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The subtle power of narcissism

Author Joanna Briscoe shares her experience of being charmed and reeled in by narcissists, how to spot them in your life, and how she drew on her experiences and research to write her new novel, The Seduction.

by Psychologies

Narcissist. The term has shot from obscurity to buzz word in the last few years. The world is, so the press and social media tell us, frequently governed by narcissists, most notably the arch narcissist Donald Trump, who also shows psychopathic tendencies. We discuss dating narcissists and avoiding them, while an entire generation of millennials, living at a time of celebrity culture, is supposedly riddled with narcissistic traits.

We all think we know what narcissism is, and the spotting and amateur diagnosis is an enjoyable hobby. And indeed, the most basic characteristics – self-aggrandisement, need for attention, manipulation and lack of empathy – can sometimes become apparent within a few meetings, skilful charmers though most narcissists are. But it’s a lot more complicated than that, as I found out when I researched my novel The Seduction, in which a soothing psychologist, there to help a patient in a crisis, turns out to be the most troubled, and ultimately harmful, source of help the protagonist Beth could possibly have turned to. This particular clinician is nothing like the vast majority of therapists, who are safe and boundaried. Her true personality takes a long time to reveal itself under a series of dazzling disguises.  

“Just like toddlers, narcissists learn to get their needs met and get what they want via a whole array of techniques; these include turning on the charm, showering people with compliments, being sweet and funny or sometimes being stroppy, punishing or aggressive,” says Dr Sarah Davies, chartered psychologist and author of Never Again – Moving on from Narcissistic Abuse and other Toxic Relationships.

So how do narcissists often continue to manage to be so irresistibly attractive, even though there is so much more awareness of them, and do they sometimes seduce – or infiltrate - in a more subtle way? The highly appealing façade can be just so convincing, so resonant with what seems to be genuine emotion, that we are reeled in.

I am the first to admit that I have spent half a lifetime being attracted to the narcissistic personality type. Time and time again. But the truth only reveals itself retrospectively – or when I’m too deep in to climb straight out. What is this about? They are just so darn enticing. At their best, they make the world a buzzier, funnier, more technicoloured place, full of intrigue, excitement and the magic of feeling chosen. This is what my protagonist Beth experiences in the consulting room: that she, uniquely, is the favoured one, an emotion I’ve been through several times, only to come crashing to the ground later. At their worst, narcissists are the ultimate con artists. Users and abusers, masquerading as the most caring – yet scintillating – admirers, while they undermine, blow hot and cold, strip you of all you can give, use your focus as their daily attention supply, and gaslight like nobody’s business.

So how do we spot this type if they’re not making a grand thespian entrance and creating an immediate drama? More dangerously, these chameleon creatures can also take the form of covert narcissists. As Dr Davies says, “Many clients I see in my private practice have been well able to arm themselves with spotting the more overt and obvious kind of narcissist. They tend to be the very charming, charismatic, manipulative, lothario-types - although can be male or female - with usually a clear, unapologetic love for money, status and power.  Learning to spot covert narcissism however can be a bit trickier and takes a certain level of specific awareness and vigilance.  Covert narcissism is more of the silent and subtle variation. In many ways it’s more damaging for people to experience because at least with the more overt types, it is an almost unapologetic, 'this is who I am' presentation! They can come across as sweet and innocent, softly spoken, caring, sensitive, shy, complimentary and/or helpful. The hidden kind is often more confusing and sinister.”

People become confused by the difference between an actual Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is a Cluster B psychiatric condition defined by DSM, and a whole spectrum of narcissistic behaviour. “‘Narcissist’ has become an overused term,” says Dr Davies, “so that any selfish behaviour is labelled as 'narcissistic personality disorder'. The fact is, we can all be a bit narcissistic sometimes - that is not always a bad thing at times. There is a scale to narcissism, most of us sit within the lower end of that. NPDs and sociopaths are high up the other side of the scale.”

In my novel, the protagonist simply doesn’t see it coming. She thinks she is being looked after, and to an extent she is, but then the focus begins to change. As for myself, it took years to be able to spot these patterns of behaviour; I then began to run away from the obvious needy show offs, but that was after years of giving the best of myself in an exhausting dance of self-blame and resistance in response to blow-hot-blow-cold behaviour, and essentially a willingness to chase and flatter. I am supremely wary of this now. But narcissists do come in so many guises, and it takes two to enter this game. Why are certain people willing to put up with the manipulation, self-centredness and lack of empathy?  Is there a subconscious script at play?

“Partners of narcissists are classic co-dependents and adapt their behaviour to fit in with his needs,” says couples therapist Carol Martin-Sperry, author of Sexual Healing: Stories and Insights from the Therapist’s Couch. “They suffer from low self-esteem and self-worth. Basically, they are victims. It’s like being in a relationship with a using addict who will not change. The best advice is ‘Get out!’ Narcissists in relationships are controlling and manipulative. They continually gaslight and blame. They have a huge need for gratification and compliments, it’s never enough.”  

Narcissists tend to be great adapters, mirroring and telling us what we want to hear. What’s bewildering is that the colourful, complicated exterior can often hide a void. Their extraordinary ability to bewitch is a desperate response to an essential emptiness.

Why? Of course, behind any problematic personality, there is a biological or psychological root, and often difficult early circumstances. “The psychological causes of narcissism are usually found in infancy and childhood,” says Carol Martin-Sperry. “Bad parenting, emotional neglect, rejection, abuse and lack of love are major factors. The person develops a love of self and a belief that he is special, which no-one else is giving him. He also develops a false persona of charm, self-confidence and a belief that he can get what he wants by lying, cheating and pretending to be what he isn’t. Underneath all this is a frightened lonely wounded little boy who will do anything to hide his inner despair, emptiness and worthlessness. Anything to hide and deny the underlying truth which they cannot face.”

And as Dr Davies says, “A narcissistic personality is usually formed very early on in life as a result of abuse or neglect of some kind. This stunts parts of their emotional and relational development. Anybody that has been in a close relationship with a true narcissist will have noticed that it is like dealing with a four-year-old at times. Narcissists tend to have a preoccupation with power, achievement, success, money and material or status gains. They are highly manipulative and emotionally damaged. That said, they do not experience genuine emotions or authentic relationship connections in the way most people do.”

So, what do we do, to secure ourselves a safer future? To avoid, or move away from, a damaging narcissist? I have had to learn enough about the underlying similarities between covert and more overt narcissists to steer clear, but it’s still not easy. As Dr Davies says, “It can be useful to learn just enough about narcissism in order to be able recognise the actions when you see them. Knowledge is power. The other thing that can be helpful is to be honest with yourself about how you see them treat others. What do they say about others? What about past relationships? Narcissists have trouble forming and maintaining genuine intimate relationships. Instead viewing others as commodities to be used in order to reach their goals. The other thing that can be really useful is to listen to your gut instinct. Almost every client I ever work with has stated that in hindsight, they had a 'gut-feeling' that the narcissist they met was bad news, before they ignored that and allowed themselves to be swept up in the charms and intensity of a narcissistic dynamic. If you have a sense that a person could be damaging in any way.... trust it.”

We often don’t want to trust our instincts, simply because the initial rewards are too addictive. In The Seduction, a wife and mother has the most exciting time of her life in the hands of a narcissist. And the most dangerous.

 The Seduction by Joanna Briscoe is published by Bloomsbury on June 11th