It’s the original lie: you can be your own god. This seems to be the mantra that narcissists exercise regularly through their thoughts, actions, and words. THEY are superior. THEY are special. EVERYONE should bow down to their every whim, whine, and wish.
We all know these people. Somewhere in their dysfunctional upbringing or exclusive social cliques, they’ve lost touch with anything resembling humility, gratitude, and empathy, trading it in for a soul-sucking mentality in which the world revolves around them. Period. No one else’s wants, needs, or views could possibly be as important as theirs.
Narcissists are cheese graters on the nerves of life. Their self-absorbed temper tantrums and constant demands drain those around them of their time, money, and energy. Their extreme need to be the center of attention and be praised or spoiled is exhausting. Narcissists are sometimes talented people, but they believe the spotlight should be on them far more often than their actions or efforts merit. If they are particularly gifted in certain areas, they might well be deficient in their social skills or lacking meaningful relationships altogether. All that glitters is not gold.
To be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) by a mental health professional, a person must have five or more of the following symptoms (the symptoms have been copied directly from Psych Central):
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- 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)
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
- Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Notice how these traits are very much the opposite of what God requires of us. The more deeply these traits are indulged, the farther away we get from values that require us to love our neighbors as ourselves and respect our Creator. It should be no wonder, then, that narcissists wreak so much havoc in life. The path they are walking leads further and further away from the original design. Eventually it leads downhill and over a cliff. It will never come to a good end.
Like a lot of people, I’ve interacted with narcissistic people in nearly every area of my life. I’m sickeningly familiar with each of these symptoms and have experienced the damage they do to families, friendships, workplaces, and organizations. Narcissism can factor heavily into family violence and workplace bullying among other evils, and narcissists often get away with being childish, sadistic tyrants because people won’t stand up to them out of fear or because they’re concerned about litigation. To protect myself and my family, I’ve had to end or severely limit relationships with narcissists multiple times.
Over the years many arguments have been made that some degree of narcissism is essential to success. Successful people, of course, are frequently confident and competitive. But you don’t have to be a jerk to get ahead. You can be driven, sure of yourself and your God-given abilities, and focused without being a massive black hole that devours everyone else’s happiness and sanity. You don’t need to steamroll over everyone else to achieve great things, or even to create the appearance that you have. When you are living as the person your Creator intended you to be, your actions and achievements will speak for themselves.
Looking more closely at each symptom gives a clearer picture of why those with a narcissistic bent, diagnosable or not, can be so taxing to be around. When someone has a grandiose sense of self-importance, it’s like they want the first place trophy while giving a third class performance.
I remember seeing an audition for American Idol one time in which a young girl gyrated and mumbled a Christina Aguilera song. Her mother became very upset when the judges passed on her, snapping, “she’s the total package.” I was taken aback because her daughter’s audition didn’t show any exceptional singing, dancing, or entertainment talent, but in her mother’s eyes, she was Christina’s clone. While it’s good for mothers to cheer on their children, this mom seemed delusional (or possibly tone-deaf).
Similarly, narcissists believe that just because they have some good qualities or talents, they are THE BOMB. They can have a very skewed and unrealistic view of their own abilities. In their minds they can be royalty, worthy of the highest honors and awards without putting in the sweat equity that would get them to that level. Does the word actor come to mind? There are actors and actresses who carry a heavy sense of self-importance because of their acting resumes. But I puzzle over their fame when they seem to play the same guy or gal in every movie.
Do they truly deserve the attention and praise lavished upon them? Or do we pay attention simply because they and their agents make such a big deal of themselves? This reminds me of the “popular” kids in high school. Were they “popular” and “cool” because they were friendly, kind, generous people, or because they constantly kept themselves in the public eye through their drinking, sexual escapades, and designer clothes?
Narcissists can be more than preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love– they can be obsessed. The Great Gatsby is a fair example of this. His desire for riches and success (and Daisy) motivated him to go to extremes that were eventually his downfall. Narcissists don’t want imperfect love; they want perfect, effortless love (which often involves meeting a mirror image of themselves, because it would bore them to partner with someone who has different interests). They don’t believe they should rise to middle management and spend a career there; they believe that they should be the CEO, whether qualified or not. They can live in a fantasy world in which their family members and friends become swept up in, and expected to work towards, their lofty dreams. I’m all for aiming for the moon and being the very best, but that involves a strong individual work ethic, not climbing up others’ coattails and bank accounts.
Believing that he or she is special and unique, and therefore should only rub elbows with other special or privileged people, is another frequent trait of narcissists. In their minds, they are so special and unique that 99 percent of the world’s population is riff raff who are beneath them. They think that only other chosen ones can truly understand them because they are superior to the rest of humanity.
