Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sociopaths with Dr. Ramani Durvasula
Just because someone isn’t trying to scam you out of your hard-earned money doesn’t mean that they don’t see you as a pawn, stepping stone, or a means to an end. Find out how to protect yourself from a narcissist. Our guest today is Dr. Ramani Durvasula.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula is one of the world-leading experts on narcissism. She is a clinical psychologist, professor, best selling author, and speaker. She is on a mission to demystify and dismantle the toxic influence of narcissism on all of our lives.
Dr. Ramani shares her many experiences with working with narcissists. We talk about warning signs and risks for being in a relationship or working for a narcissist. We also talk about how to protect yourself if you are in a relationship or working with a narcissist.
- [00:48] – Dr. Ramani shares how she got involved in psychology.
- [02:55] – The fall out for the people that stay in relationships with narcissists with chronic invalidating was shredding.
- [04:46] – Narcissism is a pattern of a person who lacks empathy, is deeply entitled, arrogant, superficial, and constantly needs validation. They fall apart under criticism or feedback. They get very vindictive or rageful and feel like victims a lot. There is a core self-esteem issue.
- [05:34] – The chilling difference between narcissists and psychopaths is that narcissists do feel remorse. Psychopaths have very little if any remorse.
- [07:03] – Psychopaths are much like some narcissists. They can be charming, intelligent, clever, charismatic, and very confident.
- [08:17] – Sociopaths know the rules, but they still break them. They tend to be more combative and agitated.
- [09:03] – Narcissists are insecure and do feel anxiety and remorse. The psychopath doesn’t feel any of those things. They are much calmer and calculated.
- [10:12] – Narcissists give more warning signs because they are so sensitive to criticism of any kind. Psychopaths will lie and they are the ultimate con man.
- [11:05] – Narcissists have huge advantages. They make more money and are more likely to end up in leadership positions.
- [12:28] – Narcissists are motivated to get validation.
- [14:48] – Narcissists win the most with social media because they love attention.
- [16:44] – Narcissists are incredibly hypocritical.
- [18:04] – Being in a relationship or working with a narcissist is very bad for your health. The risks include feeling chronically confused, feeling self-doubt, anxiety, depression, not sleeping, and more.
- [18:45] – These people stay in these relationships because they don’t understand that narcissism doesn’t change.
- [20:10] – Trauma, neglect, abuse, lack of consistency, and safety can lead to adult narcissism. The other pathway is a person that is over or under indulge.
- [22:02] – At the surface level, narcissists are very engaging, charming, and confident. People are drawn to them. They also have a dismissiveness.
- [23:14] – Narcissists are very entitled and believe that the rules don’t apply to them.
- [24:40] – The key is having radical acceptance that they are not going to change and they are a jerk. Once you have radical acceptance you don’t personalize it.
- [25:41] – Don’t try to fix it and don’t believe their false promises.
- [27:10] – Don’t engage! There is nothing you can say to them without them getting angry.
- [30:02] – Their ego is so threatened that they have to destroy everything in their way.
- [31:01] – With a narcissist, a big part is figuring out what they need to have to feel like they have won. They want to hurt you, make you feel as bad as they do, and win.
- [33:55] – At a population level, there are more male narcissists than female narcissists. There are still a lot of narcissistic women out there.
- [36:22] – The expression of narcissism can look a little bit different based on gender.
- [37:49] – The vast majority of scammers are psychopaths or narcissists.
- [39:38] – These scammers play on people’s vulnerabilities, aspirations, and hope and show no empathy.
- [41:54] – The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
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Thank you so much for coming to the Easy Prey Podcast and sharing your expertise with us. Can you give me a background as to how you got interested in psychology?
Yeah. Either you become an astronomer, a psychologist, or an oceanographer is how I see it, because human nature is so fascinating and I think that as a psychologist, especially as a clinical psychologist, you’re equal parts. You could be a researcher, you’re a scholar, you’re a scientist, but there’s also something almost shamanistic about it. I think that as long as there have been two human beings in the world, one of them was trying to understand the other. Although it’s considered a science in its relative infancy, I think actually people have been trying to understand human nature for thousands and thousands of years. That’s how I got into it.
Now, this area of narcissism is a bit more recent. By recent, it’s 10-15 years kind of recent for me. I started doing work in understanding what are the things that put people at risk in terms of their health? Lead people to maybe make less than optimal health choices, and also how they treat healthcare personnel. One thing that we were noticing anecdotally is that there are some people who come into clinics and totally abuse the receptionist, the nurses, and ultimately the physicians. Nobody likes being with them, people would cringe when they see this patient’s name on the schedule.
I thought this was interesting. First of all, I understand why they’re cringing, but it often guarantees that this person is not going to get the best quality health care. What about other areas of their life? Not surprisingly, the difficult patient in the clinic is the difficult partner, sibling, child, parent. This idea of difficult people also started aligning with what I’m seeing in my clinical practice, which are people who are in these marriages with people who just literally invalidated them, devalued them, did not listen to them, showed no empathy to them, and the pattern never ever changed.
People who are suffering like this five years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, every year, making a new promise that maybe this year it’s going to be different. Maybe this year it’s going to change, maybe when he gets a promotion, maybe when she gets the house she wants, maybe when the kids are older. Maybe, maybe, maybe, and maybe would never come.
