Do you suspect that you someone you love might be a narcissist? Or have you been told that you might be a narcissist? What can you do to bring a narcissist (or your own narcissistic tendencies) back into balance? What is the difference between healthy self-esteem and narcissism? Today we’re talking to Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists, and one of the world’s leading experts on how to heal when narcissism impacts you. Our conversation will teach you how to recognize true narcissism and what do do about it. You’ll also learn why a certain amount of narcissism is good for you and your relationship. And if you’re on the opposite end of the scale, an “echoist” in relationship with a narcissist, you’ll discover how to safely reclaim your own voice, without necessarily blowing up your connection.
As always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this episode and what revelations and questions it creates for you. Please join us in the Relationship Alive Community on Facebook to chat about it!
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Check out Craig Malkin’s website
Read Craig Malkin’s book: Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists
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Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host Neil Sattin. This has come up a lot lately where you hear people talking about one of the most pernicious epidemics to affect society and relationships – it’s the epidemic of narcissism and the reason why I call it an epidemic is not because I came up with that, it’s because it’s been labeled an epidemic with a lot of fear attached to it that perhaps the way that our society is, the way we’ve been raising children, the way that we are on social media, that that has fostered a whole generation of narcissists and perhaps because we’ve become more actively seeking help when we’re in trouble, then it’s easier to see what’s going on around us and see perhaps if those people around us are affected by narcissism because it has a profound impact on us.
Neil Sattin: That being said, the way that we’ve looked at it has been pretty black and white. In that black and white view of what narcissism is, there hasn’t been a lot of room to actually know what kind of things you can change, what’s actually healthy and what isn’t.
Neil Sattin: If narcissism is this inflated sense of self, do you want to not have a sense of self? How does that even work? Are there places where narcissism is actually good for you or for your relationship or for the world? These are the kinds of questions that we are going to be addressing today with our esteemed guest, Dr. Craig Malkin.
Neil Sattin: He’s the author of the internationally acclaimed book, Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. Dr. Malkin is a clinical psychologist and he’s a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. He’s been featured on NPR and Fox. He’s covering the whole spectrum there.
Neil Sattin: You might also get a sense that this is a particularly relevant conversation for today’s world. I’m super excited to have Craig Malkin here with us today. I just want to let you know that as always, we will have a detailed transcript available for today’s episode which you can get if you visit neilsattin.com/narcissism and if you don’t know how to spell that, feel free to Google it.
Neil Sattin: No one is going to make you feel bad about that. Neilsattin.com/narcissism or you can always text the word passion to the number 33444 and follow the instructions. I think that’s all the details, let’s get on with the conversation. Craig Malkin, I’m so excited to have you with us here today on Relationship Alive.
Craig Malkin: Oh, thanks so much for having me Neil.
Neil Sattin: I was feeling this hint of irony as I was … Because every episode I start with, I tell people, “If you want to just text the word passion to the number 33444, you can get a transcript.” As I was saying the word passion, I was reminded of how in your book you talk about the link between narcissism and passion and how much perhaps we owe to degrees of narcissism in our world.
Neil Sattin: Obviously, it’s expressed really malevolently at times and other times, it’s so beneficial to our world. What do you … This is maybe a really tough place to start, but I’m curious for your take on that. What’s required and why is there this link between narcissism and passion?
Neil Sattin: After all, that’s often what draws us into relationships with narcissists is that heightened feeling of passion and intensity that we experience with them.
Craig Malkin: It is a tough place to start, but it’s an important place to start. Really what you’re asking about is what we have come to call a healthy narcissism. We’ll get into more detail about this, but briefly, 50 or 60 years of research demonstrates that the average happy, healthy person around the world, this is cross-cultural research mind you including China, the average happy healthy person doesn’t view themselves as average. They view themselves as exceptional or unique to some extent.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Craig Malkin: Yeah, they see themselves through slightly rose-colored glasses. This is what we think of as healthy narcissism. In the research I did with my colleagues, the research that others have done because at this point there are four measures that tap into healthy narcissism.
Craig Malkin: Also called moderate self-enhancement. I want to make a point here, this is not self-esteem. Narcissism and self-esteem are not the equivalent. Even healthy narcissism and self-esteem are not equivalent because healthy narcissism is tilted slightly towards the positive.
Craig Malkin: What turns out in this research is that people see themselves through these slightly rose-colored glasses, feel happier, they’re able to persist in the face of failure, they’re able to maintain big dreams. There’s that sense of passion where that comes in and they may even live longer because there’s some tie in between moderate or healthy self-enhancement and health measures.
Craig Malkin: What we’re finding is it’s just that ability to maintain a little bit again those slightly rose-colored glasses just enough to be happy, healthy, maintain some intense engagement in your ambitions or your visions for yourself and others that can provide a fuel.
Craig Malkin: If we get too focused on other people to the exclusion of ourselves, then we lose some of that passion. That is to some extent that passion and engagement comes from being able to let other’s needs and feelings fade from huge or small enough to keep you going, but not so long that you become deeply self-involved. That’s a good way to think about healthy narcissism or moderate self-enhancement.
Neil Sattin: Right. You can be present and you can even be internal, but you don’t lose connection.
Craig Malkin: Precisely. Another way to think about this is secure attachment that is our ability to feel like when we’re sad, scared, lonely, blue, we can safely turn to others, one special person or even people like a group and depend on them for mutual caring and comfort and support that we’re safe to some extent in their hands.
Craig Malkin: Secure attachment in the research is tied very closely to this healthy narcissism. What’s fascinating is people who are securely attached don’t become so driven by that drive to feel special that they lose sight of other people’s needs and feelings or even behave in a hurtful fashion.
