Narcissism Classes?

 It’s Narcissist Friday!     

 

I have maintained that narcissism is learned behavior. I realize that some people want it to be classified as a mental illness because that would both answer some questions and excuse the cruelties. But very few professionals would say that it is anything other than a way of handling relationships learned by a child through times of trauma and reinforced by many small successes. The adult narcissist does what he or she does because of choice. The choice may have become so habitual that no other choice seems possible, but it is choice nonetheless.

Recently an interesting support for my position presented itself. Olivia Cabane has written a book called, “The Charisma Myth.” Her thesis is that charisma, that ability to charm others and get your way, is not so much a gift as a way of dealing with people, and that way of dealing with people can be learned. In fact, her book teaches how to have charisma.

When I read the descriptions of the book and what it promises to teach, I realized that these were things the narcissist learned as a child. Read the following overview that appeared on lifehacker.com.

 

In the chapter “The Charismatic Behaviors” you’ll learn that there are three keys to being charismatic: you need to be present in the moment when engaging with others; you need to give off warmth by implying goodwill toward others; and you need to appear powerful by coming across as someone capable of affecting the world around you.

In the chapter “Overcoming the Obstacles” you’ll learn how to find the right mindset for becoming charismatic by handling discomfort, neutralizing negative thoughts by recognizing them instead of suppressing them, and alleviating your anxiety by rewriting reality in your mind to better suit you.

In the chapter “Charismatic First Impressions” you’ll learn how quickly someone sizes you up, that people really like people that like them, how to dress to impress, how to give the perfect handshake when meeting for the first time, and how to make a graceful exit with a lasting impression.

In the chapter “Charismatic Body Language” you’ll learn the importance of “how” something is said versus “what” was said, how body language can be an “emotional contagion” that infects people around you, how to effectively mirror someone’s body language and mannerisms, how to use personal space to your advantage, the power of charismatic posture, and how to use eye contact without being a creep.

http://lifehacker.com/the-charisma-myth-practical-advice-on-becoming-more-li-1726235441

 

 

Many people have told me how the narcissist was so charming in the beginning of the relationship and continues to charm his/her way into the hearts of others. The narcissist listens, cares, makes eye contact, and connects with people. Some suggest that there are two different people in the heart of the narcissist: one gracious and kind and the other cruel and uncaring. But the truth may simply be that the narcissist learned what works in a world like ours.

 

Pick the above descriptions apart a little. “The important of ‘how’ something is said versus ‘what’ was said.” “Rewriting reality to better suit you.” “Give off warmth by implying goodwill toward others.” “How to make a graceful exit with a lasting impression.” The more I read these chapter descriptions, the more I believe this is what the narcissist does almost as second nature. Learned as a child and honed throughout life, these are the skills that puzzle those of us who have gotten to know narcissists.

 

Notice the general sense of falsity. You can learn to “appear powerful,” to imply goodwill, to “mirror” others, to “use” eye contact. All of this is for a purpose, to influence the impression others have of you. As I have said in the past, this is the “super-power” of the narcissist: to manipulate what others think about him/her.

 

Here’s the Amazon description:

 

What if charisma could be taught?

For the first time, science and technology have taken charisma apart, figured it out and turned it into an applied science: In controlled laboratory experiments, researchers could raise or lower people’s level of charisma as if they were turning a dial.

What you’ll find here is practical magic: unique knowledge, drawn from a variety of sciences, revealing what charisma really is and how it works. You’ll get both the insights and the techniques you need to apply this knowledge. The world will become your lab, and every person you meet, a chance to experiment.

The Charisma Myth is a mix of fun stories, sound science, and practical tools. Cabane takes a hard scientific approach to a heretofore mystical topic, covering what charisma actually is, how it is learned, what its side effects are, and how to handle them.

 

http://www.amazon.com/The-Charisma-Myth-Personal-Magnetism-ebook/dp/B005GSZZ24

 

 

“The world will become your lab, and every person you meet, a chance to experiment.” Wow! If that is not a description of the thinking of the narcissist toward relationships, I don’t know what is. We have puzzled for a long time about how the narcissist can invest so much in a relationship just to walk away, or how he/she can so easily jump from one relationship to another. We have wondered why no one seems to see what we see. We have wondered how the narcissist can be so successful in deceiving so many people. Perhaps it is because of skills learned and nurtured over the years.

