Understanding Today's Narcissist is a podcast dedicated to separating fact from fiction when it comes to dealing with a narcissist in your life. This podcast is hosted by Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC, a licensed psychotherapist, speaker and author.
“I hate him, with every fiber of my being, I hate him,” Marie said as she looked back on her day. “But while I hate him for this moment, I won’t let the hate linger because I’m not going to give him that power over me.” After years of silence, her bio dad sent a package of weight loss tea to her work. It was his way of saying, “Happy Mother’s Day, I see you. I’m watching you. You need to lose weight.”
This was not the first package of its kind. Over the 30 years of no contact, he would periodically send Marie a newspaper clipping, an article, or random note all with the same weight loss message. Marie knew it wasn’t about her weight, it was his way of sparking insecurity, disapproval, and paranoia in her. He did this to get her back for the years of distance. The packages almost always followed shortly after her brother, who kept limited contact, would have a visit with him.
It took Marie years to unpack the damage his pathology did to her psyche. Sociopaths are gifted at installing bugs into a person’s hardware that can remain hidden for years which slow down the functioning of a person and can even destroy it if left unchecked. But this time, instead of sparking fear in Marie, she used his “gift” as a reminder of the now eradicated lies.
Chuck knew he was a jerk. He cheated on his wife several times, put his work before his family, rarely went to his kid’s activities, drank heavily on the rare occasions that he was home, and verbally berated anyone who challenged him. And yet, he was a highly successful businessman, intelligent about a wide range of topics, had numerous friends, and was charming (when he wanted to be). Nonetheless, despite getting his way most of the time, Chuck was miserable.
He toyed with counselors in the past, going only when needed to preserve his marriage, but not putting any real effort into changing. Instead, he would strategically turn the counselors against his wife over many sessions, leaving her a bigger mess than when they began. He was proud of his ability to manipulate situations that normally would be to his detriment into his benefit. This precise skill was used in business as well to make him far more successful than his natural abilities.
But here he was at the mid-point of his life, wondering what was it all for? He made money to spend it on cars, boats, and houses but these things just needed more money to exist. He was a rags-to-riches story but never seemed to fill the hole in his heart that told him, “You will never amount to anything.” He had sex to feel intimacy and connection but couldn’t feel satisfied. He had a family to secure a sense of belonging but instead found shame.
Ida realized her mother was a narcissist in her early 20’s. But what she didn’t expect was the developmental impact on her childhood. Normally, a child is given the freedom to explore and express their individuality so they can develop into a confident and well-balanced adult. This nurturing environment prioritizes the needs of the child over the parent without overindulgence. But this did not happen for Ida.
Instead, Ida is hypersensitive to what other people might think about her. Her mother emphasized appearance and demanded perfection. When Ida would gain a few pounds, her mother would berate her and tell her that no one will ever love a fat person. She would say that Ida was an embarrassment and her mom would refuse to buy her new clothes or take her out until she lost the weight.
Naturally, Ida developed severe anxiety, depression, and eating disorder. As she entered her late teens, she added drinking and some drugs to the mix. Unable to please her mother, Ida chose to please her friends who were also engaged in an unhealthy lifestyle.
Ida was unaware of her dysfunctional narcissistic parent as a child. It wasn’t until rehab that she fully accepted her mother’s false perception of reality. Even though her mother insisted on the rehab, she became angry during parent’s weekend. Ida’s now healthy perspective became threatening to her mother because it exposed the poor narcissistic parenting.
As a result, her mother completely withdrew complaining that the rehab ruined her. But for Ida, this is just the start. Without her mother’s voice in her ear, the years of narcissistic parenting revealed far more devastating consequences. Using the symptoms of a narcissist as the starting point, here are the results of dysfunctional parenting and the road to recovery:
Grandiosity breeds criticalness. Ida’s mom magnifies her accomplishments to the point that Ida believed she was super-human. Ida desperately tried to live up to the image of her mother. However, when she came close, her mother rose the bar again to keep it just out of reach. Ida then became overly critical of her actions, believing she needed to be perfect.
Recovery: Ida accepted her imperfections and embraced them as a normal part of herself. Instead of trying to please others, she decided to please herself.
Idealism breeds despair. Ida’s mom created her own fantasy world where she was all-powerful, brilliant, and beautiful. Ida was expected to be physical extensions of her mom. When Ida achieved a reward, it is as if her mother got it instead. Since no success was solely at the hands of Ida, she lost hope that her accomplishments matter. This generated feelings of despair and despondency.
