In the mythological story, Narcissus found his fate looking back at him in the mirrored face of a pool of water. Pining away by his own reflection, this victim of the first “documented” case of what came to be known as narcissism, paid the ultimate price for his unhealthy self-regard.
In reality, it is not the narcissist who generally pays for his unbalanced view of the world. While narcissists may lose out on true relationships and the beauty of a two-way street, they don’t often realize their loss, being so wrapped in their own pathology, according to Richard A. Grossman, Ph.D., a Brookline, Mass.-based psychologist who specializes in working with spouses and adult children of narcissists. It is those around them who suffer most often.
Grossman spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about the problems faced by those closest to narcissists, why we are drawn to narcissists, how they may have an edge in evolution and the danger of putting such people in a position of power or influence.
Q: First, how did you come to choose this line of work?
A: Through some unusual circumstances, I ended up working and teaching in the outpatient psychiatry department at Mass. General/Harvard Medical School by the age of 24.
Once there, I naively expected to have as colleagues some of the brightest, most open-minded people from whom I would continue to learn.
But I was shocked to find instead a work world of narcissism and politics. I was told: “welcome to the adult world,” and that I simply had to “play the game.” Well, it wasn’t my adult world nor a “game” that I was willing to play, so I quit and devoted much of my career to exploring this aspect of the adult world – how it came about, its effect in the work place, on spouses, on children, and, of course, helping those affected by it.
Q: Do you think this behavior is typical of most work places?
A: It probably exists everywhere where there is a hierarchy but it certainly is much more intense at places where there is high prestige like Mass General/ Harvard Med.
Q: What surprised you to learn once you started to research the disorder?
A: Its prevalence and the genetics involved. In my era, we were taught to believe that everything was essentially environmental – it came from how parents treated children. But it turns out that, by far, the biggest factor in producing narcissism or any personality disorder, is genetics.
Q: For adult children of narcissists, what are the most common problems you see?
A: There are two related areas where children of narcissists have problems: discovering who they are as human beings in order to live life with their own true voice and forming healthy attachments.
Some will go from one unhealthy relationship with a narcissistic partner to the next. Some simply cannot attach at all because of the psychological damage that has been done to them. Instead, they build thick walls around their vulnerable self for protection and wend their way through life robotically.
Q: In many cases, you have found adult children marry another narcissist. Why?
A: The reasons are simple: This is what they are used to, this is what they expect and to change a narcissistic partner into someone who really cares for them is a life-long dream.
Another answer involves “self-deception theory.” If you can convince yourself that you are exceptional in any or all ways, you have a much better chance of convincing others.
We know that human beings are attracted to people with high status and narcissists have an easier job of convincing people of their status.
As human beings, we are all, at some level, interested in status.
Q: Can you, as a therapist, help clients to stay in a relationship with the narcissist? Or is the only option to leave?
A: Sadly, in my professional experience, leaving is generally the only option, depending, of course, on how narcissistic the spouse or parent is.
Living one’s life in a relationship where one is never truly heard, seen, or valued, but instead is simply an object used for self-inflation or the receptacle of demeaning abuse is never acceptable.
Adult children of narcissists have to maintain strict limits on what they will tolerate from a narcissistic parent – and often “no contact” is the only possible solution.
If your relationship somehow brings status to a narcissist and if you bend perpetually around his or her self-inflating needs and ask for nothing in return, you might feel “loved” by a narcissist, and the narcissist may feels he/she “loves” you.
But if love means accepting and valuing you for the person you truly are at your core, then love is not possible with a narcissist. The same holds true for both a spouse and an adult child.
In my experience, narcissists will rarely change in therapy because most are unable to accept or acknowledge that the problem is inside of them. If they are capable of acknowledging the problem, however, there is some hope.
Q: So what you are saying is that narcissism is genetic and humans are drawn to the confidence a narcissist exudes. It seems to me that narcissists would, evolutionarily speaking, be pretty successful.
A: I was just thinking about that and that actually is a very scary thought. The fact that people are more attracted to people like that – it may mean that that is an advantage in finding a mate and it may mean, unfortunately, because of the genetics involved that down the road the gene pool will actually shift in that direction.
I don’t know what it would mean if a huge percentage of the population were narcissistic and how the world would work under such a circumstance. It would be a place I would not want to live in.
Q: Do you think that today, narcissism is on the rise?
A: The easy answer would be yes. After all, we have a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, who appears to be a textbook case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
But my more honest answer is: I don’t know. Certainly, the Internet combined with cell phones have allowed narcissism in human beings, whether pathological or not, to become much more visible. But have human beings fundamentally changed? I suspect not.
I think the idea of narcissism is more recognized now, again because of the Internet. If you google “Trump narcissist,” or “Kanye West (‘I am the greatest artist of all time’) narcissist,” pages of articles on these topics will appear.
So, the Internet has provided not only the means for narcissists to display themselves, but also to be categorized, diagnosed and publicly discussed.
Q: Is a narcissist having political power dangerous?
A: Yes. A person who has a finger over the button of a nuclear weapon as a narcissist is a huge danger. We see it in terms of the North Korean leader, who is clearly a Narcissistic Personality Disorder and who is threatening nuclear attacks.
Absolutely, people who have no empathy, no sense of other human beings’ worth, are a huge danger to the general population.
All you can do is tell people, publish articles on it, make it public as best we can.
By Catherine Robertson Souter