 

My point in bringing this to your attention is to show that the skills the narcissist uses so well are learned skills, chosen because, from some strange perspective, they work. Narcissism is almost certainly not a mental illness. The narcissist became who he is because that’s what he chose—and he remains accountable for his actions because he doesn’t have to continue to choose those things. Narcissism is a lifestyle of fear and control, combined with an insatiable need for approval and admiration. The successful narcissist has learned how to cover fear (perhaps by “rewriting reality”) and manipulate people into meeting his needs. That which has been learned can be unlearned.

 

(A quick note: I don’t know this author and I haven’t read the book. The blurbs were enough for me to understand the thesis. I have nothing against the book, nor even the idea that a person can learn ways to present themselves that move the hearts of others. It does concern me that the book seems to suggest it is acceptable, even good, to manipulate others in this way without any real sense of compassion toward them. However, that may be only the take of the reviewers. I hope so. If you do buy the book, let me know what you think of it.)

27 Comments

Filed under Narcissism

27 responses to “Narcissism Classes?

  1. Wow. I read this and was horrified. She is teaching people how to be a narcissist! Our world is just doomed…..Oh Jesus, please come soon.

  2. Pam

    I am so glad you’re back! As someone who is dealing with how my now ex could just use me, walk away, and already have others he is using in the same way, your writing is a support and encouragement to me. Thanks so much.

  3. Jodi

    I think you are way off base. I don’t see the parallel. I don’t buy that this publication is the narcissist’s handbook. Polishing social graces and dressing nice has little or nothing to do with narcissism. Narcissists seriously lack empathy and I cannot accept that it is their choice to be as such. They wouldn’t change even if they could but my point is, THEY CAN’T. It’s an inhuman characteristic. They may not have a mental illness but they cause mental illness in others like toxic and sometimes fatal parasites. Narcissistic behavior can be learned and demonstrated by anyone but a true narcissist lacks empathy. I do not believe Narcissists are made. I believe they are born.

    • Hi Jodi! I welcome the disagreement, but have to point out that I did not say this book was “the narcissist’s handbook.” In fact, if you read my note at the end of the post, you will see that I don’t have any problem with people learning how to present themselves better. I really have nothing against the book and had no intention of vilifying either the book or the author. I simply agree that these are skills that can be learned, and I believe the narcissist learns them very early in life. You are welcome to believe what you wish about narcissism, but you will find that almost all the professional literature disagrees with you. In fact, the idea that narcissism is a mental illness (or some kind of inborn problem) is widely dismissed as hopeful thinking on the part of those who care about them. It lets the narcissist off the hook, unaccountable for his/her behavior, and I have known narcissists who would gladly accept the diagnosis just so they can appear even more the victim. I fully agree that narcissists can cause mental illness in others, but no one believes mental illness is contagious. Narcissistic behavior, according to my study and experience, is a choice, even down to the barriers against empathy. Narcissists don’t empathize because they don’t want to empathize. Doing so would make them feel weak and connected and accountable.

      Perhaps I didn’t make my point well in the post. I think this book presents the positive side of what the narcissist learned, a part that causes the rest of us to puzzle and compromise. We allowed them into our lives because of these skills. We take them back into our lives because of these skills. Their negative behaviors were learned as well, but that’s not what this book or this post is about.

      • Jodi

        I sincerely appreciate your response. Thank you.

        I have just recently read many of your insightful articles on dealing with a narcissist and found them very helpful and healing.

        In my own experience I discovered that no amount of love, prayer, patience or forgiveness changed or modified anything. I believed from the start that my favorite narcissist’s childhood experiences, environmental influences, nurturing or lack thereof was the cause. But I spent the bulk of my life with him blaming myself for being unable to break the barriers, and the rest convincing myself I was being punished for some unknown reason.

        I did my best to prove love would heal. But it didn’t. I got out before the last breath of my very soul was consumed. It took me 20+ years. I narrowly escaped with the remnants of what remains of my life.

