BOW DOWN! I AM KANYE, SUCKERS! What Causes Narcissism and Ways to Deal with a Narcissist (Besides Running)

Monday, October 27, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

Narcissism is a word that gets thrown around a lot, often to describe those with high self worth. But as anyone who has been in a relationship with an actual narcissist knows, it is not the self worth that is the problem but rather a personality style that can be overbearing, attention seeking, grandiose and even downright abusive2. Narcissists may be bullies, show offs or addictive self-soothers2. They may show up as martyrs, workaholics or as rescuers proclaiming that they can “save” you if only you listen to them2. Narcissists may also use ploys such as vanishing when you need them or confuse you by switching from protector to jerk face at the drop of a hat. 

All of these traits add up to partners feeling powerless, resentful, intimidated or flat-out depressed. But partners are not the only ones with emotional issues. Narcissism is often related to early attachment difficulties and trouble with self regulation. Those with narcissistic traits tend to be victims of their past as much as they make others victims in the present. But this explanation IS NOT a way to excuse those behaviors. Nothing in this post is to suggest that someone in an abusive relationship should stay. Regardless of cause, there is no excuse for physical or emotional violence; a partner cannot use their past as a way to justify the present. 

But as much as we don’t want to admit it, narcissism doesn’t develop in a vacuum. And by understanding why it does come about, we may be able to identify better ways to avoid it, treat it, and even use some narcissistic traits to enhance society as opposed to hinder it.

Enhance society? What in the actual fuck, Meg?

Trust me guys, you don’t want to miss this post.

So where to start? How about with what narcissism actually looks like? (I mean, besides Kanye West.) 

What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

According to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V)Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of behavior or belief that begins in early adulthood and includes five (or more) of the following1:

  1. A grandiose sense of self-importance, i.e., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements.
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment or expects automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own goals.
  7. Lacks empathy or is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant or haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder tend to have impairments in functioning, which may include trouble with relationships, self esteem issues, problems with emotional regulation and extreme moods. They may also show high sensitivity to approval from others, i.e., they may set goals based on outside approval instead of internal drives.

That’s a whole lot of negativity. So why would anyone have these traits? 

How to Create a Narcissist

There are a few ways this comes about according to Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving With the Self Absorbed2

  • The Spoiled Child: In this case, being better than others was modeled by parents and the child was given special rights and privileges until they believed they deserved them. As they still believe this, they are unwilling to settle for less. 

However, most are not purely this type. In almost every case like this I have seen, those “spoiled children” were given things instead of love, privileges instead of attachment, a shit load of toys instead of the hug or support they really needed. 

  • The Dependent Child: Here, overly involved parents try so hard to protect the child that the kid never develops age-appropriate coping skills. Being robbed of personal competence and the ability to learn those coping skills for things like failure, kids and later adults rely on others to solve their problems and have very low tolerance for failure, vulnerability, frustration or embarrassment.

“Awwww, you got a bad grade because you didn’t study? Let me tell that asshole teacher she needs to change it.”

  • The Lonely Deprived Child: This is the most popular and the above usually maintain some element of this neglecting environment. In these cases, attachment is damaged, and children have issues with self regulation (or controlling their emotions). They have less ability to see things through other people’s eyes because they weren’t responded to appropriately in ways that helped encourage empathy early on. They may even come to see the desire for attention as weak. These factors may may also lead them to see individuals as objects as opposed to people, as discussed more by Daniel Goldman in Emotional Intelligence10. For these kids, a parent’s love is contingent on achievements and many are manipulated to do things with criticism or shame for not meeting expectations. Being less than perfect means the child is unlovable and inadequate. That’s too much for anyone to live up to, let alone small children who become convinced that they will never be good enough.

So what’s a kid to do? 

For children and adults alike, it becomes a necessity to focus on the self with an attitude of, “No one else will care for me. Fuck them. I will show those assholes and do it myself.”  This is logical, rational, and self protectant because if they can adapt this mindset effectively enough they can avoid the pain of the rejection as well as shut off painful emotions. And we don’t often see this element as negative because society tends to embrace grandiosity and independence as opposed to vulnerability3.

