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Oprah's 12 Most Frequently Asked Questions on Narcissism

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Oprah Winfrey Network interviewed me recently for their OWN Show, which I have to admit was an amazing experience. I sat down in their studio and answered a series of questions, 12 of which are in today's post below. I wanted to share these with you because when a spouse, partner or family member is showing narcissistic characteristics they can often go unrecognized and many times you could end up thinking there is something wrong with you. I hope this guidance and advice helps you on your journey through Rethinking Narcissism.


We miss the narcissists in our lives because we get too focused on are they loud, are they arrogant, are they vain and that’s not what being a narcissist is about. Narcissists dodge, avoid feelings of vulnerability like sadness, loneliness, fear because they're afraid of depending on people. So to comfort themselves, to soothe themselves, they rely on feeling special instead. Instead of relying on people they rely on feeling special.


An early warning sign of a hidden narcissist is they can be extremely charming upfront. The really outgoing narcissists spend a lot of time focused on their appearance. When they’re given time to put themselves together they look fantastic and they become experts at it, what we researchers call effective adornment. So in addition to being really outgoing and charming and pulling you in, they can be very attractive. You can get pulled in without even realizing it.

Another warning sign of a hidden narcissist is putting people on pedestals because one thing it does for them is it helps them feel special to be close to someone who’s special. But the other thing it does is it helps them avoid feeling vulnerable in any way. If you're with a god, if you're with an idol you don’t ever have to worry about being hurt, you don’t ever have to worry about being disappointed. They cement you onto a pedestal and when you’re cemented to a pedestal that’s not a real relationship.


Because they don’t really like to ask for things directly, because it puts them in a position of feeling dependent and possibly even hearing no, they will arrange events to get what they need. I had a client who had a boyfriend who actually would show up at the last minute with concert tickets and say, “Hey, I’ve got this concert for us to go to,” drag her on this wonderful adventure and all of that is fun and terrific. If she suggested let’s go out to this restaurant he said, “Neh, I don’t really want to do that.” It took her a while to realize everything was about what he wanted to do, it was about his desires, his preferences even when it came to things that were fun. If they're engaging in these kinds of strategy there is a chance that they’re using stealth control to feel special.


Another way to spot a hidden narcissist I call fantasizing your twins. We are alike, isn’t that special? It gives us a special feeling to be with somebody who shares all of our same ideas and preferences. If you get into your 30s with someone, a friend, or even someone you’re dating and they’re saying, “Ah, I love that too. I like ketchup just like you like ketchup.” If you’re with someone who constantly insists on all the ways you’re similar and that seems to go on for a while, that again can be a sign that you’re with somebody who's a narcissist in more of these hidden ways. If there’s no difference then there cannot be disappointment. So there's no vulnerability. So they’re relying on a special relationship of feeling like a twin instead of really connecting with you.


Fluctuating empathy means you see the person with their friends being really caring and connected in a very genuine fashion. People make the mistake of thinking this is all for show. And for many people who are highly narcissistic they really are being very empathic, they’re being terrific listeners. They might even be that way at the start of relationships, but then they get concerned about something and how it will affect them and suddenly the empathy vanishes. Their narcissism rises. Instead of turning to you to see if you can be there for them and that they can rely on you, they rely on feeling special again. So the narcissism spikes.


One of the ways hidden narcissists can damage us is if we’re not looking for the signs then we open our heart to someone, we look to them to depend on them for care and love and they’re not able to give it in any mutual fashion and people can wind up very heart broken. But they can also be directly damaging because if somebody is making themselves feel special by putting you down, by implying somehow you’re doing things wrong all the time and they’re not, that’s going to undermine your self-confidence, that’s going to erode your self-esteem.


I would never ever recommend telling somebody “you’re a narcissist.” It’s become an empty pejorative in many ways at this point and more of an insult so it’s likely to set somebody off. If they are extremely narcissistic they’re not going to take it in; it’s not going to be of any use to them. And what the research shows is that it’s far more effective to focus on the moments that they’re showing caring, concern, empathy and the times that you feel more connected to them. Because the more they see that they can rely on relationships, the more they’re comfortable with depending on people for feeling good, the less they’re going to turn to feeling special, the less they’re going to turn to narcissism.


Our normal impulse much of the time is to run away from people like this and often that’s a good idea. There are some stop signs. One stop sign is if you’re in a relationship with someone who is physically or emotionally abusive - it doesn’t matter what causes it, whether it’s alcoholism or narcissism or anything else, that’s a reason to leave. You need professional help in order to figure out how to leave.

Another bad sign is if they’re in denial. If they can’t even say, “I think there’s something wrong. I think I’m having trouble here,” it’s not going to get better. That’s a reason to leave.

The other third stop sign is if you see a pattern of remorseless lies and deceit. This can be a sign of extreme psychopathy. Extremely psychopathic narcissists can be dangerous and that’s another stop sign. If you’re having trouble getting out you want professional help in figuring out how to leave.

If you’re not seeing those signs of danger what you’re looking for is some kind of flexibility. Remember narcissists depend on feeling special to feel good, to soothe themselves in a variety of ways instead of depending on people. So what you want to test out is do they have a capacity to share more vulnerable feelings. And really the only way to do that is to open up and be vulnerable in certain ways yourself.


