We're familiar with the self-centered, self-inflating tendencies of narcissists but have you ever stopped to wonder why they do what they do? Sometimes we assume that it's due to "low self-esteem" but then it also seems that they feel superior to others -- which presents a contradiction. Getting a handle on why they do what they do can help your relationship with a narcissist make more sense.
Keep in mind that narcissists can be male or female -- what typifies a narcissist is their behaviors.
Here's a list of just a few of the more common "patterns" of narcissism, and a brief explanation of what's behind the behavior:
1. Name Dropping - Narcissists are image conscious name-droppers. Why? As a tactic for obtaining approval and validation. She catalogs the rules of whatever social worlds she inhabits and seeks approval for living by those rules. When she gets approval for her fancy shoes, she knows she's doing things the way they are supposed to be done. By implying that she knows someone worth knowing, she gets a nod of acknowledgement and approval from the listener. Name-dropping is a quick easy way to get the need for approval and validation met.
2. Bragging - Narcissists brag about themselves. Why? Approval of others is a basic need (of all people, but for narcissists it's more important than for the emotionally healthy). Uncertain of herself in world, she needs feedback from others in order to know she is doing okay. Bragging is a tool for checking in -- "See, I'm doing things right, right? Am I doing okay by you?"
3. No Tolerance for Differing Opinions - Narcissists are emotionally tone deaf and cannot tolerate differences of opinion, and will not offer to accommodate your needs. Why? A narcissist is merged with you and in her non-conscious framework of the world. To her unconscious mind, your purpose is her purpose -- you are an extension of her and therefore, you're supposed to think like her, want what she wants, and do what she needs. She lacks empathy (awareness of you) because she is not separate from you. It's as though her brain thinks your brain IS hers.
4. Superiority, Arrogance - Narcissists seem to think they are better than the rest of us. Why? In her mental map, she is right because she is not aware of others as separate and distinct and so she hears their opinions as a confrontation to her world. Anything contradictory to her ideas has simply got to be wrong. This comes across as superiority and arrogance, while it's really lack of awareness that others exist.
5. Does Not Do the Work to Maintain Friendships - Narcissists have many acquaintances, few friends. She may seem to know everyone, but scratch the surface and you find out she doesn't know them well, and she doesn't do the work of maintaining friendships. Why? She tries to befriend people who will reflect well on her or who will meet specific needs. This is also due to the fact that her sense of self is derived from the people she's around. She doesn't do the work of reaching out to friends unless she needs something from them. She doesn't ask many questions, or listen well, or remember much, because if it's not relevant to her then there's no point to it.
6. Thin-skinned - Feedback is not welcome and even compliments can be taken as criticism. Why? Because a narcissist's sense of self is garnered through other people and disagreement or disapproval make no sense to her since her way is the only way. She doesn't hear criticism as the need to reconsider a behavior; instead she feels criticism as a full body reaction to danger. So she resists it.
7. Highly Reactive - Narcissists are emotionally unaware and co-opt your strong emotions. Why? Since a narcissist is psychically merged with you, she feels your emotions -- she takes them on. Your anger becomes her anger, but since she isn't aware that she's co-opting your strong emotion, she will come up with a story about why she's upset. She also needs to get the attention turned away from you and back to her, in order to keep validating her sense of self. Being unable to identify and name her own emotions, she borrows emotional language from the world around her and confuses those close to her in the process.
One of the most confusing aspects of relating to a narcissist is that usually both narcissist and non-narcissist in a relationship tend to be completely unaware that two very different internal structures are in operation. She, and you assume she's just like most of the rest of us -- empathetic in relationship. You can find relief and options for interacting once you understand that a narcissist has a very specific, and different, way of being in the world. Once you understand the structure, you can grasp the motivations behind the behavior. This can open up new options for how you choose to interact so that you are less triggered by their psychological issues.
The first, most important step is to realize that you are the only one who is responsible for taking care of you in a relationship. Then it's important to accept that it's not your job to change the narcissist and that blaming her is like blaming a tree for being a tree. You can choose instead to find new skillful ways to respond that enable you to live your life peacefully on your own terms.