Now God did, in fact, create each of us as special and unique individuals with a purpose and mission. No human is an accident. You are worth more than gold to Him, so much so that His son died to bring you life everlasting. He did not, however, intend for you to be an elitist snob who only associates with other intolerable elitist snobs. While we should choose our friends wisely, it’s important to remember that the ground is level at the foot of the cross, and your life is not worth more than the guy’s standing next to you in the checkout line.
Narcissistic people have a serious need to be told how good-looking, talented, funny, hard-working, insightful, creative, generous, ___ (insert another adjective, repeat, etc.) they are. They might not be any of those things, but boy do they need you to remind them every single day that they are all that and a super-sized bag of potato chips. If you dare to suggest that they need to make some improvements or aren’t as spectacular as they claim to be, they will attack you. When you do so, you are disturbing their fantasies and their skewed view of themselves. Perhaps that attack comes out of a deep-seated insecurity that could even have traumatic origins, but it’s vicious and unnecessary.
“Has a very strong sense of entitlement.” Whew… I think I have a PhD and a black belt in dealing with this narcissistic demon. When you are around a narcissist, you had better jump when they say jump. You’d better act scared when they want to be intimidating. You’d better grovel and beg and mooch as soon as they hold out the royal ring. If they want food or sex or to watch a particular TV show or to be entertained– you’d better snap to it regardless of your own needs or time.
THEY dictate the terms of your relationship. THEY decide what is best for you. They will punish you if you don’t bow down immediately, and will incessantly remind you of your failures to comply as time goes on. The only way you can stay in their good graces is to treat them like a god. If you have a discussion about people’s rights, they are only concerned with their rights. Any exercise of your own rights is seen as a violation of theirs. If you try to solve a problem, you will soon find that not only is the problem yours to solve, but you are the cause of the problem as well.
Narcissistic people have, as the symptoms say, unrealistic expectations of the people around them (even the pets around them). Like a spoiled prince with half a jelly donut smeared all over his face who has tired of breaking his new toys, they will demand that those around them pay attention to them at all times and keep them from being bored. They take little responsibility for furnishing their own amusements. They want everyone around them to “dance,” as if they are toddlers who need mommy or daddy to keep bringing them the latest and greatest gadget to bounce around their highchair tray and then toss onto the floor. While they should be asking what they can do for others and how to engage others in mutually enjoyable activities, they are so laser-focused on themselves that life with them is a 24/7 reminder that you exist for their pleasure.
Exploiting others is as natural to narcissists as planting a tree in the ground. That’s where you’d plant a tree, right? So that’s what you do with other human beings. Whatever can be gained from the people around them will be taken unless they are stopped. They are powerful vacuum cleaners who contrive all sorts of darling (yet usually transparent) lines about how to gain your money, get you to pay for a trip, buy them clothes, and generally take advantage of you. Some can be intimidating and mean rather than darling, but the goal is the same– to use you as a filling station on the road of life. You are a means to their fantasies of perfection and glory.
It should be noted that narcissists don’t just exploit your time and money, they can exploit you sexually, emotionally, and in other ways. In their eyes their victims must seem like one-stop shopping centers. They pick and choose what they want for themselves regardless of the costs to their victims. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been exploited before or have little to give; what matters is that your store is open. This is why it’s so important to set and maintain boundaries with narcissists, and cut off the relationship altogether if needed. Don’t let people tell you that you have to keep a door open for a narcissist because they’re family, or you’ve known them for years, or they’re your boss. You already know the hell they cause and need to draw a line in the sand to protect yourself and your own people.
Narcissists lack empathy. What is empathy? It is the ability to stand in another person’s shoes. Narcissistic folks frequently lash out at others when their demands aren’t being met. They will say the ugliest, most horrible things to try and force others to comply with their wishes. They will tell you you’re stupid, ugly, unfair, evil, selfish, abusive, and any other insult during their tantrums designed to force you to give in. They don’t care how much this hurts you or how low this makes you feel. Yet if someone were to call them stupid, ugly, unfair, evil, or even one of those things, they would be horrified at how deeply you’ve wounded them (and not let you forget it). “Do unto others” is lost on them because life’s all about them.
People like this are often envious of others and think others are envious of them. Their eyes are on what makes them most noticeable, the most outrageous, the most “popular.” They will sometimes do shocking and perverse things to remain the center of attention as they attempt to outdo their perceived “competition.” Again, this sounds like high school. But it also sounds like a lot of so-called celebrities who are basically famous for being famous (or because they “leaked” a sex tape). Life is a cutthroat beauty pageant for them. When they enter a room they want everyone to drop what they’re doing and come fawn over them as if they’ve floated in on a throne perched on clouds. If you don’t pay these games, then you’re “jealous” of them or there’s something wrong with you.