Recovery: Ida made a list of her accomplishments and unique talents. Whenever she would feel down, she reviewed the list to gain perspective.
Superiority breeds inferiority. For Ida’s mother, being average was as bad as below average. Since narcissists believe they are superior and can only associate with other superior people, their children by extension must also be exceptional. This pressure was overwhelming to Ida who realized she was not extraordinary in everything she did. As a result, this unrealistic expectation set by her mother generated feelings of inferior. “I can never be good enough,” was a common thought.
Recovery: Ida started saying, “I am enough” to counteract the negative thinking and empower her.
Attention-seeking breeds anxiety. Her mom needed a daily feeding of attention, affection, affirmation or admiration. When Ida was small, she learned that the quickest way to get her needs met is to fill these needs of her mom first. This is behavioral conditioning at its finest. However, Ida’s anxiety manifested as she constantly tried to anticipate and meet the needs of her mom to prevent an emotion explosion or backlash.
Recovery: The more Ida was away from her mother, the more her anxiety diminished and she was able to enjoy relief the pressure of anxiety.
Entitlement breeds shame. By nature of being a parent, Ida’s mom expected her to go along with whatever she wanted. The wants or desires of Ida was constantly overshadowed or belittled by her mom. This generated feelings of shame in Ida as she began to invalidate her own likes and dislikes in favor of her mom. Consequently, Ida became a shell believing her uniqueness and individuality was shameful.
Recovery: Ida made a list of what she liked. Taking clues from the musical lyric, “These are a few of my favorite things,” Ida made her own list of favorite items.
Selfishness breeds mistrust. In the pursuit of self-preservation, Ida’s mother justified taking advantage of others, including Ida. Ida’s childish behaviors were met with swift and severe punishment despite her mother’s consistent modeling of the same behavior. The narcissist abuses their parental role by diverting attention from their selfishness and instead highlights the deficiencies of their child. This propagated mistrust in Ida as she ascertained her mother to be an unsafe and untrustworthy person.
Recovery: Instead of trusting her mother, Ida focused on other healthy relationships in her life establishing a trust bond. A life-long friend was the perfect replacement.
Indifference breeds over responsibility. Even when Ida was excitedly talking about a new adventure, her mother would tune Ida out or divert the conversation to make it about her. Worse yet, when Ida was in pain, either emotional or physical, there was no empathy or understanding. Sadly, Ida didn’t see this as her mother’s problem, rather she assumed the responsibility that somehow, she was in the wrong. The result was an internal nagging of needing to take responsibility for the flaws or faults of others.
Recovery: Ida stopped taking responsibility for other people’s actions and allowed them to make mistakes. She realized that she is only responsible for herself.
Materialism breeds dissatisfaction. Narcissists use material possessions as a way of elevating themselves over others and controlling behavior. Ida’s mom used gifting as a way of demanding performance from Ida. If Ida did what was expected, she got elaborate and expensive gifts. But if Ida did not live up to expectations, she did not get a gift at all, including for birthdays or holidays. The use of material objects in this manner steels the joy of the item as Ida was in constant fear that the gift will be revoked for lack of performance.
Recovery: Ida decided that she didn’t want to be so materialistic, so she became minimalistic instead. This allowed her not to feel the pressure of having stuff.
Arrogance breeds inauthenticity. While Ida’s mom put on a show of snootiness to everyone outside of the home, those inside, especially Ida, saw the deep-rooted insecurity that lied beneath the façade. However, if Ida dared to expose the insecurity, she was swiftly gaslighted and made to look crazy. This taught Ida never to reveal her own uncertainties resulting in a lack of genuineness.
Recovery: Ida embraces her faults and instead of hiding them, exposed them in a humous manner. This gave her a feeling of control.
Fortunately, these childhood patterns can be reversed through an understanding of narcissism, awareness of false truths, and more accurate perception of reality. Counseling is extremely beneficial in exposing and eradicating the lies of narcissistic parenting.
Looking back, Jack could see that his relationship with Amanda was over several months ago, perhaps even years. But he was in denial and didn’t want to confront the painful issues that were left unresolved. What was once overlooked, minimized, explained away, or discounted is now an obvious sign of his deteriorating relationship.
At first, she seemed so charming, helpful, generous, innocent, and gentle but then things turned, and an entirely different picture became apparent. Charming converted into controlling, helpful developed into obstructive, generous transformed into manipulative, innocent turned into culpable, and gentle grew into turbulent. He was exhausted and worn out but stayed.