Craig Malkin: It’s like secure attachment both brings out those rose-colored glasses for ourselves and others. I go into great deal in rethinking narcissism is about this. It both brings out those rose-colored glasses and it also keeps us tethered so that we don’t tip into dangerous territory where we are so addicted to that experience of feeling special that we go out of our way to get it including hurting other people.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. I loved how … It was interesting that you mentioned in your book that there was this study done that one of the most … One of the strongest indicators for longevity and happiness in a relationship was a couple’s ability to see each other as better than they actually are. There’s this healthy relational narcissism as well.
Craig Malkin: Right. Those rose-colored glasses that people lined up developing. Again, closely related to our ability to safely depend on others to securely love. They extent to our partners. There is this large scale study of 40,000 people you’re referring to what’s sometimes called the pickle study I think because of the variables that were identified to be strongly related.
Craig Malkin: One of them was PI, positive illusions, that was the strongest. Way more than self-esteem or what you might think of it was a winning personality. It was one or both partners seeing their partner as better than they were by objective measures. That sounds odd, but there’s lots of objective measures like intelligence.
Craig Malkin: There was a recent replication of this study where happy healthy people viewed themselves as … I think it was a funny number, 80% of people in this large scale study over 2,000 believe themselves to have above average intelligence which of course statistically is impossible.
Craig Malkin: What we’re talking about is just again, slightly tilted towards a positive and it turns out that’s helpful. It’s like the roots, there’s a place for it in healthy relationships. I make a distinction between extreme or addictive or pathological narcissism and the playing with positive illusions is that really what we’re talking about is being special to a partner as opposed to special for the world or for others which is performative. We feel like the gleam in their eye, they feel like the gleam in ours. That’s a very loving, secure relationship.
Neil Sattin: It reminds me of a time when a friend of mine who had just gotten out of a challenging relationship. It happened upon a book about narcissism and in reading this book, she had this huge revelation that, “Oh my goodness, so many of my problems in this relationship were that I was with a narcissist.”
Neil Sattin: While it was great that that gave her some relief to know that, what I noticed was that I started noticing lots of people labeling others as narcissists. For me, that’s caused me to wonder, “Are there really that many narcissists out there? Are they all as bad as all that? Or is there this spectrum of what people actually … What we can expect people to act like and behave like.”
Neil Sattin: Some of those things being really problematic and other things being something that you could actually work with. That’s why your book on rethinking narcissism was such a relief for me because it really addresses that head on. I’m wondering if you could talk for a moment about what is this spectrum of narcissism and where can people land on it and where is it workable and where is it not?
Craig Malkin: Absolutely. Happy to talk about the spectrum. The first thing I should say though is the way I described the spectrum is not the way it has often been described in the past although a lot of people are adopting my version of it because it’s more inclusive, it helps explain all types of narcissism and it explains some other problems that we can get into.
Craig Malkin: The way it’s usually viewed as is think of narcissism as this pernicious, obnoxious, arrogant, self-involved personality trait and you start with a little bit of it that’s pretty bad and then you go all the way up to the extreme where it’s disordered and there’s many, many problems.
Craig Malkin: It starts out as bad and there’s more bad, but as we already covered, the problem with that view is for a long time really since the inception of the concept of narcissism, we have this idea of healthy narcissism, there’s plenty of evidence for it.
Craig Malkin: Again, think of it as having slightly rose-colored glasses for yourself, at least feeling exceptionally unique compared to seven billion people on the planet even if privately. The problem is that there’s all … That’s only associated with positive measures of self-esteem, of capacity for relationships and our study for empathy.
Craig Malkin: If you look at people who have zero narcissism and I’ll introduce my term for that in a moment, that’s a problem as well. It’s really where people lack any healthy narcissism or healthy self-enhancement or they self-enhanced too much where it become disordered.
Craig Malkin: We want to think of imagine a spectrum at zero. If there are problems at zero, imagine a spectrum at 10. There are problems at 10, this is where people are so … If you think of narcissism as this pervasive universal tendency, the drive to feel special, these people at 10 or so addicted to it, they turn away from love, relationships, truth.
Craig Malkin: Again, lie, steal, cheat, do whatever it takes to get their high. They soothe themselves by feeling special. Then in the center is where we find the moderate self enhancement or what I’ve called healthy narcissism. As soon as you start viewing the spectrum that way, a lot of things become clear including the fact that we also know people can be extremely high in trait narcissism without being disordered.
Craig Malkin: Think of some narcissists as someone who’s dependent on her addicted to feeling special if they become so addicted that they have diagnosable problems, that’s when they have narcissistic personality disorder, but not all narcissists are diagnosable with a disorder of some kind.
Craig Malkin: I think I want to address your question in pieces, that’s really the first piece, helping people understand that there’s a spectrum and that we can lie along any point within that spectrum and if people are interested or who are listening in where they fall, actually my colleagues and I developed a measure for the narcissism spectrum scale.
Craig Malkin: I have a brief version of it on my website that you can access just by going to the thenarcissismtest.com or drcraigmalkin.com and click on the test tab. If you have trouble spelling narcissism, in fairness I often did early on, but now I’ve spelled it so much that it’s second nature, but you can also get to it through my website.
Craig Malkin: You can take it and I’ll give you feedback and test results. You can see where you fall in the narcissism spectrum as I’ve described it.
Neil Sattin: I took the test and fortunately, it was such a relief to me to find out that I’m not way up at the top of the spectrum though I had a feeling I probably wouldn’t be, but you take those tests and you’re like, “I really hope that this doesn’t reveal something that everyone else around me has known for quite some time and I’m going to discover right now.”
Neil Sattin: I was slightly above the average number though because you have the test in the book so that was the diversion of the test that I took. It was interesting for me to see that and to see fortunately I think, I was pretty good in the healthy narcissism category.
