You might have noticed that a lot of recent writing in the self-help and psychology genres addresses the issue of narcissism and narcissistic relationships. But just what does narcissistic mean? And what is a narcissist for that matter? Is there such a thing as a narcissism test? Let’s investigate just what is meant by these terms, what is might mean in the context of your life, and how you can go about addressing any relevant issues in your relationships.
What is a narcissist?
How would you define narcissist? To put it very simply, a narcissist is someone who is extremely self-involved. Adjectives that are often used to describe narcissistic individuals include: conceited, selfish, pretentious, vain, boastful, and egocentric. Like any personality trait, narcissism exists on a continuum, with some individuals displaying more extreme behavior and beliefs than others.
What is narcissism?
Narcissism, when taken to more of an extreme, is a recognized psychological disorder known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. There are several characteristics that typically appear in someone suffering from this condition:
- A preoccupation with self
- An inflated sense of self-importance
- A deep-seated desire for admiration
- Feelings of superiority and entitlement
- An exaggerated interpretation of talents and achievements
- A tendency to monopolize interactions with others
- A lack of empathy for others
- Issues with their self-esteem
- Vulnerable to anything that could be construed as criticism
But what does narcissistic mean in the realm of Psychology? There is an important difference between those people who we would informally refer to as narcissists, and those who genuinely suffer from narcissistic personality disorder. One important distinction lies in the extent to which the narcissism affects a person’s day to day life. Someone who is narcissistic in the lay sense is someone whom others would regard as vain, selfish, etc, but is able to function in society without significant impediments.
Someone who is diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, on the other hand, is someone who suffers from a mental illness. This pathological version of narcissism means that, rather than being in love with him/herself, the narcissist is in love with an ideal image of their perfect self.
This disorder will be an obstacle in several, if not all, areas of their life, such as work or school, relationships, and finances. People with this illness believe that they are deserving of special treatment, admiration’s and favors. When this is not forthcoming, severe disappointment and unhappiness sets in. This might be expressed in the form of impatience and anger. However, this extreme self-confidence is something of a facade in that it obscures a self-esteem that is much more fragile, vulnerable and insecure that one might initially suspect.
This explains why people who suffer from clinical narcissism find it challenging to accept any form of criticism – no matter how slight it might be. This is because critical comments cut through the mask of confidence, triggering their hidden feelings of insecurity, vulnerability, shame, and even humiliation.
Not being seen as perfect comes as a blow. It might result in feelings of depression, or it might evoke any number of reactions that are an attempt to feel better and regain a sense of confidence. These reactions usually involve anger and contempt, and even the belittling of others in an attempt to assume a position of superiority over others.
Is it possible to take a narcissism test?
Although it is possible to take a narcissism test (there are many available online), this is not recommended. The validity and reliability of these tests is generally not established, which has a negative effect on the test results. Certainly, the results of these informal tests are not to be used in place of a medical diagnosis.
In the case of someone who suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, this is a medical diagnosis that needs to be made by a qualified medical professional such as a registered psychiatrist. Typically, someone who seems to be displaying signs of this illness is assessed in accordance with the diagnostic criteria as laid out in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM – 5).
The highs and lows of a narcissistic relationship
Being in a relationship with a narcissist is particularly challenging. People who find themselves dating, living with, or married to a narcissist often describe the relationship as unfulfilling. This is not very surprising when you consider the fact that a narcissist lacks empathy, tends to monopolize conversations, and values him/herself more than anyone else.
Here are a few traits that tend to characterize narcissistic relationships:
- Communication is a one way street. The other person’s opinion is only valued if it correlates with the narcissist’s views.
- No matter the topic of conversation, a narcissist will interrupt in order to refocus the interchange on them.
- A narcissist will have little consideration or sensitivity for anyone else. This can mean broken promises, overstepping boundaries, unfulfilled obligations, and a general disregard for others or their possessions.
- The narcissist will focus on exterior displays or symbols of success. This can come in many different guises.
- A narcissist will expect their partner to immediately cater for their needs, without caring to reciprocate.
- When you spark the interest of a narcissist you will see their charming side: persuasive, engaging, social. But as soon as that interest fades, you will be disregarded without a second thought.
- A narcissist will use you to meet their needs.
How to handle a narcissistic relationship
If you find yourself in a relationship with a narcissist, there are several strategies you need to learn and employ:
- Remain calm and composed as best as possible.
- Act proactively, rather than reacting to a situation.
- Learn how to be diplomatic and firm when saying ‘No’.
- Hone your negotiation skills.
- Find ways to nurture cooperation and mutual respect.
- Be aware of how ‘you’ are feeling. Do you feel ‘less than’, ‘put down’, ‘unimportant’ and as if you are in a ‘constant state of struggle’? Do not buy into things you hear from others about your value (unless it is uplifting).
- Keep in mind your own desires and be confident that it is OK and important that your needs be met as well.
- Ask for what you want.
- Learn effective communication skills.
- Seek counseling.