You know that Buddhist saying: ‘Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and then expecting your enemy to die?’ The narcissist would say ‘Yeah… but what you don’t understand…’ and then the spite spews out all over again.
Yes, ’tis the season to be jolly – but this is also the season to see people you may have spent the whole year avoiding.
And that can spell double. Trouble for our mental health. Trouble for our relationships. Trouble with a capital T in Helvetica 220 pt. (That’s big trouble; trust me).
You may have relatives, or colleagues, or have met partners of friends around whom you’re deeply uncomfortable. Or maybe uncomfortable in a way that confuses you. Perhaps they seem fun on the surface, but you always seem to come away from meeting them feeling bad about yourself.
Is my uncle a psycho?
Unlikely. Psychopaths and sociopaths are everywhere movies; they’re actually a small part of the population. Maybe one per cent. You may have met one, possibly two, but they’re mostly busy running a multinational companies, despot nations or languishing in jail on a 10-20 stretch for murder. Jon Ronson’s book, the Psychopath Test, is a charming light read on the subject, if you want to read more.
Far more common, making up about 10-15 per cent of the population, are narcissists. Narcissism is enjoying plenty of attention at the moment (which is ironic because narcissists hoover up attention gleefully) because they are expanding in number. Will you have a few in the family? Highly likely.
Psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists share a lot of character traits, but there is a big difference. Psychopaths and sociopaths don’t feel shame. Lacking empathy is one thing. Being indifferent to your existence if you are in their way… that makes them potentially fatal. Psychopaths are born, sociopaths are shaped by what happens to them as children and/or early adulthood. That’s the difference between them.
Narcissists are harmful, particularly because they lack empathy, but they can feel shame and they will feel discomfort when their behaviours injure people close to them. Of course that won’t stop them cheating on their partners, but they may feel bad about it.
Dr Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist working in LA, describes narcissists as ‘the second hand smoke of our times’. Because the narcissist may be fine with the toxicity they create, but they are going to make you sick.
How do I spot a narcissist?
There are a variety of thought systems on how many types there are. I’ve seen everything up to seven.
Dr Durvasula describes four. Remember, these are character traits and this is a spectrum. These are archetypes and one person may straddle more than one type.
- The Grandiose Narcissist
Swanning around thinking they are the belle of the ball, the grandiose narcissist is attention seeking, arrogant and can delight in being rude, because they think they can. Of course, narcissists can be very charming, until they’ve got what they want… But they are always going to think they are privileged in a way you aren’t and ultimately better than you. You may not think life is a competition but the narcissist certainly does. They are very familiar with jealousy and envy.
- Malignant Narcissist
Particularly unpleasant to be around, malignant narcissists will cheat on their partners, steal from employers, lie habitually. They can be physically dangerous. Do not rile the malignant narcissist in the family, especially when they have been drinking and are holding the electric carving knife.
- Covert Narcissist
Interesting; and subtle. Have you got a cousin who’s put upon and yet still somehow grandiose? Who claims that life did her wrong and if only it hadn’t been for (insert banal excuse here) she’d be (insert improbable grand scenario here) by now. Who is the mistress of the backhanded compliment… ‘Oh I love the dress, of course it would look much better on me’. You might think they’re depressed, but what’s different is they blame the world for their circumstance and take no responsibility for their behaviour. They are the uber victim. Feel sorry for them if you like, but from a distance. Otherwise you’ll be depressed by the end of the evening.
- Communal Narcissist
Who do you know whose social media feed is full of them baking for charity events, volunteering at their children’s school, who corners you in the office and goes on and on and on about how they just want to make the world a better place and will you be taking part in their fun run next week? Step away; they may not steal your wallet literally, but they’ll drain you. There is nothing wrong with supporting charity, but when it looks more like a photo opportunity and less like a genuine act of compassion, that’s narcissism.
Why should I avoid them?
Entertaining though they may sound, and from a distance they most certainly can be, close up and personal they are not. At best they are draining, at worst they are dangerous. Somewhere in between they can be reputation-damaging, if anyone listens to the spite they are capable of venting. They can certainly be career-damaging if they’re mismanaged.
As parents? You have my sympathy. No one survives that upbringing without scars. Narcissists make very difficult parents. Love is most certainly conditional, bars are set high, emotional neglect is almost certain. Needs are not met. Criticism is metered out regularly. That’s no fun for anyone.
How to handle narcissists
1. Feel sorry for them
Counter-intuitive, I know, but they can’t help the way they are. Yes, they’re unpleasant but they are riddled with self doubt, often loathing. They are really very confused as to why you avoid them although they will have conveniently forgotten the monumental barrage of meanness they hurled your way. Because they don’t have empathy; just need. You know that Buddhist saying: ‘Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and then expecting your enemy to die?’ The narcissist would say ‘Yeah… but what you don’t understand…’ and then the spite spews out all over again.
2. Try to avoid them
Don’t pick the desk next to the office narcissist, if you have a choice. You’ll regret it. If you are 100% sure your boss is a narcissist my advice would be start looking for another job and then when you find one convince him your new post makes him look amazing and you’ll be sure to do everything you can to support him from your new role. That way you’ll get a good reference and he won’t habitually badmouth you to anyone who will listen.
3. Keep the conversation light
Do not talk about anything personal, the refugee crisis or socialism as a world order solution with a narcissist. Do not even give a hint of criticism. Do not correct them. Do not bother suggesting there’s an alternative way of looking at something. Do not even bother offering a solution when it’s asked for. They do not want to hear your opinion. They may pretend they do but really they want a mirror. Just mirror. Talk about the weather, the food, ask them what their favourite anything is… and then mutter something about needing the bathroom and make your escape!