Neil Sattin: It made sense to me of my experience and then even when I thought about, “Okay, I was a little above average in the … I guess it’s the extreme narcissism category, that actually helped me make sense too of some moments especially when you quantify it as this is an addiction to feeling special.” When I think about certain times in my life, when let’s say that was compromised, my feeling special are important.
Neil Sattin: Now that makes a lot more sense from the perspective of, “Oh, there I am. A couple points above average in the narcissism test that you offered.”
Craig Malkin: But not above the cut-offs in the book you’re saying or it gives you the cut-offs for a score where this relates to where you want to keep an eye on how to keep yourself in a healthy range? Are you saying that …
Neil Sattin: No. For example, you said if you scored 27 or below, stay where you are on your spectrum estimate. Then you said if you scored 35 to 41, move yourself up a notch. I actually scored a 29. I was in the gray zone between the 27 or below and then the next one that you described the 35 to 41.
Craig Malkin: I see. Okay. Yeah, that’s more or less the same of course because all of those, the ranges I described, this will help anybody who reads my book too, you really want to look at those specific cut-offs because that difference of a couple of points isn’t really, it’s not statistically significant if I’m understanding what you’re saying.
Neil Sattin: Got it. Yeah.
Craig Malkin: I would have to … It’s been a while since I looked at the cut-offs myself, but as long as you are below that next cut-off, you’re just in that first range even if it’s a couple of points above.
Neil Sattin: Oh phew.
Craig Malkin: Okay.
Neil Sattin: I recommend that you take a test. Do you think someone could actually accurately fill it out for another person if they were trying to figure out what was going on with someone else in their life or is that really not an accurate thing to do?
Craig Malkin: I think you can fill it out. A lot of times, these self-report measures are used that way where a partner fills it out. It changes the nature of the test. I will say that we have not tested the narcissism spectrum scale by asking partners to fill it out, but here’s what you should know about the answer to that question is it turns out that we’re actually really good at picking up.
Craig Malkin: At least when it comes to a very specific type of narcissism. We haven’t talked about the types yet. Along that spectrum, there were going to be lots of different ways to feel special and that’s what explains the different types. When it comes to more outgoing, charismatic, manipulative, arrogant, chest-thumping narcissists.
Craig Malkin: As I say, the narcissist … I often say the narcissists we all know and loathe. Everybody recognizes that type and it turns out in the research that if we see somebody like that on social media or we have interactions with them in person or we just observe in any other context that when we rate them on narcissism, our ratings are pretty accurate compared to when that person fills out self-report or is assessed clinically where it turns out we’re pretty good at spotting that more outgoing kind of narcissism.
Craig Malkin: When it comes to filling out the test for somebody, if you’re with a partner or a friend and you’re wondering about them and the vain preening, primping, loud version of narcissists, you’re filling out of that questionnaire is going to bring-
PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:25:04]
Craig Malkin: Filling out of that questionnaire is kind of gonna bring you pretty close to an accurate picture.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah and let’s talk a little bit about some of the more subtle versions that someone might kind of experience but not entirely be aware that that’s what’s going on.
Craig Malkin: So important. Yeah, I often start conversations about narcissism and narcissist just as we did … this is sort of the opening of Rethinking Narcissism, my book, I explain narcissism’s not a diagnosis, we’ve talked about that. Neither is narcissist, the only diagnosis is Narcissistic Personality Disorder and when most of us think of narcissist or narcissism, we do tend to think of that vain, preening, primping, boastful, bragger. The problem is, it’s really a caricature of a stereotype. The reality is that not all narcissists care about looks or fame or money and some can be extremely quiet.
Craig Malkin: So, if you get too focused on those features or those traits, you missed signs of difficulty or trouble that have nothing to do with vanity or greed. So, very simply, if you think of narcissism as a drive to feel special, narcissists as people who are addicted to or dependent on it and the level of disorder they’re severely addicted. Many ways to feel exceptionally unique compared to the other seven billion people on the planet. So, we’ve talked about the obvious, it’s often called or overt, I prefer Extroverted Narcissism as the term, I think it’s more precise. And they tend to agree with statements like, “I find it easy to manipulate others and I think I’m pretty special.” Things along those lines. And they answer them in the extreme.
Craig Malkin: So, these are people who might feel special because they accumulate lots of wealth or they accumulate fame. Again, they’re really out there. But there’s other kinds of ways of feeling special. Like you can feel like the most misunderstood person in the room. Introverted Narcissists don’t particularly care about fame or money most of the time. They agree with statements like, “I feel I’m temperamentally different from most people. I have problems no one else seems to understand.” Sometimes they think of themselves as an undiscovered genius. If people only knew me, they would see. And there’s yet a third, I’m sure there’s gonna be more as we continue to research called, Communal Narcissist. These are people who agree with statements like, “I’m the most helpful person I know and one day the world will know me for the good deeds I’ve done.” So obviously, this is someone that doesn’t care about vanity or greed. So, if you just think of it, this is really about becoming too reliant on feeling exceptionally unique compared to other people, you can now start to imagine it doesn’t have to be for positive reasons.
Craig Malkin: I mean, you can meet someone who feels like they’re the ugliest person in the room and they’re deeply invested in that and that’s their way of feeling exceptionally unique.
Neil Sattin: Yeah and this might be a good time to talk about something that’s so important because lest we focus too much on the label or even why, like this desire to feel special, let’s go maybe deeper to why would someone have this desire to feel special? Apart from the fact that we all have it and this is something that I’ve addressed on the show before but that’s, I think, one of our universal needs. To feel loved, to feel special, to feel certainty, to feel … it’s just, it’s in there, in the mix and yet, you talk about this and I think it’s so important when we start the conversation about how you actually reach someone who might be up somewhere other than healthy on the narcissism spectrum, which is what’s underlying that need to feel special and maybe that will help us find some compassion and connection for people who are struggling with this issue.
