Julia was so glad that her husband had phoned. He was away on business. It was 11pm and she was in bed, exhausted. It felt nice that he had thought to call her to ask about her day. She had an unusually difficult day. After a full, stressful day at work, she rushed to pick her son up from day care, got supper ready, sitter arrived and then off to her night course to write the final exam for which she had been studying for weeks. On the phone, her husband talked about his sore shoulder a squash injury, at length about his work, and then about what a brilliant presentation he had delivered that day and the conference and how everyone had congratulated him on it. She wondered whether he remembered about her exam. The more he went on about himself, the more deflated she began to feel. She began to realize that he had not called to ask her about her day at all. As he was ready to end the conversation, he said: “Can you pick up my shirts from the cleaners, as I won’t have any time tomorrow.”
We all know someone who is like Julia’s husband. It could be your boss, a friend, a parent or maybe your spouse. Some people who are so self–centred that they seem to have no concern for others. They seem to be only interested in you as long as you are useful to them. They act as if their needs are far more important than anyone else’s. For some reason, they cannot see the big picture. Their expectations can be almost childlike and when their wishes are not fulfilled by others, they can become outraged.
In her book Why is it Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism, Sandy Hotchkiss describes how people come to have these shortcomings, how others get drawn into their orbit and how one can cope or break free.
Hotchkiss describes how a narcissist has not developed a realistic sense of self and an internalized system of values. As a consequence, he or she may not be able to value or recognize the existence of other people’s feelings. Empathy and compassion are lacking. So despite the presentation of being larger than life and often very charming, he or she is delayed in emotional and moral development. For them, relationships are not a reciprocal give and take.
When referring in this article to a “narcissist”, please remember that this is a description of a personality type or style. It is not a diagnosis, disease, disorder or condition. There is some ‘narcissism’ in all of us. The degree of narcissism is related to self esteem. We need to have compassion for people with this style because they are generally unhappy people. However, it is up to the narcissistic individual to seek professional help for him/herself and for you to keep yourself from being hurt by them.
Strategies for Coping with a Narcissist.
The narcissist engages us through our own vulnerabilities. Often they remind us of a narcissistic parent who we care about and want to give to, but then tolerate too much taking. The more you understand yourself and are at peace with yourself as it related to that parent, the better you will be at avoiding the trap of a one-way relationship.
The narcissist avoids shame by promoting fantasies that sustain their grandiosity. They need to surround themselves with people who admire them, do their bidding and meet their ‘you are great’ needs. If your own self esteem is a little shaky, you may get caught up in the seductive allure of the grandiosity. Look for reality, or empirical truth to stay grounded and not taken advantage of.
A person with a narcissistic style may stop by unannounced, open your personal mail, take money or a personal item without asking. If they are in a position of power, they flirt inappropriately, watch your comings and goings inappropriately or ask too personal questions. Ordinary assertive techniques do not always work. Enlisting others to help you might help. Rehearse what you want to say to them to establish the boundary. A firm non-angry matter of fact approach is best. Be prepared for the shame response which will be anger. Maintain the boundary once established as it, and other aspects of the relationship, will be tested.
Cultivate Reciprocal Relationships
Sometimes avoiding a narcissist altogether is impossible. It helps to limit involvement by surrounding yourself with healthier people who are more capable of give and take relationships. Reciprocal relationships are ones where each person feels like his/her contributions and benefits are in balance, there is flexibility of roles of giver and taker, each feels valued, boundaries are respected and no one “keeps score”.
Protecting yourself from the hurtfulness of a self-centred person is important. Like Julia in the story above, the person married to a narcissist will have the most difficult job of protecting their own sense of worthiness and self esteem. Often they may need extra support from others or a therapist to keep the boundaries clear and for the relationship to survive.