Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hollow Man or A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

When you hear the term "narcissist," what or who comes to mind?  Chances are that the person you immediately identify in your mind's eye is loud, boisterous and boastful--a true "Donald Trump" kind of individual who monopolizes the conversation and consumes all of the oxygen in whatever room he happens to be in.  And you would be right, for the most part.  However, there is a form of narcissism that looks nothing like the picture you imagined and therein lies the danger.  Many of us who have been in exploitative or abusive relationships have been impacted by this insidious form of narcissism.  By the time we realize something is off in the relationship, we are completely entangled in a web of deceit, manipulation and confusion.

Narcissism is defined as a "Pattern of traits and behaviors which signify infatuation and obsession with one's self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one's gratification, dominance and ambition." Source  A narcissist desperately seeks admiration and affirmation and is interpersonally exploitive, manipulative and deceptive.  He lacks the capacity for true empathy for others, though he may have learned how to persuasively pretend to be empathic.  And he sees others as mere extensions of himself; he simply cannot imagine life outside of how he perceives it.  The whole world exists for him.

Narcissists are "highly reactive to criticism" and "can be inordinately self-righteous and defensive."  They "project onto others qualities, traits, and behaviors they can't or won't accept in themselves" and they have very "poor interpersonal boundaries" Source.  Narcissists are like the bunny we received as kids at Easter.  On the outside they look substantial and solid but on the inside they are hollow; their shell is their substance.

While all of us have some narcissistic traits, in order to be diagnosed as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder
(NPD), an individual must meet five or more of the criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV).  However, what is not clear from the DSM criteria is the fact that narcissism may present in either an overt or covert manner.  We are all pretty familiar with the overt narcissist.  He "Gains narcissistic supplies through charm and a public persona that allows for the grandiose displays of high status, money, and power" (Payson, p. 32).  The overt narcissist is that consummate powerbroker, politician or diva.

The covert narcissist is a true "wolf in sheep's clothing."  He "Gains narcissistic supplies of admiration, status, and control through his or her role connected to a larger than life cause" (Payson, p. 32).  The covert narcissist is often seen as a humanitarian, "righteous idealogue," and expert professional, according to Eleanor Payson (p. 33).  Additionally, the covert narcissist:
  • Gains admiration, status, and control through more subtle and indirect means;
  • Demeanor is typically more reserved and self-contained, at times aloof;
  • Displays a persona that allows him to cover and disguise his grandiose needs;
  • Assumed persona allows him to gain attention, status and power through what he is doing and what he is connected to, rather than attempt to command a truly solo role in the spotlight.
  • Sees himself as one of the "chosen" people, doing good work for the betterment of humanity.
  • May not possess a strong personality but will exude the illusion of selflessness.
  • It is normally only in personal relationships that the narcissist's lack of empathy and support give evidence to his limitations and impaired functioning.
  • Anger is generally expressed in a passive aggressive manner.
Narcissists are attracted to professions that will give them the narcissistic gains that they must have in order to survive (admiration, affirmation, control, power, recognition--worship).  Many pastors and homeschool/ministry leaders meet the diagnostic criteria for NPD.  Covert narcissists are almost impossible to identify prior to getting involved with them--they are such masters of disguise and pretense.  And all the while they are using and abusing you, they are quite skillfully convincing you that the discomfort you are feeling is your own fault--it is due to some failure or character defect that is in you.  Or worse, it is due to a lack of faith, sin or a spiritual problem.  After all, God is the Ultimate Big Stick and abusers are not hesitant to use Him if it helps them gain power over those within their congregations, homes or families.

I was married for over three decades to a man who was highly esteemed in his professional arena.  He destroyed his career and our family when he was arrested for possession of child pornography.  His subsequent diagnosis as a pedophile was shocking, but I must admit not nearly as difficult as learning that he meets all of the diagnostic criteria for NPD.  Pedophilia stole the future and financial security that I expected to have but narcissism  has stolen my past--the life and marriage I thought I had.  Every memory, both good and bad must now be reframed through the lens of narcissism.  Even with an advanced degree in a helping profession, I could not see his narcissism--that is how confusing and crazy-making covert narcissism is.  Those who know him would probably describe him as a quiet, sensitive man with a quirky sense of humor.  That is how I described him for years.  But, he is a narcissist, pure and simple.

Recovery from involvement with a narcissist takes time, as I am discovering.  It involves letting go of many distortions of truth and blame that were given over the years--a "learning and unlearning," as Jim Cole writes.  Unlearning those truths I believed about myself because the man I loved told me they were true--and learning who I really am--my strengths, weaknesses and true value.  My greatest fear is that I will fail to learn these lessons and find myself involved with another narcissist at some point in the future.  I know how easy it is to fall prey to their skillful manipulation.  The goal is to recognize the narcissism earlier than I have in the past and to get myself to a safe place more quickly than I did in my marriage.  Regardless of whether the narcissist in our life is an overt or covert one, the outcome is always the same--the relationship becomes incredibly painful, one-sided and exploitative.  The choice, though agonizing, is quite simple--we must leave, separate, get away from the exploitative narcissistic person.  They will not change because from their perspective, the whole world may be wrong but they are absolutely right.

**Excellent resource:  The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, Eleanor Payson, MSW, Julian Day Publications, 2002.

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