Craig Malkin: Absolutely, I mean, I work with people in my practice, I have both with couples and individually worked with people who are so extreme in the trait that they do have Narcissistic Personality Disorder and even that, there’s sort of a range of where you can feel some hope. We have to enter the conversation, first of all, by recognizing that before we even think about, “Can I reach this person?” You have to think about safety. That is not if it were the case that everybody who was narcissistic was abusive and dangerous to be around, we would have that as part of the diagnosis. It’s not part of the diagnosis.
Craig Malkin: The reason is that there are plenty of people who either are narcissistic or even have Narcissistic Personality Disorder who aren’t abusive but I always like to refocus people’s attention, if you’re thinking about, “Can I reach this person?” You want to think about what I talk about is the three stop signs in rethinking narcissism first and that first is, abuse. Emotional and physical abuse. If you have a partner who calls you names, who puts you down, who relentlessly demeaning, dismissive, that’s emotional abuse. If they are physically aggressive, it’s not really crucial to figure out why they’re abusive, people get distracted by that. People can become abusive because they have an addiction that’s fueling it, they can be abusive because they have tension over some other problem like gambling and they can become abusive because they’re extremely narcissistic. But if you see abuse, you want to address that. It’s not on you as a partner to end abuse, it’s on somebody who’s being abusive. So if you see that, a reason I call it a stop sign is that until the abuse has ended, you can’t be safe in the relationship trying to reach your partner in different ways or trying to make changes. This is such a part of my training as a therapist and a couples therapist that if we see, if we hear signs of abuse, I’ll typically meet with a couple one on one so I can ask them about their safety in the relationship so, I can get a sense of just how safe they are. If you see signs of abuse, you really can’t even work together as a couple until that’s ended.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Craig Malkin: So you want to get help figuring out next steps. If you see denial, whether the problem is a partner who has a substance abuse problem, or gambling, or extreme narcissism, it can’t change. It’s not gonna change until that person is willing to at least say, “I think there’s something wrong that I need to work on, I need to get some help.” And the third stop sign is psychopathy, that’s a pattern of remorseless lies and manipulation. Not all people who are extremely narcissistic are psychopathic but people who are psychopathic, actually, their neurology is different. They don’t just have empathy blocks as we see, where that drive to feel special gets in the way of thinking about other people’s needs and feelings when somebody is narcissistic. People who are psychopathic actually may not be able to experience empathy in the same way. So, if you see those three stop signs, you want to get help thinking about next steps. We were really talking about if you don’t see those stop signs, if somebody’s in the milder range where they might have Narcissistic Personality Disorder but none of those other signs, this is where you might be able to reach them.
Neil Sattin: Yeah okay, and what are some of those … what are things that you might notice where you’d think, “Oh okay, this isn’t the extremely vain chest thumping narcissist or preening narcissist but this is one of the more subtle kinds.” What are some of the warning signs that you might notice where you’d be like, “Oh, this could be what’s going on with this person?”
Craig Malkin: It’s a great question because one of the reasons I wrote Rethinking Narcissism is to also direct people to more reliable signs of difficulty or even danger and when you think about extreme narcissism, even in the milder range say when it doesn’t tip into disorder as an attempt to manage attachment insecurity. Once again, attachment insecurity is when you’re feeling sad, scared, lonely, this is a person who for whatever reason has come to mistrust, not feel trust that they can turn to somebody for comfort or care in mutually supportive ways so, they see themselves of feeling special instead. As soon as somebody does that, I think of it as kind of doing an end run around healthy vulnerability.
Craig Malkin: They loathe to be vulnerable in any way because that means you have to be open to being in somebody else’s hands. That’s part of what attachment security is about. So there are predictable ways of doing that. One of the most common that I see is what I call, playing emotional hot potato. You want to think of this like playing hot potato only with feelings of insecurity. An example I often use is I had a woman I saw whose husband would stand over her shoulder while she was applying for jobs and say, “Are you sure you want to do that one? Maybe that one’s out of your reach or they’re out of your league.” So, he wasn’t really sure what he was doing in his life, he felt in a really unsure place himself but rather than turn to her with that and look for some kind of soothing instead, he made himself feel like he was in the know by casting doubt on her certainty about herself and what she was doing.
Craig Malkin: Think of that as I don’t want to feel insecure, here you take those feelings so, the person says and does things to stir those up. That’s a way of bypassing any of those feelings of vulnerability and doing it in a way that makes that in that case, the husband felt like, again, he was special, he had some special knowledge, he didn’t even know about the job market she was looking at, that’s how extreme it was. But you can see, that’s not overt abuse but it does undermine somebody’s confidence. So, that’s one example that can come out very early on and it’s not so severe that it’s obvious like the other things people talk about.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, that reminds me of a couple of the other warning signs that you mention because they surprised me, honestly, I was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve experienced that and I see how it could be what you’re talking about.” And those two that I’m thinking about, they seem a little connected. One is placing other people on a pedestal and then there’s that like twinning phenomenon like, “We’re exactly like each other and isn’t that amazing?”
