Google the term “narcissist” and you’ll likely find a list of enough symptoms to diagnose yourself and everyone you know with narcissistic personality disorder. The disorder is a bit of an enigma because the diagnostic criteria includes things like arrogance, lack of empathy, and sense of entitlement. And who among us isn’t guilty of exhibiting these traits from time to time?
Despite its ranking in a 2017 study as the second most common personality disorder—with rates just below obsessive compulsive personality disorder—narcissistic personality disorder is one of the least understood.
Zlatan Krizan, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University who tells people at social events that he “studies assholes for a living,” says nailing down a clear definition of the disorder is tricky because it occurs on a spectrum. In 2017, he and his colleagues published a paper on their narcissistic spectrum model, which defined the core features of narcissism and then identified a set of personality traits that can determine what Krizan calls an individual’s particular “flavor” of narcissism. And it’s different for everyone.
“It’s not like you have a bunch of people who are completely fine, and then a bunch of people who are narcissists,” Krizan says. “Most people are very low on the spectrum, but then of course you have some people who are very high. People come as combinations of these different personality tendencies. It’s a continuum.”
Krizan says there are two distinct dimensions of narcissism: grandiose and vulnerable. Grandiose narcissists look more like what we typically think of when we hear the label—they tend to be obnoxiously bold, overconfident, and arrogant. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, tend to be passive aggressive, resentful, and emotionally reactive. Each type, and everything in between, shares the core feature of entitlement and a belief that one’s needs simply matter more than the needs of others.
What makes a mental health issue a diagnosable condition is typically based on how much it gets in the way of one’s ability to function. But Krizan says as long as one’s narcissistic needs are continuously met and reinforced, they’re less likely to show up in problematic ways, meaning diagnosable narcissists are more likely to fly under the radar. There may be more narcissists in the west than we think, particularly in certain environments like the corporate, academic, and art worlds, where being special, different, and having unique abilities are both highly sought-after and rewarded.
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“What’s pathological or problematic always needs to be evaluated within the cultural context,” Krizan says. “If you have almost unlimited power and resources you may rarely be in places where your narcissistic needs are threatened in such a way that it would actually cause a disruption.” A poor person with those same needs for grandiosity, in a different culture that doesn’t reward self-absorption, might be much more likely to exhibit problematic traits.
Possessing some narcissistic traits could actually be beneficial in certain contexts—grandiose narcissists are often achievement-oriented, charming, and successful—but those traits become far less desirable in romantic partnerships. For instance, one of the telltale signs of a narcissistic partner is that they are never able to own up to their wrongdoings or mistakes.
“It’s very difficult, if not impossible for a narcissist to be accountable for their actions,” says Wendy Behary, a psychotherapist and director of the Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey. Behary specializes in working with narcissists and people who are in relationships with them. “With a narcissist, it’s always deny, defend, justify, and blame.” As romantic partners, Behary says narcissists are also often dismissive, critical, controlling and demeaning, chipping away at their partner’s self-esteem and instilling a sense of self-doubt.
“Narcissists have a very difficult time admitting that they’ve made a mistake and the chief reason for this is that at their core there is someone who feels very ashamed and insecure, so much so that they have to be right, because to be wrong is an intolerable state of being. They can’t be responsible,” Behary says.
Because narcissistic traits happen on a spectrum, it can be difficult to tell whether you’re in a relationship with a diagnosable narcissist or just someone who exhibits the traits from time to time—which, let’s face it, many of us do.
“You might be in a relationship with a narcissist if your partner minimizes, judges, demeans, or alters everything you say. Or if there’s never a right answer to the questions your partner asks you, or you find yourself constantly deferring to what you think the “right” answer might be. Or if there’s hell to pay when you’re upset about something they did,” Behary says.
Perhaps it’s the special gift narcissists have for eating away at their partner’s sense of agency and efficacy that makes leaving a relationship with a narcissist notoriously difficult. Behary’s best recommendation for those who want out is to help the narcissistic partner see that breaking up is actually in their best interest. Keep in mind that other people’s needs are lower on the totem pole than their own, so it’s best to appeal to the ways in which a break-up could be a good thing—for them. If it’s possible, get the narcissist to initiate the break up.
“Because the narcissist cannot tolerate failure or rejection,” Behary says, “and being left is such an injury to their ego, it has to be their idea.”
While Behary says it’s pretty much impossible to have a healthy relationship with someone on the high end of the narcissism spectrum, it’s possible to make things work with someone on the lower end. And learning about narcissistic tendencies to avoid interpreting a partner’s behavior as a reflection of one’s self-worth or lovability can go a long way toward keeping one’s life and self-esteem in tact.
Correction (12/6/2018): A previous version of this story stated that obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is the most common personality disorder. It is actually obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD).
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