This article has been updated.
Many commenters pointed out that it was an unhelpful list. Their criticism is and was fair. It was irresponsible of me to have published this without articulating it much better. And I am owning that here. At that time, I was attempting to maintain some integrity in not spilling out my personal story. This updated list includes portions of that story.
I grew up in a home with one narcissist and one empathic, emotionally immature parent. The combination was volatile and tumultuous. In the beginning, my NPD parent made grand gestures both for my mother and her children. Then he would drop us. After that, extreme highs, lows, unpredictable reactions, and changing rules became the norm. Then repeat this pattern for a few decades.
Over time, this relationship exacerbated my mother’s narcissistic behaviors. In part from the isolation, that her NPD partner forced. Partly from her own unhealed trauma. And partly because she was on the low end of the spectrum for emotional immaturity, to begin with.
I can make an educated guess now that this marriage was (and is) a trauma bond between those two. Regardless, it left me in a very confusing place as both a child and as an adult. I spent more than 10 years in therapy and support groups. I exhausted myself over-explaining the behavior of my parents. Guidance and support were varied. Changing how I communicated, managing my expectations, enforcing boundaries, mindfulness, and forgiveness practices. I tried it all.
My relationship concern was only for my mother. I knew her partner was a narcissist and had no desire to forge a relationship with him. All the therapy and support groups were quick to label my mother a narcissist, too. I tried every scrap of advice on how to deal with a narcissistic mother. Read every book I could find on narcissistic mothers. Still, none of it fit her and none of the approaches worked. Instead, it left me feeling more exhausted and confused than before.
Narcissism is classified as a personality disorder. One of the most well-known traits of a narcissist is an exaggerated sense of self and entitlement. They demand recognition as superior even without any qualifications. They expect special favors and uncompromising compliance. Narcissists perpetuate a grandiose sense of self. They must have control of this narrative. This is a short list but since the internet is full of articles about it, I don’t think I need to reiterate the point much. For clarity, this article compares only malignant narcissism. The Mayo Clinic classifies NPD as rare, meaning less than 200,000 cases. Check out their list of qualifications.
It’s all well and good that we are starting to notice these characteristics. This is the first time in generations these issues have been spoken or written about it. We are only now beginning to learn and share our experiences with narcissists. And we are beginning to understand how to do all that plus recover from it.
I am glad that we are recognizing these behaviors. To be crystal clear, all narcissistic abuse victims are to be believed and validated. But it is important to strike a balance somewhere here.
I won’t deny that we, as a whole have a narcissism problem. Using my handy-dandy Sociologist goggles, I could name a long list of factors that have contributed to this phenomenon that is now spanning generations. Currently fueled by an enmeshed sense of society and community with the ever-growing presence of public social media platforms.
Narcissism is an extreme form of emotional immaturity. It exists on a spectrum. The narcissistic label is often applied to run-of-the-mill emotional immaturity. They present in nearly identical manners. Here are some ways to differentiate.
Emotionally immature adults won’t go deep in a relationship. They resort to shifting blame instead. They may say things like “I don’t understand how you can feel this way” if you express any deeper level of anything. Instead of responding with “What makes you feel this way?”, they will find reasons to point the finger at you. Before the update, I named this separately as having immature defenses.
Narcissists will go deep. They thrive on manipulating emotions to force a reaction. They do this to maintain power and control.
Yes, narcissists do this too. It is better labeled as “gaslighting”. Narcissists are calculating. When they do this it is less likely to be an off-the-cuff lie. Narcissists gaslight by planting seeds of doubt, then doubling down on that narrative. It is a manipulative tactic the narcissist will use for control. Designed to make you doubt your self-judgment.
EIAs will resort to lying to stay out of trouble in an uncomfortable situation. This is because they lack the emotional depth to connect. If they are confronted with discomfort in dealing with emotions, they will lie to get out of it.
Specifically with gifts or affection. One common tactic of narcissistic behavior is known as love-bombing. Grand gestures of affection at the beginning of a relationship or in situations they feel like they are losing control over.
Before I updated this list, I said that EIA’s have to be the center of attention here. They do, but it comes out differently than malignant narcissists. EIA’s are more likely to present you with gifts that are tone-deaf. These gifts or gestures of affection can be hurtful and confusing. Often, EIA’s present you with behaviors, gifts, et cetera that they themselves would like. Not the other way around.
Sometimes an EIA will give you a thoughtful gift. Making you believe the relationship is getting better. Later it will return to insincerity, crushing any hope you may have had for a better relationship.
Struggle to Commit
This can present as poor impulse control (this is what I called this previously). They don’t think about or plan for the future. Often resorting to impulsive actions. Much like a child, they may behave recklessly when they feel threatened, hurt, or mad. Often resorting to impulsive actions. Mature adults can pause and think things through.
Narcissists are calculating and rarely behave in ways that do not serve their end goal.
Emotionally immature adults engage in zero to sixty emotional escalations. This is a result of their inability to go deep into a relationship. Often this includes shift-blaming and lying (as detailed above). They have no gauge for the range of human emotions.
Before the update, I listed this as emotional escalations. Some narcissists do this too. They lash out in anger when things are not going their way. Usually, this happens with micromanipulations and microaggressions. Narcissists do have a gauge for human emotion though. Manipulating them is a primary source of power and control.
They Don’t Discard
Narcissists discard but emotionally immature adults usually don’t. Again, narcissists are calculating and use people as a means to an end. When they no longer have a use for you, they dump you. It’s as if you never existed to them at all. They hoover, in an attempt to suck you back into their orbit. But after that, they drop you.
Emotional immaturity on the low end of the spectrum doesn’t engage in the discard. Instead, they will continue to try and engage with you. Cries of how they don’t understand, six months or a year later. Previously, I named this as being unable to engage in any introspection. EIA’s never learn from their mistakes. This is why they don’t typically discard.
All these behaviors leave a whisper of budding narcissism in the air. This is how these two become intertwined and emotional immaturity becomes mislabeled as narcissism.
Reiterating here that we do have an increasing narcissism problem. And that all narcissistic abuse victims are to be believed and taken seriously.
But plain, low-level emotional immaturity is rampant too. Quickly labeling some behaviors as narcissistic can leave us in a pattern of feeling stuck between these two. Ultimately making some of us feel as though we are forever ticking off some narcissistic qualities yet not the whole list.
If you are at a no-contact place in your relationship, check out this guide to handling those boundaries.
How to Navigate No Contact Boundaries with Toxic Family Members
Practical tips from a first-hand trial and error account.