Craig Malkin: Yeah, this is again, it cuts if you have to rely on feeling special, instead of depending on people for sense of feeling good about yourself or soothing, it means always bypassing those vulnerable experiences so, putting people on pedestals, again, I mention this study, it’s worth going back to and rethinking narcissism, the study of 40,000 couples, where one or both partners viewed each other as better than they actually were, smarter, warmer, funnier and objective measures. It was just like, “No, you’re about average or below.” But the partner thought otherwise, that’s putting people on a pedestal and it seems to be a part of normal love relationships and it actually keeps people together. But if it becomes so rigid that you feel like you’re being cemented to a pedestal, like you can do no wrong, it’s not okay for you to make mistakes, now that’s a sign that this person is struggling with subtle or maybe even extreme narcissism because what they’re doing is they’re trying to avoid feeling vulnerable. If they’ve convinced themselves that you’re so special like you’re a God or an idol, you’re perfect, perfect people don’t disappoint.
Craig Malkin: You can never let them down and if somebody is so narcissistically driven that they’re afraid to be vulnerable, then if there’s no disappointment, then there’s no vulnerability and they can feel safe from that experience, they never have to fear feeling that at all. The problem is, of course, that it’s not a real relationship, disappointment is part of relationships, working that through is part of a secure, loving relationship and working it through in healthy ways and inevitably, we get knocked off the pedestal, often in anger. Because it’s not a sudden realization, “Oh my gosh, not just that you’re not perfect,” but it’s this sense of that the anger is partially, “and I don’t want to be around you because I might be vulnerable.”
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Craig Malkin: So, that’s the pushing off the pedestal. And then why people engage in the twin fantasy where if somebody’s narcissistic that you’re close to, they focus on everything that’s the same between the two of you, “Oh, we love the same movies, we love the same books,” some of that is fun, again, some of it has roots in something normal where it’s a special relationship to be a twin, one mind in two bodies. But you can see, if it becomes insistent, then it’s about, again, bypassing doing an end run around an experience where, “Oh my gosh, you mean you don’t see things the same as me?” Because that can be kind of a letdown, you’re not on the same page. And that requires being open to feeling vulnerable about the fact that, “Oh my God, you mean this person isn’t always gonna agree with me?” And being able to work that out instead of feeling like you never have to fear that the two of you are ever gonna disagree on anything.
Neil Sattin: Right.
Craig Malkin: So you never have to face it.
Neil Sattin: Yeah what this reminds me of is, well, for one, I think you’re right, that some of these things are part of healthy relating, particularly in the beginning stages when we’ve got that oxytocin and dopamine coursing through our veins with our new beloved and that to me, just suddenly I had this light bulb flash where I was like, “Oh, that’s why people who have narcissistic qualities do get into relationships.” I mean, it makes sense on the level of that’s one great way to feel special but these two in particular, the pedestal and the twinning, that’s something that actually does bring you together and being on the receiving end of that like knowing, “Wow, it feels great to be put on a pedestal for a little while,” and it feels great to have someone being like, “Oh, we’re so much alike,” it kind of reinforces your own sense of specialness, right?
Neil Sattin: So to me, that explains why narcissists actually do end up in relationships. But then what we know about relationship development and we actually just had Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson on the show talking about this is that you have to go through that place where you’re no longer in symbiosis with your partner to get to the healthier horizon of having a good mix between being differentiated and being securely attached and so, that’s where the problem, it sounds like, of narcissism really emerges because you’re trying to do something natural in a relationship, which is to be different from each other and then the system that really needs those things that reinforce specialness can’t take it.
Craig Malkin: That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right. I forget where I read this years ago but this can all be summarized as no conflict, no closeness. Very early on in a relationship, it is normal to idealize each other, that honeymoon stage, yes, when the oxytocin is flowing and that it’s fun and it’s wonderful. These early warning signs can appear in … we all engage in them sometimes and again, a certain amount of it is healthy and normal, it’s when you see it rigidly and frequently and across the board that you have to start worrying and wondering how much can this person handle the normal experience of, “We are different people.” And that means that I might not always see things the same way and can that be anything but catastrophic and dangerous? Can we still remain connected? That differentiation you’re talking about. We’re two separate people but we are securely attached and if there’s this rigid insistence on always feeling special in the relationship or that twin ship effect where we’re always the same, then you can never progress beyond that. And you never really learn is this person capable of negotiating needs and seeing me as a separate, complete, whole other person that they can still be close to?
Neil Sattin: Right, right. And that reminds me of the warning sign you mentioned of someone trying to kind of control you. But it’s not necessarily overt control, it’s this stealthy, behind the scenes, because then you never have to meet each other in vulnerability to actually have a conversation about something as simple as where we’re gonna go for dinner or something bigger like are we gonna move to Tanzania together?
Craig Malkin: Exactly.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Craig Malkin: Yeah so, stealth control comes about. Again, you can see the common thread throughout these, if somebody’s so narcissistic that they can’t handle any feelings of vulnerability, sadness, feelings of rejection or disappointed, they’re all normal and if they can’t handle that, then it’s gonna be very hard for them to directly ask for what they want to engage you in a conversation about, “I would like to do this.” So the more narcissistic someone is, the more likely they are, sometimes in subtle ways, to go around that all together through what I call, stealth control, by arranging events to get their needs met. And the classic example I provide of this … I think I even talk about this in Rethinking Narcissism is the … I was working with somebody whose partner would come in at the last minute, say with concert tickets or something really fun and sweep them off their feet and they didn’t really have time to plan and it was fun, of course, and exciting, you can just imagine the thrill of this surprise but anytime she wanted to go somewhere like check out a new restaurant or go to this movie, his answer was, “Well, I’m bored or I’m too tired or I’m bored with Chinese food,” or whatever. There was always some reason not to do it.
Craig Malkin: And she slowly realized that she was sort of orbiting his preferences organized around what he liked to do without his even asking. It’s like a slow, subtle attrition of your will. It doesn’t become a part of the conversation, they’re just doing what this other person wants.
Neil Sattin: Right and that, I think, almost brings us to the opposite end of that narcissism spectrum, right? Where the co-partner that’s most appropriate for a narcissist is someone who more and more erodes who they are and what they want and that’s kind of the only way it can work. And I’m putting work in quotes because it’s obviously not really working.
