Now he’s 56, but back in college, Howard was the one who knew everything about everything among his group of peers. If someone was telling a story, he would interrupt them to tell a bigger, grander story. “I was fantastic at thinking on my feet to appear better than anyone else,” he confesses. Lying became a second skin, a way to appear slicker and more capable. As a youth camp director, he currently spends his time trekking along the open desert and among the mountains all over the U.S. He is sharp and highly engaged—approaching his work with a searing intensity that could rival any CEO. He’s also a diagnosed narcissist. Before he worked with youth, Howard never kept a job for very long. In fact, over the past 37 years, the longest he’s been able to hold one down has been 18 months. He has a propensity for manipulation, and even if you were his friend, he could lie to your face without missing a beat. But here’s the thing; he doesn’t want to. Not anymore. “For 40 years I was acting on my tendencies,” he admits. “Not one time did I think I was doing something wrong.” “I thought everyone was just like me.”
A Glimpse Into the Wound
What makes someone a narcissist, you might ask? Well, all emotional wounds can fester and become problematic, and in the case of narcissism, at the root of the diagnosis, there’s most likely a profound disruption in intimacy. “Their insecurities are light years [beyond] a normal person’s ordinary ownership of weaknesses and insecurities,” explains Nancy Irwin, PsyD, a Malibu-based licensed clinical psychologist. “Yet,” she says,“[a narcissist] never, ever will admit they have them.” As defined by Kristina Madjoska in “The Simple Science of a Grandiose Mind,” an article in The Harvard Science Review, a diagnosed narcissist pervasively feels grandiose, unique, and chosen. “Although on the surface a narcissist seems to be an invincibly confident person, feelings of deep shame and low self-esteem in response to social disapproval are at the core of NPD”—aka narcissistic personality disorder—she writes. While it’s hard to empathize with someone who continuously exhibits toxic behavior, we also shouldn’t take it personally. “It’s a survival strategy to them,” says psychotherapist Laura Dabney, MD, who treats patients in Virginia Beach. She contends that those with narcissistic traits possess a damaged sense of self, developed from their early relationship with caregivers or from living in a hostile environment. “We learn how to be intimate with our parents, so it stands to reason that if they don’t know how to do this, we won’t learn either.” Dabney claims that one of the biggest misconceptions is that narcissists are incapable of loving others. “While their capacity for empathy is damaged, they do have it, it’s just buried.” As with all things taboo, anything shrouded in silence remains misunderstood, which makes understanding and discussing narcissistic personality disorder even more imperative.
Replacing Love With Deception
Howard became highly proficient at remembering his lies. If someone came up to him today and mentioned something Howard told them 20 years ago, he says he would still remember the lie he told them. Because of this, his romantic relationships have often crumbled under the weight of his deception. “If I was around people for very long, they would have figured me out and left.” He recalls one relationship that he was able to hold down for several years. “We got engaged, picked out rings, and started planning the wedding,” he says. But everything soon came to a halt because of his narcissistic tendencies. Howard explains that he’s been in his current arrangement (not relationship) for 30 years. They currently live as roommates because, as he explains, “At this point, we are stuck with each other because neither of us can afford to move.” They also have two children together who he says don’t display his behavior. “I couldn’t even begin to try to count how many times the mother of my children has told me to quit lying or to stop trying to manipulate her.” “My son has a minor in psychology and understands what my tendencies are,” Howard says. “He’s tried to sit down with his mother to explain that I’m not doing it on purpose and that it’s a mental illness—she has refused [this] every time.” He makes it a point to mention that not one, but both of his kids have masters degrees and are very successful. According to Irwin, more than anything, a narcissist craves constant affirmation from everyone around them. This can come in the way of money, awards, press, compliments, or plain old adoration. “This is their oxygen.”
