To help provide context, we’ll define narcissism and its causes and symptoms. We’ll also dig a bit deeper into the modus operandi of narcissists (and make no mistake, narcissists have an ‘M.O.’ for just about everything). We’ll spend much of our time together “describing” narcissists in the context of relationships – both platonic and romantic – along with the manipulative behavior that typically accompanies these “partnerships.”
The Story of Narcissus
In Greek mythology, Narcissus – the son of a river God (naturally!) – was remarkable for his beauty. He was also highly notable for his vanity. In the mythical book, Metamorphoses Book III, Narcissus’ mother was told that her son would live a long, prosperous life on one condition: that he never recognized himself. However, upon his cruel treatment of an adoring mountain girl named Echo, the goddess of revenge Nemesis decided to punish him. To do so, Nemesis lured the thirsty hunter to a pool of water where, upon leaning in, the young Narcissus caught his reflection staring back at him.
The story continues that the stunningly beautiful Narcissus fell in love with himself (naturally!) to the point of inconsolable despondency. Why? Because he could never realistically hope to earn such remarkable devotion from anyone other than himself. As we will soon discuss, this grandiose self-devotion and insatiable need for validation drive the psyche of the modern-day narcissist.
Aside from being a thoroughly entertaining story, the literature captures the essence of a selfish life in its origins. As you will see, the story is somewhat prophetic in certain aspects, particularly regarding the narcissist and personal relationships.
In this article, we will examine narcissistic behavior from the framework of relationships.
(Narcissism should be viewed through the lens of a clinician. That is, as being a legitimate disorder; along the same lines as a borderline personality disorder (BPD), histrionic personality disorders, avoidant personality disorders, and so on. Why mention this? Because it can be all too instinctual, convenient – not to mention, tempting – to view the narcissist as being something “other than human,” and deserving of treatment of the same. This gut response, while certainly understandable, is deeply misguided. Let us not set aside our love and tolerance for others out of spite, or worse, out of ignorance.)
The Nature of Narcissism
“Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is best described as a paradox. People with NPD may act superior and confident, but are often fragile and lack self-esteem. They crave attention and praise yet are unable to form close relationships. NPD causes great distress to both the person with the disorder and those around them.” – SANE Australia
The dominant feature of the narcissist’s personality is a highly inflated sense of their importance. Narcissists often hold opinions of themselves that are as delusional as they are grandiose. For example, people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) will “have grandiose fantasies…convinced that they deserve special treatment.”
Per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the criteria for a diagnosis of NPD is as follows:
- Self-functioning impairment observed as:
- Sense of identity: Inflated or deflated self-evaluation; self-worth almost exclusively based on approval of others; self-esteem fluctuates between feelings of extreme grandiosity and emptiness.
- Self-direction: Sets goals centered around the approval of others; personal standards fluctuate between the extremes of unattainable (high) or unnecessary (low); inability to grasp the concept of self-motivation.
- Interpersonal functioning impairment observed as:
- Empathy: Oversensitive to others’ reactions; inability to identify or recognize the feelings of others.
- Intimacy: Relationships are non-existent beyond a superficial level; interpersonal growth is stagnated by little to no authentic interest in the experiences of others; apparent motivation in a relationship is rooted in self-interest.
In other words, to “qualify” as a textbook narcissist, a person must (paradoxically) see others as both (a) expendable, and (b) critical. The latter exists because narcissists possess a “psychological addiction and dependency … (for) ‘special treatment’, validation, and/or appeasement” – a concept labeled narcissistic supply.
The Narcissist, Manipulation, and Others
How do narcissists repeatedly pull such a seemingly impossible and unashamedly contrarian act off? Why! By being experts in the art of manipulation, of course! Speaking of which, let’s now get into the common manipulative behaviors of narcissists in relationships.
Below are seven methods narcissists use to ensure a steady dose of narcissistic supply.
1. Cognitive Dissonance
Definition: The tendency to seek consistency among beliefs and opinions. In the presence of inconsistency, or dissonance, a person may attempt to eliminate feelings of discomfort by rationalization.
