If you’d asked me a few years ago whether the person I was involved with was a narcissist, I would have answered “absolutely not.” He had none of the hallmarks that make it relatively easy for a layperson to spot a narcissist—the grandiosity, the need to be the center of attention, the haughty or overbearing remarks and competitiveness. He didn’t display the preening, the need to manipulate, or, of course, the lack of empathy. He didn’t appear to fit any of those definitions; in fact, if anything, he was quiet and not that into socializing, intent on not drawing attention to himself. He was insouciant about his appearance except in professional situations, and relatively laid-back. He was a thoughtful giver of gifts, willing to accommodate to my needs and—for me, at least—perhaps a bit too happy being by himself and away from the company of others. Does that sound like a narcissist to you? It didn’t to me.
He had other flaws I didn’t know about and discovered, none of which flashed a neon billboard that said NARCISSIST.
What I didn’t understand at the time and do now is that the narcissist shows his true colors in conflict. That point is brought out with clarity by two new books on the subject, Re-thinking Narcissism by Dr. Craig Malkin and The Narcissist You Know by Dr. Joseph Burgo (both are also bloggers on this site), and borne out by my own personal experience. Both of these authors take the position that the narcissist is, in fact, emotionally wounded. The behaviors he or she evinces are efforts to disguise or assuage the pain of that wounded self.
It’s in conflict—when even the healthiest among us becomes defensive and self-protective—that the narcissist reveals him or herself in fullness. They fully expose their lack of empathy—the cornerstone of the narcissist—because when the narcissist feels threatened, winning or succeeding to protect him or herself is all that matters, not consequences. A narcissist’s focus and determination to win at any cost underscore the shallow nature of their emotional connections—to you and to all others.
What kind of conflict shows the narcissist’s true stripes? The answer is all and any, ranging from the petty tiff to divorce court. If it’s the latter, abandon all hope of a reasonable negotiation or mediation; the true narcissist does neither. To borrow a term from the military, the narcissist’s policy is scorched earth, destroying everything and leaving nothing behind as he or she advances or withdraws—not a shred of connection or memory, respect for past connections, relationships, or the welfare of others involved in the conflict. The narcissist’s willingness to lie is nothing short of extraordinary and he or she will be completely unconcerned whether someone finds those lies out or not. It’s lack of empathy on steroids or, to put it better, aggrandized and entitled. The motto of the narcissist? “What you think of me is none of my business,” and he or she really means it.