It's (not really) all about me: Inside the mind of a narcissist

“I’m not consciously aware of using others. I don’t go around thinking about who I’m going to victimise..."

A narcissist in love

“I’ve never seen Richard cry. It’s heartbreaking to watch how difficult it is for him to have meaningful relationships; he sees that it is valuable but he just doesn’t know how.”

Deborah* and Richard* have been together for almost 25 years. They have two adult children and two successful careers.

“When Deborah comes home and tells me about something bad that happened at work, I have to think, what would a normal person say here? What do normal people do?” Richard tells SBS.

Deborah doubts he will ever be able to meet her emotional needs and Richard wakes up every morning fearing she will be gone; yet neither can imagine life without the other.

“For me it was love at first sight. She’s just the most beautiful and amazing woman I’ve ever seen,” Richard gushes.

“I feel a deep sense of love but I also feel sad for him...We’re like yin and yang.”

The emotional turbulence of borderline personality disorder
“When you consider the amount of pain people with borderline personality disorder are in, their reactions make sense.”

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

“More people come to see me after misdiagnosing themselves with NPD than any other condition."

Emotional vampires. Demons. Subspecies: these are some of the words used to describe narcissists on the many websites and books dedicated to outing them. Nearly everyone, it seems, thinks they’ve had a close encounter with a ‘narc.’

“More people come to see me after misdiagnosing themselves with NPD than any other condition,” says neuropsychologist Dr John McMahon of Sydney Clinical Psychologist Centre. “They’ve maybe had these outbursts and they get told they are narcissistic but they’re not.”

In other words, your ex may be a jerk but that doesn’t make them a narcissist.

“When Deborah comes home and tells me about something bad that happened at work, I have to think, what would a normal person say here? What do normal people do?”

“It varies from individual to individual,” McMahon explains carefully, “but a clinical narcissist is usually someone whose inner world feels inadequate and so they overcompensate with grand displays of wealth or prowess or kindness.

“They are overcompensating in the external world to fill in the interior hole and sometimes that results in exploitation of others.”

John Coctostan, an American woman who writes online under this alias, is one of an increasing number of diagnosed narcissists trying to counter the stigma.  “I’m not consciously aware of using others. I don’t go around thinking about who I’m going to victimise,” she tells SBS by email.

“From my perspective, it’s just surrounding myself with interesting people who make me feel good about myself…I blunder haplessly across people’s boundaries without noticing their feelings.”

NPD is widely regarded as one of the most difficult mental health conditions to treat, one that can be managed but not cured. But, like all personality disorders, there is increasing controversy regarding the accuracy of the label.

Does NPD really exist?

“It should not be classified as a disorder and people should not be diagnosed with NPD,” insists Dr Niko Tiliopoulos, senior lecturer in personality in Sydney University’s Psychology Department. Tiliopoulos was on the taskforce responsible for updating the personality disorders section of the DSM 5, the diagnostic “bible” for mental health disorders.

Although NPD eventually remained a separate Cluster B or “dramatic” personality disorder, Tiliopoulos believes it should have been dissolved and “partially absorbed into psychopathy, partially into antisocial personality (and) partially into borderline personality disorder.”

Rudy Schmitz, a Dutch blogger diagnosed with narcissism that he claims to be cured of, agrees. He suspects he never had NPD but is, “borderline with a layer of narcissistic behaviour so thick nobody could see through it until a couple of years of therapy had passed”.

Whether narcissism is a symptom or a full-blown disorder, if Schmitz has indeed overcome it, he is a rare case. Even getting narcissists into treatment is difficult since, says McMahon, they tend to think there is nothing wrong with them – it is everyone else who is the problem.

The perfect storm

“Clinical narcissists have an internal vulnerability and underlying anger about the way things are and how it’s not the way they want it to be,” clinical psychologist Tony Merritt explains.

Growing up in adverse conditions – such as being told they’ll achieve great things but also getting harshly criticised– they develop a “narcissistic shield” to protect themselves from their own self-perceived inadequacies.

Deborah describes Richard’s upbringing as “a perfect storm.” Adopted into a working class family, he was “the special child” who won a prestigious scholarship, only to be teased as the poor kid at school and the private school kid at home.  

“Clinical narcissists have an internal vulnerability and underlying anger about the way things are and how it’s not the way they want it to be."

“He was a very lonely boy but he just wanted to be a normal kid,” Deborah says.

