While working as a social worker in an inpatient psychiatric hospital, I noticed a bumper sticker on the back of a co-worker’s car. It read “It’s All About Me.” When I asked her if that meant she was responsible for everything in her life or if was expressing that she was the center of the universe, she laughed and said it was the second.
While most people would like to believe that their needs and desires supersede those of others, most of us have been socialized to accept that we ought to at least, consider our family members and friends when making decisions. We live on a planet with more than 7.125 billion people, as of 2013 and surely many more in the interceding three years.
The ‘me first/me only’ attitude is what contributes to violence and destruction and decimates relationships. Altruism redeems them.
Humans are complicated beings whose attitudes and behaviors are shaped by numerous factors. These factors might be biological, psychological, social or spiritual. Some are primarily neurobiological, others environmental. Sometimes these components combine to form one or more of the personality disorders; among them Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is described as “characterized by a long-standing pattern of grandiosity (either in fantasy or actual behavior), an overwhelming need for admiration, and usually a complete lack of empathy toward others. People with this disorder often believe they are of primary importance in everybody’s life or to anyone they meet.”
The DSM-5 criteria includes:
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerating your achievements and talents
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the
- perfect mate
- Requiring constant admiration
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
Ways to Recognize Someone with This Condition
A sense of entitlement that they should always have the best, without regard to how it impacts anyone else.
Lacking in empathy and an inability or unwillingness to recognize the feelings of others.
An arrogant communication style, as if placing themselves on a pedestal.
Sees him or herself as special or privileged.
Elitist attitude that drives him or her to associate, or wish to associate with people perceived as ‘worthy,’ looking askance at anyone who fails to meet their criteria.
Figuratively walks over others to ‘get ahead’.
Personality Disorders on Screen
Movies have been a cultural platform for characters with these qualities. Michael Douglas plays a character with both antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders in the hit “Wall Street,” in which the ruthless businessman Gordon Gekko utters the classic line, “Greed is good.”
He has no regard for the existence of others except as they serve his ends. Power is his watchword, and he enjoys the trappings a lifestyle that carries with it an air of respect. As with the aforementioned characters, when he feels his power threatened, he attacks.
A behavior common to each of these personality disorders is “gaslighting.” The term comes from the 1944 film “Gaslight,” starring Charles Boyer as a husband so determined to protect a secret that he drives his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, into insanity.
Psychoanalyst Robin Stern’s book The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life explains that the person on the receiving end of this behavior is meant to doubt his or her perception of reality if it differs from that of the person in power.
To maintain control, people with personality disorders need to make the other people in their lives wrong. Manipulative people try to gain the upper hand by denying making certain statements, accusing others of disloyalty and encouraging second-guessing.
So how do you live with someone who exhibits these qualities? Try these tips:
- As much as possible, trust your instincts. If your gut tells you something’s wrong, it likely is. Stay
grounded in reality, checking in with people whose perceptions you can believe
- Communicate calmly. Your anxiety might encourage the other person. For example, he or she
might say, “See? You’re the one losing it” and suggest you’re therefore in the wrong. Those with
antisocial or narcissistic personality disorder often have a calm demeanor.
- Seek therapy and encourage it for your loved one. Al-Anon might help if addictions factor into
- Keep in mind that dialectical behavioral therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as
mindfulness practices, can be helpful with these conditions.
- Be aware that to maintain power, the person might try to cause rifts between you and others.
- Get yourself and anyone else in danger to safety if behavior escalates to threats or violence.
- Model consistency if possible, holding the person accountable for his or her choices.
- Honor yourself and leave the relationship if your best efforts fail. Even in cases of mental illness,
you owe no one your safety or soul.
Treatment for this condition ranges from inpatient, to individual, from group to medication.
A Therapist Comes Clean
There is a quiz that can be taken to assess the signs of NPD. While doing research for this article, I elected to use the tool. While I perused the questions, I found it difficult to respond, since some of what passes for confidence and seeing my own potential, leadership skills and desire for success had me scoring high on the scale.
I laughed when seeing that my numbers were right up there with those of celebrities and a mere two points from tipping the scale into the red zone.
The traits I possess, such as compassion and genuine caring for others, might counterbalance and prevent me from teetering over the edge into narcissism. As a recovering co-dependent, I tended to place the needs of others before my own. I temper my assertiveness with wanting to go for a win-win in my interactions with others.
As a journalist and speaker, I enjoy being center stage, and paradoxically feel embarrassed by excessive attention. As a child who ‘tap danced for attention,’ like Shirley Temple, I had a desire to be ‘loved best of all,’ that impacts my relationships to this day. Awareness of my intentions is paramount.
I consider the recently deceased boxer Muhammad Ali whose signature line, “I’m the greatest!” would have had some placing him in that category. Confidence and skill, rather than pathology bolstered his claim. He also devoted time and money to various charitable causes. Other stage personas harbor massive insecurities that have them relinquishing control of their live to this condition, not seeing the chaos that it entails.
A few years ago, I asked a friend to call me on it should I ever become too big for my britches, full of myself or thinking that I am all that and a bag of chips. She smiled and reminded me, “You don’t need your friends to do that, you have Adam (my son) to keep you humble.” And so he does.