However, as opposed to being simply deprived, or simply dependent, most individuals have a combination of these three. Deprived-dependents may come across as more hypersensitive and have more issues with self-soothing behaviors like numbing with substances2. Spoiled-dependents may come across as superior and expect to be indulged, while feeling incompetent, perhaps actively seeking praise2

But not everyone from these environments becomes narcissistic and there might be a few things that up your chances, including genetics. Researchers note that narcissism is heritable6,7 with some studies going so far as to show links between specific narcissistic traits and specific genetic factors7. Of course, as with borderline personalities, psychopathy and depression, genes need to be turned on by environmental factors. And the fact that those with these genes tend to have parents with similar traits to model them makes such puzzles tricky to tease apart.

Because of all these differences in genetics and environment, there is a fairly large continuum on which narcissistic traits fall. But the underlying theme remains: narcissists usually need more assistance than they get because the traits they need to address are the same ones encouraged by our society of independence-minded, corporate take-no-prisoners mentalities.

Plus, not all narcissistic traits are negative. 

What the what? Don’t hurt me, guys. Let’s check this out real quick before we go back to wanting to punch dudes like Kanye West. We don't even have to hurry, because, let's be honest, there will always be a reason to want to punch that mother fucker. 

The Benefits of Narcissism

Aside from self protection in early years, there may be long-term advantages to some of these traits, both for individuals and societies (though this is less true at higher levels of disorder). 

As discussed by the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, our society has been moving quite quickly towards a focus on self esteem and individuality and away from community-oriented thinking4, which has informed the way we treat our children. Anthropologist Meredith Small, and author of Our Babies, Ourselves agrees, noting that the way we treat children tends to be reflective of the society around us, with parents encouraging the traits that will make a child most productive in their particular society5 (more on that in Behaviorism and Maternal Anxiety). 

So while we may be moving towards entitlement and narcissism, we may be doing it subconsciously as a reflection of a drive to create the most productive, most competitive offspring in a  society where those traits actually matter as a function of success. And if the research on psychopathy is any indication, we might be striving towards some of the same traits we believe we logically want to eliminate. (Read more on this in Why We’re Breeding Psychopaths.)

But, this may not all be bad. Because as authors of The Narcissism Epidemic note, there is a new breed of narcissist on the horizon, those who don’t display the pathological traits normally seen in practice4. Instead, these individuals use a higher self esteem, extraversion and assertive traits to function more effectively in society, even influencing it in a positive way as seen in some celebrities (think more Stephen Colbert or Oprah, less Kanye). Those who have healthy levels of narcissistic traits may remain engaged and empathic. They may be self-possessed leaders who seek recognition for the good they do while being able to determine negative or destructive qualities or fears. They may also be confrontational in a way that holds others accountable for their actions1. As one researcher put it, these well-adjusted narcissists are not so much scary as they are, “somebody who, at the moment of peak sexual bliss, cries out his own name!”3. Not so terrible in the grand scheme of things, though your partner might not be so excited about that. 

I think the point is that before we ban princess tee-shirts, looking at why we are encouraging these traits, and how they might be necessary for future generations within our society, is probably worth looking at, regardless of my personal feelings on said tee-shirts.

Regardless of the potential for good, we do need to do something about those who have more pathological narcissistic traits. So let’s look at that. 

How To Help A Narcissist

With regards to how to deal with a narcissist, the advice of many is, “Don’t.” While this can be difficult for those already enmeshed in relationships, “don’t” is good advice when a partner is emotionally or physically abusive, engaging in (not agreed upon) promiscuous actions or other dangerous or criminal behaviors. “Don’t” is also good advice if the individual is a physical or emotional threat to your children, yourself, or other community members. Some narcissists may also control their partners through various means such as finances, or withhold sex as a means of control or punishment. This should not be taken lightly either, though levels of tolerance vary. 

If you are in a relationship with a perilous narcissist, who is threatening or otherwise abusive, stop reading here, and contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. In any perilous situation, my advice will remain, “DON’T”. (For more on domestic violence and additional resources, check out Victim Blaming and Why Women Stay.)

For those narcissists who aren’t perilous, let’s start with us because an environment of safety and understanding will be a big first step in overcoming the traumas that led to narcissism as well as fostering healthier current relationships. (Though again, I am NOT encouraging anyone to try these tactics with a perilous narcissist or with someone you suspect might have psychopathic traits.) 

And really, help a narcissist? What about us? 

For clarity, the pain in these relationships is the fault of the one inflicting the pain. This is not to put the responsibility on the partner of the narcissist: those with narcissistic traits need to HELP THEMSELVES. But as with any other disorder, support from partners and altering environments offers the best chance to heal (which helps partners by default). If we don’t help the narcissist, the best advice remains “don’t deal with them” because things will not change. But in cases where both parties are committed to saving a relationship, looking at the hows and whys might be a piece to the puzzle of healing. And looking deeply at why the things they do affects you can also be an important piece to your own personal healing picture.

