In the tradition of The Sociopath Next Door, clinical psychologist Joseph Burgo’s The Narcissist You Know is a “clear, easily digestible” (Kirkus Reviews) guide to help you identify, disarm, and coexist with extreme narcissists.
In today’s social media and selfie-obsessed culture, we are living in an age of narcissism—and a society that often celebrates this potentially harmful trait rather than understanding it as a psychological disorder. Scientists are beginning to learn that narcissism exists on a spectrum—much like autism—and most of us exhibit some mild narcissistic tendencies. But one in twenty people fall into a category the author refers to as Extreme Narcissism, in which these self-absorbed characteristics result in destructive behavior that harms not only the individual but everyone around them, including friends, family, and coworkers.
With more than thirty years of experience studying personality disorders and treating extreme narcissists, Dr. Joseph Burgo has developed a useful guidebook to help you “spot narcissists out there in the wild” (Glamour) and then understand and manage the narcissistic personalities in your own life. Relying on detailed profiles, vignettes from the author’s practice, and celebrity biographies, The Narcissist You Know offers easy-to-understand tools and solutions you can use to defuse hostile situations and survive assaults on your self-esteem should you ever find yourself in an extreme narcissist’s orbit.
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About the Author
Joseph Burgo, PhD, has practiced psychotherapy for more than thirty years and held licenses as a marriage and family therapist and clinical psychologist. He earned his undergraduate degree in English Literature at UCLA and both his masters and doctorate in Psychology at California Graduate Institute in Los Angeles. Dr. Burgo has been quoted or featured as an expert on NPR and in publications such as USA TODAY, Glamour, The New York Times, and numerous other publications. As a writer on mental health topics, he is a regular contributor to The Atlantic and a frequent blogger for Psychology Today.
Read an Excerpt
The Narcissist You Know “I HAVE MANY DIFFERENT FACES”
Sam’s earliest memories involve his parents’ epic fights—voices raised, plates flying, tears and recriminations that sometimes ended in physical violence. His father would accuse his mother of infidelity, while she railed about his emotional neglect. Not long after Sam turned six, his parents divorced. During the ensuing years, he rarely saw his father, who remarried and started a second family. In the meantime, a long string of men, his mother’s boyfriends, moved in and out of Sam’s life. Most of them had a hard time coping with the boy’s defiant, hostile attitude. A few of them felt provoked enough to beat him. His mother never remarried.
During middle school, Sam was fairly popular and an A student, though extremely intolerant of criticism. He frequently wound up in the principal’s office for overly aggressive behavior. Even back then, before the antibullying campaign had gathered steam, his persecution of the shy and the weak regularly brought reprimands. In high school, he directed his immense competitive energy into athletics and eventually became captain of the football team, despite clashes with his coach over his disrespect and “glory hogging.” The coach knew his star player needed a strong paternal hand to help him manage that tormented, angry drive of his, but Sam rebuffed him. “You’re not my dad!” he snarled on more than one occasion. Eventually Sam received an athletic scholarship to Stanford and was recruited by Exxon upon graduation.
As a rising corporate executive, Sam was a fierce competitor, relentless in his drive to succeed, cocky and self-confident in a way that some colleagues found charming, others abrasive. He had no close friends and viewed other people with suspicion: From his cynical perspective, everyone in life was “playing an angle.” When necessary, he could feign deference toward his superiors, concealing his contempt and the immense envy he felt for their wealth and power. Rising through the ranks, he demanded complete and uncritical loyalty from his own subordinates. If they complied, he generously rewarded them. But if a member of his team failed to live up to his expectations, Sam would cast that person aside without regret. Over time, he gathered around him a devoted group of hardworking men and women who both admired and feared him.
His personal life was marked by the same competitive drive, demands for loyalty, and abrupt dismissals of those who disappointed him. After a long string of one-night stands and short-term relationships, Sam fell headlong in love with Miranda, a top runway model, whom he adored with idealistic passion. Once married, she gave up her career at his insistence. He then built them a showplace pointedly larger than the homes owned by his fellow corporate officers. They began to collect art and build a wine cellar. Sam and Miranda hosted lavish parties and elegant dinners, over which he presided with a kind of dictatorial charm.