Then hopeful turned to hopeless and he was no longer able to continue in the relationship. The signs that the relationship was toxic are now clearer once Jack left. But how can he prevent this from happening in the future? Here are the 11 signs he missed.
Transfers risk. Amanda asked Jack to assume her risk over a potentially sticky matter. Her job required random drug tests and since she used the prior weekend, she asked Jack to lie about her taking a prescription drug. She was afraid she was going to lose her job and asked him to cover for her. Of course, he could lose his government job for lying about this. But that didn’t matter to Amanda. She demanded that he help using everything from crying, to manipulate, to anger, and finally bribery.
Constant victimization. Amanda told stories of past relationships where she was painted as the victim and her ex’s as the villain. Her constant influx of terrible people was used as a justification for not thriving. At first, Jack believed everything Amanda said. But after a while, Amanda’s ability to cut people out of their lives and continue her victimization wore on him.
Inappropriate anger. Anger is a base emotion and a catch-all for other more intense feelings such as loneliness, fear, guilt, or controlling tendencies. It can come out in inappropriate ways such as aggression (bullying), suppression (silent treatment) or passive-aggressive (biting sarcasm). Amanda’s outbursts were intense, inappropriate, and designed to force Jack into submission. Jack, who hated conflict, would regularly fold just to keep the peace.
Abusive tactics. Several abusive methods surfaced such as twisting the truth, gaslighting, verbal assaults, physical aggression, or guilt-tripping. These are all unhealthy indicators. Amanda would escalate given the right time, motivation, and environment. Any indicator of abuse is a bad sign. Jack was unaware of the abuse signals. His instincts told him something was off, but his logical brain dismissed the feeling and looked no further.
Gossip talks. Amanda shared secrets with Jack about other people despite a clear breach of confidentiality. Unfortunately, how Amanda spoke about others was an indicator of how she would speak about Jack. Jack never dreamed that Amanda would spill his long-kept secret about some childhood abuse, but she did. When he confronted her, she justified her actions saying that he was being too sensitive.
One-way communication. Jack did most of the work maintaining the relationship. Amanda did not reach out as often as Jack did. Whereas, conversations seem to be weighted in Amanda’s direction. Amanda wanted help with her issues but then wasn’t present for Jack. This lopsidedness bothered Jack, but he did little to confront it.
No responsibility. When there was a problem, Amanda refused to apologize and instead blamed things on Jack. Even when she was wrong, Amanda found ways to highlight Jack’s faults to avoid her own responsibility. She also had a lack of empathy for causing harm to Jack but expected empathy from him.
Controlling tendencies. Amanda told Jack what to do and how to do it. Even when Jack followed her lead, she would still find the slightest fault with what he did. Then, Amanda would become angry when things weren’t done the way she insisted. There was little to no understanding of Jack’s differences in temperament, personality or circumstances.
Absolute agreement. There was no allowance for differing opinions for Amanda. Jack had to agree with her 100% of the time even on sensitive topics such as religion or politics. Any deviation was a personal betrayal and could cause Amanda to escalate. Over time, Jack gave up his opinions in favor of hers just to avoid the tension.
Dichotomous expressions. There were only two choices Amanda would give to Jack and both selections tended to be exaggerated extremes. Her choices were presented in black or white versions. There was a right way (usually Amanda’s) and a wrong way. Even when Jack would propose another alternative, Amanda would knock it down.
Addictive behaviors. In the beginning, Amanda appeared to have it all together. But as the relationship continued, her abuse of substances became more apparent. When Jack would address her with his concerns, she would explode. Eventually, he learned not to speak about it.
If all 11 examples are present in a relationship, it is time to leave. Jack did this and he did not regret his decision. This is potentially an unsafe environment where the longer Jack remained, the worse things would become. However, if there are only a couple of items, be mindful watching for any other additions so an early exit might be possible before things worsen.
It was during Tim’s divorce from his wife of 18 years that he realized she had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. She had been a vindictive woman towards others in the past, cutting people off permanently when they accidentally or intentionally embarrassed her. But for some reason, he thought his 18-year marriage commitment would inoculate him from similar treatment. It did not. Even though she agreed to get a divorce, Tim’s filings of the papers seemed to set her off to an entirely different level.
In the past, she said that he was a good father. Now to everyone who would listen: their friends, extended family, and the court, she painted a different picture. She accused him of abusive behavior, scaring the children, being fearful of her life, and hiding funds from the family (even though she managed the finances). She even took moments when she exploded and turned it around saying that he was the one who lost it.