Clear enough? Okay, so on to us.

If you are being affected by the actions of a narcissistic partner, you first need to understand how, and it is more than “because he’s being a dick.” Because while he may indeed be an asshole, he’s playing on something in you. By identifying it, you may be able to separate yourself from it, be less affected by it and make more logical decisions to leave, or to demand a different type of treatment.

For instance, let’s say you have an internal model that triggers you into anxiety when you feel abandoned because your father walked out on your family during your childhood. When your narcissistic partner says he’s leaving you because you didn’t do something the way he demanded, this serves as punishment. A narcissistic partner knows this is punishment, that this affects you, that it hurts you. You should know this as well. And if you can see that you are being affected so violently due to early attachment models, you may be able to check yourself “before you wreck yourself” in the form of nasty emotional upheaval (more here in How to Create a Codependent Relationship). Because when we feel threatened, our emotional response has the ability to shut down parts of the brain used in higher prefrontal cortex functioning, leaving us with more primitive fight or flight defensive mechanisms as discussed by Daniel Siegel in Mindsight8. And that fight/flight mode, in and of itself, can lead to more escalation when everyone in the room is in “self defense” mode and not “discuss” mode.

Whether a narcissistic partner is using shame, isolation, incompetence, hypercriticism, mistrust, fears of failure or any number of other internal models (or schemas), you have the ability to pull back, recognize why it is altering your sense of safety, and address it head on9. (For more on identifying those early models check out Schema Therapy, a Practitioner’s Guide.) You may also be able to see what schemas your partner is using to protect themselves to open lines of communication. For if your narcissist is one who is a perfectionist due to a schema of fear of failure and a history of unrelenting standards from caretakers, showing them that you love them without that perfection might be a first step in healing the relationship, along with setting up clear, firm boundaries about what type of treatment you will and will not accept (discussed more here in How Healthy Are Your Boundaries?). 

In the above situation, if you are aware of both your fear of abandonment and his fear of failure you may be able to find healthy assertive statements that will break through walls of resistance over time such as, “I understand that you are upset because I asked you to stop leaving your things on the floor. I can see that this made you feel threatened. But yelling at me is not acceptable, ever. Because while I love you even when I trip over your shoes, I find it difficult to want to be around you at all when you treat me that way.” In these ways, you provide respect, and note your feelings without counter-attacking (which avoids escalation).


It is important to note that most narcissists are not receptive to this unless there is a specific reason for them to listen as their defenses tend to revolve around blocking emotional pleas. A confronted narcissist is not usually a friendly one (though they tend to respond far better to logic than emotions). Breaking down walls built on the back of early neglect is not something to be taken lightly. For this reason (yet again), it is critical to seek the assistance of a trained professional, preferably one who specializes in narcissism. And in some cases it takes being ready to leave the relationship or some other leverage before a narcissist will agree to attend therapy. 

Breaking free from past trauma and attacking current relationship issues is a process that is not generally fixed overnight, so make a concerted effort to be loving towards yourself (for more on this check out Challenging Negative Self Talk with Mindfulness and Self Compassion). While this post may provide insight and a few things to look at for coping reasons, it cannot alter a relationship without some assistance. Tackling a relationship with a narcissist is not something to do alone. Read the blog. Share it. Read a few of the books linked in this post. But find physical and emotional help to take the next steps towards healing. 

Related Posts: 


Topic-Relevant Resources

Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy--and the Nature of Advice
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer on the nature of relationships and the journey towards self discovery

Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed
Do you have a narcissistic partner? This book is for you. Full of useful tips to enhance relationships and thrive beyond disorder.

The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement
Are we breeding narcissists? Probably. But it might not be as bad as we think.

Schema Therapy: A Practitioner's Guide
Do you understand what triggers you into anxiety? It might be early patterns of behavior and emotion, models built in the brain. This book illustrates the most common models (or schemas) to assist you in understanding your responses.

Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited (FULL TEXT)
Take a walk inside the brain of a narcissist in this book. A must read for those involved with narcissistic partners.

I Hate You--Don't Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality
A look inside Borderline Personality Disorders and effective treatments.

Our Babies Ourselves
Anthropology and childrearing with a unique focus on the effects of culture on mothering