Many of us likely have a friend, partner, or family member who finds a way to shift the focus of every conversation to them. But when does this type of behavior indicate self-absorption versus a more serious problem of narcissism? And further, how can we protect our own energy and mental health within such relationships?
To better understand narcissistic personality disorder and how to deal with a narcissist, we spoke with psychotherapist Ieasha Ramsay, LMSW.
What Is Narcissism?
“People use the term narcissism very loosely, but clinically, it’s still quite rare,” Ramsay explains. “Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can only be diagnosed by a professional, but there are some tell-tale distinguishers.”
So, what makes a person narcissistic? “Generally, narcissism consists of a grandiose self-image and an inflated sense of self. It becomes risky because that’s often coupled with an intense and insatiable need for validation, as well as manipulative behavior,” Ramsay warns.
What’s the Difference Between Self-Absorption vs. Narcissism?
Simply put, the answer is empathy. “Though someone may be self-absorbed, they still usually have the capacity for empathy,” Ramsay says. Additionally, “someone who’s self-absorbed may struggle to understand intent versus impact, but may have enough insight to not automatically jump into victim mode. This [ability] is much more difficult for someone with NPD.”
What Causes Narcissism?
In a 2019 story for NBC News, psychiatrist and narcissism specialist David M. Reiss, MD, explained: “A narcissist doesn’t necessarily come from a dysfunctional family, but narcissism can occur because a parent or caretaker wasn’t able to provide emotional attention, or it could be the flipside: a parent provided too much attention and the child never learned frustration tolerance.”
Furthermore, is narcissism genetic? Ramsay says that both nature and nurture can factor into this personality disorder: “Narcissistic traits can be transferred genetically. But more often than not, people develop them as a coping mechanism in response to difficult family environments in childhood.”
How to Deal With a Narcissist
While challenging, Ramsay notes that it’s possible to maintain a relationship with a loved one diagnosed with NPD. However, she says one must find ways to establish and maintain boundaries regarding behaviors you will and won’t accept.
One of the tips she finds most useful is utilizing “I statements” to describe the impact of the person’s behavior on you. Ramsay also notes that it’s essential to recognize gaslighting, an exploitative tactic that makes the victim question their reality. She reminds us that “remembering that your experience is real and valid, regardless of attempts to invalidate” is a tool we can all use in our daily interactions.
How to Treat Narcissism
While there’s no cure for narcissistic personality disorder, Ramsay believes that professional help, like therapy, can prove beneficial. “It gives a space to explore deeper and complex issues, begin examining their role in relationships, and focus on emotional regulation tools that can help decrease acting out [negative] behaviors.”