When you hear the word narcissist, your mind probably associates behaviors like arrogance, cockiness, and entitlement.
While these are certainly characteristics of someone with narcissism, there is quite a bit going on that is much deeper than the superficial exaggerated self-opinion.
Here are seven fundamental truths you might not have known about narcissists that can explain why they behave the way they do.
1. Narcissists have conditional self-worth.
While narcissists seem confident, their self-worth is, in fact, conditional, whether they're aware of it or not. It is based on certain experiences, specifically external events. A narcissist thinks "I feel good about myself if" as in:
- "I feel good about myself if I feel superior to you."
- "I feel good about myself if you agree with me."
- "I feel good about myself if you tell me that you admire me."
Of course, a desire to feel good about yourself is a universal human longing, and to some extent, fundamental psychological hunger propels our interactions with the world. For a narcissist, this is demonstrated in comparing himself to others and craving (almost needing) to feel exceptional.
This is why narcissists often bully others. They try to put people down so they feel better about themselves.
It is also why they personalize when someone disagrees with them. Rather than acknowledging a difference in opinions, the narcissist will interpret it as a personal attack, which cuts at his or her ego.
2. A narcissist constantly needs more validation.
With the aforementioned conditional self-worth comes a constant "need" to be validated. This is why one compliment isn't enough; one "victory" of being right and the other person being wrong doesn't satiate a narcissist's need for validation. Once they achieve a win, they move on for more. And more.
3. A narcissist is motivated by intense fear.
Yep, it is actually an intense and deeply rooted fear that propels a narcissist's reactions—both internal (how they interpret what you do) and external (how they react). The fear? That they are not good enough, not lovable, not worthy. This fear, however, is so ingrained that the narcissist is often not overtly aware of it.
4. A narcissist uses anger to avoid feeling deeper emotions.
It is "safer" for a narcissist to be angry than it is to feel the sadness and fear associated with his or her conditional self-worth. This coping mechanism of anger is so deep-rooted for narcissists as a means to protect themselves from their own vulnerability that it has become an automatic reaction.
5. A narcissist operates from an all-or-nothing perfectionistic viewpoint.
For a narcissist, something is either right OR wrong; a person's behavior is either nice OR mean; he or she is either revered or ridiculed. There is no gray area with a narcissist.
6. A narcissist has his or her own set of rules.
We all have our own sets of rules regarding how others should act. A narcissist's rules are written in stone in their minds, and they get extremely upset when people do not abide by them. Why? Because they view a deviation from their rules as a slight against them because they think you think less of them.
7. A narcissist's behavior has little to do with you.
Ever noticed how you can say the same thing to a narcissist and one time they laugh but another time they blow up? That is because it is a narcissist's fragile ego that propels their interactions. And that ego can become more delicate with stress, which can manifest in the form of excessive work obligations, sensing they are being taken advantage of, fatigue, or any other of the other countless sources of stress in our society.
Can you help a narcissist?
There is nothing you personally can do to make a narcissist feel truly at peace. What they need is to cultivate their self-worth so that it is unconditional—based on their values and strengths instead of how others react to them. Sadly, the typical narcissist's ego is so fragile that even hearing this could send them into a downward spiral.
That's the bad news.
Empathy: the antidote to narcissism
The good news, though, is that research demonstrates that some narcissists can actually get better with treatment, including developing greater empathy.
What's more, now that you have a better understanding of the narcissist's subconscious, hopefully you can take a step back, re-evaluate your relationship, and give yourself permission to take some space and cultivate empathy on your own terms.