I once invited my friend, Mary-Beth to attend a show with me. She was an aspiring singer and I thought she would enjoy this particular production. Unfortunately, I was delayed a few minutes picking her up and was dismayed when she left an extremely angry and volatile message on my cell phone. I apologized for being late but thought it prudent to ignore her attack. As the evening progressed she shocked me with the loud, grandiose, and critical comments she made to acquaintances and towards the show we were seeing. She seemed intent on making herself the focus of attention.
Mary-Beth is a narcissist. This is a personality disorder characterized by a heightened sense of self-importance and grandiose feelings of uniqueness. Mary-Beth makes it appear that everything in the world is about her: her needs, her worries, her schedule, her feelings. She engages in a lot of self-dramatizing behavior, and claims her average achievements are exceptional.
People like Mary-Beth want their own way and are frequently ambitious to achieve fame and fortune. They handle criticism poorly and have an inflated sense of entitlement. They can be very draining as they require excessive admiration. Lacking empathy they tend to exploit others. “Can you drive me to the airport at three in the morning?” They are like leaky buckets that never seem to be filled. Not surprisingly, their relationships are fragile.
Narcissists are extremely insecure. They envy the love, care, and validation that others seemed to have received as children. Their parents may have been nurturing but the process ended prematurely for some reason. So the Mary-Beths of the world constantly try to regain the missing pieces of adoration and validation. We are all proud at times and like to show our peacock feathers but narcissists who are feeling inwardly empty and unloved need to have praise just to feel halfway decent. They try to be larger than life. Unfortunately, narcissists rarely achieve the kind of attention they want for long. They are seen as sad, friendless, and shallow. They may be intriguing to watch but are rarely liked.
The narcissistic person is usually fascinated by even-more-narcissistic people, and will identify themselves with the great names of our world. “My doctor is the best in North America”. Envy and disdain are common feelings. Mick Jagger once said that Madonna was a “teaspoon of talent in an ocean of ambition”. Was this envy, disdain, or both from one possible narcissist to another?
In therapy, narcissistic patients must renounce their narcissism to make progress. Many are too vulnerable to allow for this. As individuals, however, we can make a difference. In interacting with a narcissistic person, it is important to be as compassionate as you are able. They deserve respect and kindness like anyone else. You don’t have to agree to every request or take abuse but you likely won’t be abused if they sense that you are respectful and on their side. So let the Mary-Beths speak about themselves while maintaining a low-key friendly courtesy. And feel free to enjoy the drama without getting caught up it.