5 Signs you are Involved with a Narcissist

Basically you can’t get close to a narcissist.  A relationship with a narcissist will be a problem, and the more narcissistic they are the more it becomes impossible.

Sex addicts and addicts generally are often described as narcissistic, but many non-addicts are narcissists as well.  Trying to have a relationship with a true narcissist can be an extremely tortuous and confusing experience.

The continuum of narcissism

Many psychological disorders are now being talked about as existing on a “spectrum”, that is they are not like other diseases where either you have them or you don’t.  With spectrum disorders the set of symptoms can range from very mild to very severe.

As I have discussed previously, narcissists at the mild end may be labeled as having narcissistic personality traits such as self centeredness and vanity; those labeled as having narcissistic personality disorder will be mostly oblivious of the needs of others and will focus on maintaining a false and grandiose sense of a self.  At the outer most extreme the narcissist becomes akin to a sociopath, feeling so over-entitled and so lacking in conscience or empathy that they are opportunists and even criminals.

Many sex addicts and other kinds of addicts have what is called a narcissistic defense system, that is they have a façade of self importance which merely covers a deep seated lack of self worth.

What to expect with a narcissist

Narcissists are cut off from others by their underlying insecurity but they nevertheless can become expert at manipulating people in order to draw them in.  They can be habitually seductive as a way of finding validation and power in relating to people generally.  They are fundamentally impossible to connect with in the following ways.

  • The narcissist needs you to be focused on him.

He or she may initially show  great interest and appreciation for you.  This is gratifying but is skin deep.  It is done to get you to focus on them.  They may give lavish praise and compare you favorably to others; in this way they manipulate you into trying to keep their good opinion thus becoming more and more focused on what they think about you (and everything else.)  And you become unconsciously afraid to displease the narcissist or incur his disapproval.

  • The narcissist needs to see anyone they are close to as special.

The idea here is that the narcissist needs to feel he is wonderful and that he wouldn’t be seen associating with anyone who wasn’t wonderful too.  He sees you as a reflection of his own specialness.  This does not really say anything about how he really feels about you, what is important to the narcissist is how you make him look to others and to himself.

  • The narcissist will be controlling and demanding.

You may feel constantly thrown off from what you were doing or thinking about because the narcissist will come at you with their needs and wants.  Narcissists will have their own agenda most of the time.  They will use their judgmental attitude, their scrutiny of you and their strong opinions to enforce that agenda.

If you have already become involved you may be sacrificing yourself in a million little ways and even feeling that your life has been taken over.  This is a far cry from a real relationship in which the partners’ lives together involve mutual decision making and genuine listening.

  • Narcissists will be volatile when they are challenged.

Since their façade of superiority is just a façade, the narcissist will be cut to the quick if they feel criticized in any way.  Their first line of defense will be to discount and devalue whatever or whoever has pricked their bubble.  But they will be deeply affected and may harbor rage or resentments.  This makes it impossible to express your true feelings or needs and to have them be heard.

  • Narcissists will bail out when you stop feeding their narcissism.

You may be unable to shake the feeling that the relationship is tenuous because it is.  It is possible to puncture a narcissist’s false self very easily.  And since your worth to him or her lies in your ability to reinforce their self image, you can become a hindrance if and when you stop mirroring their perfection.

Someone who has milder narcissistic traits is probably using their grandiosity as a defense, as is the case with most sex addicts in treatment.  In recovery they can gain a stronger sense of self worth and let go of the narcissistic defense system.  With treatment, these people may be more able to connect to their insecurities and you may find that they both want and have a genuine capacity for a healthy relationship.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

Too Good-Looking, Too Smart, or Too Rich (to give up Sexually Addictive Behaviors)

There is an old recovery saying that you can’t get sober if you are too smart, too rich or too good-looking.   Clinicians working with clients who have sexually addictive behaviors know that these attributes can sometimes present challenges.

I’m not saying that looks brains and money lead to sexually addictive behaviors but I can see some of the ways they might operate to prevent the addict getting better.


There is no longer any doubt that success (fame, money adoration) can cause what is known as “acquired situational narcissism.”  Narcissism is a false sense of self worth which can be bolstered and encouraged by massive amounts of positive feedback from others.  This feedback promotes narcissistic self-centeredness, lack of empathy for others and over-entitlement. (See also my blog Narcissism, Sex, Power and Herman Cain.)