        Whether or not narcissism or the damaging characteristic is a mental illness is here nor there. Drugs, surgery and therapy won’t and don’t prevail. No, mental illness is not contagious in any event. But narcissistic behavior might be. I found myself engaging in it as a passive aggressive measure to find some modicum of justice or vindication. But it just exasperated the situation.

        Everyone’s favorite narcissist is unique. Everyone’s experience is unique. In my case, I have finally resigned myself into believing and trusting that it’s no one’s fault and it certainly isn’t mine, nor is it mine to assume responsibility–no matter how much I loved, and believed it was. Blaming anyone for the destructive behavior is counterproductive. Even blaming the narcissist is counterproductive.

        On that premise I have further convinced myself into believing it is in their very DNA, and quite possibly a genetic memory that enables them to survive in a way that is harmful to others. Someday they (the scientists and professionals) may discover a genetic marker, an actual measure that can identify the trait–like a predisposition to chemical dependency. But to what end?

        All I know for sure is my favorite narcissist didn’t read a book, or don a suit and tie to hone his skills. He didn’t need to. It’s much, much deeper than that. I cannot rightly attribute it to any event (s) or explain it. Some folks are and some are not. I pity the narcissist. But I can’t help them. I pity the survivors. And they can be helped.

        The mere suggestion that there is an identifiable cause suggests to me there is a remedy and a hope they will change. It shifts the responsibility onto everyone but the narcissist. That distresses me, probably because I am an empath. And that’s exactly the sort of person the narcissist preys upon.

        I have vigilantly prayed for the gift of discernment because I blamed myself for repeatedly getting involved with toxic people. I think my prayers are being answered. And I thank people like you who help people like me. And thank you for allowing me to vent my frustration on a public forum. My hope is that others can follow suit and save their own lives and sanity by discerning the difference between good and evil. Because sometimes there is no other explanation.

      • Jodi, I usually don’t get the chance to interact a lot in the comment section, although I read everything. You make a couple of very interesting statements here. First, you are certainly not to blame for the struggles of your relationship or for the behavior of the narcissist. It is common for these folks to try to blame their behavior on outside influences, mostly their victims. It’s mom’s fault. It’s my wife’s fault. It’s God’s fault. Anyone but themselves. In fact, they strive so hard to turn the focus away from their own choice that it is one of the things that has moved me to believe it truly is a choice.

        So many have written in the comments here or to me personally and have told of how hard they have worked at the relationship. Almost every effort, every new tactic, is met by the manipulation of the narcissist. The skills of the narcissist are formidable. I applaud those who try hard, recognizing the years of sacrifice and the serious cost, but I also understand and stand by those who get out. There does come a time when fighting ends.

        You say: “The mere suggestion that there is an identifiable cause suggests to me there is a remedy and a hope they will change. It shifts the responsibility onto everyone but the narcissist.” I agree, but I take that differently than you. As long as the narcissist can point to a cause, or as long as we believe there is an outside cause, the narcissist will not change. The only times I have heard of any narcissist changing behavior (and I grant those times are few) is when they are held strictly accountable for their actions. In other words, they are treated as though their behavior is a choice and they are expected to make changes.

        I truly appreciate your honesty and willingness to share your thoughts. I suspect that this little discussion will be an encouragement to many who have struggled with the same questions. You might enjoy my next post which will be about the many differences between narcissists.

      • Dear Jodi, maybe you’ve had too many narcissists hog up your life because…them slime balls are every stomping where. i don’t mean to come off as paranoid, it’s just that i’ve read atleast some of the Bible – the Lord and His real prophets describe the wicked, (beeyeechh) and there is evidently a reason why there’s alot more ungodly, than godly.

    • Joy

      The thing is that no matter how hard we try to show them that it’s ok to love and be vulnerable, they get the choice to try or not to try. We cannot control their choices…only what we do about it. I tried to make a safe place to love and work things out for 30 YEARS. My ex always chose to PRETEND to try.

      He has no empathy…whether by choice or by his genes I don’t know. He learned or inherited this from his narc mother…but his mother was not a charmer. She was a disagreeable, moody narcissistic woman that people soon realized they didn’t want to be around. But she held all the power in that family…and my ex wants that power in our family.

