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A Narcissist Walks Into A Room: An Introduction To Understanding Narcissistic Behavior

Interest in the topic of narcissism seems to be exploding these days. Many people are becoming more aware of this harmful pattern of human behavior, its prevalence in our society, and the traumatic impact it has on relationships and families.

As someone who has spent much of the last year researching narcissism and peeling back the layers of its impact on my own personal life, I’ve been wanting to write a short introduction to narcissistic behavior and narcissistic abuse as I understand it, especially designed for folks who are just beginning to learn about narcissism.

First, where am I coming from on this topic? I’m a certified life coach studying to become a therapist, but I’m also someone who has experienced narcissistic behavior and abuse up close, first and foremost from my biological father and also from the family of someone I was in a relationship with. My hope is to speak about narcissistic behavior in a way that is nuanced, thoughtful, and unquestionably has the back of survivors as we walk our healing journeys together.

So, when I find myself attempting to explain narcissistic behavior to someone who is new to the subject, I like to use this illustration: Let’s imagine that two individuals walk into a room where other people are hanging out, like a small group of friends or a family. One of those individuals has a healthy sense of self, a healthy personality.. and the other has a highly narcissistic personality.

The individual with a healthy personality enters a social situation oriented towards being their authentic self. By being their authentic self, they invite and encourage others to be their real, genuine self in return. They aren’t there to impress anyone, nor are they demanding you impress them. The emphasis is on being yourself in genuine connection with others. The individual with a healthy personality is there to listen as much as they speak. To give as much as they receive. There is a relational give-and-take that is built on equal reciprocity and mutual respect. You feel more at ease to be your true self in their presence, because, on a fundamental level.. they know who they are and how to show up as that authentic self in the world.

That’s NOT what happens when a highly narcissistic personality enters the room.

The emphasis is not on being an authentic self, because one of the defining characteristics of a narcissistic personality is that something went wrong... terribly wrong... with their early development of an authentic self. Instead of cultivating a true self, grounded in acceptance of their genuine emotions and healthy needs, they developed a series of defense mechanisms that are a kind of parody of a real self, a false mask meant to hide the immense shame they feel within. These defense mechanisms are quite manipulative in nature, intended to obscure and conceal that profound inner shame and the fact that deep, deep down… they fundamentally don’t know who they are.

So, when a highly narcissistic individual walks into a room of other people, their narcissistic skills go to work to construct an image, a mask, of the false self they imagine themselves to be: perfected and free from the toxic shame that resides within. With subtle psychological manipulation, they will strive to influence, coerce, and lovebomb you into seeing them as they wish to be seen… or else suffer the consequences. The key mission of their narcissistic behavior is to establish themselves as the most central, important person in the room, the sun around which the rest of us are expected to circle faithfully in its orbit.. or face their narcissistic rage.

Now, there’s a few different ways a narcissist may attempt to establish themselves as the most important person in a room, and this brings us to the different styles of narcissistic behavior. Let’s take just two common forms. First, the overt or grandiose narcissist. And second, the covert or vulnerable narcissist.

When the overt, grandiose narcissist walks in the room, they are clearly on a mission to be the most important person there. They will typically make a grand entrance, as if the person you’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived. If you don’t know what to watch out for, you can quickly get swept up by their charm and exciting stories and envious lifestyle and accomplishments… which they are loudly telling you all about… and begin to believe that yes, they clearly are the most important person here. You just want to be around them and the amazing life they live.

If this is how you begin to feel in their presence, the mask of the grandiose narcissist has worked its magic on you. Everything they do is designed to dazzle you, to keep your gaze focused on what they want you to see, and never to peer behind the curtain. Because if you do, you’ll discover that behind their grandiose and glamorous mask is an emptiness and a depth of shame you can’t even imagine. And fundamentally, that mask desperately, desperately needs YOU... needs you to believe the lie, to fuel the fire of its false self, to offer yourself sacrificially as narcissistic supply.

And the second that you decide you no longer believe the story they are telling the world, when you start to notice all the parts of themselves they don’t want anyone to see, you will be devalued and discarded without a second thought. That’s the game of the grandiose narcissist.

The covert, vulnerable narcissist plays a very different game. Their game can take a lot of different forms, but I’ll share one style that’s very common and that I’ve had a great deal of personal experience with.

Far from making a grand entrance, the covert, vulnerable narcissist can appear at first quite unassuming and low-key. They might quietly enter the room and slide into whatever conversation is already happening. Perhaps everyone is talking about their day, the ups and the downs, the good moments and the tough moments. But when it’s time for the vulnerable, covert narcissist to speak… No one had a tougher day than the one they had. No one was treated more unfairly. No one was more held back by all the people who don’t believe in them.

These narcissists are often the sad tyrants of their little kingdoms of victimhood. This is the style of narcissism that my biological father used the most. Their false mask craves your attention in the form of your selfless compassion, your unending empathy for how hard they’ve had it, your willingness to listen patiently to all their grievances and all the ways they have been wronged by the world. If you fail to do this sufficiently, if you don’t pay enough homage to their throne of self-pity, they will cut you down with passive aggressive comments and cruel insults about how you don’t love them enough.

They can appear to listen when you talk about your struggles, they can put on a face of empathy in return... but they aren’t really hearing you, and they don’t really feel your pain. Their focus is exclusively on me, me, me.. and their relationship to you is always defined by how much you are doing for them, how much you are giving to them, how much you are propping up their false self.

So, whether by overt or covert means, the task of the narcissistic personality is always to dominate the room, to rule it from on high or from underneath, but always to be in control, always to be the one everyone else is in service to. This desire for control and the will to dominate can become even more dangerous and terrifying when malignant narcissism is present.

And again, because the central issue is their lack of a capacity to be real as an authentic self, their methods of gaining that control, gaining your service, is always going to be manipulative in nature, false and contrived, a mask instead of a real person, lie after lie until neither of you knows what is true anymore.

Which is why, in conclusion, one of the most important things we can do to protect ourselves and heal from narcissistic abuse is to devote ourselves to authenticity, to always practice honesty and integrity, to never gaslight ourselves out of feeling certain emotions, to never give in to the temptation to wear a false mask to win anyone’s approval or love.

Real self-love, as opposed to the narcissist’s twisted parody of self-love, grows from being honest, being genuine, being authentic - with yourself and others.

And when we start being true to our real self... that’s when the real healing can begin.

Matthew Robertson


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