Tim was shocked and immediately went on the defensive pulling out cards, text messages, and pictures desperately trying to show the fallacy of her claims. Confused by her response to the divorce, he sought out the same marriage therapist they had seen a few years ago. It was then he received confirmation of something he had long suspected, she was narcissistic.
But now what. Tim didn’t want to go around telling everyone that she had narcissistic traits because he would look just like her. He also didn’t want to tell his children anything negative about their mother for fear that they would say something to friends, family, or worse her. So, Tim needed a different strategy. Here is what he did.
Pick out keywords. Tim took the definition of narcissism and selected keywords that were clearly identifiable in his soon-to-be-ex. Here is the list: acts superior to others, behaves arrogantly, is unforgiving, doesn’t apologize or admit error, is selfish, exaggerates accomplishments, fantasizes about her looks, needs constant attention, obsessed with looking younger, believes others want her life, shows no empathy, is opportunistic even when it hurts others, and demands others do as she requests. He chose six traits that could be easily been seen: unapologetic, vane, no empathy, superior attitude, selfish, and demanding. By using some of the traits and not the word narcissism, it opens up the dialogue without alienating or attacking.
Find other examples. Instead of pointing out the six traits in his soon-to-be-ex to others, Tim choose a few popular people to highlight the same characteristics. For his friends, he selected a local politician who displayed the traits. For his kids, he selected a sports figure and an entertainer that they already knew. For his family, he chose another relative that was already distant from the group. By pointing out the behaviors, attitudes, and actions that look narcissistic without using the word, Tim was able to begin a dialogue about dysfunctional conduct. He was also able to talk about the behavior without pointing a finger at his soon-to-be-ex.
Learn from others. Once his friends, kids, and family were all in agreement that the dysfunctional behavior was wrong, he used this as a learning opportunity. For his kids, he talked about how not to be selfish and that it is was unhealthy not to admit to wrongdoing. For his friends and family, he asked them how they handled people like that and what they believed he could do differently. Never once did he mention his soon-to-be-ex and anytime the conversation turned towards her, he redirected it. This insulated him and it also caused his friends, family, and kids to draw their own conclusions without feeling like they were being forced into the same decision.
Discuss boundaries and expectations. The next set of conversations was about resetting expectations and establishing healthy boundaries. Tim, having finally realized that he could not change his soon-to-be-ex, began a dialogue about how some people don’t want to change and it is wrong to force it on them. But if their behavior continues to be unhealthy, it is normal to set personal boundaries to keep from getting hurt. Again, he used the figures as his examples and came up with strategies for the establishment of healthy boundaries. By getting buy-in with other examples, his boundary setting with his soon-to-be-ex appeared normal.
Manage the bully. Once the groundwork was established with his kids, family, and friends, Tim then started discussing how to handle a bully. Again, he did not use the word: narcissist. Instead of becoming defensive when she attacked him as he had in the past, Tim talked about standing up to a bully without becoming one. His kids liked the idea of using sarcasm when being attacked, while his friends and family preferred a more direct approach, “Sorry you think or feel that way.” Tim encouraged them to try out the new approach on their own bullies and report back what worked and what didn’t. This open indirect approach allowed for plenty of conversation without condemnation, humiliation, or embarrassment.
After several series of conversations, it worked. His family, friends, and even kids began to see the narcissism without Tim having to say a word about it. This changed the dialogue and minimized the impact of the narcissism.
One of the hardest types of people to deal with is a narcissist in the middle their addiction. They are completely exhausting. The combined selfishness of narcissism and addictive behavior is overpowering, relentless, callous, and frequently abusive. This destructive blend of arrogant thinking in that they are always right and that they do not have a problem leads to devastating consequences.
There are many parts to the addicted narcissist and their road to recovery. The point of this article is to recognize the injurious behavior so more reasonable expectations can be established during the process and for the family.
Origins. In both addicts and narcissists, shame is the common denominator. Stage two of Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Development which occurs between 18 months and three years old has shame as the negative outcome. Not all narcissists or addicts have trauma during these years, but it can be a good place to begin. Because there is a strong concurrence, about 50% of narcissists are addicts of some sort. Some studies suggest that fetal alcohol syndrome in a child is a sign of a female narcissist.
Enablers. There are frequently two enablers. One bolsters the ego of the narcissist and one unknowingly encourages the addiction. The narcissistic enabler minimizes all signs of addiction and fosters feelings of superiority over others. The addiction enabler is likewise blind to symptoms of addiction therefore justifying financially supporting it. Both are needed to maintain the self-image of the narcissist.
