Psychologist Stephen Johnson writes that the narcissist is someone who has “buried his true self-expression in response to early injuries and replaced it with a highly developed, compensatory false self.”(1) This alternate persona to the real self often comes across as grandiose, “above others,” self-absorbed, and highly conceited. In our highly individualistic and externally driven society, mild to severe forms of narcissism are not only pervasive but often encouraged.
Narcissism is often interpreted in popular culture as a person who’s in love with him or herself. It is more accurate to characterize the pathological narcissist as someone who’s in love with an idealized self-image, which they project in order to avoid feeling (and being seen as) the real, disenfranchised, wounded self.(1)(2) Deep down, most pathological narcissists feel like the “ugly duckling,” even if they painfully don’t want to admit it.
Narcissists frequently employ a variety of deceits in order to get what they want. Since, deep down, they don’t believe their real selves are worthy, scheming and manipulation are resorted to in order to succeed.(3)(4)
Below are eight common lies and exaggerations narcissists often use to “pull one over” people, with references from my book (click on title): “How to Successfully Handle Narcissists”. While some people may be guilty of these mechanizations from time to time, a chronic narcissist will show a habitual pattern of several of the following deceits, while remaining oblivious to (or unconcerned with) how these falsehoods affect others.
1. “I’m So Great – Just Ask Me!”
Multiple studies and writings have linked chronic narcissism with the tendency to overinflate one’s own sense of the self.(3)(4)(5)(6)(7) This is frequently accomplished through bragging, showboating, exaggerating, name-dropping, and other forms of self-aggrandizement. On a regular basis, the narcissist will remind you how special, important, powerful, attractive, popular, and/or successful they are. They exhibit a constant need to talk about (display) themselves in flattering and egotistical ways, with frequent reminders of their superior and envy-worthy dispositions.
Deep down, however, the true self-esteem of the narcissist may be a very different reality. They may feel that they are nothing without the aggrandizement, empty without the attention, and unloved without the adulation. The narcissist’s superficial bragging betrays an inability to be simply and genuinely human, with the capacity to engage in equitable and authentic relationships.
2. “I’m Better Than You / I’m Better Than Them!”
Related to the trait of grandiosity is superiority. The Mayo Clinic identifies “believing that you are superior” and “expecting to be recognized as superior” as two prominent characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder.(8) In daily interactions, narcissists take satisfaction in reminding you and others that they’re better in large and small ways. Their barely disguised (or nakedly undisguised) intolerance of “inferiors” is revealed through judgments, criticisms, smugness, sarcasm, marginalization, stereotypes, and overall high condescension. In the mind-set of some narcissists, they are gods and goddesses, and the world revolves around them. From their self-absorbed perspective, they deserve the privilege of being catered to, and other people’s thoughts and feeling are irrelevant.
As Johnson pointed out in his definition of the narcissist, this conceited self-image is merely a well-rehearsed disguise, concocted to hide the narcissist’s inferiority complex. As the saying goes: “Misery loves company.” Since the narcissist is incapable of feeling good about him or herself independently, he needs to put others down in order to make himself feel better.
“Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others.”
3. “I Promise!”
Another common trait of the chronic narcissist is his or her pattern of not following through on agreements and obligations. This can range from the relatively mild, such as flaking out on appointments and tasks, to the highly serious, such as abandoning major responsibilities and relationships (commitments). Being self-centered and conceited, the narcissist will generally meet his or her obligations only when they suit his self-interest. Chronic narcissists do not relate, they use. They talk a good talk, but often fail to back it up. Research and writings have linked high narcissism with traits such as unreliability, infidelity, manipulativeness, and overall lower levels of trustworthiness.(3)(4)(5)(10)(11)
4. “Don’t Worry!”