As Miranda aged, Sam’s passion for her gradually cooled. When she became pregnant and “lost her figure,” he made snide comments and started an affair with one of his subordinates. Sam and Miranda had two sons, whom he loved in an authentic but limited way, seeing them more as reflections upon himself than as truly separate people. As a parent, he was perfectionistic and demanding but only intermittently focused on his children’s activities. He forgot school plays and athletic events he had promised to attend. He made sure his boys went to the most expensive private schools but never attended a single parent-teacher conference.
Though not an introspective man, Sam occasionally had his dark moments when he felt alone and uncared for, surrounded by hungry mouths he had to feed, literally and figuratively, or besieged by up-and-coming competitors who wanted his job. The world sometimes struck him as a hostile place, beset with dangers. At those moments, an angry sort of self-pity could set in. If it weren’t for his power and money, would anyone give a damn what happened to him? Even his own mother, sunk deep into alcoholism by that time, was always hitting him up for another “loan.”
As he reached the pinnacle of his career, Sam traveled the world extensively on the corporate jet, usually in the company of one of his mistresses. Whenever Miranda or the children complained about his absence, he called them ungrateful for failing to appreciate the affluent lifestyle he afforded them. Miranda eventually filed for divorce. Incensed, Sam hired a lawyer known for his slash-and-burn tactics, who so relentlessly persecuted Miranda that she finally gave up, walking away from the marriage with very little. Sam spread vicious rumors about her within their social set, telling unfounded tales about her promiscuity and drug abuse. Using his wealth as a weapon, he attempted to lure their children away from Miranda, threatening to cut them off if they didn’t take his side.
* * *
Sam perfectly fits the profile for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a favorite diagnosis regularly made by reporters, bloggers, and professional psychologists opining in the public sphere. While the label is sometimes used loosely, with commentators applying the term “narcissistic” to just about anyone deemed conceited or overly focused on garnering attention, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) actually has precise criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder that are codified in its “bible”—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (or the DSM).
So who qualifies as an “official” narcissist? According to the DSM, a person must demonstrate at least five of the following features to receive this diagnosis:
• A grandiose sense of self-importance—in other words, the individual exaggerates achievements and talents and expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements
• A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
• A belief 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)
• A need for excessive admiration
• A sense of entitlement—unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
• Interpersonally exploitative behavior—someone who takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
• A lack of empathy—a person who is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
• Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her
• A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes
Going by this strict definition, Sam definitely meets the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He displays an obvious lack of empathy; he is preoccupied with enormous success and needs uncritical admiration; he’s arrogant, envious, and grandiose, and he ruthlessly exploits other people. In fact, Sam demonstrates more than five of the nine diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which points unambiguously toward this diagnosis.
But you probably could have made this diagnosis yourself, just by reading his story. Sam’s case isn’t particularly nuanced, and though you may not know someone like Sam firsthand, you’ve probably seen similar behavior in the escapades of high-flying politicians, actors, or business titans. He’s a classic case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
But what about the other narcissists who are all around us? What about those people who fall short of the diagnostic criteria for NPD but aren’t simply vain or conceited?
Since the first edition of the DSM was published in 1952, psychological thought and science has undergone several revolutions . . . and the book itself has undergone several revisions, too. In early editions, Freudian theory reigned supreme. Narcissistic tendencies were attributed to our early experiences with our mother or father, and the cure would be psychoanalysis, and lots of it.
But beginning around 1974, Freudian theory waned in influence and a more “scientific” orientation came to dominate the DSM. As the pendulum swung, the APA’s diagnosis manual began to adopt a disease model of mental illness, where psychological disorders are largely viewed as a medical condition, one that can be cured by a pill rather than by talk therapy. With its symptom checklist and elaborate numeric codes, the most recent edition (DSM5) strives to identify psychological conditions that are as discrete and circumscribed as any physical illness, such as glaucoma or asthma.
There are many positive effects of this shift—and viewing psychological problems as diseases rather than as moral failings has gone a long way to alleviate the stigma associated with mental illness. At the same time, the APA has taught us to view many disorders as the result of chemical imbalances or genetic defects, without exploring the meaning of their symptoms or their roots in personal history.
Low levels of serotonin in your brain are the cause of your depression, patients are told. This pill will take care of it.