Any sex addict can adopt a narcissistic defense system but the process is magnified if the person is rich, beautiful, etc.  The greater the narcissistic self-importance the greater the sense of being exempt from the ordinary rules that govern behavior.

If this superiority is constantly reinforced then the addict has a hard time getting a grip on reality.  His attitude is “I’m special, I’m allowed; even my flaws aren’t flaws.”

Masking shame

Most addicts feel some level of guilt or shame about their sexually addictive behavior.  After engaging in a behavior like repeated visits to prostitutes or sexual massage parlors or the wasting of hours on internet porn and masturbation most addicts go through a period of feeling let down.  They have engaged in an out of control behavior that they must keep secret and they soothe the feelings of self-loathing in any way they can.  Often they use other drugs to numb the feelings.

The problem for the rich successful or beautiful person is that they can use these assets as tools with which to numb or mask their negative emotions and restore their facade of self worth.  The more easily the addict can dodge the feelings of self-hate, the more easily they can avoid coming face to face with their own double life.

Normalizing sexually addictive behavior

Normalizing is one of the defenses invoked by most sex addicts but with the brilliant, beautiful or rich addict it is particularly useful in certain cases.  Take the guy who engages in repeated seduction, predatory flirting, workplace harassment or serial affairs.  If he is successful or good-looking he can much more easily excuse his behavior by saying “I can’t help it, women just come on to me—what am I supposed to do?”

In this case the special attributes can function to keep the addict in denial.  Special levels of status or achievement can be seen as justifying behavior which would be reprehensible in mere mortals.  “Beauty is life’s Easy Pass,” as a New Yorker cartoon put it.  Or in the words of Henry Kissinger, “Power is an aphrodisiac.”

Never hitting bottom

For the very good-looking, smart or rich addict can to a great extent use their special advantages to avoid or greatly minimize the adverse consequences of their behavior.  These attributes give them power and that power allows them to maintain the status quo.  They may never have to confront the reality of what is wrong with their way of life let alone what they have done to others.

The very smart, successful or powerful addict will have a hard time accepting the basic fact of his or her powerlessness over the addiction.  The very smart addict is used to relying on his ability to think his way out of a problem.  There is nothing he can’t solve.  Therefore he doesn’t need to rely on others, doesn’t need to take direction or work a program.  He’s got the answers, or so he believes.

Those around the addict face a dilemma

Attractive high-achieving people often do have many strengths.  Their intelligence, attractiveness and resources can be used in a positive way to help them overcome sexually addictive behaviors.  But as a therapist—or even as a friend, colleague or partner it is  important to notice when these traits are being used in the service of self-delusion and be prepared to confront the addict directly about it.

Sex Addicts Need Healthy Narcissism

We are all getting pretty good a spotting unhealthy narcissism.  This is the narcissism that is often characteristic of sex addicts and that represents a kind of façade or false self.  The person is grandiose and self absorbed but underneath they feel unworthy and are deeply insecure.

The thing that distinguishes unhealthy narcissism is the lack of an underlying sense of self worth.  The person has a brittle narcissistic defense system which crumbles when the person gets negative feedback or when they are shown up or thwarted.  When the bubble bursts in this way, the narcissistic addict responds either with rage or with an orgy of self hatred, which can even turn suicidal.

The sex addict with a narcissistic defense system feels “I have to be the greatest or it’s all over.”  They are either feeling contempt for everyone else or they are feeling contempt for themselves.  These are two sides of the same coin.

What is healthy narcissism?

Healthy narcissism is not the same as self-esteem.  As I have argued previously, the concept of self-esteem involves judging ourselves, usually from the perspective of what others might think, and often from outward traits and accomplishments.  Self esteem, like unhealthy narcissism, is either high or low.

  • Healthy narcissism has no opposite.  It is an abiding feeling of inherent worthiness and value.  You may succeed or fail, you may do something you regret, and you may even decide to work on your issues and change, but you still feel OK about being you.
  • You feel good in your body and enjoy using your body for activity and pleasure.  You can even enjoy looking good, dressing and decorating your body and can do so without judging yourself or feeling self-conscious.
  • You have the ability to protect yourself from that which is harmful or dangerous to you.  You have an essential sense of your own emotional and physical integrity.  This in turn is a feeling of empowerment and safety in relating to people.
  • You are OK with your successes.  You are neither ashamed of them nor do you let them define you.  You don’t limit yourself from doing as well as you can do and reaching the heights that you can reach in terms of fulfilling your destiny, making money or whatever to try to do.  You don’t feel guilty about getting ahead.

