It’s Narcissist Friday!
Do people develop into narcissists later in life? This is a question I have been hearing a lot lately. This wonderful person, with whom I shared some great times, is now acting like a narcissist. What happened to cause that change? Did I do something? Did something change?
Let’s face it—we’re all amateurs. Even those who counsel people for a living struggle to find the causes of personality disorders. We look at broken families and blame them, but many people survive broken families without personality disorders. We look at parental errors or abuses, but many are strong and healthy after serious parental dysfunction. We can identify a variety of contributing factors without knowing the specific cause, and children growing up in the same home exhibit different responses. There are certain counseling techniques and philosophies that attempt to take the adult back to a defining moment, but I haven’t heard of that being particularly successful with narcissism.
The most reasonable suggestion is that narcissism is a coping technique. We have looked at that before. A child has to find a way to handle the confusion and turmoil of life, even normal life. Some discover methods that are acceptable within society, while others lean toward behaviors and decisions society has deemed unacceptable. Narcissists have learned to walk somewhere in between. They present themselves as superior and exemplary, but hide their failures behind deception and projection. They cope with life by hiding, lying, and using others.
But only the most overt narcissists are obnoxious and abusive all the time and with everyone. Those who handle life with narcissistic behavior know there is a game to be played. They will be much more successful if they act like others, or better than others. If being generous is a positive, for example, then they will be more generous. Or they will lead you to believe they are more generous. There might be some strings attached to their generosity, but the recipients are helped. Narcissists can be very kind and a lot of fun. This is how the game is played.
There are two ways to look at this and both may be true. It may be that the nasty behavior of the narcissist lies just under the surface and, for some, only appears in situations of stress. This normally kind and peaceful person suddenly erupts with vicious attacks, ruthlessly confronting anyone who defines or contributes to that stress. Those who observe may not be able to discern the particular cause of the stress and not understand the reason behind the behavior, but it is there.
It may also be true that the kindness before the abuse was just part of the plan. Even though it was long-term and very pleasant, the narcissist may simply have been grooming the relationship. While this is a particularly painful conclusion for the victim to grasp, there are many stories that would appear to support it. Narcissistic people are intelligent, goal-oriented, and lack empathy. They usually have no difficulty deceiving others. They may not even consider their actions to be deceptive or abusive.
Most people have an ability to redefine the things that happen in life and interpret reality the way they want it to be. Angry people find reasons to be angry all around them. Happy people find reasons to be happy. People who need a relationship to be good often selectively reinterpret what they see in that relationship. Because the good is so strongly desired, the bad is frequently ignored. In other words, we see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe.
Now, before I make my conclusion, I have to point out again that diagnosing narcissism is an inexact science at best. I have said before that there seems to be a sliding scale of behavior and attitude. At some point, the person can be said to be a narcissist. At another point the behavior is noted as narcissistic. There are people who exhibit narcissistic behavior without being narcissists. What that means is that they choose a coping mechanism that is cruel and self-centered to deal with the situation in which they find themselves. It is possible that this could be uncharacteristic behavior for that person and caused by the stress. Parents see this in children from time to time. “Leave me alone! I hate you!” Then, later, this goes away as the stress is handled through other means or dissipates on its own.
If we think of narcissism as a collection of behaviors or symptoms, we find some help. We can understand that behaviors do not define people. Choosing certain behaviors consistently begins to reveal something about the person. But odd behavior probably reveals more about a problem. So it may be that the person acting strangely in your life has something going on that is pushing him/her to hide, deceive, abuse, and otherwise exhibit narcissistic behavior.
But some people learned very early in their lives a certain way to play the game. They learned to protect themselves at all costs and use others for that protection. They developed an inability to relate to others except to serve a particular use. They strategize, manipulate, and deceive to get what they need. Theirs is not a response to any recent stimulus. Theirs is a life-long chosen way of coping with life.
If you didn’t see this in your narcissist before, it may simply be that he/she was good at playing the game. The narcissist wants to be happy. As long as the situation was pleasing to him/her, everything was fine. When that changed, perhaps very gradually, the negative behavior came out. No, you probably didn’t do anything more than become resistant or boring.
Most likely, your narcissist has been a narcissist for a very long time. You just didn’t see it.