This prevailing view of mental illness is not only misleading, it’s dangerous. It focuses on extreme cases that fit a clinical definition without providing guidance for how to spot and cope with lesser though often serious expressions of a disorder. Narcissism isn’t a disease that you can turn off or on with a pill. Remember that nine-point narcissism checklist from the DSM? Sam would be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder because he met five of the nine criteria. What if he only met four of them? Or what if his ability to empathize were severely limited rather than entirely absent?
Some men and women barely reach the diagnostic threshold for NPD. Others fall just short. A great many other people more closely fit another diagnosis but at the same time seem quite narcissistic. These people could be just as troubled, and just as destructive to themselves and those around them . . . and it can be difficult to get them the help they need because they don’t fit some rigid definition in the DSM.
In fact, narcissism exists in many shades and degrees of severity along a continuum, as do many other high-profile medical and psychological conditions, like autism or bipolar disorder. In order to understand narcissism—to make sense of the narcissists we all know and to find ways of coping with them—we need to look beyond its strict definition in the DSM. To see people like Sam as afflicted with a disease sets them apart, as if they have nothing to do with our own emotional experience and are therefore incomprehensible. But as I’ll show in the pages ahead, the narcissistic features they display are actually the most extreme form of traits that show up across the spectrum of mental disorders, and more mildly in the general population.
In short, narcissism is a universal aspect of human psychology, existing along a continuum of possible expressions.
Although the APA sets forth nine potential criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder—as if they were distinct disease traits as well defined as the fatigue and shortness of breath that often characterize anemia—those nine features actually overlap and interconnect. From a psychological perspective, where symptoms have meaning, those nine actually boil down to two: an inflated sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy for other people; the remaining features are by-products that naturally follow from them.
A person with a grandiose sense of self would likely believe herself to be unique, part of a superior elite and destined for greatness. She would feel entitled to special treatment, coming across as arrogant or haughty, and expect others to admire her. Someone who lacks empathy would more readily exploit other people for personal gain, or envy them for the simple reason that they possess what she wants.
An inflated sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy for other people: As I’ll be discussing throughout this book, these two psychological traits lie at the heart of narcissism. They largely define Narcissistic Personality Disorder according to the APA, but they often show up in other psychological disorders as well. An inflated sense of self-importance characterizes mania and the manic phases of bi-polar disorder. “Ideas of reference” that show up in paranoia, and various psychotic disorders, organize the universe around the self; other people become two-dimensional enemies, characters in one’s personal drama, with no authentic interior life of their own. People who struggle with manic-depressive illness have little emotional room left over for other people.
In other words, many individuals who don’t meet the full diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder are narcissists all the same—Extreme Narcissists, as I refer to them. And they are all around us, causing us damage, wreaking havoc in our lives. We’re ill equipped to cope with them. Often we don’t even spot them until it’s too late.
Consider the case of Naomi.
People who don’t know her well often describe Naomi in saintly terms. In addition to her work as a kindergarten teacher, she organizes fund-raising drives for breast cancer research and takes an active part in her congregation’s outreach to the underprivileged. At Christmas, she coordinates a gift-giving program with her local social services department, making sure that all children in foster care receive every item on their Christmas wish lists. Twice a month, she volunteers for the hot line sponsored by a shelter for battered women in her community.
“What this world needs,” acquaintances often tell her, “is more people like you.”
Naomi’s three adult children have a very different view of her. “Mother is difficult,” they often say. It’s hard to know in advance what will set her off, but certain subjects are clearly dangerous. They learned long ago never to contradict their mother when she vilifies her ex-husband, painting herself as a long-suffering martyr abandoned by a heartless philanderer who left in search of younger flesh. They never mention contacts with their father and lie point-blank if Naomi asks whether they’ve seen him. Melissa, the youngest, once made the mistake of showing off an expensive watch she received from him on her birthday. Naomi acted deeply wounded and turned chilly toward Melissa, launching small digs and snide remarks for weeks thereafter.
Naomi tends to play rotating favorites. Sometimes Molly is the good girl and her sister, Melissa, the problem; then they’ll switch roles following some unintended slight to Naomi’s self-regard. Their brother, Josh, the golden child, her pride and joy, seems largely immune from criticism. It helps that he’s a successful surgeon with a large home in the finest part of town. He buys his mother a new car every few years and occasionally sends her on a Mediterranean cruise. At work, Naomi goes on and on to her colleagues about her dutiful, generous, loving, successful, and wealthy son. How he dotes on her!
