Narcissists are constantly on the prowl, finding new sources, new circles, new, younger, more vulnerable admirers/prey.

But sometimes, enough people get hurt.

Enough people start to see through the lies. Enough people talk to each other, check their stories, and realize they haven’t been the crazy ones and they call out the Narcissist.

And then: poof! The Narcissist burns all bridges and disappears in the night.

They do a complete personality revision. New identity. New name. New clothes. New friends. New hair color. New job. New corner of the internet. The Narcissist may do a complete self-destruct: drunken binge. Suicide attempt. Hits rock-bottom and severs all ties.

And then it all begins again.

And that, dear readers, it what it’s like to know a Narcissist.

Don’t try to change them. They can’t. Don’t try to help them. Don’t try to save them. Don’t try to help them understand. They just can’t. They can’t. There’s no there there. There is only nothing.

Nothing– wrapped up in drama, manipulation, and a web of fictions.

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Part of the solution since 1973.

91 thoughts on “What is Narcissism?

  1. I think I’m seeing at least a little of myself in this description – and just that fact reveals me as somewhat narcissistic 🙂
    But aren’t we all are here on WordPress because we want a little bit more attention?

    1. Whenever I read about it, I start to wonder if I’M actually the one…but there is a spectrum. A little bit is normal and healthy. Call it self-esteem or confidence or assertiveness. And on the flip-side, it’s normal to have some weaknesses and insecurities. I think being aware of our ‘issues’ and communicating about them and trying to work on them makes a huge difference.

  2. You have been awarded the Sunshine Award. To accept just come to my blog at anthrode.wordpress.com and follow the instructions on the most recent post. Congrats. Lucy

    1. I’m sorry to hear that! Your comment makes me want to write a guide to dating for teens and young women: what to watch out for. Not that I’m an expert—something like that just NEEDS to exist since we’re not doing what we can as a community to teach these things.

      1. I have seen guides, of a sort, throughout my time in youth work. I think the issue is dissemination. I also think another approach the doesn’t get a lot of play is working with the young men who may be engaging in behaviors they learn at home.

  3. Spot on. Lies and making me second guess my own sanity, check. Me trying to make amends, to do the right thing to make him like me again, check. Being completely cut off when the truth began to emerge to many, check. Seeking adoration in a public forum and superficial relationships, check. Thank God he’s my EX.

  4. This is a very interesting post! I’ve dealt with a handful of narcissists in my life and it’s never easy. It’s a tangled web that you find yourself in, and it’s sticky to get out.

    PS – This may sound terrible, but I’m so curious about what all this WordPress drama is about! I keep reading about it on various blogs, but have no idea what anyone’s talking about!

    1. Thanks Caitlin. Sorry to hear you’ve had personal experiences. It IS sticky.

      And things like my post probably provide fuel, since any attention is good attention. I’ll just leave it at that.

  5. Wow. This is an amazing post that I know couldn’t have been easy to write. Already just in the comments here it is clear how your words are touching and helping others. What a brave way to reach others through your own experience of living through that relationship. Way to go, beautiful one.

  6. Your headings really hit the nail on the head. Great article.
    I went out with a narcissist once many moons ago. At dinner he handed me the bills from his wallet and asked me to count it. I told him I couldn’t count that high and handed it back. He was so bad that I feigned a headache and asked to go home. When I wouldn’t let him accompany me to my apartment, he asked, “Don’t you love me?” This was our first and only date! I replied, “I’m not sure I even like you.”
    And you guessed it. He kept calling. Not because he cared about me, but because ending what never began had to be HIS idea.

      1. Well it took my fictional character a while to figure it out and now with the sequel I’m trying to figure out what she will do next. I have no idea why I wrote on that subject. It just seemed to fit the plot and I ran with it when a friend pointed this out to me.

          1. Yes, I found out how common it was after I published my book. There isn’t a lot of narcissism info in “Crossing The Line’. It mainly tells the sad story of one woman’s situation. My print/e-book can be found on Amazon – http://www.amazon.com/Crossing-Line-Elle-Knowles-ebook/dp/B00BQ6RNKC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1390267721&sr=8-1&keywords=crossing+the+line+by+elle+knowles – You can also find e-book at Barnes and Noble on Nook and on Smashwords. Also, all information about ‘Crossing The Line’ and the sequel in progress, ‘What Line’ can be found on my blog at http://www.knowleselle.wordpress.com Thanks for your inquiry, Kylie.

  7. Reblogged this on knowleselle and commented:
    This blog caught my eye today as I skimmed through my reader. It has hit the nail on the head of what my book, “Crossing The Line’ is all about, explaining in detail the meaning of the story. Yes, my story is fictional and I intended to spell out how women can be drawn into this kind of relationship, sometimes with no end in sight. Thanks a bunch Kylie for all this great info and summing this up for me. It’s worth it to all to take a look!

  8. Through your writing, I am starting to realize a relationship I was in for three years in the early 90s was with a narcissist. I know how it feels to be gaslighted and feel like I was the crazy one because I was always so angry. A therapist we went to at the time unsightfully said was expressing all the emotion for both of us. I started seeing her individually and as soon as she helped me realize I had a right to my anger and I needed to listen to it rather than beat myself up (as he was, figuratively) the spell was magically broken and I was able to disengage and walk away. That’s when he got CRAZY. Like a stalker. He was desperate to get back the person he once blamed for all his problems (?!), I had to change my number and get caller id.

    The thing you said about reinventing themselves was what really made me realize that described him. Before I knew him he was in a different state as an Economics PhD candidate, married. He lived a completely different life when I met him. Now he lives in a new state, married again, and working as a carpenter. It’s like three completely different people.

