Parents are known to deliver an overabundance of advice to their college-age children. I remember heading out into the great big world at the age of 18 knowing the basics. I knew that I shouldn't drink myself into oblivion nor should I accept rides from complete strangers. I understood the basics of balancing my checkbook (although my check register never quite matched what the bank statement showed). I felt confident with my petite canister of pepper spray designed to ward off the evil villains that my parents had warned me about.
While I was well equipped to deliver an agonizing blast of pepper spray straight into the eyes of a potential attacker, I wasn't warned about what to do when faced with another type of assault. I wasn't prepared for the emotional assault that someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) can deliver. We've all heard the term, "narcissist" thrown around to describe the sorority girl who takes three hours to get "club ready" for her 10 a.m. class, or the pretentious guy at the gym who can't seem to take his eyes off of his own biceps. What we aren't taught is that NPD is a real personality disorder that can wreak havoc on co-workers, roommates, family members and others who fall victim to the romantic charms of a narcissist.
Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, research psychologists at San Diego University and co-authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, conducted a study of 35,000 Americans and found that roughly six percent of Americans have experienced clinical NPD in their lifetime. The percentages based on generational statistics were staggering with young adults in their twenties showing a much sharper increase than their elders. In fact, the study demonstrated that almost ten percent of this age group showed clinical signs of NPD. With statistics like that, courses should be offered on how to avoid these toxic individuals and students should be taught what to do if you find yourself romantically involved with a narcissist.
While common sense tells us to avoid the slimy guy at the end of the bar, narcissists are a completely different trap. They are generally charming, charismatic, and often the life of the party. Because they seem to be larger than life, people are often drawn to the narcissist. Being included in their circle leaves one feeling "special". However, those feelings are short-lived. The feeling of being special will become riddled with random put-downs and passive aggressive attacks. Over time, your self esteem will reach all time lows and you will start to doubt yourself and your self-worth. Now the narcissist has you exactly where he wants you.
How do you avoid these toxic people? You need to be aware of the red flags.
- Excessive charm: Question a person that seems too good to be true. Narcissists are masters at wooing their targets. If you are receiving tickets to your favorite ballet and bouquets of flowers larger than your Christmas tree before the third date, you may be dating a narcissist. Offers to whisk you away to Paris for New Year's Eve are fabulous but could be considered odd behavior if you just met last week and don't know his middle name!
To clarify, we are all narcissistic. This is a disorder that affects both men and women. Most levels of narcissism are healthy but if it crosses over to a level of dysfunction, then it is classified as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If the research is correct and up to ten percent of young adults in their 20's suffer from NPD, then there are a lot of people that you should avoid like the plague the next time you visit the local club or frat party. Sadly, narcissists don't have warning labels printed across their foreheads. That means you need to be aware of the red flags and listen to your gut instincts.
What to do if you encounter a Narcissist
The simple answer: Grab your running shoes and start training for your first 5K! There is no bouquet of flowers, expensive dinner, or trip to Paris that is worth the havoc a narcissist will cause in your life. If you can't find a pair of running shoes, at least excuse yourself to the ladies room and then avoid him for the rest of the night at all costs. The bottom line: get away quickly.
Dating a Narcissist
If you have had an "aha moment" and discover that your current partner is a narcissist, what do you do next? First, take a deep breath. This isn't an easy road. You are not dealing with a mentally healthy person. Therefore, you cannot expect this to be a normal break-up. Breaking up with a narcissist is playing by a whole new set of rules. Once you have called off the relationship, you must follow the most important rule: No engagement.
While difficult for many to follow, the "no engagement rule" is fairly straightforward. Do not call him and do not answer his calls, emails, texts, or faxes. Faxes? Yes, there are no limits to the great lengths a scorned narcissist will go to for his next fix. Think of him as a junkie and you are his drug. Narcissists need your emotions because they are not capable of their own emotions -- they need you to feed their ego. It could be good emotions or bad emotions -- they do not care. This is known as "narcissistic supply."
If you are planning to leave a narcissist, I encourage you to educate yourself thoroughly on the topic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Education is more than just power in this case. It will be your lifeline. There are a multitude of online articles and support groups along with some great books on the topic. Read everything you can get your hands on. Leaving a narcissist is one of the hardest things you will ever do, but it is imperative to your future.