It is common for a narcissist to mask their true identity. This alternate persona is nothing but a manipulative “face” to present to the world. An impetus with which to obtain that attention and admiration. Too often, this act of manipulation is effective. The majority of us are unable to comprehend the motives of a true narcissist.
- Sadly, victims of narcissists are likely to suffer a good deal of cognitive dissonance. Having fallen for the person, many victims try to rationalize the bad by thinking of better times. The end result is that victims may end up blaming themselves while overlooking the narcissist’s true identity.
Definition: Introducing another person into a relationship dynamic to have the victim “compete” for the narcissist’s attention.
Triangulation usually follows a predictable framework. First, the narcissist – intentionally or unintentionally – causes yet another problem. When conflict inevitably arises, instead of taking responsibility, the narcissist will use the third wheel to do their “bidding.” Usually, this “bidding” entails some social interaction whereupon the victim is forced to “vie” for the narcissist’s attention.
Behaviors like triangulation are meant to sow seeds of doubt. That is, to provoke feelings of insecurity and uncertainty in the victim, often leaving them wondering where exactly they fit into the narcissist’s life.
Definition: Typically used in the context of mythology, shapeshifting is the ability to change forms into another creature, gender, person, or other entity.
The above definition says it all. Really, shapeshifting is about taking on a false persona to get what you want. While all of us may be guilty of shapeshifting at some point, only bona fide narcissists do so to such a frequency and degree that it becomes second nature.
4. Measured intrusion
Definition: Subtle exploitation of others in the form of impeding on personal boundaries.
Measured intrusion is mostly about the narcissist needing to feel as if they’re “getting over.” Narcissists do this by pushing the limits on what their victims claim as their personal space. As most reasonable people will object to surrendering their boundaries (Heaven help those who don’t), the narcissist will manipulate the person through coercion, charm, or persuasion.
The twisted thing about measured intrusion is that narcissists relish making someone uncomfortable to the point of granting “concessions.”
5. Toxic mobility
Definition: Intentionally creating a toxic atmosphere and relationship to attain power or status.
Narcissists are sometimes in situations when they feel that being unnecessarily confrontational or difficult will help them acquire more power or status. For example, suppose the narcissist perceives that a co-worker on their team may threaten that promotion. In that case, they may deliberately initiate an episode of workplace friction to make it seem as if that co-worker is unfit for additional responsibility. Worse, once in a position of authority, the newly-promoted narcissist will continue their charade by discounting – or outright sabotaging – the efforts of others.
Incredibly, such a scenario happens frequently in the corporate world. Consider this: over 70 percent of employees report having a negative relationship with their boss.
6. Criticism and invalidation
Definition: The issuing of undue, unnecessary criticisms to discredit someone.
This next one is all about clouding the judgment of others who would question their behavior or otherwise “get in their way.” Predictably, narcissists accomplish just that by subjecting their victims to underhanded criticism. Common phrases you may hear include, “You don’t get it/me,” “You’re always overreacting,” and “You’re are far too sensitive.” The point of such manipulative phrases is to cast doubt – or at least attempt to. Unfortunately, as with most other methods, narcissists get away with it far too often.
Narcissists are chameleons and shapeshifters. Criticism and invalidation are two of the narcissist’s favorite tools in these roles.
Definition: The cyclical, methodical process whereby the narcissist/sociopath attracts, admonishes, and eventually absconds the victim and the relationship.
Although narcissists and sociopaths are technically two different animals, they share some of each other’s “best” traits. In this case, the former will heap constant admiration, praise, and yes, “love,” onto their victim with full confidence that they will assume control. If the narcissist is indeed allowed control, they will begin the devaluation phase, which they use to sow seeds of doubt and establish dominance. Finally, once the narcissist has squeezed what they could out of someone, they will begin to – often abruptly – pull out of the relationship. They will often then begin looking for the next victim. Don’t let it be you!