In June 2015, when Donald Trump descended the golden escalator in Trump Tower to launch his presidential campaign, something about his egotistical rhetoric felt uncomfortably familiar.
A few weeks earlier, I had worked up the courage to walk out on a guy who had isolated me from my friends and chipped away my self-esteem. Sure, my ex’s collections of Mason jars and Patsy Cline records appeared to have more in common with the Portland transplant cliche than the Manhattan real estate mogul. But after Trump’s announcement, my failed relationship seemed tinged with the same exaggerated swagger. It took several sessions with a therapist for me to recognize that I had fallen prey to the charms of a narcissist.
These days, you can hardly talk about narcissism without the president-elect coming up. In writing about the mind of Trump, psychologist Dan P. McAdams noted that a psychologist who specializes in manipulative personalities had even archived Trump footage to use in workshops, as he is a textbook example of narcissism. In this way, Trump has emerged as a caricature — a pop-culture metaphor — for the narcissists so many of us encounter in daily life.
Because of that, I’ve found at least one way I can understand Trump voters: I know how such a character can intoxicate and dazzle you, especially in the early phases of a relationship. America and I have that in common. I also know how heartbroken you can feel when such a person inevitably lets you down.
Now that the election is over, how can Americans avoid falling for narcissists in their personal lives? I spoke with McAdams and other psychologists to see if they could offer any clues.
“I think narcissism is not easily seen in what people do directly, but it’s more about what they want,” says McAdams, who chairs the department of psychology at Northwestern University.
Narcissism may not be discernible in the way a person acts day to day, but it’s generally present in their “desires, goals and values,” McAdams says. “And when it comes to goals and values, narcissism is the goal to adore the self — and love the self — so much that you put it above everything and everyone else.”
This personality trait was coined with the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus in mind. Narcissus, a proud and fit young hunter, saw his own reflection in water and fell in love with it — unaware it was simply an image of himself. Does that sound like anyone you know?
Simine Vazire, director of the Personality and Self-Knowledge Lab at the University of California at Davis, tells me that most people can identify certain “subclinical” narcissistic traits in others. “After a few interactions, it should be pretty clear whether the person tends to be vain, condescending, brags a lot, feels entitled and so on,” she says. “How they react to others’ misfortune is also pretty telling — a lack of empathy is a key characteristic of narcissists.”
But in today’s social media era, “narcissistic” has become a catchall term for anyone who seems selfish or self-centered. That’s why it’s helpful to draw a distinction between people constantly snapping selfies and what clinical psychologists term “narcissistic personality disorder,” broadly defined as an inflated sense of grandiosity, a lack of empathy, a tendency to react angrily when things don’t go their way and a need for constant admiration. All of this is often shrouded in an ultra-confident shell.
It’s against professional ethics, of course, for psychologists to diagnose people they haven’t personally worked with, including celebrities, politicians like Trump and even that ex you’ve told your therapist about. All of the psychologists I spoke with refused to make such ad hoc diagnoses.
Still, other insightful conclusions can be drawn. Joseph Burgo, a clinical psychologist and the author of “The Narcissist You Know,” describes narcissism as a spectrum, with most of us exhibiting some mildly narcissistic traits. In truth, you can’t succeed at much of anything without some sense of self-agency and self-respect. Certainly, anyone who runs for president probably has a remarkable sense of self. But Burgo draws on research to suggest that roughly 1 in 20 people fall into a category he terms “the extreme narcissist” because of destructive behavior patterns. No surprise, he describes Trump in this way.
“The difference between everyday narcissists and extreme narcissists is that the latter build themselves up at the expense of other people. They inflate their own sense of self-importance by savaging the self-esteem of people around them,” Burgo tells me. “Examine your own unhealthy reasons for being in such a relationship and make an exit as soon as you can,” he advises.
Ouch. How can anyone fall in love with someone like that? “People high in narcissism have a certain freewheeling, larger-than-life style,” McAdams says. “It’s got to be extraordinarily compelling to be friends with, lovers with or even to be in the presence of someone who exudes that kind of self-confidence.”
But he warns that once a narcissist stops dazzling, and when their false promises don’t materialize, things can quickly sour — often dramatically.
“Whether it’s politics or relationships, it seems to me that narcissism is a really high-risk strategy,” McAdams says. “And there’s nothing like the crash after a narcissistic person disappoints you.”
Consider yourself warned.