Sometimes, the victim of narcissistic abuse is the sole enabler. This person naively empowers both behaviors to continue. They have been told that the addiction is in their minds and they are the one to blame for it continuing. Saying like these are common. “No one else sees what you are seeing, you are the crazy one.” “If only you would do…, then I won’t have to…”
The Cycle. The addiction cycle is comingled with the narcissistic abuse cycle. It begins when the narcissist feels threatened. They become angry and take out their frustration on a victim. Sensing resistance from the victim, they retreat to their addiction. The drug of choice reinforces their idealistic fantasies, perception of omnipotence, and extravagant schemes. However, this results in the enablers retreating from the narcissist. Now confused, the narcissistic ego feels threatened and the cycle repeats.
Step One. The most difficult step is to get a narcissist to admit to their addiction. This is the first mandatory step of all addictive recovery which is particularly problematic for a person who believes they are above others. Not only are they reluctant to admit there is a problem, but they refuse to allow someone inferior to point it out. This is why confronting a narcissist about their addiction usually results in substantial rage.
Rehab. The only rehab a narcissist willingly attends is an elite facility. Even there, they expect special treatment and believe the rules are for others. During group counseling sessions, they are bored and view it as trivial. Sometimes they become intolerant and even abusive towards staff members. Instead of taking the time to heal, they look for loop holes in the system, complain about inefficiencies, become single-minded about insurance/costs, and blame others for having to be at rehab.
Recovery. A narcissist is unwilling to wait the prescribed time period to see if the recovery is effective. Instead, they expect immediate results and others to comply fully with their miraculous healing in a very short time period. Unfortunately, because the narcissist has grandiose beliefs about self, they rarely learn during treatment thus making their prognosis poor.
Relapse. It is not impossible for a narcissist to recover from an addiction. In fact, when they see it as damaging to their image, they are able to eliminate the addiction almost instantly and without emotional consequences. However, they do return to the addictive behavior later as a way to demonstrate they ultimately have power and control over the drug of choice.
Just because the narcissist feeds off illusions of grandeur, doesn’t mean the family support system needs to strengthen that belief. A family can be supportive while having reasonable expectations for the narcissist’s prognosis. It is far more loving to accept someone within their own limitations than to insist they become someone they are not.
Margie was devastated when her mother passed away. Her mom was diagnosed with cancer one month and then gone by the next. She had a close relationship with her mom and frequently leaned on her for support in her marriage, parenting her kids, and balancing family and work. The loss left a huge hole in her heart that she tried to grieve but couldn’t.
The day of her mom’s funeral, her husband complained about being sick and asked Margie to go to the pharmacy for him. His “sickness” prevented him from helping her get the kids ready, straighten up the house, and answer phone calls from relatives. The one day she wanted to spend celebrating her mom was overshadowed by his neediness and refusal to assist her. When friends would express remorse for Margie’s loss, her husband would interrupt and talk about how much he was going to miss her. She tried to get away from her husband but she would find her and talk about how bad he was feeling. There was no show of empathy for her.
Years later, during a counseling session, Margie’s therapist pointed out that she had not yet grieved her mother. Within months of losing her mom, her husband got a job change and moved the family from Margie’s childhood neighborhood. Margie was thrust into doing all the arrangements for the move, finding a new place, transferring school records, and establishing their new residence. After that, there was one thing after another that keep Margie from taking the time to grieve. Worse yet, every time she tried, her husband would make things about him. It wasn’t until counseling that Margie realized just how narcissistic he was.
While the narcissism alone was difficult to manage, Margie had not realized how he had prevented her from grieving. Looking back over their marriage, there were other times when Margie had significant emotional responses such as joy, anger, excitement, fear, contentment, and sadness but she never felt the freedom to express herself. As a result, she shut down emotionally and appeared in therapy with a flat affect. How does this happen?
The Narcissism Mask. At the heart of every narcissist is deep-rooted insecurity. Their grandiosity, superiority, arrogance, and selfishness make up the mask the narcissist puts on to hide their pain or fear. This mask makes the narcissist look perfect, charming, engaging, and even entertaining. But it is a façade and they will do whatever it takes to protect it including lying, deceiving, manipulating, and taking advantage of others. However, their insecurity prevents them from caring for their mask alone. Therefore, they need help from others to keep the mask in place. The only help they want is daily attention, affirmation, adoration, and affection. This feeds their ego, protects the insecurity, and solidifies the mask.