A Lonely Illness
“When I did make friends, they never stayed long.” He says his extreme arrogance, which he formerly mistook for self-confidence, was more than they could handle. According to Dabney, sustaining intimacy as a narcissist is difficult because while on some level they crave closeness, they are also unconsciously afraid of it. “So then they have to ‘break it’ by belittling the other person and rising above them.” But an expert explaining the disorder is different from how a person lives it. What loneliness looks likes like for Howard is not having anyone to talk to about his problems or check up on him when his symptoms act up—no one to go out and do anything with. “It’s just me and my computer.” But it’s not all bad, he says. “Not having any friends gives me the drive to succeed at everything I do.” “Individuals who exhibit narcissistic traits are probably some of the loneliest people,” claims cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, PhD. “…Loneliness increases toxicity as well as the risk of more mental and physical issues—exacerbating the problem.” “Lonely people tend to lack hope and peace,” she adds, “and many of them have learned how to put up a shield up front that says ‘I am great, I am better than you,’ while, in reality, they are desperate to be loved and heard.” As Madjoska writes, “In lacking empathy, a vital capacity for social bonding, a narcissist tends to form shallow and unfulfilling relationships.” “I’ve only had one friend for the past twenty years,” says Howard. “I can’t tell you why he stuck with me, but I’m truly happy that he did.”
Hitting rock bottom may be the only way up.
When Howard first became a camp director many years ago, he says his narcissistic tendencies gave him the freedom and autonomy to do some amazing things. He recounts having a staff of up to 125 who thought him to be the best in his field. Instead of answering to someone above him, he says he was left to do whatever he wished. And it was this newfound freedom that gave him the insight he had long suspected: He knew way more than any boss he’d ever had. Or so he once thought. “Being a director at summer camps just fed my illness,” he acknowledges. When people would come to him with their problems, he says his tendencies would kick in. “I would help them with their problem, but not until I told them how great I was at whatever their problem was.” It was around this same time that he noticed a sudden shift. “It all came on very quickly, I completely lost my drive and didn’t want to work.” But he couldn’t allow that to happen. He had worked his entire life to get in the position he was in and couldn’t allow that to just disappear. “I loved my job, it gave me exactly what I needed: confidence, praise, and knowing that I was making a positive impact on my kids.” It was soon after this crisis that he made an appointment with the physiatrist who initially diagnosed him with depression, social anxiety, and narcissistic tendencies. That first visit would be the beginning of a long road that involved a lot of medications. For the next two and a half years, Howard says he tried every drug on the market with only harsh side effects to show for results. After that tumultuous time, he finally found a combination that helped take the edge off of his symptoms. He also started receiving cognitive behavioral therapy. He remembers going into that first meeting still attempting to hijack the conversation, trying to convince the provider that he deserved 100 percent of their attention. While many of the exercises have helped, Howard remains skeptical things can ever entirely improve. “As far as I’m concerned, I can’t be ‘cured.’ I’ve been this way for so long it’s part of me.”
When Labels Breed Stigma
According to Leaf, who specializes in mental health, labels don’t take into consideration the context of a person’s life and what they have been through. She explains that labels—like “narcissist”—discount the evidence that people’s behavior is the result of experience and, in fact, changes over time. For example, someone who displays narcissistic behaviors and who needs to make others feel bad about themselves to make themselves feel good is really displaying an identity crisis from some toxic experience—such as bullying, toxic masculinity, or not being allowed to develop their true selves. Narcissistic behavior is, in a sense, lashing back at the society that they should have felt safe in, says Leaf. “In a distorted way, ‘narcissists’ are almost trying to right a wrong, but in an unhealthy way.” People behave in a narcissistic way because they have reacted to a toxic situation, she says. And this pattern of thinking, feeling, and choosing intensifies the more they think about it. “The reactions of the people that are the target of these interactions creates a negative feedback loop that often reinforces the toxic behavior.” “Labels lock people in,” she asserts. “If anything, it can create a more severe problem in addition to fostering a sense of hopelessness for both the person displaying this kind of behavior and for those that are at the receiving end of it.”