      My ex is just like her, but he has taken it a step farther…he is charming. He has learned to be mannerly, pretend to be sweet and caring when it will get him the adoration he craves, and his own way. So instead of realizing it’s him (as you did with his mother), instead you feel it’s partly your fault, because he is busy being everyone’s hero. Very charismatic. He is much more subtle in his abuse of those close to him. Even they rarely figure out why they feel so bad, so unworthy, such a disappointment to him….why they have these problems only with him and not in their other relationships. This part I think he TRULY LEARNED. I’ve watched him learn new things at the counselors…new words, new tactics. He does not use these things to try and change himself, but to fool others…to shine up and perfect is act. THAT is the thing that finally made me see that I could not wait for him to change. The only change he is interested in is in becoming more convincing…not actually becoming caring, loving, or empathetic, but he is interested in APPEARING that way, because it gets him the supply he needs.

  4. Rox

    I believe narcissists are made, not born, because they learned these behaviors as childhood defense mechanisms and were too afraid and unself-reflective as adults to investigate further ways to cope without using and damaging others. But I don’t find the charisma book alarming . . . in the hands of non-narcissists. The difference is the non-narcissist can learn these skills in order to be more professional and helpful to others. The narcissist learned these skills in a childhood boot camp of “get them before they get you.”. Like fire, these skills are wonderful in the right hands and absolutely fatal in the wrong hands.

  5. Still Reforming

    This thesis makes sense to me based on my own two-decade-plus experience living with a narcissist abusive (now ex-) husband.

    I don’t believe, however, that it can be “unlearned” just because it may be a “learned” behavior. I think instead that it is what the Word of God refers to as a “seared conscience,” by living so long in rejection of God and clinging desperately to self above all. Only God can give narcs new hearts. They can’t “unlearn” it. At least that’s just my take on it, based on observation and experience and my understanding of God’s Word.

    • SR, I don’t think someone can unlearn being a narcissist, but he/she could unlearn narcissistic behavior. People can learn to move toward trust in relationships and listen with a sense of compassion. These are things that can be taught. A dog that has learned to bite may never be fully free of that behavior and therefore never trusted with children, for example. But that same dog can learn that biting isn’t always necessary, that an approaching hand is not a threat. This is the only kind of teaching or therapy I think is possible in counseling narcissists- and it may help in certain marriages or relationships. To change the core fear and self-focus would take an act of God.

  6. I agree with you, Dave. The bits you have shared from this book are chilling! I do not find this harmless or innocent at all. “Rewriting reality to better suit you.” “Implying goodwill toward others.” This is not innocuous training at all.

    I have also considered that they may not be able to unlearn it, like Still Reforming, but not in a way that removes their guilt. If they are past the point of repentance, that is only God’s seal on the permanence of their previous choices. I don’t know on an individual basis which ones have gone that far.

  7. I think you’re right on target. It is learned behavior, and Zi saw my former learned it well from his childhood- a very capable but emotionally withdrawn mother I rarely saw hug beer grandchildren, but people she worked with thought she was wonderfully knowledgeable. I saw the same in her son. sad.

  8. I agree. I came across a blog one time that was a man teaching other men how to behave like a narcissist. There were many insulting things about women on this blog. The men were being instructed that women are to be manipulated before we manipulate them.

    It described women as weaker and easy to redirect from out goals of using men for our gain.

    There was post after post of techniques including how to gaslight people and how to play different roles for different purposes. There were lots of comments by men who were excited to learn to be this way. It was so disturbing …like a psychopath club.

    Yeah these people really exist and it is intentional.

  9. Dear Dave and Friends, guess i’ll pass on reading the rest of the book’s description later on…after my stomach settles. Just ate supper…ugh ;/

  10. “The important of ‘how’ something is said versus ‘what’ was said.” “Rewriting reality to better suit you.” “Give off warmth by implying goodwill toward others.” “How to make a graceful exit with a lasting impression.”

    It’s all about “The Image” and not what is real.

  11. TL

    Speaking to the idea that narcs are born an cannot help their behavior… During my 20 year marriage, not one time did my spouse take ownership of his actions. I found it very telling that he could appear kind if there was an audience, yet privately abuse me. If he couldn’t help it, or see the difference, why be selective?