The Narcissistic Threat. Any event, circumstance, trauma, or even abuse that could detract the narcissist from getting their feeding is a threat. When their spouse has arranged a gathering of their friends, the narcissist will often throw temper tantrums just before leaving. Knowing they will not be the center of attention at the event, they draw attention to themselves prior to the event. Even though the narcissist has a wonderful time at the event and finds ways to absorb attention, they still repeat this pattern the next time. This is especially true when the event is about their spouses such as a funeral, awards ceremony, or office function.
The Narcissistic Cycle. Any attempts to call the narcissist’s attention towards their selfish behavior will be met with quick abuse such as a verbal assault of name calling – “You’re a …”, a threat of abandonment – “Fine, you can go without me”, or the silent treatment – “I’m not going to say anything.” When their spouse fights back, the narcissist becomes the victim and guilts the spouse into apologizing, acquiescing, and accepting responsibility for the narcissist’s behavior. This is sometimes repeated numerous times before an event. It is an abusive pattern designed to remind the spouse that no matter what happens during the event, it is still all about the narcissist.
The Result. The spouse shuts down. After numerous cycles before, during, and after an event, the spouse concludes that it is better to not express any emotion or even tell their spouse about achievements or successes. Because the narcissist treats all events with the same resistance, drama, and abuse cycle, the spouse stops engaging. This is where the marriage begins to fall apart as the spouse becomes a shell of their former selves. The narcissist has successfully molded a mask for the spouse to wear so they too can share in the façade. Having someone join them in mask wearing is comforting at first but ultimately becomes a new source of jealousy. And so it all begins again with another cycle.
Margie finally got it. She started seeing the cycle, ignoring his threats, calling out his abuse, and refusing to accept his responsibility. More importantly, she began the grieving process of her mom’s death, from the move out of her childhood neighborhood, and from the realization that her husband was narcissistic. It took some time to process all of this but as she did, she got stronger and stronger. Eventually, her strength became unattractive to her husband who moved onto a new relationship and then filed for divorce.
At a family gathering, Susie’s 2-year-old son was happily running around until her mother-in-law pulled out her cane and tripped him. Susie looked on in horror as the grandmother laughed while her son cried from the fall. Then the grandmother yelled at the boy for crying, calling him a crybaby. Susie swept up her son and took him away.
Later her husband asked what happened. Apparently, his mother reported that Susie was being overprotective of their son, she was coddling him, and even gave the mother an evil eye for no reason. Susie’s husband listened to a ten-minute rant from his mother about the multiple faults of Susie before he broke away. When Susie explained what really happened, her husband decided that it was time to act.
As a child, Susie’s husband endured emotional, mental, and sometimes physical abuse from his narcissistic mother. He spent many years in therapy and thought that due to her age and deteriorating physical condition, she would not be a threat to his son. But he was wrong. The tripping of his son followed by the laughter and belittlement was all too familiar. This was not a pattern that he wanted to pass down to another generation.
Susie and her husband decided on new boundaries to keep his mother from repeating her abusive patterns with their children. Here is what they decided.
Think before speaking. Before visiting or speaking to a narcissist, remember that they are narcissistic. It might be helpful to review some of their glaring characteristics, so expectations can be more appropriately set. Once a person knows a lion is a lion, they should not expect a lamb. Susie and her husband prepared their son by telling him that it is not OK for anyone to try to hurt him (even a grandparent) and when he is hurt it is OK to cry. Boundary = I’m going to set reasonable expectations.
Remember, it is all about them. It helps to have an expectation that the conversation will turn towards the narcissist. Because the grandmother felt like the 2-year-old was getting all the attention, she created an unnecessary drama designed to monopolize her son’s time. Expect that the narcissist will find a way to make things about them especially when they feel ignored. Boundary = I’m going to be judicious in giving attention.
Refuse to be treated like a child. A typical tactic of narcissists is to overwhelm others into a state of heightened anxiety, so they are less able to think straight. Susie’s husband fell into this trap easily as his mother groomed him through intense interrogation as a child. This is about power and control for the narcissist. As soon as the narcissist begins, the adult should slow down their breathing. Then answer the question they wish the narcissist asked instead of the one that was asked and immediately follow it with a compliment. This disarms and distracts most narcissists. Boundary = I’m going to be treated like a peer.
