Dr. Ramani Durvasula

Photo by Paige Craig

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

In a society where our worth is based on our social achievements, and where egotistic behaviors such as the permanent display of our personal life, struggles, and most intimate thoughts on social networks are encouraged and normalized, it may be hard to make sense of it all. Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Monica and Sherman Oaks, CA, and professor of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles, helps us identify the fine line between self-confidence and narcissism. A media darling, Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a regular guest on most major networks on television, including CNN, Fox, NBC, and Bravo, bringing her expertise on topics such as dysfunctional relationships, eating disorders, and narcissism. She is also the author of two bestsellers: Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist and You Are WHY You Eat: Change Your Food Attitude, Change Your Life.  

By Victoria Adelaide | Oct 29. 2018

Victoria Adelaide: What is a narcissist?
Dr. Ramani Durvasula: A narcissist is a person who lacks empathy, is grandiose, superficial, and shallow, is chronically in search of validation, is deeply entitled and arrogant, and is prone to emotional shifts like rage, especially under conditions of stress or when frustrated. Generally, these people are not capable of deep close relationships. At the core, people who are narcissistic are often pathologically insecure. If anything threatens their ego, they tend to get angry. Because they are superficial, they rely on validation from the world—all of this stems from their insecurity. If a person is insecure, they don’t have a stable core internal sense of themselves—their mood changes almost as their day changes. If somebody tells them they’re wonderful, in that moment, they are the happiest person on the planet. However, if they are criticized a few hours later, their world falls apart. For a person who is not narcissistic, they may appreciate when people tell them they’re nice but later on when somebody criticizes them, they don’t view that as the end of the world. We don’t tend to fall apart if we’re not narcissistic. That’s really what a narcissist is.

VA: What are the main differences between narcissism and confidence?
RD: There’s a huge difference between being confident and being a narcissist. A confident person has empathy, is not entitled, and is not superficial. Confidence is accurate self-awareness of one’s abilities accompanied by a consistent sense of self—both your strengths and your weaknesses. A narcissist does not have an accurate sense of those things. Narcissists have skewed perceptions of their abilities, they always think they are the greatest at everything; no one is better than they are. They have this almost overblown sense of their strengths, and they’re not able to balance it with an accurate sense of their weaknesses. A confident person would not feel the need to criticize, put down, make fun of, or undermine another person, which a narcissist would do because they feel threatened. A person who is truly confident will be accepting of other people’s strengths and the fact that there might be other people as good as they are—that’s a big difference.

VA: Where does narcissism take its roots?
RD: The way I view it, there are four paths to narcissism. I’m not convinced any one of these by themselves gets a person to narcissism, but these four paths work together.
Path number one: I’m going to call this path the temperamental or the constitutional path.
It’s the personality style or the temperament you were born with. For example, anyone who has spent time with babies knows that some babies have easier temperaments than others. We see some of these differences from early in a person’s life. For people who end up being narcissistic, it’s not unusual to trace it back to their infancy or early life and see they had a relatively hypersensitive temperament. They were more difficult, a little bit more anxious, or more demanding than other children.
Number two: parenting.
There are different ways parenting can go wrong. People who come from very neglectful, critical, abusive, negating, invalidating early environments are more vulnerable to becoming narcissistic. I have worked with many clients who, as adults, are aware they’re deeply narcissistic—they have no empathy and their feelings are shallow. They’ll trace it back to their very cruel childhood and, in some ways, there’s a real awfulness about that. That type of childhood can sometimes put a person at risk for these patterns in adulthood. However, there are other patterns from childhood that can also set up a person to become narcissistic as an adult. This can include a lot of inconsistency when parents were sometimes there and sometimes they’re not. I often talk about it in terms of parents who are both overindulgent and under indulgent. By that I mean, a child who grows up in a home where they are almost given too much attention, too much praise, lavished with too much when they achieve, gain perfect marks in school, are the best soccer player, are the most gifted ballerina, and are unusually beautiful. Their parents rally, hang up their trophies, and show up to all of their performances and games, cheering them on. But when that child has an emotional need and wants their parents to be there, to talk to them and to hear their feelings, the parents are nowhere to be found. The parents are not interested in the real work of parenting. They really want to be just that big cheerleader. That’s what I mean by overindulging and under indulging.
Number three: is what I call rewards or the behavioral path.
We look at how that child gets treated by the world. If that child is rewarded for their narcissistic behavior, especially as a teenager, if they’re very entitled, let say they go to their teacher at school and say, “I would like some special treatment compared to the other students,” and they get it, they’re going to start believing in their own height and may think they always deserve special treatment. If they live in a world where nobody talks to them about their feelings and nobody rewards them, we’ll have what we see with men. We have more men than women who are narcissistic because men are not rewarded for being vulnerable and they are not rewarded for sharing their feelings. If anything, we ignore them or make fun of them. Because of that, when you do something and you’re not rewarded for it, that behavior tends to go away and the behavior is not repeated. When they are rewarded, for example, the teenager who thinks they deserve special treatment, they keep doing that behavior. That can contribute to the sense of narcissism.
Number four: society.
We cannot let society off the hook. We are a society that values people who behave with a lack of empathy and in a grandiose manner, who are entitled, who seek validation, and who love social media. As a society, we reward these patterns. As a result, everybody growing up right now is getting rewarded for these bad behaviors in society. We see national leaders like this, corporate heads, professional athletes, and celebrities, so what would make you think this isn’t the normal path? We believe success is having lots of money. We never say, “That woman is the most successful person in the world because she’s serene, she is authentic, and she knows who she is.” We say, “Oh look how successful he is; he has such a big house, a fantastic fast car, and his wife is young and beautiful.” That’s the person we label as successful. That person is often narcissistic.