Denying Empathy as a Means of Survival
In On Narcissism: An Introduction, Sigmund Freud argued that narcissism is the desire and energy that drives one’s instinct to survive. But what happens when taken to the extreme? “A conflict can emerge in the person,” says Leaf. “They want to bond with others in a healthy way, but their negative experiences override their desires in an effort to protect their fragile identity.” When a person seems to have little regard for others by not listening to them, diverting the conversation back to themselves, or seeming to lack empathy, Leaf explains they may have been so wounded in the past that they over-process pain, which makes them feel worse about themselves. “Over time, to protect their minds, they block the pain of others out, and this can become a toxic pattern.” Leaf believes that if we can stop labeling someone as a narcissist—which implies that we thoroughly understand who they are at their core (which we do not)—we can see that this is a person who has a story to tell. “We can try to listen to what they are really saying.”
In His Own Words
After learning of his disorder, Howard began taking an honest inventory of who he was. “I had a lack of empathy for others, was extremely manipulative, self-centered, a liar.” “When I was speaking, I demanded that others listen to me.” If others tried to speak, he says it was irrelevant to him. “I could quickly figure someone out and know exactly what I needed to say so they would think I was much more knowledgeable than I was.” “I honed my skills so well that someone would be mad at me for lying to them and I could convince them that I was right and they were wrong.” Howard lives in a place with three large towns nearby. “Even with the surrounding area being so large, the word can still travel fast.” After attending his high school reunion earlier this year, Howard learned that despite the distance of 40 years, his old classmates still want nothing to do with him.
We’ve all more than likely come across a person with seemingly narcissistic characteristics. We’ve read about them in the news or turned to various articles in an attempt to make sense of their erratic behavior. It’s likely we’ve emotionally labored over whether to cut a loved one loose because of their toxicity—in many cases, with good reason. As previously noted on HealthyWay, people with narcissistic personality disorder can be pushy, hostile, and otherwise manipulative in their romantic relationships. “If a person is hurt by an NPD person who does not have any insight, then it is incumbent on that person to protect themselves and not try to change the NPD person,” Dabney says.
“[Setting boundaries is] a really acute part of examining how you want to proceed with a narcissist,” Sal Raichbach, PsyD, told HealthyWay earlier this year. “You might decide to stay with this person, [or] you might decide to retract and find other people to interact with, but if you’re going to be in a relationship with a narcissist, you have to have solid boundaries. You have to be willing to enforce them, and you have to not get caught up in the guilt that can come with [enforcement].”
“You have to be prepared not to provide the ‘supply’ that [the narcissist will need] all the time,” she says, “or be prepared to lose yourself.”
With all that said, the question remains: Can narcissism be overcome?
Between Hope and a Hard Place
There is no consensus on narcissistic personality disorder. For every expert who believes the disorder has no cure, there is another who encourages patience and understanding. Is it possible to be hopeful about a disorder that makes it hard to empathize with? Shouldn’t we just cut our losses and sever contact with people who display these tendencies? In short: Yes and no. A narcissist before and after years of treatment can seem like two entirely different people. As Dabney notes, there are many shades of NPD, and those on the healthier end of the spectrum possess more insight. “They usually can see their track record of stilted, damaged, or destroyed relationships and want to know how to ‘fix’ it.” Since empathizing with a narcissist can put our own emotional well-being in jeopardy, Dabney advises a more realistic approach. “Understanding that narcissists developed their patterns of behavior when they were young, as a protection from someone close to them who was [treating them inappropriately], may help people see that they are just wielding a battered, broken, spiky, and ineffective shield. They aren’t evil.” That said, treatment can span years—often a decade or more. And while cultivating our own sense of empathy is one thing, drawing firm boundaries should take center stage. As for Howard, learning about his narcissistic tendencies helped him improve certain aspects of his life. While he’d like to remain hopeful, he has his doubts. “When you have gone so many years using people, even if you know what you’re doing, you’re still going to do it.” Overall, what he hopes people would understand about NPD is that this isn’t how he wants to treat others. “It’s the illness that causes [me] to treat them that way.” But one thing he feels strongly about is the need for more conversations like these. “If people were educated on the signs of mental illness they may be able to save a friend going through what I have.”