Craig Malkin: Absolutely. So yeah, the nice segue to one of the most important contributions that I worked on in Rethinking Narcissism that people find so helpful, especially people in relationships with somebody who’s narcissistic is this idea of echoism. We talked about healthy narcissism. In Rethinking Narcissism, I introduce the term, echoism, you want to think of these as people who lack any self-enhancement, they rarely or never feel special, usually they’ve had experiences that lead them to fear that they might become a burden. Growing up, say they had a fragile parent who was depressed or rageful so, they worried about having too much of an impact or too much effect on that parent so, people who develop echoism agree with statements like, “I’m afraid of becoming a burden and I’m at a loss when people ask me what I want or what I need.” And you can see, the reason I came up with this term is that in the original myth of Narcissus, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection due to a curse. Echo was a nymph who fell in love with Narcissus and she was cursed to have no voice of her own, she repeated the last few words that she heard, that was all she could do.
Craig Malkin: And people who struggle with echoism, like Echo, tend to fall into relationships with extremely narcissistic friends and partners or at least they have trouble recognizing it and pulling themselves out because they’re already afraid of seeming narcissistic in any way so, they become adept at echoing the needs and feelings of others so, it makes for yes, a match, not a happy one for either partner sometimes but people can get very stuck when they struggle with echoism and they wind up finding a partner who’s more in the extreme range of narcissism.
Neil Sattin: Right, yeah. I thought that was so beautiful how you brought that in and that is such an important part of the myth as is recognizing that echo just fades away to nothingness where that’s all that’s left is her voice and repeating and so, I really appreciate the dynamic there that you illustrate and also to me, I was like, “Oh right,” and that is probably one reason why just thinking back to my friend, when she got out of that relationship, she felt this huge reclaiming.
Neil Sattin: She felt this huge reclaiming of who she was that had been undermined, and I realize that I’m talking about a friend who’s a woman, but there are narcissists who are women, too, and men who find themselves in this role. So it’s not a gendered thing, right?
Craig Malkin: No, it’s not gender, and what’s interesting is I think we might find a slight gender difference, just a note on the research on traits. We tend to think of men when we think of narcissism and extreme narcissism, in particular, and while men outnumber women in extreme range, they only slightly outnumber them. The rates aren’t that high to begin with, and men outnumber women 2:1 when it comes narcissistic personality disorder. But when we’re just talking about the subtle range, somebody who qualifies as above average in narcissism enough to be called a narcissist, there’s only slightly more men than women. I think we’ll find the same with echoism. Just because echoism is really about attuned to other’s needs and feelings often at the expense of your own, in general, on average, women are more socialized, focused on relationships and caring, and others that what we found, and I think this speaks to your point, is we didn’t find a gender difference in echoism, so far.
Neil Sattin: Interesting.
Craig Malkin: So it might be slight and we haven’t picked it up yet.
Neil Sattin: There are two important things that I want to make sure that we cover before we end. One of them is … The one that we’re going to cover second is talking about what you do, because I think that’s a really important part of your book and you go into it in detail. I love how you talk about being in relationship with narcissist, but also like how to do it in your family, how to cope and strategize at the workplace. So there’s a huge scope in your book that we’re not going to be able to get to here. We’re going to focus on the relational component. But before we do that, I want to know, like, if you are listening to this and you’re hearing all these words and you’re like, “Holy mackerel, like that might be me. I might be kind of veering into the narcissistic end of the spectrum.” For one thing, like I don’t want you to feel horrible. I want to celebrate that you’re hearing this and thinking like, “Oh my God, that could be me.” It’s probably worth taking that test that Craig was mentioning earlier. But, Craig, what could you offer someone who’s sitting here, listening to us and thinking, “Wow, that actually might be me. I might be doing that in my relationships. What do I do?”
Craig Malkin: I can offer hope to people who are listening and identify with the experience of extreme narcissism, because as long as you have that awareness, I mean a big part for me of change and growths and healing is really compassionate self-awareness. I really try to help people get to that pace. If you’re, at least, aware, “Okay, this might be me,” we already know from the research that what keeps people, as I said earlier, tethered to the center, that is where they might have just moderate self-enhancement is secure attachment. We know from the research that extremely narcissistic people aren’t securely attached.
Craig Malkin: So to the extent that you can start to become comfortable with normal vulnerable feelings owning them in yourself when you’re sad, scared, lonely, testing out in relationships, sharing those feelings directly and trusting that people actually care even if you don’t nail it at work, even if you don’t make tons of money, even if you’re not an undiscovered genius, that people still care about what you’re feeling. So working with therapists who are trained, I think what we’re learning is based on … I’m going to throw a fancy phrase out … communal activation. It’s an area of research that shows that, especially in this subtle range, or the milder range of narcissism, that people who struggle in that way, they’re not missing empathy, it’s blocked. It’s blocked by this drive to feel special.
Craig Malkin: There are therapies, I practice these forms, that are rooted in attachment research, again, helping people relate in ways when they are feeling vulnerable, that they can trust they can depend on others. Therapies like schema therapy, accelerated experiential dynamic therapy or AEDP, EFT for couples, Dr. Sue Johnson’s model. All of these therapies are helping people learn how to relate in securely attached ways. If you can do that, you’re not going to rely on feeling special. You’re not going to tip into the extreme because to the extent that you can truly depend on people on healthy emotionally mutual ways, you won’t be addicted to feeling special.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. This reminds me a lot about Alex Katehakis’ work. She was on the show back in Episode 116, and she was talking about how the pathways of addiction get created and she describes how, when you’re young and your attachment bonds aren’t necessarily being fostered the way they ought to, how it becomes really easy to find shortcuts to feeling better rather than what you learn in a securely attached environment, which is that, “Oh, if I get connected to someone and feel safe and vulnerable and open, that’s another way.” It’s a more sophisticated way of feeling better. It’s not quite the easy pathway that then can get hooked into any kind of addictive behavior, where you get quick rushes of dopamine to the system and that helps you deal with your discomfort.
