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The Narcissism Epidemic: Do You Know the Warning Signs?

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The term, "narcissist" seems to be spreading through the world like an out of control wildfire. The term itself doesn't always have a negative connotation since ironically; we are all narcissistic by nature. There is a certain degree of self-love that is healthy. However, there is a line that separates healthy narcissism from the uberly toxic Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

The celebrity world also seems to be brimming over with unhealthy narcissism. The spotlight that shines in the celebrity world is highly attractive to the person with NPD, since there is an endless supply offered in the spotlight. Celebrities are equipped with fame and power, and they have unlimited access to a source of narcissistic supply which is essential to a narcissist. While many walk the line with grace and balance, there are also a significant number of narcissists who bathe in the celebrity spotlight in complete self-indulgence.

In 2006, Dr. Drew Pinsky and Mark Young conducted a scientific study with over 200 celebrities using the (Narcissistic Personality Inventory NPI) and the results showed that celebrities are 17.84 percent more narcissistic than the general public. It isn't surprising given that most aspiring celebrities are driven by fame, money and admiration. What better place for a narcissist to be than in the limelight? It's the equivalent of flipping on the porch light and watching moths come to life!

There are a vast number of celebrities who display many characteristics of narcissism (if not full blown NPD) such as Tom Cruise, Lance Armstrong, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. While many people enter the celebrity arena with pre-existing traits of NPD, their egos balloon to extreme levels with every flash of the paparazzi camera, VIP entrance to clubs, limo service and autograph requests. These things often lead to a sense of entitlement such as Reece Witherspoon's shocking behavior while her husband was being arrested for a DUI.

When it comes to the business world, narcissists are generally successful individuals, which is why the political arena and corporate scene is another area with a high concentration of NPD. These individuals generally attract their mates due to their charisma, larger-than-life persona and their successful careers. Those with high traits of NPD believe that they are the best, and their confidence can certainly be attractive. Narcissists consider themselves special and those who are accepted into their circle must be special by default.

Prince Charming: In 2000, I met a charming, charismatic man who offered me the world on a silver platter. There were times in which I questioned whether our courtship was too good to be true. His parents had been married for 25 years, he was on his way up in a very promising career and I felt like I was living a fairytale. Seth told me all of the things that I wanted to hear and showered me with poems, flowers, shopping sprees and vacations. My friends and family stood by in awe as this modern day Prince Charming wooed me and everyone around me. While there were red flags, the good outweighed the bad in the beginning years and I swept my concerns under the rug and left them there.

Six years into our marriage, I sat on a therapist's couch and confided in the woman sitting across from me. I told her about the lies and the manipulations which involved financial schemes, stealing his parent's retirement savings and racking up 1.6 million dollars in debt - much of it was done behind my back. I explained the lack of remorse that Seth showed and the fact that he was incapable of empathy. I explained that I had never felt so alone and unloved in my life. In a six year period of time, I had become a shell of my former self. When I looked in the mirror, I was ashamed of the fake life that we were living. To those around us, we were the golden couple. However, behind closed doors my life was a living hell.

My therapist walked across the room and handed me a book from her bookshelf. The words seemed to jump off of the page, "Narcissistic Personality Disorder." In my naïve mind, I was thrilled to have a name for the hell that I was living. With a name, there was hope, or so I thought. My therapist went on to explain that NPD is not curable and in fact, most mental health professionals will not treat those with this personality disorder. Her next words stung, "You either learn to live with this or you leave, there is no cure."

I spent the next year and a half trying to block out the words of my therapist. However, our marriage finally ended in 2009. In short order, I discovered the only thing worse than being married to a narcissist is divorcing a narcissist. I quickly went from a 4,000 square foot luxury home to a local women's shelter. From there, I spent two years fearing for my life while sleeping with a hammer under my pillow and a can of mace in my hands as I made scrambled eggs for breakfast. I jumped at the sound of every noise. My modern day Prince Charming was actual the modern version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Part of my healing has come from educating others on the red flags that I chose to ignore in the beginning of our relationship. Young adults or anyone in the dating world should be well versed on the red flags of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Dr. Craig Malkin, Author, Clinical Psychologist and Instructor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School provides a list of five early warning signs to watch for in his recent article in a recent article for Psychology Today. Dr. Malkin discusses narcissism as it relates to the dating world, "In real life, the most dangerous villains rarely advertise their malevolence" states Dr. Malkin. This could be why narcissists are commonly known as wolves in sheep's clothing.