If the two sisters have lunch alone, or all three siblings get together without inviting Naomi, they know better than to mention it: She’d feel left out and jealous. “Once her children are grown,” Naomi often says in martyred tones, “a mother just doesn’t matter.” However, at full family gatherings, she still makes herself the center of attention. When Melissa or Josh asks about Molly’s job at the local public TV station, Naomi soon forces her way back into the spotlight with well-worn subject changers: “That reminds me of the time . . .” or “Speaking of such-and-such, did I ever tell you about . . .”
Whenever events take a turn for the worse in the lives of her children, Naomi can be lavish in her sympathy. Molly once contracted a staph infection while in the hospital for gallbladder surgery, and Naomi visited her every day, preparing casseroles for Molly’s family so “they wouldn’t starve.” When Melissa lost her job, Naomi stepped forward with financial support and a great deal of advice. But if good fortune should come their way, she offers rote congratulations and lapses into silence. The day Molly won an award for a documentary she produced at the station, Naomi took to bed with a mysterious ailment the doctors could never explain.
* * *
Naomi doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, though she does display an inflated sense of self-importance and limited empathy for the members of her family. She’s neither grandiose nor preoccupied by fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty, et cetera. Although emotionally manipulative, she doesn’t actually exploit other people for personal gain. She’s neither arrogant nor haughty. Of the nine diagnostic criteria listed in the DSM, she demonstrates three or four at most.
And yet Naomi is undoubtedly an Extreme Narcissist. She may not be as blatantly narcissistic as Sam, but, psychologically speaking, these two people have a lot in common. And both are destructive forces in the lives of those around them. Extreme Narcissists are people whose inflated sense of self-importance and limited empathy bring pain and turmoil to their friends, family members, and acquaintances.
Odds are you don’t personally know people like Sam, though you might have seen their names in the headlines or heard about them on the news: politicians, athletes, or entertainers whose careers have dramatically collapsed before the public eye following some scandal—the Anthony Weiners, Eliot Spitzers, and Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the world. They dominate the realm of celebrity, where the personality traits expressed in Extreme Narcissism prove useful as they claw their way to the top.
Until recently, Narcissistic Personality Disorder was believed to show up in about 1 percent of the population, or one in a hundred people, most of them men, but the latest studies point to a much larger number. Many of them have learned to disguise their socially unacceptable traits in order to control the impression they make and to better manipulate people. On a casual level, they can appear quite charming, so unless you get to know them well, you might never realize you’re dealing with a diagnosable narcissist according to the DSM.
But as a character trait rather than a discrete diagnostic category, narcissism shows up not only in the other personality disorders but across the spectrum of psychological illness, affecting as much as 5 percent of the population, women as well as men. In all walks of life, we meet the Extreme Narcissist on a regular basis. It might be your boss or a colleague at work. Your sister-in-law. That new person you’re dating or a member of your social group.
Many people think better of themselves than they actually deserve—men and women with no obvious psychological disorder but whose personality and behavior make them seem narcissistic. Self-centered or preoccupied with their own image, they’re fairly insensitive to the feelings of other people, though not entirely lacking in empathy. They’re often envious or jealous people who easily take offense. They may dominate conversation at dinner parties or make themselves the center of attention in large groups. They show limited interest in others and don’t usually recognize when they’ve hurt someone’s feelings. Less obviously narcissistic than Sam or even Naomi, and far from meeting the criteria for NPD, they are Extreme Narcissists all the same, at least some of the time.
Extreme Narcissists are all around us. They hurt us. They stir up trouble in our relationships with other people. We’re ill equipped to handle them because we don’t understand what makes them behave in the destructive ways they do.
It helps to know that all of the Extreme Narcissists you’ll meet in the pages ahead are trying to feel good about themselves, to prove that they have value, but they often do so in ways that make it difficult to feel any compassion for them. Usually, we can’t see what drives their behavior, in particular the unconscious shame that shapes their personalities. The Extreme Narcissist is in flight from himself, and most of what he says and does is an effort to disprove what he unconsciously fears is true—that he is small, defective, and without value.
