Tyler N. Tolson
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Part I
I have been nervous about writing this particular entry that prefaces the series that will follow it due to the fact that it is a complex subject that I tend to hold close to me. For fear of judgement, both professionally and personally, by inserting myself into the realm of supposed 'objective' science (the field of psychology) potentially allows me to run the risk of being "too personal" in my role-- something I take very seriously by doing whatever I can to uphold healthy boundaries for myself and my clients. But I also strongly value transparency and honesty-- Something that I think would be hindered if I simply left out my personal knowledge altogether.
Since considering writing and speaking on the topic from a combined personal/professional angle, I have had more than a few clients who have experienced abuse from those in their life with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or associated traits. Almost all of them have said things like, "If I told anyone they wouldn't believe me," or "No one would think what happened to me was that bad." Well, I know it can be that bad, and I do believe my clients not only because I should, but because I have been there. That bridge of understanding and empathy can make a very big difference. I certainly know it would've made a big difference to me when I was 16 and afraid to tell my own therapist what really happened for fearing that even he may not believe me either.
If you are reading this and share this fear, or know a loved one that does: Reach out. Tell your story to someone you can trust. That isn't easy, and it isn't painless, but your healing needs to start, maybe continue, maybe even come to some new conclusions.
If you are reading this and fear you may have NPD: Keep reading. Don't give up on self-improvement. You can and will be able to make the strides you need to get you where you need to be.
And by disclosing this, I will also state that NPD operates for individuals somewhat differently, and comorbidity (having two or multiple disorders simultaneously) can play a significant part in what shapes our experiences. The variations between horrific and somewhat passive narcissistic abuse always leaves its mark, and healing can be a very long and tangential, non-linear process. For those that may have NPD, that does not mean my experience would impede my ability to see you for the person that you are-- to the contrary, my intimate knowledge of NPD opens a door otherwise possibly locked shut.
But first, let's address the basics.
What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
As we’ve all likely heard “narcissistic” as an adjective, and even hailed as a ‘buzzword’ in the last year from American media outlets, we tend to consider narcissism as a term synonymous with selfishness, vanity, and attention-seeking. This is problematic because NPD is certainly not a social media/‘selfie’ preoccupation (which could be healthily maintained), but is a legitimate disorder that impairs one’s personality, identity, and self-direction functioning and interpersonal functioning (intimacy or empathy) (as defined in the DSM-5).
The symptoms that arise exist typically because of abuse or bred behavior during crucial developmental stages. It also can be possibly due to biological factors and genetics, as studies have shown a connection with lack of gray matter in the brain to NPD.
The symptoms are (as described by Mayo Clinic):
Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
Exaggerate achievements and talents
Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
Take advantage of others to get what they want
Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
Be envious of others and believe others envy them
Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious
Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office
At the same time, people with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism, and they can:
Become impatient or angry when they don't receive special treatment
Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted
React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior
Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior
Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change
Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection
Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation
So, in short, a great failing of the incorrect use of the term ‘narcissist’ is neglecting the aspect of insecurity and shame people with NPD tend to suffer with.
Are all people with NPD ‘bad’?
As I don’t evaluate people on the basis of being “good” and “bad,” and being a survivor of narcissistic abuse, it is difficult to give a simple answer to this question as I think ANY person —with or without a diagnosis of mental illness— can be some variation of good or bad.
Therefore, I will take this moment to say that someone with NPD is fully able to cope, be rehabilitated, seek out a variety of treatments, and possibly even fully recover, despite the extreme challenge of guiding a narcissist to wanting to change.
Sadly, a key characteristic to NPD is believing that nothing needs to change about them and they are perfect as is— or, deep down, they don’t believe they really can change.
I think I may have NPD— What should I do? What should I expect?
First, a common half-truth that is shared, “If you are afraid you may be a narcissist, you aren’t one,” is not entirely true. Sure, it is common that people with NPD do not seek out mental health advice, but it is possible that with the right steps they can achieve rehabilitation. Do your research and make sure to attend regular, weekly sessions with a mental health professional that understands the complexity of NPD, and consider getting evaluated by a clinical psychologist.
I think or am aware that I have been abused by a narcissist. What should I do now?
As someone who has gone through this myself, and have known many people who have unfortunately dealt with abusive people with NPD or narcissistic traits, it may seem uncommon or isolating to discuss it, but you aren’t alone. Healing from a narcissist takes a great deal of perseverance, time, and kindness with yourself. If you have suffered from a narcissistic parent, you paradoxically may run the risk of developing similar coping habits and slip into ways of taught thinking that may influence you toxically. If you have suffered narcissistic abuse from a loved one, such as a partner or friend, considering the proximity and closeness of the bond, narcissistic abuse can leave long-lasting effects on your self-worth. Make sure to similarly do your research and contact a mental health professional.