Reject verbal assaults. Another typical narcissistic tactic is to verbally assault anyone they believe is a threat. In this case, the grandmother felt the 2-year-old was a threat to getting more attention so she aggressive attacked him for crying. Then she saw Susie as a threat and verbally assaulted her to Susie’s husband. If Susie became defensive, the narcissist wins. Rather, Susie ignored the comments the grandmother made about her and refused to give it any weight. This unnerved the grandmother who was looking forward to an attack, so she could play the victim. By doing this, Susie did not act narcissistic. Boundary = I’m not going to act like a narcissist.
Be free of victimization. Because Susie did not act inappropriately, the grandmother sought another target. Susie and her husband watched as the grandmother stirred up another drama, became the victim, and then guilt-tripped her target into submission. Their “woe is me” routine is customized to match the weakness and vulnerability of everyone. It is generally effective, or the narcissist would stop this behavior. It helps when the behavior is viewed like that of a two-year-old temper tantrum. The more positive or negative attention that the two-year-old receives, the more the performance is repeated. The key here is for negative behavior to be ignored. Just like a two-year-old, it will take several attempts before the new reality sets in and is not repeated. Boundary = I’m not going to cave to manipulation.
After a period, these new boundaries became habits for Susie’s family. They did not want to eliminate contact with the grandmother because the grandfather by default would be punished as well. Rather, they set firm boundaries and openly discussed the narcissism between them so the attacks had little to no effect.
It wasn’t until Tabitha had dinner at a friend’s house as a teenager that she realized there was something odd about how her family handled food. At her friend’s, there was food with a variety of healthy and even some unhealthy snacks. Her mother didn’t have a lock on the “special food” so no one could have access. Their mealtime was engaging and fun with everyone participating in the conversation. There were no snide remarks about eating too much or being forced to eat seconds. It was an enjoyable experience.
But it wasn’t until years later, when Tabitha realized that her mother was narcissistic. Still, she didn’t make the connection between narcissism and food until she had her own family meals. And then, it struck her: her mother’s narcissism translated into an unhealthy obsession with food. This explained so much about Tabitha’s own anxious journey with food. The unhealthy food rules she grew up with were an extension of her mother’s controlling and manipulative behavior. Here’s how.
Food management. Tabitha’s mom disliked fish so she refused to serve it eventhough everyone else in the family loved it. Her mom’s food likes and dislikes dominated the menu, if she didn’t like something then it wasn’t to be served at all.
Food supremacy. Perhaps the oddest realization was that Tabitha’s mom expected that she would always be served the best and/or largest portion of food. Whether she cooked the food or not, her mom demanded the first pick.
Food as power. One morning Tabitha’s dad surprised the family by making a large pancake breakfast. Tabitha’s mom took one look at the meal with disgust on her face and started making herself eggs. When confronted, she said she didn’t like being told what to eat.
Food as entitlement. Even when Tabitha’s family was a guest at someone else’s house, her mom would find something wrong with the food being served. She doesn’t like cheese and therefore can’t eat the meal. She would then expect an additional meal to be especially prepared for her.
Food as control. During family meals, Tabitha’s mom would scold her for eating too much and make fun of her for asking for seconds. But when company came over, her mom would demand that everyone have seconds or else she won’t believe that they liked her food.
Food and appearance. To make matters worse, Tabitha’s mom would look at what she was eating and make a comment like, “You’re not going to eat that are you? You know how easily you gain weight.”She did this even when Tabitha was struggling with anorexia.
Food arrogance. Growing up, Tabitha’s dad did a lot of the family cooking. One several occasions after he prepared the meal and it was ready to be served, her mom would take a phone call and hold up when the family ate. One night, they sat at the table for over an hour staring at the food waiting for her.
Food as a stage. Tabitha could not remember a family meal time that was not dominated by her mother talking about herself and her work. There were no questions about Tabitha’s day and if she chimed in, her mother would give her the death stare and then ignore her.
Food snobbery. There were only a handful of restaurants that Tabitha’s mom would agree to go. Looking back, Tabitha realized that these establishments treated her like she was a queen, giving her the best place to sit in the restaurant. This explained her tolerance for the average food quality that came at a high price.
Food expectations. Tabitha’s mom would openly complain if the food was not to her liking whether at home, at a friend’s house, or in public. Worse yet, she would then make fun of what she called “food ignorance” for their lack of adequate preparation. Ironically, her mom was not a good cook.
Food as attention. When her mom did cook, she demanded excessive amounts of appreciation during the meal and afterwards. If she didn’t get enough gratitude, then she would passively-aggressively say, “You didn’t like my cooking?”
