Normalisation of Narcissistic Behaviour
Predatory narcissists are extremely damaged individuals who have gained a foothold and greater and greater influence in our society by virtue of our celebration of qualities towards which narcissists gravitate: celebrity worship, unquestioned obedience to authority figures, status obsessions, pre-occupation with appearances, the absence of depth of character and personal integrity, the attacks upon morals and morality by those who consider such matters ‘uncool’ in contemporary society, erosion of spiritual practices and genuine faith which leaves a gap in our awareness of good and evil. All of these and many more societal and cultural changes have opened the door to camouflaging and normalising pathological, sociopathic and narcissistic individuals in an ‘anything goes’ society.
The fact that the word ‘narcissist’ has become so common is, in my view, a good thing. Good in the sense that it means the alarm bells are ringing and that means we can all be on alert, both personally in our relationships, and culturally. Because the sociological landscape is dire in our culture in relation to the declining moral and frayed psychosocial fabric of our society. Many speak of the coming end of our period of civilisation as we have replaced God with celebrities – actors, musicians, even celebrity chefs and TV hosts – in our own attempts to fill the emptiness that comes from disintegrated communities, and a fixation with escapism and material goods and pleasures. For these things do not feed our souls and our innate hunger for deeper meaning at the existential level of our lives. They are the cheeseburgers of spiritual nutrition – tasty, filling for a little while, but nutritionally empty. Narcissism as a social phenomenon is, then, a symptom of a culture that is in serious existential trouble.
My direct personal experience of a malignant narcissistic manager who I had the misfortune to work under many years ago was educational, devastating and a fundamental test of who I am as a person. The relationship was ruinous to my physical and mental health at the time and my recovery of my sense of self took a long time following my disengagement with this person. Like many predatory narcissistic individuals attracted to positions of power over others, this manager occupied a place of perpetual ambition within a large organisation, systematically befriending, grooming, exploiting and discarding various staff members, friends and associates over the years, whilst courting admiration from a group of sycophantic followers in the staff team.
The following are some, but by no means all, of the tools used by malignant narcissists to exploit others:
- The use of reward and punishment to steer others and draw them in to the narcissist’s sphere of influence. In the case I experienced this took the form of flattery and sudden aloofness, favouritism or disfavour as a means of pushing and pulling his victim into line. But equally, as narcissists tend to seek positions of power and influence in compensation against their own inner inadequacies, they can offer promises and opportunities and other rewards as incentives for creating admirers out of those around them, particularly those suffering from low self-esteem.
- Favouritism and disfavour are also effective means of using another time-worn method of control: divide and conquer.
- Instilling fear and self-doubt in victims through the implicit threat of punishment or withdrawal of favour. This can have a particularly powerful effect upon victims who have low self-esteem.
- The misuse of positions of influence to serve as a vehicle for manipulating others into serving their needs. Narcissists typically, but don’t always, seek positions of authority over others in order to 1. reinforce their narcissistic role’s belief that they are superior to others and entitled to more; 2. afford them the power to reward or punish their subservients; 3. provide them with an environment that allows them to associate themselves with higher status individuals, thus further reinforcing the appearance that they themselves are superior. Grandiosity, priviledge and self-entitlement are defining features of narcissists as they often possess inflated but distorted ideas of their own abilities.
- The use of public humiliation as a means of belittling others. Many of my supervisor’s victims complained of memorable instances of their being shamed or put down in public meetings or a busy office and of his declaring that he “demanded respect” from everyone. Arrogance is a common personality trait in narcissists, particularly predatory and malignant types.
- Having no innate sense of respect for the other’s personal, physical or emotional space. Lack of empathy is a characteristic of narcissists and imposing themselves upon others can be a common trait. However, empathy and emotional sensitivity can be mimicked in words to some degree by narcissistic individuals, as was the case with my supervisor.
- The use of sexual aggression by narcissists. Donald Trump’s commentary on grabbing women by the p****y is an example of the narcissist’s sense of entitlement to satisfy his sexual desires even where this can cause harm to the other person or their dignity. This is in part due to the narcissistic individual only being able to relate to other human beings as objects serving his or her needs. In this case, the narcissistic supervisor I experienced used opportunities to attempt unwanted physical contact with victims whilst attempting to pass it off as accidental or a sign of how relaxed and familiar ‘real’ platonic friends should be, treating any objections as a lack of appreciation of his friendship.
- Misappropriating desirable qualities in victims. This can be a difficult one to understand, but the narcissistic supervisor in my workplace frequently ‘stole’ ideas and methods from others, claimed them as his own and took credit for them himself. As the narcissist tends to have nothing original of his own within himself, except an inner emptiness that he loathes, so he must misappropriate the qualities and characteristics of other people to incorporate into his acting role via a process of destructive envy. This manager even began to dress like those he targeted, use phrases their prases, and describing himself in similar terms, admitting in a moment of rare candour that ‘he didn’t know where he ended and [one of his victims] began’. It was a striking admission of just how lacking in identity narcissists are.
- Instilling in his victims the narcissist’s unwanted qualities. In tandem with misappropriating the good stuff in you, is attempting to attribute his self-hatred and other features that belong to the narcissist into his victims. I ended up with a destructive level of self-loathing and anger that had a detrimental effect upon me for years after it was all over.
- Continually using a narrative that suggests that the narcissist is superior, better, or cleverer. This was continuously done with victims in subtle and crude ways and had the effect of him putting others down whilst always trying to outdo them in some way. On each occasion the effect on victims is very similar to that of passive aggression.
- Having an energetic draining effect upon victims. The parasitic features of narcissists result in their victims feeling drained, exhausted or ‘tired but wired’. This makes perfect sense when you consider that narcissists tend to live, not by creative energy in themselves, but by mimickry and taking credit for the creative energies of others. I call this the ‘black hole effect’ as the narcissistic individual maintains an audience in his orbit whilst draining targeted individuals of their energy, sense of self and self-worth.
In Part 2 I’ll discuss the all-important process of recovering yourself from the toxic behaviours you may have tolerated in relationship with a narcissist. In short, however, the best form of protection is complete disengagement from them as soon as possible. In workplaces, bringing such people to account via grievance procedures and other legalistic mechanisms can be a very arduous undertaking, particularly in environments where they may have influence and enjoy protection and support from their cohorts and superiors.
Photo credit: Sachin C Nair