Neil Sattin: So, I’m thinking about that, and, yeah, how powerful it is that while relationships can bring out the dysfunction, there’s so much potential in relationship if you have that awareness to lean in and either create or reinforce that other pathway of how you deal with your discomfort and your disregulation by regulating with each other.
Craig Malkin: That’s absolutely right, co-regulation, regulating with each other. We heal and experience deep healing in relationships when we experience the person that we’re with in a way that we maybe didn’t experience growing up as someone that we’re safe in their hands and they experience us in the same way. That changes us. This is what we’re learning from this research, and yes, when people have had an experience where they don’t have that basic sense of trust where they’re insecurely attached, they turn to all kinds of substitutes. Drugs are one; gambling, pornography, and an addictive drive to feel special, self-soothing in that way.
Craig Malkin: Again, I want to come back to this, this is a central idea when we’re thinking narcissism. Speaking to anybody who’s listening who thinks they’re struggling with extreme narcissism or somebody who has a partner when they’re not seeing those three stop signs, that learning how to relate in a securely attached way is the answer to the extent that you can rely on people, love and depend on them, you will not rely on feeling special. What we’re doing is replacing feeling special for the world or for others with feeling special to a partner or even a group of people, if it’s a religious group that you’re a part of, where you feel special in their eyes.
Neil Sattin: Got it, yeah, because that kind of connection actually reinforces an intimacy, reinforces a specialness that’s not quite so fragile.
Craig Malkin: That’s exactly right. It’s more lasting. Those addictive replacements are addictive because they’re controllable. One of the reasons people turn to say alcohol or other drugs or narcissism to soothe themselves if precisely because unlike people, you can buy and sell money. With narcissism, to some extent, you can control your looks by dressing really nicely and making yourself up as best you can. Even the research, it turns out that people who pride themselves on their looks narcissistically, they engage in something called effective adornment; that is, they’re really good at putting selves together but it turns out they’re no more attractive than the average person when they’re not allowed to do that. So these are controllable ways of feeling special.
Neil Sattin: Now, let’s just … I love the hope here because that’s, I think, one of the unfortunate things about earlier approaches to narcissism is by lumping everyone together. I think it didn’t give people a lot of hope that someone could change or that a situation like that where you’ve involved in with someone who has narcissistic tendencies, that there’s any hope for change.
Neil Sattin: So let’s assume that we’re not seeing those stop signs that you mentioned of abuse, denial, psychopathy, and what might I do if I’m saying, “Okay, this is my partner. I want to know that I have given it my all before I leave because I don’t see being with the narcissist forever, like that doesn’t sound my idea of happiness, but I’m inspired by Craig Malkin’s view that there is hope here and change is possible. So what could I do to help try to bring my narcissist back into the healthy zone?
Craig Malkin: Such an important question. Yeah, I know, there is hope. Anybody who wants to change can change and I firmly believe that if they’re willing to do the work. We can invite people to a healthier range where they can meet us in mutually, satisfying, caring ways. I go over all of the research and rethinking narcissism, I mentioned earlier communal activation. I think of this as lighting up areas of the brain devoted to relationships and caring and connection that we’re born with this. Human beings are social creatures. It’s part of how we survive. This is the attached-
Neil Sattin: Right, I even talked about how, when you’re using the pronouns like “we” and “us,” that that is activating those parts of the brain.
Craig Malkin: Yeah. There’s over a dozen, I mentioned in my book, but there’s even more now, just simple things like using communal language: we, our, us; flashing images of a mother holding an infant; of a teacher helping a student; of asking somebody who test as narcissistic, who actually scores on a test as a narcissist or maybe not disorder, maybe they are, but they’re in the extreme enough that they test high and you can ask them to put themselves in the shoes of an abuse survivor that they’re watching, for example, in a video and it’s called empathic induction. They’ll actually show a reduction in our narcissistic traits. It is like it’s reactivating the attachment system.
Craig Malkin: Again, we are social creatures. We’re meant to survive by being with people so we have this … Attachment system is part of our evolutionary survival. It’s early experiences that interfere with its full expression. So if somebody is in the subtle range, I wanted to offer very simple ways of tapping into that communal activation, lighting up that area of the brain by inviting secure attachment experience. So I describe what I call empathy prompts. This is what you can try.
Craig Malkin: There are two parts to an empathy prompt. The first part, part one, is to voice the importance of the relationship. This is where you’re reminding the person that they’re special to you. In some way, shape or form, this is attachment language. Then you voice your vulnerable feelings. We tend, when we’re feeling disconnected in relationships, sometimes we go to anger. Sometimes we shut down and move away, instead of saying what we’re feeling underneath, which is “I’m sad and I’m lonely. I’m afraid. I’m worried,” whatever it is. That’s the vulnerable piece. An example would be I would often coach a client to say something like, “You are my husband and my best friend, and you’ll always be important to me. That’s why I feel so sad when you give me the silent treatment. It’s like I am losing the person that I love the most.”
Craig Malkin: So that would be an empathy prompt. You’re reminding the person of their special relationship with you and the place that you hold in each other’s lives, and then you’re sharing the impact that they’re having on you. Most people, if they’re capable of empathy, they’ll melt when they hear statements like this. It really is an invitation to hear what you’re feeling on the inside. Another example, I’ll go back to the husband who’s looking over the woman’s shoulder, commenting, “Oh, isn’t that out of your league?” or when she’s applying for jobs, I might help her say something like, “Your opinion means the world to me. You’re my husband. I look up to you. When you suggest I only apply to easy jobs, I’m afraid you don’t think that much of me, like I’m not that important in your eyes.”
