Accepting Those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder Can Encourage Them to Receive Treatment
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is more than just a tendency to look at yourself in the mirror a bit too long—it’s an illness that can have devastating effects on those living with it, as well as the people around them. But by understanding the struggle of these people, we can advance the way that we treat the disorder and use our acceptance of it to promote recovery
Greek mythology tells a story of Narcissus, the son of Cephissus the river god and Liriope the nymph. Known for his beauty, many came to adore him, though he gave neither kind words nor affection in return. Narcissus eventually fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, and upon realizing that it was his own, and his love would never truly be real, he took his own life.
The story of Narcissus is the root of the term narcissism, which in psychology is a personality traitcharacterized by a preoccupation with yourself—your successes, your needs, your appearance. Some degree of narcissism is considered to be healthy, but in extreme cases, some people have such a high degree of this trait that it constitutes Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
NPD is a serious mental illness, but its severity has often been swept under the rug. Just like with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), our society’s flippancy with the term narcissist undermines the disorder—how many times have you heard someone labeled as a narcissist, because they may simply post one too many selfies? We all know these people—people with a tendency towards narcissistic behavior—but our casual and frequent application of the term keeps us from realizing they may actually be suffering from a disorder. We need to understand that like other mental health challenges, there is something very real at the root of NPD, and no matter how frustrating the people living with it might be, they are just as deserving of compassion and support—and treatment—as someone with any other mental health challenge.
If you know someone living with NPD, you know that they’re not inherently “bad” or “evil” people. Yes, they can be manipulative of others and lack empathy, but these behaviors and characteristics stem from their illness. We need to help promote a proper understanding of why NPD develops and how to treat it, working together to help people living with this disorder live a better life. By doing this, we can shine light on the positivity that lies in every one of these people, looking past the symptoms of their illness and realizing that they do not define them.
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How Narcissism Develops into a Disorder
We all have our narcissistic tendencies, but when these tendencies impair personality and interpersonal functioning, they might be signs of a disorder. So what exactly causes the distinction between those with a healthy level of narcissism and people with the disorder? The causes of NPD are still not known for certain. Many researchers believe that it stems from misguided parenting, particularly overpraising. Others believe that it develops as a reaction to low self-esteem, masking the fragility of their ego through grandiosity. “I thought narcissism was about self-love till someone told me there is a flip side to it . . . It is unrequited self-love,” said writer and public speaker Emily Levine. But there is also research disputing this theory, suggesting that people with NPD have similar levels of self-esteem as people living with other personality disorders, so it’s still not known for certain just how big a role self-esteem plays.
As time goes on, continued research will likely reveal the underlying causes of NPD and make it easier to treat. But for now we need to focus on learning to empathize with people living with this illness and help them realize that we are not judging how they feel and act, while at the same time encouraging them to get treatment. With the right therapy, people living with this disorder can address the issues that lie at the core of their disorder, whether that’s self-esteem, parenting, or another cause, and work toward building healthier ways of identifying with themselves and empathizing with others.
Understanding Their Struggle
There’s this perception that people with NPD are simply obsessed with their image, which makes it easy to write them off. In reality, this perception is harmful to those that truly live with the disorder and need help, as it is essentially pushing them into the shadows and preventing them from getting proper treatment. And failing to get treatment can be dangerous: when compared to other cluster B personality disorders (Antisocial Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder), suicide attempts of those with NPD are less impulsive and more likely to be lethal. Those with NPD are also more likely to suffer from substance abuse, anxiety, mood, and personality disorders than the average person.
So many people instinctively think of how people living with NPD can damage and hurt others, forgetting that underneath their exterior, they are suffering from an illness that is taking its toll on their mental health as well. We need to understand that when people with NPD hurt others, it’s rooted in their own pain that stems from a mental health challenge that needs treatment. You might not see it, but they are hurting, and if we continue to ignore the extent of the damage that comes from this pain, we may in fact be acting as barriers to the support that they need to recover.
Treatment of NPD
The first line of defense in the treatment of NPD is psychotherapy, and it’s based on the same principles as those that make the core of BPD treatment: an acknowledgment of the symptoms of the disorder, but without reinforcing them. Instead, the focus is placed on helping people with NPD realize that their symptoms can and need to be changed in order to recover. Living with NPD makes people prone to feelings of entitlement and can make them take criticism harsher, both symptoms that stem from the need for admiration at the root of the disorder. In a sense, the symptoms of the disorder themselves can act as barriers to treatment, which is why it’s so important to acknowledge and accept these people. After this initial period of acceptance, the goal is to make them feel supported and comfortable enough to pave the way for the therapist to begin confronting symptoms of their illness and helping them develop ways of overcoming them.
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Turning Acceptance into Recovery
Being close to someone with NPD is a tough experience. But living with it is just as hard, as the symptoms often keep those with NPD from realizing they need help—that’s why people who struggle with it really need loving, supportive people in their corner. Accepting and understanding how NPD can affect the way that people suffering from it feel and act towards others can help us recognize the disorder and better communicate the importance of treatment with them. Although this is not an easy process and will take the full, combined effort of each person in the support network, through this acceptance, we can help them feel comfortable enough to begin examining and understanding their illness. In turn, we can promote recovery by helping them see past their illness and develop healthier ways of dealing with the world and those closest to them.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people living with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Contact us to learn how you or your loved one can get treatment through an individualized plan that uses support and acceptance to overcome the barriers created by their symptoms and begin the recovery process.
Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Joshua Earle