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Masters of Manipulation: How to Spot Narcissists, and How to Deal with Them

PJAdvice columnist Belladonna Rogers on the few pros and the many cons of our most irritating fellow humans.

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Belladonna Rogers

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October 11, 2011 - 12:00 am
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Dear Belladonna Rogers,

I have a friend in a neighboring town who’s unusually witty, a great talker, and the life of every party. Everyone, including me, finds him fascinating. The only problem is, when he’s around, no one else can get a word in edgewise.  I enjoy having “Orson” over for dinner parties, but I’ve discovered I can only invite friends content to listen and never talk when he’s here because other would-be conversationalists get stymied, and sometimes irritated, by his insistence on monopolizing the conversation.  He’s an expert at not letting others speak at all. In fact, he claims expertise where he has none and where others at the table have far more. What should I do?

Exasperated in Lee, Massachusetts

Dear Exasperated,

Short-term answer: Keep inviting listeners when you invite Orson over.  He isn’t going to change.  Nothing you say or do will ever change him.  Longer-term: you’ll tire of Orson’s shtick and selfishness and will be well rid of him. He’s a performer and not, as you wishfully referred to him, a friend.

Orson is a member of an entertaining yet irritating tribe of our fellow human beings known to the psychiatric community as narcissists.  For them, there are no other people at the table.  The writer Michael Lewis once aptly described the social graces of such men and women when he wrote of then-Senator and presidential candidate Phil Gramm (R-Texas), “For him, the opposite of talking was not listening.  It was waiting.”

President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, vividly described this personality type when she said of her father, “He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening.”

Sharing the stage with anyone else isn’t in the make-up of a narcissist.  As parents, they’re disastrous, believing their children’s major function in life is to serve their innermost psychological needs. Such parents cripple their children forever. As siblings, they refuse to acknowledge that their parents had any other children.  As friends, they’re unaware of the concept of reciprocity.  Their hostess gift is the pleasure of their company.  Why bring anything else?  What else is there? A few hours with them is all anyone needs.

In the workplace, especially as bosses, their arrogance reaches appalling heights.  They think nothing of starting your day with a self-indulgent phone call or nasty email to express their pique, and they see no need to be civil about it.  Temper tantrums are their birthright. Manners are for little people.  They’re above such time-consuming niceties as decency, kindness, or reciprocity.

Since early childhood, they’ve perfected how to manipulate the glow in every room so the spotlight always shines on them. They achieve the role of center of attention by learning the art of seducing the adults around them as young children.  Highly demanding of parental attention from their earliest years, they learn how to attain and to hold their parents’ interest against all comers.  Then they practice on their hapless siblings, and later at school on classmates and teachers alike.  By the time you meet them as adults, they’re masters at manipulating the feelings of others.  You’re putty in their hands.

The panoply of their traits explains why you signed your email, “Exasperated.”  That’s what they do best: exasperate the rest of us.

If narcissists could pick the song that best sums up how they’d like others to view them, the choice would be easy.  No one expressed it better than Cole Porter:

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YOU CAN ALWAYS TELL A NARCISSIST BUT YOU CAN’T TELL HIM MUCH

To compile the checklist of their key characteristics is to become, if only temporarily, depressed.  Anyone with five or more of the following traits qualifies as a narcissist and as someone you’d be better off not having in your life, no matter how entertaining or attractive they appear on their ever-dazzling surfaces.

Most striking is their grandiose sense of their own importance. They’re preoccupied by fantasies of their own brilliance, physical allure, and power. They glory in the concept of the “best” — referring to any of their achievements that would qualify.  If they have none, they turn to their cars, their wardrobes, their houses, their possessions, their collections, their dogs, their children, their alma maters, or even their acquaintances whose achievements or fine reputation can validate their own claim to superiority.

Such vehicles, clothing, pets, possessions, houses, children, or institutions are called “narcissistic extensions” of narcissists, meaning anyone, anything, or any place in their lives through whom or through which they can claim they’re in some way — regardless of how tenuous, distant, or vague the connection — “the best.”

They cannot help themselves from harping on what they’ve done, own or have sired that you haven’t.  Competitions, such as mountain climbing, or running races, especially when they’re older than other competitors, will often set them apart from their contemporaries in ways that allow them rapturously to glory in their superiority. They’ll harbor lifelong grudges against and even hatreds for anyone or any group who has ever done anything better than they.  They cannot tolerate feelings of being second-best.