As the profiles throughout this book will make clear, narcissism exists along a continuum of possible expressions. Sam, who meets the criteria for NPD, stands at one end of that continuum. In the pages ahead, I’ll be discussing other men and women who resemble Sam, among them the well-known athletes, politicians, and entertainers whose narcissistic behavior has garnered headlines; but Extreme Narcissists like Naomi are the primary focus of this book—people closer to the middle of our continuum, who fall just short of meeting the criteria for a severe clinical diagnosis, many of them clients from my practice or people they have known.
Before concluding this chapter, however, I’d like to introduce you to one more narcissist.
Let me tell you a story about my own narcissistic behavior one day at my piano lesson.
I’d been studying with my teacher, Pei Fen, for more than four years at that point. My oldest son, William, had studied with her for two years before that, so we’d known each other for six or seven years. She’s a friend, as well as my teacher: In addition to the playing and instruction that goes on during our lessons, we also talk about our personal lives. Following her annual break during July and August that year, I went to my first lesson with a lot to tell her about my own difficult summer.
In addition to a highly stressful trip to Chicago for William’s graduation from college, I also had to cope with an unexpected and upsetting family crisis. The weather had been lousy all summer, and too many houseguests had come to visit, stretching my emotional resources as gracious host, though they were all loved and welcome. I was also worried about Will’s depressed state of mind following graduation. Because Pei Fen had known him since he was fifteen years old, I told her all about his graduation and my concerns. I talked about the bad weather and the parade of houseguests and my family emergency. I went on at length. I didn’t realize it beforehand, but I think I’d been looking forward to sharing my experience with her, unburdening myself in a way.
We eventually turned to the music, and I was about halfway through the opening theme in my Chopin piece when I realized with a feeling of shame that I hadn’t asked Pei Fen a single question about her summer. I’d been so immersed in my own concerns, so wrapped up in my personal universe, where I was of paramount importance, that I briefly lost sight of Pei Fen as a separate person and not merely a friendly ear. I stopped playing and told her, “I was so self-absorbed that I didn’t even ask about you.” It turns out she’d had a serious wrist injury early in July, which meant the cancellation of her summer concerts in Europe, and she was deeply anxious about her upcoming visit to an eminent surgeon.
My point in telling this somewhat embarrassing story is that at times, we are all narcissistic. Whenever we’re deeply stressed, emotionally thin, or overwhelmed by need, other people may temporarily drop off our emotional radar. If we’re caught up in pursuing some goal that matters deeply to us, we might lose touch with the empathy we normally feel. And when our pride receives a blow, we may try to shore up our self-image in ways not so different from the defensive strategies used by the Extreme Narcissists described in the pages ahead.
I have no doubt that you, too, are an occasional narcissist, just like me.
In the coming chapters, I’ll explore narcissism in many forms, all along the continuum, from clients in my practice to more visible, well-known celebrities and the Extreme Narcissism they display—the bullying narcissism of Lance Armstrong, for example, or the self-righteous narcissism of Donald Trump. But first, we’ll take a look at narcissistic injury—the occasional blow to our self-esteem that we all experience from time to time—and what it reveals about the inner world of the Extreme Narcissists you may know. I believe that understanding our own narcissistic tendencies is the best place to begin an exploration of the more pathological forms of narcissism.
Table of Contents
1 "I Have Many Different Paces": The Narcissistic Continuum 7
2 "I'm Easily Wounded": Self-Esteem and Narcissistic Injury 23
3 "I'm a Winner and You're a Loser": The Bullying Narcissist 47
4 "You're Everything I Always/Never Wanted to Be": The Narcissistic Parent 69
5 "I Want You to Want Me": The Seductive Narcissist 93
6 "I'm King of the World": The Grandiose Narcissist 117
7 "I Have So Much to Tell You": The Know-It-All Narcissist 139
8 "I'm Right and You're Wrong": The Self-Righteous Narcissist 159
9 "Challenge Me and I'll Hurt You": The Vindictive Narcissist 181
10 "My Drug Means More to Me Than You Do": The Addicted Narcissist 203
11 "I'm Difficult but Not Impossible to Manage": Coping with the Narcissist You Know 225
Suggested Beading 251