“I had a shit childhood,” Richard confirms. “My adopted father abused me. I was given away by women twice – first my mother and then my adopted mother. Now I see women leaving me as inevitable.”

In his mind, Deborah is always halfway out the door. “I would get up at night, when everyone was asleep, and look at my naked body and say, “You are so fucking lucky to be you.” Richard confesses, “And then all my depression would be gone and I could go back to bed.”

And yet, he refused to acknowledge any problem in their relationship. “It was utterly bewildering. We are talking endless lies to cover up multiple affairs and just not thinking anything of it,” she recalls of the early years.

“It wasn’t about the sex,” Richard explains, “it was like a cat chasing a mouse; as soon as they wanted to have sex with me I would lose all interest, but sometimes I just had to go through with it.”

Narcissists and relationships

Had she known then what she knows now, Deborah “would’ve run a mile and would advise anyone else to do the same.” But it wasn’t until two years in and she was six months pregnant that the first alarm bell rang.

“It was the way he reacted to something,” she recalls, “He wasn’t shouting but kind of lashing out. I wasn’t afraid he was going to hurt me, but something in his behaviour made me think, Oh shit, what have I got myself into?

It would be another decade before she knew that what she’d gotten herself into was a relationship with someone meeting all the diagnostic criteria of NPD, “He completely lacks empathy; he just cannot see the world through any eyes but his own. You know how toddlers are entitled and need things now? He doesn’t even know he is doing it.

Deborah’s words could be straight out of the DSM, which describes narcissistic relationships as, “largely superficial and (existing) to serve self-esteem regulation...constrained by little genuine interest in others’ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain.”

Richard admits to “manipulating people,” but rejects the idea he lacks empathy. He says his narcissism gave him a “drive to get ahead” and he now has a job with a small public profile. “I know what people are feeling. Unfortunately, I didn’t use that in a good way,” he adds.

Even therapy was only something he agreed to in order to win Deborah back. “It took me several years to realise that this wasn’t a game, that I had some built-in behaviour patterns that were very unhealthy.”

Since then, it’s been a slow process of accepting and managing his condition. “How do I stop trying to dominate the discussion and trying to be the funniest person? It’s like an addiction – I take it one day at a time,” he explains.

“I won’t say understanding his condition has lead us to place where everything is okay,” Deborah says, “But I just don’t take the crap anymore.” 

After years of therapy, Richard rejects the idea that narcissism is untreatable. “I’m listening to people more so I’m learning more and I’m making closer friendships. I don’t feel there is anyone in my life at the moment that I am hurting but I have to stay on top of it every day.

“To anyone else with this condition, I want to say, you don’t have to accept this because people say there is no cure. Yes, it’s hard but you can manage it.”



The trauma cycle

“As long as we did what he said, everything was fine. In your infantile brain, you still believe you will win his love again.”

Just as narcissistic adults can often trace their condition to adverse childhoods, so too can their own behaviour lead their children to develop chronic disorders of their own.

At 23, Valentina* has been in therapy for complex PTSD for almost a decade, having grown up with a combination of “neglect, overload of responsibility, and being on high alert for what could happen next.”

Punishment from her narcissistic mother was a regular occurrence for “disobeying rules that could change hourly.” At the same time, she and her sister, “were responsible for my mother’s happiness. It was our job to calm her down.”

After decades of volatile relationships, Rohan*, a GP in his fifties, is resigned to spending his life alone. With resentment towards his dead father who was also a doctor – “he had empathy for his patients but not for us” – he jumps from one memory to another.

“As long as we did what he said, everything was fine,” he recalls. “In your infantile brain, you still believe you will win his love again.”

The truth about personality disorders
All mental health conditions attract stigma and stereotypes but few are more misunderstood than personality disorders.

Children may also develop the narcissistic traits of their parent, something that concerns both Richard and Deborah who have seen their 19-year-old daughter mimic her father’s “manipulative” behaviour.

“Do you worry she’s taking after him?” I ask Deborah.

She shakes her head, “It’s more like she copies her dad so he doesn’t feel alone.”

“Is he alone?”  

“He strikes me as someone who is travelling solo in this life.”

“But does that mean you’re also solo?”

“No, I’m not,” she replies firmly, “My emotional needs get met elsewhere...” she looks away. 

“Look,” she says finally, “He’s not a bad person; he is just a person with a really shitty condition.”

*Some names have been changed.

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