It’s Hard to Feel Sorry for a Narcissist
Narcissists are extremely difficult people. I’m not talking about people with narcissistic traits; we all know challenging, self-absorbed individuals we might call narcissists. We may act selfish and boastful ourselves every now and then. The difference is people with narcissistic traits do not necessarily have a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
True narcissism is a mental illness for which there is no cure, though therapy can help. Narcissists have grandiose ideas about themselves, need constant attention and admiration and have a complete lack of empathy for others. They are never wrong, even when objective facts demonstrate clearly they are, in fact, wrong, and they do not apologize. Ever. You don’t want to challenge a narcissist, especially in front of other people – they will make it their mission in life to destroy you. Note that by challenge, I’m talking about something as simple as offering a different perspective or correcting an innocent mistake. These individuals cannot tolerate anything they perceive to be criticism. They do not want to be exposed as being anything but better than everyone else.
Real Life Experience With a Narcissist
I recently worked with a true narcissist. This man became enraged whenever someone, in his mind, made him feel “less than”.
Happy to be a part of what I thought was a worthwhile volunteer project, I enjoyed contributing my skills and expertise to the group. I should clarify to say I enjoyed it at the start. As he presented the project to me as a collaborative effort when he invited me to be a part of the group, I assumed my contributions were wanted and valued. I learned quickly they were not. This incredibly controlling individual wanted the last word on everything and basically expected the other group members to simply carry out his ideas. In other words, he was “the boss”. Any suggestion I made was met with a firm “No”. When I questioned why we could not implement an idea that everyone else clearly felt benefitted the project, he gave a myriad of excuses, most of which were ridiculous. I found it interesting that nine times out of ten my suggestions were later put in place, but then, of course, it was his decision.
Everything really fell apart when I proofed some marketing communications he designed. I found mistakes in his work such as misspelled names, incorrect program descriptions and more. These errors created more work for the rest of us and made our program look unprofessional. He was not a detail person, and so what, we all have our strengths, and he joked about it frequently. That being the case, I thought he might appreciate another pair of eyeballs. Most people do, even those who do carefully proof their own work first – after all, we all make mistakes. He did not. In one of his fits of rage he told me he did, in fact, consider himself a detail person and made those comments simply because he is a humble person. Wow.
During his outbursts, which sometimes lasted two or more hours and included yelling and swearing, he actually screamed at me things like, “It’s my way or the highway”, “Get in line or get out”, and “I won’t be challenged”. He also said he was tired of people “being mean” to him for no reason. For no reason? Really? His rants included personal insults, none of which were professional or helpful. He said I was disrespectful, a know-it-all, and thoughtless because I arrived late to one meeting, despite my calling ahead to apologize and explain. And so much more. I listened quietly as he raged, not wanting to sink down to his level. The quieter I became, the angrier he grew. It was obvious I hurt him deeply on a personal level and he wanted to hurt me back. And it was clear he needed to see me react before he would stop – I had to hang up on him to end the call. I was flabbergasted at his childish behavior and instead of feeling hurt, I left the conversation feeling nothing but pity. There obviously was a lot going on with him that had nothing to do with me.
So, Should You Feel Empathy for the Narcissist?
I wish I understood this personality disorder better at the time, but it wasn’t until I heard an elightening podcast called Talking Confidence with Holly Caplan, titled, “How to Deal with a Narcissist in Your Workplace”, that I began to truly comprehend it. In the podcast, Holly interviewed Leslie Austin, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and life coach with extensive experience working with narcissists.
Dr. Austin describes narcissistic behavior in this way:
It’s much like dealing with the antics a spoiled child, which is confusing because you’re looking at this person, this grown human being, thinking “This has to be a joke, right?”
Unfortunately, it isn’t a joke. The narcissist is a truly sick person whose behavior is out of their control. Though they behave like arrogant bullies, they actually have self-esteem so low they live in constant fear of being “found out”. How sad. So yes, in my opinion, the narcissist is a mentally ill person who deserves our empathy. They are sick and need help.
I did not continue in that volunteer group for long. But sometimes you can’t remove yourself from a situation. And, as per Dr. Austin, if you need to get along with a narcissist, it’s essential to understand the illness.
Two important facts to keep in mind:
1) narcissists are not necessarily evil; more likely they are completely unaware how their behavior impacts others, and
2) though their behavior may feel personal to you, it’s not – their behavior actually has nothing to do with you, it’s all about them.
So, put your ego away and allow the narcissist to run the show. Instead of making a suggestion, make three and let them make the decision about which to implement. Never correct them; instead, tell them you find the concept confusing and ask them to explain it to you. Asking their advice feeds their ego and gives them the opportunity to find their own mistakes. You may wonder why you have to play these games or why the narcissist can’t just act normal. Dr Austin explained in the podcast they can’t act normal because they aren’t. It’s as simple as that.
Lower your expectations. If you can’t leave the situation, then your best bet is to try to change your mindset and create strategies to get along as best you can.
Characteristics of a True Narcissist
Narcissists are often charming people who make a great first impression. They are smart and model behavior they see in other people, such as empathy, but it is an act. Make no mistake, their end goal is to manipulate the other person.
Below is a list of characteristics you might find in a narcissist.
- Put themselves first
- Never ever wrong – always know more than you do
- Say no to any suggestion they didn’t think up on their own
- View differing opinions as criticism
- Frequently upset other people, but do not take responsibility for their behavior
- Shame others
- Think their way is the only “right” way
- Exaggerate their talents and achievements
- Believe they’re special
- Do not care about the feelings or needs of others
- Make excuses for their own flaws
- Overreact frequently
- Don’t listen and interrupt often
- Act defensively and irrational
- Won’t admit that what you know is true is true (gaslighting)
So, Should You Feel Sorry for a Narcissist?
Narcissists struggle to function the only way they know, trying desperately to hide their feelings of worthlessness from themselves and everyone else.
Yes, they come across as hateful bullies. And they may try to destroy you. In reality, the sad truth is they really don’t care about you at all; they just want you to get out of their way.
As miserable as these people make you, they are even more miserable themselves. Narcissists are incredibly unhappy fragile people. Try to be kind and take the high road when dealing with people with this type of mental illness. They need your sympathy and pushing back will only make your life harder. However, don’t forget these people are toxic; if at all possible, distance yourself as much as you can.
originally posted September 17, 2022
updated June 20, 2023