They’ll take immense pleasure in having some objectively unimportant connection to anything they deem “the best.”  For them clothing doesn’t provide warmth or a way of expressing themselves aesthetically, it provides prestige.  Their cars are only incidentally for transportation: they, too, signal the importance of the owner.

Their obsessive concern with the surfaces of life is all the more disturbing because they’re sadly lacking in their inner lives, particularly in empathy.  Because they’re emotionally handicapped and cannot begin to imagine how others feel, they’re predatory and need to feed on the insecurities of others, heedless of the warnings of conscience that would afflict those with empathy.

They’re incapable of feeling remorse, regret or dismay at their own words or deeds.  People in intimate relationships with narcissists find they spend a lot of time apologizing for the narcissist’s brusque manner and merciless insults, often to waiters, waitresses, cab drivers, bellhops or anyone the narcissist views as beneath him or her.

They enjoy creating scenarios in which they’re in control and others are in pain, and they leave permanent emotional wounds on the psyches of anyone unfortunate enough to be in close emotional proximity to them.  Their greatest victims are their own children, who don’t have the freedom to leave them, except in their fantasies.

Narcissists excel at subtle and not-so-subtle put downs.  They’re cynical and sadistic.  They wake up every morning with an overwhelming urge to manipulate their prey.  And to them, we’re all their prey.

Narcissists believe they’re special, unique.   They want others to see them as bigger than life.

But the grim reality of their inner lives couldn’t be more different from their glittering surfaces. If you get close enough to see behind their masks of bravado, you’ll see a grotesquely rotten core and a Grand Canyon of insecurity under their gorgeous exteriors.

We all enjoy the odd compliment now and then, the appreciative pat on the back, but narcissists constantly crave and even demand excesses of admiration.  They’re unable to tolerate attention turning to anyone else or admiration being directed at others.

For them the admiration pie is a zero sum game.  If you admire anyone else, that means — to narcissists — that there’s less left for them, when all it really means is that not all your admiration is directed only at him or her.

They’re seized with a pervasive need for gratification from everyone around them. They also have a particularly irritating need to be “right” about everything — all the time.  If you dare to disagree, their response will be anything from an arrogant sigh  of dismissal to an unprovoked attack.  The provocation — just so you’ll be forewarned — is that you’ve challenged their “right” position.  They do not welcome what they deem to be contradictions of their pronouncements.  They are right.  If you beg to differ,  you are wrong.  There are few more pointless efforts in life than arguing with a narcissist.

Narcissists are preternaturally preoccupied with fantasies of success.  If they have to lie to achieve their goals, no problem.  No conscience, no empathy — ergo no issues with bald-faced lies.

You add it all up — their sense of entitlement, their need for admiration, their exploitation of others in order to elicit admiration and incite erotic feelings, their psychological abuse of their own children to meet their own personal needs, their bottomless envy of others and an unrelenting belief that others are envious of them, their arrogant, haughty attitudes, holding themselves above everyone else — and you can see why you’re exasperated.

With narcissists, you’ll feel looked down upon, although you often won’t know quite why or even realize that you felt that way until after they’re gone.  For narcissists, their own prestige and attractiveness are all-important, and they get to dictate the terms of their relative prestige: it’s whatever they have and you don’t.  It may not be prestige in the real world (although it may be) but it’s what they’ve accomplished or what they are and you’re not.

WHAT TO EXPECT — AND WHAT NOT TO EXPECT — FROM A NARCISSIST

Here’s what you can expect from such individuals: a performance consisting of a presentation of their particular thoughts, witticisms, concerns, ideas, preferences, and spur-of-the-moment quips.  Here’s what you can not expect: interest in you, or in anyone else, a desire to respond to your concerns, interests, questions, or, most of all, your needs.  They’re the ones with needs.  In their universe, you’re expected to meet their needs.  They recognize no reciprocal obligation.

A “relationship” with such a person is the proverbial one-way street.  If you’re alone in a room with someone like this, it will feel as if there’s only one person there: the other person.  Your role, if you choose to accept it, is to be the audience.  It’s just that simple.  You can laugh, you  can look concerned, you can express the appropriate reaction at the appropriate moment, but don’t even think about expressing your views, feelings, opinions, or observations.  They aren’t welcome, and they have no place in a monologue.  The fact that you have relevant experiences or expertise is profoundly irrelevant to the soliloquist -narcissist.  It deeply doesn’t matter.

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