Do you sometimes feel like you’re going crazy⃰ in a relationship? It might be a work colleague, a partner or even a close relative, but something about your interactions has you constantly second guessing your behaviour. Your words get twisted, half-truths become facts and no matter what sort of kindness and understanding you offer, you always seem to end up losing the battle!
It sounds like you might know a narcissist.
So before you become convinced that it’s you who has the problem, let’s take a look at narcissism from page and screen to question how this insidious personality disorder might be playing out in your world.
What exactly is narcissism?
Narcissism is a word that gets tossed around pretty casually these days. We use it to talk about people who ‘love themselves’ (but not in a good way); people who take a lot of selfies or are always blowing their own trumpets. The original Narcissus was a character from Greek mythology who fell so in love with his own reflection that he died staring into a pond!
But true, clinical narcissism is about more than just admiring yourself in the mirror. In contemporary psychology, this is a genuine personality disorder (Narcissistic Personality Disorder – NPD) that can have tragic results for both sufferers and those around them.
The narcissist often brings with them a culture of fear, deception and power games. They may lack empathy for other people’s feelings and manipulate those around them to further their own ambitions.
On screen you might look to the ‘ridiculously good-looking’ Derek Zoolander or Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. From Dorian Gray to Christian Grey, literature is also bursting at the end papers with examples of self-centred characters who obsess about their own appearances and ambitions.
These entertaining characters we love to hate are fun from a distance, but what does it mean when it’s fact NOT fiction?
How to spot a narcissist
1. Something about their persona just doesn’t ring true
The narcissist has an over-inflated sense of self and a preoccupation with fantasies of success. Do you know someone who only wears designer clothes despite their meagre income? Or who takes all the credit for a successful project, even though they were only one of a team? Does someone you know make you feel inadequate or disempowered because their life (as they tell it) is SO much better than yours?
Think about The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is worshipped as the pinnacle of success; his lifestyle the envy of everyone around him! But it’s achieved by deception, criminal activities and exploitation. As Shakespeare said, all that glitters is not gold. If you know someone whose life story sounds a little too perfect, it may just be a narcissistic fantasy.
2. They can’t take criticism
A narcissist is so convinced of their own central, even elevated, position in any given situation that they tend to take criticism very badly. They may react with anger, raging against your accusations. They may well suggest that you are lying or twist your words until you somehow feel that you are the cause of the problem. They may even throw in a barefaced lie to ensure that they are never held responsible for their own errors of judgement. They might retaliate, too, with force.
A narcissist may believe that they are truly special and can only be understood by special people. They look to their superiors at work, or to those with money or good looks or high intelligence (depending on their definition of success) for comradery. They may resent having to ‘slum it’ with mere mortals in their family or friendship groups and, therefore, will never take constructive feedback from those people. Even at their lowest moments, they’re likely to feel entitled and resentful without taking any ownership of their predicaments.
A hilarious screen example of this is Basil Fawlty. When life comes crashing down around your ears (sometimes literally) blame EVERYONE except yourself! In the real world, however, there’s nothing funny about being blamed for things you didn’t do.
3. Your rules and boundaries do not apply
Everyone likes a bad boy don’t they? A risk taker? Not necessarily. Narcissists are prone to thinking that society’s rules simply don’t apply to them. This might mean exceeding the speed limit, pushing to the front in queues or ordering a waiter around because the narcissist’s needs are perceived as more crucial than anyone else’s.
On the darker side, it can apply to social boundaries. Narcissistic Sherlock Holmes belittles those around him by reaching the ‘elementary’ conclusion before anyone else – and ensuring everyone knows it! His long term nemesis Moriarty is also narcissistic, leaving calling cards at every crime, thriving on the notoriety and self-importance it gives him to be a wanted criminal.
In the ‘real world’ this sort of behaviour comes out in online bullies, managers who enjoy being known as ‘hard line’ and friends who make themselves feel better by putting others down. Perhaps you have a colleague who is always ‘hard done by’, endlessly whining about office inconveniences that affect them, without ever considering the bigger picture? It’s not always a conscious behaviour, but it’s nonetheless destructive to those who have to put up with it!
4. They project their fears and failings onto others
Has anyone ever said that you were holding them back? That somehow your lack of ambition or ability was stopping them from succeeding?
Many well-documented cases of domestic abuse or workplace bullying centre on one player telling another that they are weak, unattractive, unintelligent or lacking in some other way, in order to bolster their own self-worth. Sadly, if you hear this often enough you might start to believe it – and a narcissist will take full advantage of your vulnerability.
These accusations are often projections; that is, the narcissist is avoiding facing up to their own failings by projecting those negative traits onto other people. Deep down, they are terrified that they are the ones who aren’t smart enough or attractive enough to reach their version of success.
In literature (and film), the Wizard of Oz is a great example. His mighty and magic persona is literally all smoke and mirrors (and good marketing). Even when he is revealed as a fraud, he twists the situation to regain his power by bestowing gifts upon his visitors – a heart, a brain, courage. Dorothy and her posse leave Oz STILL feeling as though they owe the Wiz something – that they are less than him – even though they know he’s been lying all along. This is a narcissist at work!
5. They don’t care that it bothers you
Perhaps the saddest part for all involved is that a true narcissist doesn’t care if their behaviour bothers you. In many cases, they probably have no idea they’re even affecting anyone else because their end goal – be it attention, promotion, money or love – is the only outcome that matters.
In fact, a lot of superheroes can be viewed as narcissists in that they will fight to the death for their personal version of crime and justice, regardless of the laws they break or havoc they wreak. Some very likeable characters on screen and in books are narcissists – think of Piper in Orange Is The New Black or practically the whole casts of Friends or Seinfeld. Narcissists are not always the ‘bad guys’ – in fact, they are often very charismatic, even popular…at first. On a good day, a narcissist is driven, ambitious and entertaining.
It’s the bad days, however, that you have to steel yourself against. No matter what they tell you, you are not going crazy. If you can spot the signs of narcissism in someone you know – the problem with your relationship is not you, it’s them.
*Two extra points:
1. I know ‘crazy’ is an inappropriate word when it comes to mental illness. I’m just using this as an example of the things we so often tell ourselves, especially if someone is making us question our own choices and beliefs.
2. I’m not a psychologist! This is all just my humble opinion (and a little Googling). Please read a good book about mental health or see a professional if you need any kind of help with these issues.