  9. I go to a gym. I see narcissists every time I’m there. The people who get in front of the mirrored wall and watch themselves work out long after they’re done. They admire their work. When I was a kid, someone, probably an evil nun told me a story about a little girl who spent too much time primping in front of the mirror. One day she looked and the Devil was looking back.

      1. Found another narcissist, guys who undress and dress in front of mirrors in the locker room. I don’t know about the women’s locker room, they seem to move in and out rather quickly.

  10. Kylie, this was so perfect in the way that you were able to present it. I think a lot of people throw around the term Narcissism without actually understanding *how* a true narcissist works, which is what you laid out here.

    Going back to mythology, Narcissus did not return to the water constantly to look at himself, he did so to check if he was still there, a person of sorts, due to his own emptiness.

    And gas lighting is the worst kind of mental abuse, my mother was a master. Thanks for writing such an important piece.

  11. This excellent Kylie I have done some reading on this issue as i was married to one for a long time. So much of what you say is spot on. I like the conclusion to your piece as we have found, my children and I that our narcissist has little comprehension of what she says or does and is often in denial of her behaviours. I guess I am one of the few men who married one.

    1. I’m really sorry to hear that. I’m sure there are a lot of women narcissists out there, and I think I may know a couple. It’s so, so hard to parent with one, isn’t it? So hard to explain to kids what’s going on. You want to make them feel loved. To make them feel like they are whole. To not let them feel badly about one-half of where they came from. So, it’s hard to strike a balance of explanation and acceptance, protection and honesty.

      1. I would think from a clinical point of view you would say she had a number of issues she dealt with, all of which she lives in denial of. The truly remarkable thing is that my children have turned out to be reasonably sane individuals who each int heir own right has gone on to achieve great things. Sadly none them have a very close relationship with their mother, several have none at all and I always think that is sad as I believe every child needs a mother no matter how old you are. Thankfully for me I have a good relationship with all my children and we love spending time together. Thanks for your response Kylie.

  12. I have a couple of narcissists in my life, and have only really come to realize it of late. The hardest part for me is feeling like I am the crazy one, and that I have had a right to . I felt some initial relief understanding this, but now it has been replaced with a lot of other emotions around what I have lost over the years. I also can look back and see situations where I showed narcissistic tendencies, because they were the only pattern I knew for many years.

    Thanks for this post; it describes quite well what my experience has been, and I will come to it again when I need reminding.

    1. Also: I am sorry to know that you had such a personal experience with it as well. Hindsight is a wonderful gift, and I find at least it’s good that I have such a sensitive detector now.

    2. I’m sorry, but also glad, this is useful to you. That piece about feeling crazy…. it’s a hard one. The month after I got out was the lightest, happiest, most clear-seeing time I’d had in my life in a long time. And then the suicide attempts and scandals started.

      I share that feeling of regret about what was lost, and what might have been, should’ve been. But there is only learning from the past and not repeating those patterns and creating a better future.

    1. Thanks Carrie–just my bachelor’s. I was more focused on cognitive psychology and linguistics. I never even took Abnormal Psych. I just lived it.

  13. This is very eloquently put and described in easy to understand terms. I have my bachelors and masters in social work and quite familiar. Too bad it didn’t save me from marrying my ex although I was in undergrad at the time. 🙂 But it fits him perfectly, even down to the friends I lost when I divorced him who blamed me for everything and jumped on his bandwagon.

  14. Oh my gooooooooooood. Good/god? This was an amazing read. I am sorry you know so much about this personality type. I read this and found a few exes in your words. I found a few writers in your words too. Good work and thank you.

    1. Thanks Jean!! I’m sure we can all recognize a few people in this! It’s so hard to make sense of this kind of behavior without a framework. I hope this helps others.

  15. Narcissists are much different than is commonly believed. This is a well written post on the topic. Often narcissism and (at least) verbal abuse go hand-in-hand, though there can even be other elements of abuse. Sometimes it’s hard to discern the behavior of some from others, as more often than not there are overlaps.

  16. Looking back, I think there are two narcissists I’ve dealt with in my life.
    I remember them as being ridiculously difficult relationships, and in the end, all that could be done was to walk away.

    Is there anything useful that can be done besides just writing them off?

    1. Not that I’ve discovered. Unfortunately, I’ve read a lot on it and it sounds like it’s very hard to treat with either medication or therapy. Best thing I’ve found is to keep my interactions as brief as possible, and try to withhold any emotional fodder. It’s a very unnatural way to relate to someone, but it’s the healthiest in these situations.

  17. Hi Kylie. You nailed it. In grad school I wrote a paper titled Narcissism: The Empty Facade. I wish that paper was as good as this blog post. You hit on exactly what most people don’t get about narcissists. They’re not full of themselves. They’re empty and they’re trying to fill themselves up with what they can get from other people.

    1. Thanks Denise. I’m so glad to say it is all in retrospect. And hopefully my description will help others recognize what situation they’re in and get out of it more quickly than I did.

  18. I think I know why you wrote this one, Kylie. My mother is a narcissist, and it was awful to grow up with her. Narcissists do so much damage. I ended up being hypervigilant about staying away from people like her, because she hurt me so much and she left so much destruction in her wake.

    I know who you have in mind here, and knowing that person very, very well, I can tell you that this person doesn’t fit the profile. Everyone fits ANY profile to some extent, and I can see why you might suspect, but this person is not a narcissist. I’ve seen too much to the contrary. And thank you so much for not naming names here.

    1. I’m writing a lot about my personal experiences here. I have a BA in Psychology but an (ex) Mrs. in NPD.

      Thanks for reading, Julie. I really do appreciate it. Having watched what’s going on, I hope this is helpful for people.

    2. Also, I’m really sorry to hear about your mother. I, too, am very guarded and probably quick to ‘diagnose’ as a protective mechanism. I can relate to what you said about being hypervigilant.

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