    In Timothy, the bible tells us God has given us power, love, and a sound mind. This isn’t the best or only reference, but don’t our biblical teachings speak to choice? If we can’t help the way we act, doesn’t it make God a liar? Narcissism may stem from a heartbreaking painful place, but many have suffered unspeakable pain and choose to remain empathetic. Making yourself an idol,(narcissism) may require some level of denial, but, for all of us, doesn’t it come down to free will, and the choices we make?

    • Still Reforming

      TL,
      I agree with you. It boils down to choices and how we respond to life. In an ongoing effort to prepare my daughter to not become a target of abuse (well, she is already, since her dad – who is my now ex-h, is abusive) further down the road, I’m always having these kinds of conversations with her. While watching an animated program recently, a cartoon character pointed out how the bad guy-bully had no one who was his friend or was mistreated so they tried to “understand him.” When my daughter said they were making a good point, I said, “While that may be true, you have had bad things happen to you in your life. I have too. We aren’t responding with bullying others just because we ourselves were bullied.” Little by little she’s realizing too that it’s a choice centered around self that makes the narc who s/he is.

      • Rox

        I agree. If the N, like the cartoon character you mentioned, is friendless, it’s because that is what s/he chose by mistreating others. Most of us respond here because we did offer unconditional love to someone who seemed to need it. Whether by choice or habit, our Ns fed off of that love and turned their grief, shame, insecurities, etc. on us, because they wanted to feel stronger by hurting us rather than weaker by accepting our help. I’m sure my N has no clue why I’ll no longer email or speak to him, despite my tens years of pleading for him not to treat others this way. He chose not to hear me . . . and I chose not to feel miserable just because I offered love to someone who thought it too “humanizing” to accept it.

  12. I think you are right on target. My ex holds me as the villain and himself as the victim to his work associates, though he was the one who verbally abused me and betrayed me. My prayers are that God brings godly men filled with the Holy Spirit’s discernment to see through his masquerade and bring him accountability before God. He needs salvation, not worshipers, though he has one now. May God pour the light of the Living Truth into her blinded eyes!

  13. UnForsaken

    Mmmm, such a good article, and I enjoyed the answers by you too, Dave and Jodi!

    Before knowing about Narcissism, I tried to puzzle this one out because I thought this was all about charisma and personality, not selfishness and narcissism. I had to learn that my whole family had a modicum of charisma – we didn’t know it – yet only my N could have his way, only he was completely without empathy and self centered.

    I have a love for self help books and this one sounds like one I’d like to read. I often try to look at the thought patterns conveyed through these books in ‘reverse’, trying to see how I came to choose/cope with the behaviors already like this in my life. Questions like: “How would this look in a healthy relationship” and ” How would this look in and unhealthy relationship” – have helped me differentiate and see the present as well as the past more clearly.

    Like most tools, charisma without thinking of others can be quite harmful. I often think these books should come with a warning, like: “Don’t get the wrong idea and burn the house down”. All knowledge needs to be handled with care, towards yourself and others. Narcs have such a horrible way of warping all good tools they put their hands on, and yes, I do think that their behaviors often ‘rub off’ on us. What’s worse, it’s the heart intent, not just the behaviors that we tend to imbibe. I have seen a whole church destroyed like this. It’s like we swallow poison. Examining it we find their beliefs may never have been directly stated and yet those same underlying beliefs are what kill our spirits . Run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit! There are buildings worth saving, but you can’t shore up something that has already crumbled. And if you try, the dust will get in your lungs.

  14. C.S.

    Is narcissism learned or is the person born with it? Can a person’s brain structure change due to changes in learned behavior? Here’s one study showing brain differences in “normal” people and those with narcissistic personality disorder: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130619101434.htm

    • This is an interesting study and an area to watch in the future. I think it would be put by many on the “mental illness” evidence pile. At the same time, the validity of the study needs to be tested. This is a small group, and we must always remember that correlation does not imply cause. There are studies that suggest that brain structure is affected by repetitive behavior. So we don’t know if the noted brain structure is the cause of narcissism or vice versa – or even if the two are as related as they seem.

      But thanks for passing this on. I hadn’t seen it, and it is certainly something to throw in the mix when we ask why.

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