Dear Drama Observers,
Some people who fit into the category called Narcissism are more irritating than dangerous. More benign than malignant.
My favorite go-to example of a benign narcissist is Michael Scott, the fictional manager of Dunder Mifflin, Scranton Branch on The Office who once laid bare his narcissistic self by saying:
Do I need to be liked? Absolutely not. I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I have to be liked. But it’s not like this compulsive need to be liked, like my need to be praised.
But there are some narcissists who aren’t so friendly and harmlessly benign like Michael Scott. They are what we sometimes refer to as malignant narcissists.
I’d like to say more about this but, first, let me review how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM 5) defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
(Note: this diagnosis requires that one meet 5 of the following 9 criteria. I’ll list them along with some comments of my own.)
(1) Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
In narcissism world, being perceived as great is more important than actually being great. Image is more important than reality. If a person has what we call a “positive self-esteem,” that doesn’t mean that they only see their positive attributes. Rather, they see the good along with the bad and, therefore, has neither an overly-positive nor overly-negative self-appraisal.
But, a narcissist has an internal low view of self, and strives to maintain a grandiose exterior. That’s your “job” in the relationship, by the way—to keep their external attributes polished and shiny.
(2) Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
A male narcissist might marry a “trophy wife.” A female narcissist might marry a rich and powerful man to enhance her status. The relational stance of the narcissist is: “I like being around you for image enhancement purposes.”
(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)
I had a friend in college who would walk by a mirror, stop, and say, “You good looking thing, don’t you ever die.” He was joking, but the narcissist would really mean that.
(4) Requires excessive admiration
I had another friend who liked to say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve been going on and on talking about me. Why don’t you talk about me for a while?” But again, he was joking. The narcissist’s favorite subject is himself and that should be your favorite subject as well.
(5) Has a sense of entitlement, (i.e. unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations)
You’ve heard it said about someone, “The rules don’t apply to him or her.” The narcissist is in a special league above all the rest of us—or so they think.
(6) Is interpersonally exploitative, (i.e. takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends)
Narcissists step on you to lift themselves up—and feel quite justified in doing so.
(7) Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
Empathy is the quality that enables you to feel bothered if a personal flaw adversely affects the other person. Narcissists are empathy-deficient. That’s why we say things like, “It’s all about him” or “The world revolves around her.” Narcissists are oblivious to the needs of those around them, but with one exception. If caring for you makes the narcissist look good, they’ll do it.
(8) Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
Narcissists want what they don’t have and have convinced themselves that others are after what they’ve got.
(9) Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Again, “getting along” with narcissists requires you to worship at the feet of their greatness. They love people who love them and trash those who don’t.
When a Narcissist Becomes Dangerous
I point out in my speaking and writing about personality disordered individuals (Drama People) that we get along with them by performing our obligatory drama roles. In the narcissistic drama, the narcissist’s role is to shine and the other’s role is to reflect back their brilliance. Relational “success” with the narcissist is contingent, therefore, upon sticking tightly to your designated role.
But what if you don’t? What if you refuse your reflection obligation and say what’s true versus what the narcissist demands to hear?
I’ve pointed out that there are three levels of response by the Drama Person to drama non-participation. Simply put,
Some get better: The frustration they experience incentivizes them to grow.
Some stay the same: They simply cut you off and search for more willing participants.
Some get dangerous: They make you pay a price for your audacious refusal to play along.
I would place the malignant narcissist in this third category. Like a wounded, caged animal biting the hand of one reaching into its cage, the malignant narcissist lashes out at those perceived to have caused the injury.
In a February, 2017 article in Psychology Today, Rhonda Freeman, Ph.D describes the malignant narcissist this way:
A person with malignant narcissism has the potential to destroy families, communities, nations, and work environments. This condition reflects a hybrid or blending of narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders.
Those who interact with malignant narcissists often consider them, jealous, petty, thin-skinned, punitive, hateful, cunning, and angry. Given their shallowness, they are not regulated emotionally and have beliefs that swing from one extreme to the next.
Their decisions can hurt others, because they rank relationships and people based on superficial standards and categories. They want to land on top, even when pretending to be altruistic or engaging in an activity that should not be “all about them.”
They often view the world through a primitive binary lens (for example, winner/loser; smart/dumb; rich/poor; pretty/ugly; black/white) — all the while sustaining the belief that they are superior.
If all narcissists were like Michael Scott, we could just laugh and make more sitcoms about them. But it’s the dangerous ones who confound us the most and cause the bigger stirs.
The moral of this story? Stay away from caged animals.
Till next week.