Couples confronting sex addiction need healthy narcissism

Both partners in a couple need be narcissistic in a healthy way.  Particularly when confronting sex addiction, both partners will need to regain their sense of their own value and their own right to feel safe and empowered.  Regaining a basic sense of self worth supports the couple’s recovery.

  • Shame is a key feature of sex addiction for both partners and overcoming shame will involve feeling that although something you did was wrong or something that happened was wrong, you are not wrong.  You are worthwhile and not deserving of shame.
  • Couples in recovery need to learn to maintain boundaries that may never have been there to begin with.  Healthy narcissism means protecting yourself , feeling that you have the right to ask for what you want, and being assertive instead of aggressive.
  • Overcoming sexual addiction means learning to enjoy yourself physically to the fullest.  Caring for your body, enjoying your body and enjoying your sexuality will be growing over time in recovery for both partners.

Sex addicts in recovery will be engaging the world in a more confident way as their negative core beliefs about themselves subside.  This may take many forms but will often involve feeling entitled to fulfill your potential, feeling confident in situations that used to intimidate you and feeling important, not because you are superior but just because you are you.  Oh alright, you can go ahead and pat yourself on the back for all that great progress you’ve made!

Narcissism, Sex, Power and Herman Cain

As I watched GOP candidate Herman Cain on TV in his latest encounter with the press this morning, I was struck by one small thing.  Not that he was refusing to answer questions about his alleged sexual misconduct with employees, not that he had a negative “attitude” toward the press who were crowding in on him as he exited a speaking engagement, not that his personal security guards were aggressive in shoving the reporters out of the way so that he could even walk through the crush.

I was struck by what he said to the reporters.  Instead of saying that he was refusing to answer any questions about the harassment issue or simply stating that he would not comment on that, he TOLD the reporters not to go there!  He ordered them to leave that topic alone.  When they ignored his order and asked pointed questions about it anyway, he then scolded them angrily.  After that he expressed his irritation and that is what the media seem to have seized on, his irritability.

Why do I find this interesting?  Because it is a subtle glimpse of the narcissistic world view of someone who is a big shot celebrity, politician, or other powerful figure.  He seems to have felt that he had a perfect right to tell a group of media reporters what to do or not do.  Furthermore he seems to have felt that he had a right to be angry if they did not do what he told them.  A narcissist has trouble behaving as though other people exist.  A narcissist is grandiose, with an attitude of over-entitlement and a need to have all those around him reflect his own wonderfulness back to him.  When this doesn’t happen, he is cut to the quick; this is the “narcissistic vulnerability”.  This in turn can result in rage, rage that is turned outward in contempt for others and sometimes in the extreme, inward in a fit of despondency.

The level of over-entitlement inherent in narcissism is obviously conducive to all manner of self-centered and opportunistic behavior including exploitive sexual behavior.  The lack of awareness of other people’s needs promotes a lack of accountability and explains the seemingly delusional attitude of the politician caught in sexual misconduct, the attitude of not “getting it.”

There has been an interesting kind of chicken-and-egg debate recently about what has come to be called “acquired situational narcissism”.  In other words, does the person in power become narcissistic as a result of having been treated like the world revolves around them, or do they choose to try to become a rock star, politician, or, yes, even powerful clergyman because they already have the need to be the center of the universe in order to feel OK about themselves.  Probably the best argument I’ve heard is that basically the person started out narcissistic and got even worse when they became more powerful.

Clinicians who work with patients who engage in sexually compulsive or risky behavior are well aware that narcissistic traits are par for the course, equally in the famous and the humble.  This only suggests as has been argued by James Masterson MD, who has written extensively on narcissism, that some people are just better at being narcissists, i.e. getting where they want to be, than others.  Certainly not all narcissistic people will become sex addicts.  But whether it is acquired or there to begin with, the extreme self focus of the narcissist and their lack of empathy and tendency to see themselves as exceptional  will set the stage for sexual behavior that violates the normal boundaries.   It is not hard to see the potentially addictive nature of fame and adulation coupled with unfettered sexual gratification.  This is a potent cocktail.