This brings me to the last symptom of NPD, regularly showing arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes. I once worked with a woman who liked to let me know that my opinions and beliefs were inferior to hers. There was no rational basis for her objections; she just enjoyed trying to let others know how superior her tastes were. If I was talking to other coworkers about how much we liked ravioli, she’d enter the conversation uninvited and expound upon the reasons that spaghetti was far superior to ravioli. The verbal spaghetti bludgeoning would be accompanied by a knowing smile and chuckle, as if the rest of the idiots in the office didn’t have the mental capacity to comprehend why no adult could possibly like ravioli better. What a sad way to live. There was such an unhealthy need to dominate others’ views and conversation, particularly mine.
Narcissistic people are adept at communicating like snotty little fifth graders who don’t want the kid in hand-me-downs to play with them at recess. They sometimes lack adult communication and problem-solving skills, yet believe they communicate perfectly well and continually remind you that “you’re not listening.” They like letting you know that you’re not ___ enough (insert giving, fun, adventurous, cool, smart, or other adjective) but that they are. Just the other day I was listening to this type of person extol their own virtues and was reminded how much I can’t stand being around this. I was doubly reminded when I tried to find common ground and a personal jab was taken to remind me that they were “superior.”
If you identify as a narcissist or struggle with NPD, please consider how much your arrogance and haughtiness alienates people. Your family members or coworkers might have to tolerate you to the extent that they see you at family gatherings or work with you every day, but in time they’re going to pull away to protect themselves. If you treat them as commodities rather than fellow travelers on the road of life, your motives will become obvious and they will create distance. Everyone needs a support network and some semblance of a family, so you’re ultimately damaging yourself and your world by being so take and not give. Someday you’re going to wake up and find that they’re no longer there for you, and that will be a very lonely place to be. Now is the time to seek help. You need an intervention. You need therapy.
You also need your Father. Why? By setting yourself up as what we call in my church a little g god, you are denying the power of the big G God in your life. God is love. Who would deliberately turn away more love? Love can cause a radical shift in our behaviors and worldview. The more love we have, the more inclined we are to turn outward rather than focusing inward. The more love we have, the more we ask what other people need rather than what they can do for us. The more love we have, the more power we have to change the world in ways that can last forever. As Marcus Aurelius said, what we do now echoes in eternity. Do you truly want to be remembered as someone who never matured beyond an infantile sense of self-entitlement, or do you want this life, this mere beginning in the grand scheme of things, to count for something far greater than yourself?
Philips Brooks said that the true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is. Stand at your highest, and then look at Christ, then go away and forever be humble. How small we are indeed when the created try to measure up to the Creator. No matter how magnificent we think we are, not one of us has ever spoken one complex little atom into being. Not one of us makes the stars come out at night or makes the grass grow or can cause a man and a woman to look at each other and experience a depth of feeling so profound that they are left speechless as some ancient memory is stirred. There is simply no value in being a narcissist when you consider that all of your greatness and all of your glory has been made possible by Someone infinitely wiser and more powerful than you anyway.
If your life is being impacted by a narcissist, start setting boundaries today. Lay down clear ground rules and do not waver from them. You must also provide consequences for violations of those rules and boundaries. You might also need to take away the tools they are harassing you with. You might be in a situation in which you have to tell the person that you will only communicate about specific matters at certain times and by certain means. If you have to obtain a court order to enforce this, do so.
Narcissists will pick at you and remind you of how needy they are by every means imaginable. You might ask them to only speak on the phone and ignore their obsessive texts, or you might ask them to communicate in writing only so you have a record of what was said. Don’t respond every time they prod you. That rewards the bad behavior. Expect them to act within guidelines and stick with it. This applies to children as well. Don’t give in to them by jumping every time they say jump. That’s how narcissists are made. You’re the adult; lay down the law and provide consequences when they start acting like they’re the grown-up instead.
Narcissistic personality disorder is a real problem and can’t be fixed overnight. I believe it can only be fixed if the person exhibiting those symptoms truly wants to change. To change, they generally need to realize how their mindset and choices are hurting themselves. They’re not good at understanding how their actions affect others, so they need to realize that ultimately their behavior is self-destructive and that people they depend on will only tolerate it for so long. So you cannot continue to allow them to act like little tyrants with jelly donut on their faces. You are doing both them and yourself a disservice if you don’t set boundaries and– boom– put them on notice when they try to cross those, which they inevitably will. Think of a gate that comes down when a drawbridge is about to go up. They shall not pass.
In conclusion, I am deeply disturbed that narcissism has become so pervasive in our society. Every day self-centeredness is evident by people’s driving, shopping, lack of manners, and lack of empathy. WE are more important. WE are entitled to great things. MY time is more valuable. These are the lies that are dividing people instead of bringing them together. These are the lies that crush families and destroy relationships.
My hope is that as we look towards true perfection, and a truly flawless character in our Creator, that we will use Him as the mirror in which to look when wanting to compare ourselves and not each other. In this form, in the here and now, we were not created to be as gods. We were created to glorify the one true God, and in doing so, to become more and more like Him instead of more and more like humans who took a chance on the lie and ate the apple. The original lie has never worked and it never will.
Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self… Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
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