Since many narcissists care little about rules and boundaries, they may engage in activities which lack credibility, ethics, or morality. Examples may include smaller offenses such as breaking traffic rules, cutting in line, borrowing items without returning, or stealing office supplies, to more serious schemes such as financial, legal, or relational abuse. Some narcissists not only engage in, but thrive on rule breaking to get their way, for rule breaking makes them feel exceptional and entitled. When you question the narcissist on their tactics and express concern, they’re quick to retort with well-rehearsed excuses, with deceptively persuasive assurances that “everything is going to be okay” – until it’s not.
“I take pride in persuading people to give me exceptions to their rules.”
5. “It’s Not My Fault / It’s Your Fault!”
Inevitably, the self-absorbed and manipulative machinations of a chronic narcissist will catch up with her or him, and land the narcissist in hot water. When this occurs, one of the most common responses of the narcissist is to point fingers, and shift responsibility to others. Oftentimes, the narcissist will blame their victims for having caused their own victimization. Another common response is making excuses – there is always some unexpected or unforeseen circumstance which deterred the narcissist from being responsible. Finally, the narcissist may make herself out to be the victim, pointing to any number of difficulties and hard-luck struggles which prevented her from being accountable, and ask for leniency (again being an exception to the rule). All of the manipulative devices above serve to shift scrutiny and responsibility away from the narcissist, so that her or his weaknesses, deficiencies, and failings can remain hidden.
6. “I’m Here for You / I Care About You / I Love You!”
Narcissists have the ability to be charming and charismatic when they choose.(13) Like a master salesperson, they know how to say the right things to entice your attention, and steer you into believing their sugar-coated persuasions. In interpersonal and/or romantic relationships, narcissists are often quick to profess their admiration of and attraction for you, usually without bothering to really know you as a person. In reality, the narcissist wants you to feel special not because they really care about you, but because they want something from you. Sweet talk is a form of emotional manipulation calculated to seduce and exploit. In romance, the narcissist is often more enamored with the seduction process than he or she is with you, for you represent a “conquest” to them. Like a master con artist, they will hook you in, get what they want, and then leave you hanging out to dry. You’re left picking up the tattered relational pieces, perhaps wondering whether YOU did something wrong.
7. “You’re Not Here for Me / You Disappoint Me!”
Pathological narcissists often demand constant attention and sacrifices from those around them, for such placating makes them feel important. When someone in the narcissist’s manipulative orbit has the courage to be independent and chooses her or his own priority, the narcissist will often become highly agitated, sometimes fly into a (narcissistic) rage, and accuse the other person of being “selfish”, “disappointing”, or “not here for me”. In reality, the narcissist is simply throwing a child-like tantrum for not getting his or her way. If you find yourself on the receiving end of these accusations, ask yourself the following questions:
Am I being treated with genuine respect?
Are this person’s expectations & demands of me reasonable?
Is the giving in this relationship primarily one way?
Ultimately, do I feel good about myself in this relationship?
If one or more of your answers to the questions above are in the negative, the truth may be that the narcissist is actually the one who’s not there for you.
8. “I’m Sorry / l’ll Change.”
Because narcissists often operate on inauthenticity and falsehoods, the consequences of their actions may eventually catch-up to them, and exact a heavy price. These are the moments of life-crisis for the narcissist, which may include family estrangement, marital separation or divorce, trouble with the law, damaged personal and/or professional reputation, etc.
During these moments, some narcissists will dramatically profess their wrong-doing, promise to change their ways, and ask for forgiveness. They may sound convincing, and perhaps even believe in the contrition themselves. But be very careful! Johnson warns that when many narcissists enter psychotherapy as the result of life crisis, it is not for the purpose of fundamentally changing their pathology, but only to affect crisis management.(1)(2) Often, as soon as the crisis is over, they’ll go back to their Machiavellian ways. When a narcissist says “I’ll change”, what he or she often wants is for the unpleasant situation to go away, without changing himself.
Can a narcissist really change for the better? Perhaps. But only if he or she is highly aware, and willing to go through the courageous process of self-discovery. For narcissists no longer willing to play the charade at the cost of genuine relationships and credibility, there are ways to liberate from falsehood, and progressively move toward one’s Higher Self.