VA: Can two narcissists be attracted to each other?
RD: It happens all the time. Remember, we have two people saying, “I’m so great, look how beautiful I am!” Because of their shallowness, they often spend a lot of time on their appearance. They care about things like shopping, possessions, and all this nonsense. So, they often make a good team. The woman might get lots of surgery and the man may care only about having a beautiful wife; he doesn’t care if she’s cruel or unkind. The problem is that at some point, they won’t validate each other anymore. Narcissists chronically demand validation; they can’t live without it. So, if they’re not getting it, they get frustrated. Narcissists often attract other narcissists but, after a few months, it doesn’t work out because of their arrogance, their tendency toward rage, and their need for validation; they almost keep getting in each other’s way. As a result, they have huge fights where they yell, scream, and insult. Narcissists also have a tendency to do things like having extramarital affairs. Because narcissists are so willing to lie and manipulate, when that happens, the other narcissist will view that as the ultimate threat to their ego and that will result in a huge fight. They’re definitely drawn to each other but that often burns out big like a supernova.

VA: What are the main red flags?
RD: Number one: they don’t listen to you.
Initially, it seems like they are busy or distracted but they really aren’t listening. As a result, they really miss big things consistently. This might be manifested, for instance, in you talking to them and them looking at their phone, or they won’t be making eye contact, or they’d be drumming their hands on the table. It’s as though they become impatient when they have to do something such as listen to you. However, they will expect you to listen to them—endlessly.
Number two: they expect special treatment.
They might be rude to a waiter in a restaurant, to a person who is valet parking a car, or a person working in an airport. They’ll be very clipped and expect special treatment. They’re very dismissive of other people and it’ll be uncomfortable to watch, especially if you are not used to being with someone who is mistreating other people like that. Pay attention to that.
Number three: look for inconsistency.
You might see some of their lies early on, especially when they talk about all these tremendous accomplishments and amazing things about their life. Sometimes, their stories are either too good or too tragic to be true. They will often tell you a big “woe is me” tale of their past. And you want to believe it, you want to rescue them, and it’s almost like they know what they’re doing. “Oh my God, my life has been so difficult and now I’ve turned it around,” etc. So, you feel that you can’t leave them or you can’t question them. Pay attention to those inconsistencies. Narcissists tend to lie and those lies tend to show up pretty early on.
Number four: pay attention to how they treat other people, your friends, your co-workers, your family etc. I’m not saying that all narcissists are all domestic abusers but all domestic abusers are narcissists. So, it’s not unusual for a narcissist who might feel threatened by your social circle to try to isolate you from your friends, from parties, or the social world, because they feel threatened. They have no problem going on with having their little social world the way they want but they may question you on that. So, you want to look at how they treat people around you when they meet the people that you care about.
Number five: watch how the person drives their car. I know that seems silly but people who are narcissistic often drive quite dangerously. Believe it or not, when you watch how a person drives it tells a lot. Because driving is such a potentially dangerous behavior, putting other people in danger is almost like lacking empathy. If a person is driving a car in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, you better pay very close attention.
Also, watch their social media behavior. If the person is not on social media, then bravo, you may actually have a real winner. Most people are on social media, it’s not an indictment of that, but look at how they use social media. If they’re using it appropriately, such as sharing their travels and things that happened during their day, that’s fine. However, if it’s constantly about edited selfies, how great they are or how great they look, or if they’re constantly engaging in liking photographs that make you, their partner, uncomfortable, then it’s always self-referential—pay attention to that. Watch that social media contact and how they use it because it can give you a real sign of what the person is about.
Also, I understand that there are people out there who maintain their images on Instagram for their lives, almost like they’re selling a brand. If a person is willing to sell themselves off as a brand, then they see themselves as a commodity. It means they’re willing to see you as a commodity too. So, you want to keep that in mind.
Then I’d like to mention the concept of love bombing. Love bombing is a pattern that is almost inappropriate early in a relationship. The person might send four dozen roses to your workplace, take you to expensive restaurants every night, give you incredibly expensive gifts, within two weeks take you on expensive trips, and quickly want you to meet their friends, etc. It’s very exciting and some people get confused because it’s almost like a fairytale, but it’s too much too quickly. You get lost in that and you don’t pay attention to who the person is. Love bombing is the reason why many people have fallen for narcissists.

VA: You said narcissists cannot change.
RD: If a person who is narcissistic is incapable of coming to the awareness they are narcissistic, they cannot and will not change. Now the question comes because more than a few narcissistic people out there have gotten in touch with me and said, “I’m narcissistic, I don’t have empathy, I’m very superficial, I do need lots of validation, I do think I’m great, and I’m very fragile. I don’t like that about myself. I want to be a better person.” They recognized that. If they get into very intensive, consistent psychotherapy, they may be able to do that work but it’s never going to come naturally to them. It’s a bit like a person who’s never been very athletic in their entire life suddenly deciding around 35-40 to pursue athletics. Then, when they stop, it’s always hard to get back into it while, for the person who’s always been very athletic, the break never lasts long and getting back into it is always easy and natural. So, it’s similar for people who are narcissistic. They may be able to improve themselves but they always have to work so hard at it and, under conditions of stress or frustration, they’re always going to pop back to that mean, nasty narcissistic way they are. That’s what I mean about them not changing.

...Narcissists chronically demand validation; they can't live without it.``
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