Self-centered People

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Dealing with Self-centered People

by Dan Neuharth, PhD

Dear Dr. Dan: My younger sister is married to a shallow, self-centered man. He expects her to put his needs first and endlessly listen to his stories about how great he is. He seems incapable of recognizing others' needs. My sister says he has good qualities, but I know she's in terrible pain over her three-year marriage. Now Mr. Narcissist is talking about having children. I know I can't live my sister's life for her but I'm so worried and angry that I can barely be civil around him, and that is straining my relationship with my sister.
Arlette

Dear Arlette: You obviously care about your sister, and it's painful to watch a loved one struggle. If the strain between you and your sister is because she wants you to contain your feelings when you are around her husband, you have two choices. You don't have to like him that wouldn't be true to yourself but behavior is more adjustable than emotions. You can either limit your time around him (perhaps seeing your sister only when he's not around) or guard your feelings more closely when in his presence. If and when your sister concludes that she's in a bad marriage, she's more likely to seek your help in getting her life back if the two of you haven't been at odds.

You termed your brother-in-law "Mr. Narcissist." Narcissism is a pattern of selfishness and self-centeredness that, in the extreme, can be a psychological condition called narcissistic personality disorder. People with narcissistic personality disorder lack a healthy emotional core. They are driven by a moment-to-moment monitoring of their worth. Since they find it difficult to provide self-worth, they seek it from external sources. They must be "right" or the center of attention; their relationships, possessions, or careers must be "the best" and "special." As in the Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his reflection, narcissistic people are in love with their image and consequently see flaws as mortal sins.

While we can have empathy for those suffering this disorder, it can be hard to be around them. Narcissistic people tend to treat others as objects that exist to emotionally feed them. They test others with controlling, ugly behavior. Then, if their partner leaves, they conclude that the partner wasn't good enough, and seek a replacement. If their partner stays, they feel validated in their specialness, concluding: If my partner stays with me despite my hurtful behaviors, I must really be exceptional and desirable.

Some suggestions for dealing with narcissistic people:

Don't expect to change them. Individuals with this disorder rarely think they have a problem until they're on the verge of losing everything. Even then, their primary focus may be to maintain their veneer rather than to get to the root of their problem.

Play your game, not theirs. The minute you start competing, you have lost. When you're around a narcissistic person, focus on being the person you want to be and liking who you are.

Be realistic. While narcissistic people can have moments of generosity and charm, they are unaware of your needs and uninterested in meeting them. If you want support, go elsewhere.

Be honest with yourself. Sometimes we mistake a narcissistic person's certainty for strength. If you struggle with low self-esteem, being around someone who seems so confident may give you a temporary boost. In the long run, you are better off attending to the causes of your low self-image rather than catching "reflected" light - even if it means a period of loneliness.

Helpful books on this topic:

Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in Their Struggle for Self  Elan Golomb
The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self  Alice Miller
Why Is It Always About You?  Sandy Hotchkiss
The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists  Eleanor Payson
Loving the Self-Absorbed 
Nina Brown
The Culture of Narcissism  Christopher Lasch
Narcissism: Denial of the True Self  Alexander Lowen
Narcissism and Intimacy: Love and Marriage in an Age of Confusion  Marion Solomon
Dealing With Someone Who Is Selfish
  Don Middleton

Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry  Albert Bernstein
The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern  Nina Brown
The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment  Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert Pressman

Other Ask Dr. Dan Columns:

Coping with Controllers Self-centered People Live Your Dreams Get Out of Your Way 'Uh-Oh' Birthdays Balanced Parenting Choosing to Parent

 Back to directory of archived "Ask Dr. Dan" columns

This column originally appeared on ShesGotItTogether.com

This column is designed for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for psychotherapy or a visit to a mental health professional. If you experience abnormal anxiety, depression, or serious emotional or situational difficulties, please seek professional help immediately
 

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If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Take Your Place in the World
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