Craig Malkin: So these are examples of empathy prompts. If you do not see shifts with these, I even say in the book, like within the three weeks, don’t hold out a whole lot of hope because then you might be dealing with a more extreme situation. Certainly, don’t hold out hope if you don’t seek out a couple’s therapy where people would help changing the nature of the relationship between the two of you to a more securely attached one.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so you’re looking for that melting or that person like actually having some understanding and maybe even taking some responsibility for how their actions have affected you.
Craig Malkin: Absolutely. You want to hear things like affirming statements like, “I love you, too, and I don’t you to feel sad” or “How long have you felt sad like this?” or “I’m sorry. I never want you to feel like a failure,” apologizing even, right? Validating, “I know my sarcasm hurts you,” and you want to look for signs that this person is not shifting. You’re doing your part. This is as much as anybody. I’m not ever going to ask somebody to be like a therapist to their partner. These are ways that we should talk to our partners anyway, based on the research.
Craig Malkin: So I want to make that point. I often say, if it doesn’t work with somebody who’s not narcissistic, it’s not going to work with someone who’s narcissistic. These are things that are just known to help invite a more securely attached way of relating. If you get responses like, “Why are you saying this to me?” defensive, attacking, or “I get busy, that’s all. What’s the problem?” or “What about what I’ve been going through?” sort of hijacking the conversation. Or worse, blaming you: “You’re just too sensitive.” Those are really, really bad signs because if you lead with how important that person is to you and follow-up with, “That’s why I feel sad” or “That’s why I feel afraid,” you should see signs of empathy.
Neil Sattin: Got it, yeah. Is there any way to tell someone, “I think you might be kind of a narcissist,” in a way that’s ever generative or helpful in a relationship?
Craig Malkin: I don’t recommend it because, for the same reason I approached both individual in couple’s therapy where the focus should be on what your experience is and sharing that with the person that you’re trying to remain close to. If you’re describing their behavior, if you’re labeling them, again, if it doesn’t work with somebody who’s not narcissistic, it’s not going to work with somebody who is. So as soon as you say here is what’s wrong with you, even if you try to do it in the most loving way, it immediately puts people on the defensive. They’re far less likely to be open to hearing what you have to say. It’s better to simply share that when they criticize you or raise their voice or question your choices, that it leaves you feeling like they don’t … leaves me feeling like you don’t think much of me. You want to talk about the impact it has on you, the specific behaviors. Let’s leave the diagnosis and the labeling to whoever they go to for help.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah, and if you find yourself going to therapy, it sounds like that’d be a great idea to get help and support in a situation like this. If your therapist is open to influence and they haven’t already read Craig’s book, Rethinking Narcissism, you might want to just kind of surreptitiously pass it off to them so they have a chance to read it.
Craig Malkin: I have clients who have come to me because their partner gave them my book. Over the years, I probably had, in the last couple of years, I’ve probably had, at least, five, I would say, come to me because their partners said, “I think you should read this book,” and then they come see me.
Neil Sattin: Wow. Well, that must be profound to see that your book is having that kind of impact as well where people are willing to come forward like that.
Craig Malkin: Yeah. I feel honored and grateful that it’s having that kind of impact and I find it very moving when somebody calls me up on the phone, and that’s happened too, and says, “I read your book. I felt like I’m lost through all my life and I’ve left some wreckage in my relationships, but I really want to change this and your book gave me hope.” I get calls like that, too.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, awesome. Well, I do want to mention that you brought up Sue Johnson as someone whose couples work you recommend to help people build attachment in a secure attached relationship. She’s been on the show a couple of times, so you can listen to Sue Johnson in Episode 27 and in Episode 82. Actually, she was also on an Episode 100, but those two that I just mentioned are probably the most relevant for this conversation that we’ve been having today.
Neil Sattin: Meanwhile, Craig, I’m so appreciative of your time and the vast wisdom that you have on this particular topic. I know that I feel hopeful, not only from having read your book, but also being able to hear it from you as well, that this is something that we can shift in our world, that it doesn’t have to be an epidemic; that it can be something that ultimately helps us find more pathways to connection and feeling special in sustainable ways, because there’s nothing wrong, I think, with feeling special. It’s just doing it in a way that actually brings us closer.
Craig Malkin: That’s exactly right. No, I’m so glad. I’m glad I can offer some hope, and that is truly the way I see it. Really, the image I want to leave everybody with is think of attachment security as a tether and it keeps us rooted in a healthy place while they were trying to make sure we don’t become too tipped into narcissism or too tipped into echoism. So, yeah, no, I don’t believe for all kinds of reasons that we’re in danger of being taken over by some narcissism epidemic. I am encouraged by the efforts I see to educate people about emotions, about attachment, about managing and recognizing emotions. As soon as you do that, you are already moving into an area where you’re not going to tip into either of these extremes.
Neil Sattin: Great. Well, if you are looking to find out more information about Craig Malkin, you can visit DrCraigMalkin.com, it’s D-R-CraigMalkin.com. Definitely pick up his book, Rethinking Narcissism, and we will, of course, have links to all those things and to the narcissism test in the transcript, which you can get, again, if you visit NeilSattin.com/narcissism, I think, is what I said. Or, you can just text the word “Passion” to the number 33444 and follow the instructions. Craig Malkin, thank you so much for being here with us today.
Craig Malkin: Thank you so much for having me, Neil. It’s been a lot of fun.