Cressi Sowerbutts

2020, the year the world shut down. We hid from the ‘invisible killer’ in the sanctity of our homes laden with coverings, sanitizer and ‘KEEP YOUR DISTANCE’ signage. So what happens when those very sanctions have been infected by a different yet equally deadly entity?  

Cue, Narcissism.  Deemed the “second-hand smoke of our time”. You may have heard the term flying around, commonly used to describe someone who is, essentially, a bit of a d***.  From lawyers, politicians and criminals, to billionaires, celebrities and CEOs, narcissism has been hailed as the ‘recipe for success’ today.  Trump, Thatcher, Johnson, Weinstein, Epstein, Madonna, Kanye West – they’ve all been reported as such. But no one is immune; narcissism also consumes colleagues, customers, friends, family members, partners. It’s a “trickle-down system” of “Don’t you know who I am?”-ers present as often in our local Tesco’s as on our TV screens.  

The term narcissism (different from the clinically diagnosed Narcissistic Personality Disorder) defines a pattern of toxic personality traits and dysregulated moods, including: entitlement, dishonesty, manipulation, superficiality, belittlement, and rage. Everyone possesses some toxic traits, but narcissism is a collection of typically five or more. Equally, these behaviours may be indicative of different mental health issues (e.g. anxiety/PTSD/bipolar disorder) and related problems, like substance abuse. 

Where does narcissism originate? In short: as a kid. Narcissism supposedly stems from simultaneous “over and under indulging”: over-indulging in exterior, superficial achievements and under-indulging emotionally. This, combined with the child’s demeanour and parents’ dispositions, is what can potentially harvest a narcissist. Unsurprisingly, narcissists often raise narcissists: if the child grows up believing achievement is measured by materialistic gains, as adults they can be crippled by anxiety/self-doubt or, alternatively, mask their doubt with toxic patterns of behaviour implemented by their parents – narcissism. Psychologist Dr. Seth Meyers explains that “[they’re] not who they appear to be on the surface”. At a narcissist’s core is a sense of emptiness, stemming from deep-rooted insecurity and an inability to process vulnerability: “There’s two selves…the false self which is the self they try to sell to the world…[and] the real self”, explains Meyers. There are five reported ‘flavours’ of narcissism:  

Grandiose  the ‘classic’. A charismatic charmer who swiftly turns antagonistic. They’ll regale boastful tales of their achievements, dominating and demeaning others in the process. If arrogance is loud and confidence quiet, the GN knows how to turn up the volume.  

Malignant – the ‘schemer’. On psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula’s toxicity scale, malignant is the most dangerous of the narcissists, neighbouring sociopaths and psychopaths. They’re crafters who can be simultaneously charming, exploitative and vindictive. They’ll lie, cheat, steal and abuse, showing little to no remorse. It has been reported that those who have endured a relationship with an MN have experienced symptoms of “post-traumatic stress or acute stress disorder”.  

Covert – the ‘fragile one’. They are innately bitter, demonstrated by traits like projection, lack of empathy, resentment and hyper-sensitivity – to them, the ‘world done them wrong’. Don’t be fooled, their supposed introversion can swiftly change in the light of an intellectual debate, where they’ll launch themselves into the discussion in order to ‘win’. Their demeanour can be mistaken for depression/anxiety with many trying to ‘save’ them – to no avail.  

Communal – the ‘saviour’. They’ll flood their Instagram with images of them helping poverty-stricken communities/shelters/eco-projects, basking in their validating comments section. They’ll claim to be all-loving, without doing much behind the lens. They are fuelled by the same desires of other narcissists, but paint themselves as the accommodating saint.  

Benign – the least toxic but nonetheless, mercilessly annoying. Their grandiose, selfish behaviour can be excused with lines like ‘that’s just [insert name]’. Like any narcissist, they care greatly about what others think but are less overt/malicious, more niggling. Durvasula describes them as “the adults who are glued to their social media with the obsessiveness of a sixteen-year-old”.  

Narcissistic relationships are kept in place by hope and fear. Hope that the narcissist will change, fear that they’ll leave – or change for someone else. According to Meyers, a healthy relationship with a narcissist is simply “not possible”. Emotional intimacy requires vulnerability, something narcissists are not willing to do. Ultimately, the relationship dynamics become characterised by the narcissist’s behaviour and the other half becomes caged into a constant cycle of abuse. The narcissist first seeks out their victim: the empaths who will fuel them with validation and/or social credibility. They’ll make their victims feel special, charming them with grandiose promises, gestures and compliments (“love-bombing”). But once the victim is trapped, the narcissist will feel threatened, overwhelmed with a need to assert themselves. They’ll start to devalue their victim using negative hints, belittling, blaming and judging. At this point, the victim will either catch on and confront the narcissist, or the narcissist will discard them. They’ll then either play the victim and shift the blame (“gas-lighting”: the victim is made to question the validity of their own judgement), or vice versa: the victim will believe that they need the narcissist. The victim is then sucked back in through a combination of guilt-tripping and enticement. Abuse amnesia, a trauma reaction, will cause them to overlook the abuse and only remember the grandiose memories. The narcissist, having ‘won’, feels empowered. And on it goes.  

Victims can become fixated on ‘forgive and forget’ ideals and delusions of being the narcissist’s ‘saviour’. But Durvasula likens narcissistic relationships to an elastic band: we can teach them to temporarily adopt healthier traits, but sooner or later they’ll always spring back to their old habits. Even once havingidentified the narcissist(s) in your life, it can be incredibly difficult to disentangle yourself from their grasp – particularly if they’re an active participant in your life.  When calling out the narcissist, don’t. This can swiftly back-fire, ending up with you being gas-lighted and made to feel the perpetrator by them or their supporters (AKA “flying monkeys”). It’s best to just cut contact and walk away, but self-preservation is still achievable without severing the relationship:

1. Let go of the ideal that everyone can change 

2. Realise justice can’t always be served 

3. Stop offering them the exultation they thrive on 

4. Keep your cards close 

5. Manage healthy boundaries 

6. Maintain realistic expectations  

7. Practice “grey rock”: disengage, remaining calm amid the chaos  

Narcissists won’t change, but these methods of first-stage prevention can starve their egos, break the toxic cycles of abuse, and subsequently encourage future generations where narcissists will struggle to flourish. “We can transcend despite the gravitational pull of narcissism” says Durvasula, instead investing our time in uplifting, healthy relationships. Let’s take this pandemic seriously, too.

Words: Cressi Sowerbutts, Storehouse Content Team, @cccressi

Illustrations: Freya Elise Kemp, Storehouse Content Team, @freyaelise

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