Beware the Narcissist – strong on the outside, fragile on the inside

Show-off on the outside, fragile as ice on the inside. Can they be understood? Can they be helped? Can they ever change?
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Narcissus. In Greek mythology, he rejected the love of a beautiful nymph because he disdained the love of others, but he fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and stared at it until he died.

The name of Narcissus has long been attached to people addicted to self-love, but unlike the character in the myth, any narcissist that you encounter is more likely to be toxic to you and others.

Sooner or later we are all bound to meet them, so it helps to know what to look out for. They can be very challenging characters to be around but it helps to know why they do what they do.

Which of the three types of narcissist are you dealing with?

It doesn’t really matter how you know your narcissist. They could be somebody you meet, work with, or even live with. Understanding them is the important thing.

First of all, it’s going to help to define what we mean by the term narcissist. Most people might be forgiven for imagining that all narcissists are attention-seeking extroverts, and while some are like that, that isn’t always the case.

It’s not an exact science, but dividing narcissists into three main categories can be helpful. For the sake of clarity we can label them as exhibitionists, clingers, and hegemons:

  • An exhibitionistic narcissist wants to be admired.
  • A clingy narcissist wants to be associated with someone they admire.
  • A hegemonic narcissist wants to control another human being to the point of making them feel worthless.

Recognising which category a narcissist belongs to means we’re more likely to know what to expect from them and it helps us to manage them (or our responses to them) better. Note that we can never change them, because narcissism is classed as a personality disorder, not a mental illness. Narcissists’ thinking is as natural to them as your sense of humour or your sense of compassion are to you. Neither of those are things that you can be “cured” of. They are just a part of who you are.

If you find yourself in a relationship with a person who has narcissistic traits, it helps to know what you are in for, what lies ahead, and how it can influence your relationship. You may be married to a narcissist, partnered in business with a narcissist, or forced to spend time with one in some other situation. Either way, you’re in for a bumpy ride

Why they have a bad reputation

Narcissists are most frequently said to be:

  • Self-centred
  • Fully preoccupied with their own issues regarding their perfection and self-confidence
  • Lacking emotional empathy
  • Highly sensitive to personal criticism
  • Easily angered
  • Keen on belittling others
  • Strongly focused on status

All of these traits mean that narcissists can find it difficult to maintain stable, mutually supportive, and loving relationships.

Where does it come from?

I regularly meet readers of my books and this blog, and many of them often ask me questions like: “Is it possible that my partner has turned into a narcissist during the many years of our relationship?” But the simple answer to this is: No.

The narcissistic personality disorder develops in childhood and tends to emerge during early adulthood or puberty. Their traits tend to be there already and are not going to evolve over time, so your partner may not have changed, it may just be that you failed to notice the signs before. But that raises the question: “Why did the narcissism become obvious only now? What has changed to make it so noticeable?”

What went wrong?

A sudden life crisis that affects the self-confidence of the narcissistic partner can be a trigger. In the natural effort to handle the crisis, this person unconsciously resorts to their narcissistic self-defence. This causes their behaviour to float to the surface like oil on water.

It is probably more likely (and my readers often remember this in retrospect) that the narcissistic tendencies were slowly being revealed to them throughout the duration of the relationship, but they weren’t entirely sure what was behind them. But honestly, how could they be? Most people haven’t heard of narcissism. They just have a vague sense that something is wrong, something they can’t quite put their finger on. If they’re lucky, maybe they come across the term in an online search, or someone points it out to them. Then everything falls into place and they understand.

In recent years, awareness has grown and now many more people are becoming aware of narcissism as the possible reason for their partner’s history of arrogance, self-importance, sense of entitlement, lack of empathy… (the list goes on).

During your relationship with a narcissist you may have come to blame yourself (and even been encouraged to do so!) for your partner’s unreasonable ways, and that could be because narcissists are very good at finding the kinds of people who they know will meet their needs.

Perhaps you are lucky enough not to have met a narcissist yet, so how do you recognise them and what should you be looking for?

There is some good news here: Narcissism is not usually a conscious problem. This means that narcissists are usually unaware of the fact that their behaviour signals their disorder and they tend to repeat their “natural” behavioural patterns over and over.

There is also bad news though: rest assured that if they do something at the first meeting, they will repeat it at the second, and every other one after that.

Let’s imagine what those meetings might be like with all three types of narcissists.

Please, continue to the 2nd page.