The makings of a narcissist: Nature, nurture and character
How does a person become a narcissist? It’s a hotly disputed issue in the world of psychiatry, with a wealth of theories and no one-size-fits-all answer.
“My view is that it’s probably about 25 percent constitutional and 75 percent experiential,” says Reiss. “A narcissist doesn’t necessarily come from a dysfunctional family, but narcissism can occur because a parent or caretaker wasn't able to provide emotional attention, or it could be the flipside: a parent provided too much attention and the child never learned frustration tolerance. It really depends, and the same situation can result in different outcomes for different people.”
Through hard work in therapy, the narcissist can change destructive patterns and cultivate empathy. But, it’s so very difficult to get them to want to do that, or to even acknowledge that their behavior is the cause of so many of their problems, as Dr. Humphreys points out. Sometimes, Humphreys notes, therapy can work against the narcissist’s best interest.
“I am not convinced that therapy actually helps narcissists very much because in a sense it's their fantasy relationship,” says Humphreys. “They get to talk to someone about themselves who doesn't need to share anything about themselves. There's a risk of feeding them through psychotherapy. I don’t know that this treatment would help a true pathological narcissist who tends not to understand that other people are people.”
Narcissists are master manipulators
“Narcissists are notoriously difficult to deal with because they are masters of manipulation,” says Britt Frank, a licensed master social worker. “They are skilled at finding pressure points and know exactly what to say or do to push our most vulnerable and wounded inner parts."
Though narcissists clearly do not have your best interest in mind (because they’re missing or have deactivated compassion for you), they do, as Michele Leno, a psychologist and owner of DML Psychological Services, notes, have the ability to love you.
“Narcissists are capable of love; however, their love feels conditional and wavering because they want to control you,” says Leno.
Just to make it even more complicated, consider that a narcissist can be selective in how/where they present their narcissism.
“Narcissism can be very problematic in some relationships and environments and not in others,” says Reiss. A person may show their narcissistic colors at work, but not at all at home, or vice versa.
Coping with the narcissist in your life comes down to setting boundaries and cutting ties
Just as we should not self-diagnose, we should resist diagnosing others with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
“We absolutely can not and should not be doing our own diagnosing of [others],” says Kayce Hodos, LPC. “Only a psychiatrist or therapist should assess and diagnose mental health and/or personality disorders.”
What we can do, and what might help us deal with their toxic behaviors, is identify and name the narcissistic traits we see in the people who we suspect are narcissists. From there, we should try to engage a conversation about it with them and/or our support systems, but if the person is a full-blown narcissist, they’re unlikely to respond favorably. Additionally, if you’re dealing with an authority figure, this may not be a topic you can appropriately bring up.
If you’re stuck with a narcissist who has targeted you, your goal should be getting out of the relationship, or, if it’s a close family member who you don’t wish to cut out of your life, then you need to work very hard on setting boundaries so that they don’t eat you up.
“If you're stuck with a narcissist, basically what you have to do is internally not let them gaslight you,” says Reiss. “Recognize that you understand reality more than they do, but that you're not their therapist or their teacher. Just protect yourself. The key is to make their behavior less harmful to you.”
We should also work on keeping our own narcissistic tendencies in check by asking trusted colleagues and friends to let us know when we’re being too self-centered, ignoring their needs or “making decisions based solely on how we feel, rather than on facts,” says Reiss.
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