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4 Behaviors That Unmask Narcissists

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If lack of empathy is one of the narcissist’s key characteristics, I think we often misunderstand it. Some of the difficulty may have to do with distinguishing fully between sympathy and empathy. When we are sympathetic, we connect largely through intellectual understanding and feel badly about the situation in which a person finds him or herself. Empathy is an emotional response in which we literally feel another’s pain as opposed to understanding his or her pain in the abstract. The truth is that most of us are not consistently empathic, nor are we equally skilled at this most important trait.

So what, precisely, makes the narcissist different?

The answer is his or her utter separateness. It’s not simply that he or she doesn’t feel for others and their pain; it’s that the level of connection, of attunement, is utterly foreign. Since you can be sympathetic on a very superficial level (writing a check and contributing to charity; being helpful by dropping off your neighbor’s dry cleaning; recommending your attorney to the guy who needs one), many narcissists appear quite sympathetic because they like looking good in the eyes of others. More important, they like reassuring themselves that they’re nice guys or gals. Empathy is another matter entirely.

Here are four behaviors that might tip you off to the real personality you’re dealing with:

1. Plays emotional “hot potato”

Kudos to Craig Malkin for giving this a name and for singling it out as one of the narcissist’s behaviors. Malkin identifies “hot potato” as a form of projection, as in the following scenario: You try talking to your partner about his dismissiveness and lack of connection and he responds by saying that he’s not dismissive but he’s just not willing to respond to your anger and constant complaints. The reality is that what you are saying is irritating the daylights of him—his jaw muscles are working and he’s on his way to being really frosted—but rather than own those feelings, he assigns them to you. (This explanation aligns with Malkin’s view that keeping the inner wound hidden is one of the narcissist’s primary motivations.) It’s entirely possible, of course, that if this continues, you will feel angry even if you didn’t start out feeling that way. Playing hot potato permits the narcissist to gain the upper hand.

Since the narcissist isn’t actually interested in what you feel or think—or making things better between you, for that matter—the game of hot potato will work to your disadvantage, especially if you care about him or her. You will probably feel guilty—“He wasn’t wrong, I was angry—until the moment in time when you have an epiphany and finally get it.

I’d like to add a personal observation about the game of emotional hot potato: They can play consciously to manipulate you but it can also be unconscious behavior on the narcissist’s part. In any case, what emerges from hot potato is the narcissist’s vision of what really happened and it will all boil down to one basic theme: It’s always your fault and never his or hers. The inability and unwillingness to take responsibility for actions and words under any circumstances are also narcissistic hallmarks.






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