By Jackson Newsome, Psy.D
I was walking through the self-help section of a bookstore. A title caught my eye: “Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed.” For several years, I have had a clinical interest in working with patients with narcissistic personalities, and so I felt discouraged by the tone of this title.
I felt worse upon realizing it was one of many books within this theme. Shoppers could have also purchased “Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself” or even “How to Kill a Narcissist: Debunking the Myth of Narcissism and Recovering from Narcissistic Abuse.”
I wondered: How have we reached the point where former loved ones are meant to be discarded, devalued and disarmed? If you are reading this blog, you may know someone with narcissistic traits or even identify with some of these qualities — and you may benefit from a more nuanced discussion.
Clinically, narcissistic personality disorder is viewed as a disorder of self that results in character traits of self-emphasis, grandiose ideations and behaviors that impair relationships — ranging from demands for adoration to entitlement and exploitative behaviors.
There can be no doubt: Forging a co-existence with someone with these qualities is complex, and I would never encourage someone to persist in a relationship with a partner who is unwilling to self-reflect, self-challenge and seek the help they need.
But what underlies this condition?
Psychologists and therapists who work with this population know people with narcissistic traits hold esteem split at both high and low extremes, not just high esteem as is the common trope. Plainly, people with a narcissistic condition suffer from low self-esteem for which they often compensate with a vulnerable and easily shattered grandiosity. If you have ever seen someone ricochet from self-admiration to self-deprecation in an instant, you may have a clear mental image of this internal process.
In other words, a narcissistic personality is a form of defense against emotional pain and inner turbulence.
When we simply examine symptoms of narcissism on their own, we lose sight of systems that create such personalities and how, at the root, there is often trauma. Complex trauma, violent or sexual traumatic experiences, and the accumulation of stress secondary to identity-based trauma can contribute to elevated narcissism. In clinical settings, the individual with narcissism often presents with a history of caregiver neglect, attachment dysfunction, persistent invalidation and traumatic disruptions to development that increase the likelihood for a personality that neither serves the individual nor others well.
I wonder, if one takes a deep breath and reflects, if reframing narcissism as a disorder of trauma lessens the intensity of our reaction to the word?
The brain craves simplicity. This is why we think in terms of binaries (e.g., this is good/this is bad; this is safe/this is dangerous). Making a quick decision moves us forward and feels comfortable. Tolerating ambiguity and complexity, such as how all people hold both positive and negative qualities, can be mentally taxing. And so, even with our limited bandwidth, I challenge us to consider the costs of simplifying a complicated issue. Reducing our loved ones into a binary may ease navigation of conflict in the short-term — yet it comes at the expense of long-term relational insight. Through contextualizing traits in others, we remember our common humanity.
Healing begins there.
When we hold ourselves and others as whole, complex beings, we are empowered to make sense of our experiences and narratives. This perspective helps to make our boundaries stronger, relationships balanced and our former relationships appreciated in their full context.
A core complaint of having a relationship with someone with narcissism is the experience of feeling objectified and devalued. As a result, the hurt person may unconsciously devalue the individual with narcissism — or devalue people with narcissism generally. Unchecked and unaware, this devaluation of people with narcissistic personalities carries substantial risk.
Devaluation and stigma complicate clinicians’ ability to diagnose the condition (for desire to protect their patients from hardship) and reduces the likelihood that people with these personalities will seek needed care. Would you trust a practitioner to help when they tell someone else to discard you?
I understand and respect the intention of resources created to support someone in — or recovering from — an abusive relationship. These relationships are unacceptable and untenable. However, finding appropriate care can be nearly impossible when stigma runs so high or paints your personality as singular in presentation (i.e., portraying all people with narcissism as “toxic”).
To heal, we must see ourselves and others as whole. People with narcissistic personalities are among our partners, family and friends, and they deserve quality care and safe access to treatment and self-help supports.
Dr. Jackson Newsome is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder of his private practice: Forge Psychology Chicago. His treatment approach is trauma-informed and emphasizes depth psychology work. He also serves in the capacity of associate director of the PHP/IOP Trauma Programs at Compass Health Center in Chicago.
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