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NPD for the Layman

Yesterday, I attended an interesting and useful webinar on Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). (My excessive personal experience as a former victim in the matter makes me a default expert on the topic; however, it’s always best to check in with the pros from time to time.) It’s learning that possibly 20 percent of the adult American population – I mean, we’re talking about 60 million people – are somewhere on the spectrum of abusive narcissism, that has prompted me to keep writing about it in my career coaching blog. The implications for the United States are staggering because, conservatively, that means that upward of 60 million Americans must be victims of this particular psychological affliction since it takes two to tango, so to speak. Just think what it must be worldwide!

Sources: I thank Robyn Walser, PhD, and Avigail Lev, PsyD, of the Bay Area Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Center of San Francisco for organizing their important webinar and Isabelle Nazare-Aga, author of “The Manipulators Among Us” (“Les Manipulateurs Parmi Nous”) for first removing the scales from my eyes and me from the NPD Victims List. (The many NPD-afflicted experts who spontaneously provided me with my extensive training deserve no credit at all.)

NPD for the LaymanBriefly, the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is rendered difficult by the very instrument that is supposed to clarify us on the topic. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, describes NPD as basically “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy” but falls short on offering a behavioral diagnosis. This is the gap that my sources at the Bay Area Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center of San Francisco have attempted to fill.

In reality, NPD manifests itself over a spectrum of observable traits and behaviors in which empathy diminishes with each of the increasing levels:

  • Entitlement (“I deserve this.”)
  • Narcissism (“I, in particular, deserve this.”)
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) (“I deserve this and you don’t if you disagree with me.”)
  • Malignant, sociopathic tendencies (“I deserve this and am going to take it from you for myself alone.”)
  • Psychopathic degree (“I deserve this and will hurt you badly to get it.”)

Narcissism may be either “overt” (visible) or “covert” (hidden). It’s pretty easy to spot an overt narcissist. (I was tickled that the webinar leaders used a certain current American president as a prime, classic example.) After a few encounters with one, you are probably clever enough to know instinctively to run the other way. Identifying the covert narcissist, however, is more difficult because we will be manipulated by the offending narcissist to doubt our own evaluation of him/her and his/her problem. The covert narcissist may appear to be vulnerable, perhaps posturing as a victim; s/he may be reserved and charming, hiding grandiosity in smugness and claiming to be misunderstood.

What can cause NPD?

The causes of narcissistic personality are usually to be found in early childhood, when a child is not accepted for being the way s/he is, resulting in the child feeling shame about who or what s/he is. The child will then begin to project this feeling onto other people, becoming envious or deceitful, constantly measuring him/herself against an ideal that can never quite be achieved. The narcissistic child will feel frustration at this and attempt to reset the balance in his/her favor, often by inflicting (psychological or physical) pain on the person envied. Consequently, the young narcissist matures into not only being addicted to the other person for feedback, with the intention of always being able to stay in control, but also with polished manipulating skills.

Narcissists (and often their children), as adults, will have developed a false sense of self, leaving them fragile and in need of having their egos constantly fed by other people who, unwittingly, become at once their drug and their victims.

Covert narcissists use strategies that reverse the Victim-Abuser roles. (“You’re so mean to me!” for complaining that I forgot to take out the garbage.) The narcissistic parent will tend to use strategies to control children, playing them off against each other (Golden Child, Bad Child, Failed Child, etc.), and the fragile child will become codependent on the narcissistic adult for approval. The narcissistic parent will inevitably extend only conditional love, thus harming the child. (If you see a child who is suffering from a narcissistic adult, the best thing you can do for that child is to dilute the situation by helping the child meet lots of other people.)

Further, narcissists – if they are able to extend empathy at all – will manifest “cold empathy” or the ability to intellectually put themselves in other people’s shoes without themselves experiencing any measurable emotional or even physiological impact. (As my webinar leaders were prompt to say, whenever you’re confronted with someone who doesn’t feel empathy, run!)

There is little chance that the narcissist will change, so your best bet is to invest in some self-care in some form of therapy and an Escape Plan for yourself (and, above all, your children). If you take your NPD partner to meet your therapist, don’t forget that your NPD partner is a past master at manipulation. S/he will be sufficiently energized by the challenge you’ve raised to show you that s/he’s Right and In Control by attempting to turn your therapist against you or even seducing the therapist.

How does a narcissist work?

If you want to see a perfect example of psychopathic NPD dynamics in action, watch the Netflix three-season bonanza “Big Little Lies”. The character Perry Wright, played so frighteningly well by the actor Alexander Skarsgård, as The Psycho-Narcissist, renders his gorgeous, bright wife Celeste, played equally brilliantly by Nicole Kidman, The Classic Victim: she is battered, belittled and shorn of any source of personal satisfaction other than sex with her husband.

Perry offers us a demonstration of the basic NPD process: 1) Idealize the coveted object; 2) Devalue the object to gain control; and 3) Discard the object to inflict pain, demonstrating the abusive narcissist’s perceived superiority. Being human, the recipient of this unhealthy attention is confused, destabilized and transformed into a Victim. (This is also a mechanism frequently used by NPD bosses in professional situations that keeps the recruiters busy looking for new victims!) And, in Season Three, thanks to the outstanding, subtle portrayal of Perry’s mother by Meryl Streep, we get to see why Perry excelled at his Narcissistic Personality Disorder with a vengeance.

The fictitious Wright couple demonstrates the Narcissist’s Abuse Cycle:

  • HONEYMOON – The NPD Abuser “grooms” his Victim by demonstrating his love for the Victim.
  • ROUTINE – Life is pleasant, normal, and idealized. (They have home videos to prove it!)
  • TENSION – The NPD Abuser finds fault with his Victim, whom he may feel is about to escape him (like go out alone or get a job).
  • TRIGGER – The Victim, in perfect innocence, hits the NPD Abuser’s hot button by acting on her own needs (to socialize, to take initiative alone, to have an existence independent of her partner).
  • ABUSE – The NPD Abuser attacks the Victim, physically or verbally.
  • EXCUSES – The NPD Abuser extracts from the Victim recognition of guilt by means of an apology.
  • HONEYMOON – They kiss and make up.

Another public example of a perfectly perverse narcissistic mechanism, known as Reversal, that many of us cringed through, was Brett Kavanaugh’s trial, on October 3, 2018, when he – accused of attempted rape by the plaintiff – dramatically attempted to transform himself into The Victim, blaming the plaintiff for ruining his life.

Since the jury is still out on whether or not Narcissistic Personality Disorder (more darkly known as a perversion in French) can be cured, the victim’s best strategy is to:

  • Inform him/herself about NPD;
  • Predict consequences on his/her health, wealth and happiness;
  • Learn practical self-care skills like detached empathy, Nonviolent Communications (NVC), and the Grey Rock Method (playing the dormouse); and
  • Clarify and commit to values.

If you want to join the ever-increasing ranks of NPD Spotters International, please send me other cases you’ve documented around the world. (Boris and Bibi are already on the list!)

By Constance G. Konold
August 19, 2019