Food superiority. For a couple of years, Tabitha’s mom became a vegetarian. During that time, no meal was allowed in the house and everyone was expected to eat the way she did. When they ordered meat from a restaurant, she would talk about how they were supporting the killing of animals.
Food as punishment. When Tabitha was little, her mom used to punish her by saying that she was not allowed to eat dinner. If she was still angry in the morning, her mom would make her go to school without breakfast. There were many days when Tabitha would go without any food.
Food as a possession. After a night out with friends, Tabitha brought home some of her leftover dinner. It was from an expensive restaurant that she spent weeks saving up her money, so she could go. The next morning, she discovered that her mom ate her food. When confronted, her mom’s attitude was what’s yours is mine. However, what was her mom’s was only her mom’s.
It’s not hard to see how Tabitha came to view food as a weapon of control from her mom. She used food to manipulate others, demand attention, dominate her family, and justify her selfishness. Now as a mom herself, Tabitha made a concerted effort not to repeat any of the unhealthy patterns of food preparation and consumption.
No matter what the profession, if a boss has this personality combination, they are terrifying. The Dark Tetrad is composed of four parts: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism. Sadism is the addition to the Dark Triad which has narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. For either condition, this means a person possesses the characteristics of all of these personalities.
The Dark Tetrad shares two major characteristics: extreme selfishness and a lack of empathy for others. This combination affords the ability to cause harm and abuse others in a variety of ways without any regard for the feelings, safety, or morality of the victims. As bosses, they are focused on dominance and power often using aggression, manipulation, exploitation, and vindictiveness. All behavior is justified if it grants them what they want, including criminal acts.
Narcissism. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a DSM-V diagnosis. Generally speaking, they are superior, grandiose, demanding, prideful, boastful, arrogant, and self-centered. They need and expect constant admiration, attention, and affection. They can be abusive when threatened or their needs aren’t being met. The disorder is both inherited and developed in childhood.
Machiavellianism. Prince Machiavelli wrote the Italian book The Prince in the 1500s. It outlines a political philosophy on how rulers are to govern their subjects. Machiavellianism is the adaptation of this philosophy into a personality and as such is a personality construct not a disorder. Therefore, it is not inherited; rather it is a learned behavioral pattern. Machiavellians are manipulative, exploitative of others, cynical, deceptive and believe it is better to be feared than loved. Unlike Narcissists, they do not make exaggerated claims about their significance or accomplishments. Unlike Psychopaths and Sadists, they are too calculating to risk vengeful or cruel behavior unless there is a specific gain.
Psychopathy. Psychopaths are under the Anti-Social Personality Disorder umbrella listed in the DSM-V along with Sociopaths and Sadists. A psychopath has the ability to create an entire persona in direct contrast to who they really are. They are very calculating, callous, without a conscience, pathological liars, remorse-free, and dangerous. Their personality is both inherited and developed through a traumatic and abusive childhood. Psychopaths, unlike Machiavellians and Narcissists, can instantly read the emotions of others and calculate how to use it to their advantage without any emotional response. They have no problem hurting others, but it is always for a purpose, unlike Sadists.
Sadism. Sadists are a part of Anti-Social Personality Disorder now. In the past, they had a separate diagnosis under the old DSM formats. The name Sadism comes from Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) a French philosopher and writer. His works combined philosophy with sexual fantasies and violent behavior. Sadists are individuals who crave cruelty. It is not clear whether this behavior is inherited, developed or learned. Not all sadism is sexual or involves killing, rather it is about inflicting pain on others that Sadists find exciting or pleasurable. Unlike Psychopaths, they are not as calculating about the abusive behavior, instead, it is all self-pleasuring.
Identifying. Jonason and Webster devised a quick scale called the Dirty Dozen which can help to spot a Triad boss. Each item is rated on a 7-point scale as it applies to the person.
I tend to manipulate others to get my way.
I tend to lack remorse.
I tend to want others to admire me.
I tend to be unconcerned with the morality of my actions.
I have used deceit or lied to get my way.
I tend to be callous or insensitive.
I have used flattery to get my way.
I tend to seek prestige or status.
I tend to be cynical.
I tend to exploit others toward my own end.
I tend to expect special favors from others.
I want others to pay attention to me.
The higher the score, the more likely the person is a Triad. Unfortunately, there is no scale yet to measure the Tetrad, as Sadists can be difficult to spot.
The bottom line is: a boss with these characteristics can and will make work hellish. It is better to work in a lesser occupation than to put up with the abuse on a daily basis.