One of the ways they dodge uncomfortable feelings, particularly insecurity, is... think of it like a game of hot potato with feelings. It’s "I don’t want to feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about or I’m unsure of myself, here you take the feeling." Somebody who’s a boss, someone who’s in charge, they want to feel like they’re on top of things. Especially in the workplace a typical maneuver is to question your every move. This is the boss or a co-worker who sits down and says, “I don’t think that this should be done this way or I don’t think this is right,” and they start nitpicking. What they’re trying to do is they’re trying to get rid of their own feelings, their own vulnerable feelings--they’re not sure what they’ve done is good enough-- by saying and doing things to make you feel like you’re the incompetent person. That’s an example of emotional hot potato and it’s really common in the workplace.


If faced with a hot potato pass you work with what you’re feeling. “Oh, I’m feeling really inadequate, I’m feeling a little off balance or I’m feeling a little shaky,” and then you assume, rightly so, that that’s probably what that person is feeling and you ask them, “What’s got you feeling off today? Something feels like maybe you’re not as sure about the project we’re working on, or is there something that I don’t know about where you’re feeling extra pressure and that’s got you feeling a little shaky?” I call that blocking the pass.


One of my favourite strategies is called catching the person being good. Everybody makes the mistake of thinking the solution here is to tell the person who’s being narcissistic off, saying that was so arrogant of you and why did you do that and why are you being such a jerk, which in fact makes them more narcissistic because it makes all of us more narcissistic. We want to hold onto ourselves, “I didn’t do that,” and we get defensive. What the research shows is that the way to help somebody reduce their narcissism-- to not rely so heavily on feeling special or be so addicted to it--is to have them focus on moments of connection and caring. In catching good what you do is you catch them in those moments.

So I had a client I worked with who had a friend who could fluctuate in empathy. If she had something going on in her life that was distressing her, she wasn’t really present. So I coached my client to say to her in a moment where she was really listening to her story about how she had been upset at work,  “This feels great when we have conversations like this. I feel like you’re really hearing what I’m saying and you’re just getting what my feelings are and I love it when we talk like this. I love it when we have conversations like this and I’d love to do it more.” That’s an example of catching good.

What you’re doing is you’re catching them in a moment when they’re showing that capacity for empathy and connection and you’re reinforcing it. In a way what you’re doing is you’re helping them feel special in a good way because you’re showing them that they’re special to you and they can rely on feeling good through the strength of the relationship, which is very different. It’s very different than relying on looks or feeling superior. You feel like you’re a good friend. How special is that?


We also do need to talk about surviving extreme narcissism, say if you have a parent or if you have an ex-spouse and you’re having to deal with custody issues you can’t leave, we can’t always march out the door, it’s not a relationship like that so you have to figure out different ways to cope. If you’re trying to protect yourself you might want to use something I call a connection contract. It’s a form of limit setting where you lay out ahead of time all the things that are going to keep you from being present, from wanting to stick around this person. So, I had one man that I worked with whose sister was constantly berating him, she would actually insult his intelligence and he wanted to go home. He wanted to see other family members and his sister was going to be there and he also did want to try to see her, but he didn’t want to be exposed to any of this. So what I coached him to do was to say to her on the phone, "I really want to see you, you’re my sister, but if I hear criticism, if I hear yelling, if I hear insults about my intelligence that will tell me that you're not in a space to be around me and I’ll have to find another place to stay, I won’t be able to be in the same house with you. So it’s really up to you whether or not I’m able to see you on this trip." 

That's an example of a connection contract and it’s often extremely effective. It’s been the case with lots of clients I’ve worked with because one of the things it does is it predicts behavior. And none of us really like to have our behavior predicted so if the person is extremely narcissistic it puts some pressure on them not to do it. In a connection contract you have to be very clear about the behaviors. You have to really spell it out. If I hear yelling, if you start drinking heavily around me, if you call me fat, those are the things that are going to keep me from sticking around, so you want to be very specific with the behaviors. Basically what you’re telling the person is, this is what's required for me to be present and you want to tell them what the deal breakers are.

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To learn more about dangerous narcissism, including specific, research-backed strategies to protect yourself from it, order Rethinking Narcissism today. Advance critical and expert praise for Rethinking Narcissism (more here).


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The internationally acclaimed book named Amazon's Book of the Month, Daily Mail's Book of the Week, featured on The Oprah Winfrey Network, in the New York Times, the cover story in Psychology Today, and selected as The Millions "most anticipated book of the year".

After teaching at local universities, Dr. Malkin became a Chief Psychologist at Harvard Medical School’s Cambridge Hospital, in Cambridge Massachusetts, where he instructed interns, residents, and fellows in the theory and practice of psychotherapy. In 2003, he left this position to expand his private practice and continued to supervise and teach for Harvard Medical School’s training program. Read More...

Top 10 Psychology Clinics in Cambridge, MA 2015
A Cambridge Psychologist winner of the 2015 Patients' Choice Awards.
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