Here are the five early warning signs according to Dr. Malkin:

1) Projected Feelings of Insecurity: I don't mean that narcissists see insecurity everywhere. I'm talking about a different kind of projection altogether, akin to playing hot potato with a sense of smallness and deficiency. Narcissists say and do things, subtle or obvious, that make you feel less smart, less accomplished, less competent. It's as if they're saying, "I don't want to feel this insecure and small; here, you take the feelings." Picture the boss who questions your methods after their own decision derails an important project, the date who frequently claims not to understand what you've said, even when you've been perfectly clear, or the friend who always damns you with faint praise ("Pretty good job this time!"). Remember the saying: "Don't knock your neighbor's porch light out to make yours shine brighter." Well, the narcissist loves to knock out your lights to seem brighter by comparison.

2) Emotion-phobia: Feelings are a natural consequence of being human, and we tend to have lots of them in the course of normal interactions. But the very fact of having a feeling in the presence of another person suggests you can be touched emotionally by friends, family, partners, and even the occasional tragedy or failure. Narcissists abhor feeling influenced in any significant way. It challenges their sense of perfect autonomy; to admit to a feeling of any kind suggests they can be affected by someone or something outside of them. So they often change the subject when feelings come up, especially their own, and as quick as they might be to anger, it's often like pulling teeth to get them to admit that they've reached the boiling point -- even when they're in the midst of the most terrifying tirade.

3) A Fragmented Family Story: Narcissism seems to be born of neglect and abuse, both of which are notorious for creating an insecure attachment style (for more on attachment, see here and here). But the very fact that narcissists, for all their posturing, are deeply insecure, also gives us an easy way to spot them. Insecurely attached people can't talk coherently about their family and childhood; their early memories are confused, contradictory, and riddled with gaps. Narcissists often give themselves away precisely because their childhood story makes no sense, and the most common myth they carry around is the perfect family story. If your date sings their praises for their exalted family but the reasons for their panegyric seem vague or discursive, look out. The devil is in the details, as they say -- and very likely, that's why you're not hearing them.

4) Idol Worship: Another common narcissistic tendency you might be less familiar with is the habit of putting people on pedestals. The logic goes a bit like this: "If I find someone perfect to be close to, maybe some of their perfection will rub off on me, and I'll become perfect by association." The fact that no one can be perfect is usually lost on the idol-worshipping narcissist -- at least until they discover, as they inevitably do, that their idol has clay feet. And stand back once that happens. Few experiences can prepare you for the vitriol of a suddenly disappointed narcissist. Look out for any pressure to conform to an image of perfection, no matter how lovely or magical the compulsive flattery might feel.

5) A High Need for Control: For the same reason narcissists often loathe the subject of feelings, they can't stand to be at the mercy of other people's preferences; it reminds them that they aren't invulnerable or completely independent -- that, in fact, they might have to ask for what they want -- and even worse, people may not feel like meeting the request. Rather than express needs or preferences themselves, they often arrange events (and maneuver people) to orchestrate the outcomes they desire. In the extreme form, this can manifest as abusive, controlling behaviors. (Think of the man who berates his wife when dinner isn't ready as soon as he comes home. He lashes out precisely because at that very moment, he's forced to acknowledge that he depends on his wife, something he'd rather avoid.) But as with most of these red flags, the efforts at control are often far subtler than outright abuse. Be on the look out for anyone who leaves you feeling nervous about approaching certain topics or sharing your own preferences. Narcissists have a way of making choices feel off-limits without expressing any anger at all -- a disapproving wince, a last-minute call to preempt the plans, chronic lateness whenever you're in charge of arranging a night together. It's more like a war of attrition on your will than an outright assault on your freedom.

To read the rest of Dr. Malkin's article in Psychology Today, please click here.