I saw that the fallout for people who stayed in these relationships, whether it was their parents, whether it was their partner, were pretty shredded. I thought, “Gosh, psychology isn’t talking about this. This is the traditional violent relationship.” That wasn’t necessarily always the case, these people who are being physically beaten up or sexually assaulted. It was very much like just this chronic invalidating, unempathic, basically you existed to serve the narcissist kind of a situation. It really does a number on people. That’s how I got into it. Now, I’m in it, and it’s really more as much of a mission and a vision as it is an area of scientific interest of mine.
That’s very interesting. When it comes to obviously my audience, I’m trying to educate people about not becoming victims. We’re talking about these types of neurological, pathological, psychological?
Ramani: Pathological. I’ll give you psychological.
I’m in IT. I don’t know all the terminology. I have to hear all these terms kind of thrown out together and I’m sure there are differences between them, but you have narcissism, psychopaths, sociopaths, and maybe there are some overlapping between them. Can you illuminate us on that?
The distinction between narcissism, psychopathy, and sociopathy is one that a lot of people grapple with. The terms are often used interchangeably and incorrectly. There’s a big difference. Narcissism is very much a pattern of a person who lacks empathy, is deeply entitled, grandiose, arrogant, very superficial, constantly needs validation and admiration. They’re very sensitive. They fall apart under criticism or feedback. They get very vindictive or rageful. They feel like victims a lot. Their self-esteem is very vulnerable, it’s very variable. They’re having a good day, they’re the king of the world, but something doesn’t go their way, their entire world shatters. They tend to lash out at other people. There is a core self-esteem deficit, a core ego fragility. That’s what a narcissist is.
Now, when you jump the rails over to psychopathy, you’re in a little bit of different territory. There’s a lot of similar top notes. Psychopaths also don’t have empathy, they are very arrogant, they can be grandiose, they’re very entitled, but the chilling difference between the two is narcissists actually do experience remorse. Actually, they often experience remorse and shame. They don’t like feeling shameful, so they often react with rage, they’ll blame other people for what they did because they actually do it like, “I shouldn’t have cheated on my wife,” “I shouldn’t have stolen that money.” Psychopaths, very little—if any—remorse. They’re more of your hired assassins. They’re people who are willing to do cold-blooded stuff because, honestly, it doesn’t register.
Psychopaths are unique and there’s some interesting research on the nervous system that shows that psychopaths are very, what we call, stress-tolerant. Meaning, the kinds of stress that would put the rest of us spinning around, they’re very, very cool under those conditions. They’re also not prone to anxiety, so the things that would make a person anxious. Think about it. If I stole someone’s purse in a store, opened it, and there’s cash in it, the thought of taking the cash out of that purse, literally, I’m having panic thinking about that. I couldn’t imagine doing that. That makes me anxious.
For a psychopath, there’s zero anxiety, they’ll just stick their hand in that purse and walk away. There would not even be an ounce of a racing heartbeat or anything. Their autonomic nervous systems are very different. Because they don’t get anxious, they don’t get worked up. They’re able to break the law, flout the rule, violate people’s rights. They make great criminals because they don’t feel remorse. And because they don’t feel remorse, they actually do really well under questioning. Because they don’t feel anxiety, they’re really great under questioning.
Now, psychopaths are much like some narcissists. They can be charming, intelligent, clever, charismatic, and very confident. People say these psychopaths are terrifying. I said it maybe so, but on the surface, they are suave, calm, and cool, so people are very drawn to them. And, because in our culture, we think calm and cool is confidence, and we think confidence is good—those are not always accurate, good kinds of leads to makepeople fall into them.
Sociopaths are a little bit different. There is some belief that psychopathy potentially has a genetic element. There are central nervous system differences we see in the brain of a psychopath. We often see that it tends to run in families. Again, highlighting the possibility that there’s a pretty solid genetic piece to it. They have that stress resistance.
Your sociopaths are a little bit of a messier group. Psychopaths actually are surprised that there are rules like this that don’t make sense to me. “That guy did me wrong, I killed him, what’s the problem?” In fact, people are like, “Is this person insane?” The insanity defense doesn’t work with psychopathy, just so you know, but they really don’t get it.
Sociopaths know the rules. They know the rules and they still break them. Sociopaths tend to be more combative. They’re your bar fighters. They are the people who will get angry in a bar and beat someone up. They’re your very agitated guy in prison. They’re constantly punching and fighting. They’re messy. They tend not to be calm, cool, collected, charming, and charismatic. They’re just much more blustery.
The sociopaths can be something that can also come out of a difficult backstory. They’ve had maybe more challenges they’ve had to overcome. They may have come from a place where there’s a lot of community violence, or there’s been trauma. That’s not necessarily always the case with psychopathy. There’s a long-winded explanation, but there’s a definite difference between the two. I’d say, at the end of the day, the narcissist is insecure, does feel anxiety, does feel remorse. A psychopath doesn’t feel any of those things, much more cool, much more calculated.
I think that’s helpful to understand it. Does that lead to them being more like a warning sign that you’re dealing with, one versus the other?
Yes. One warning sign, I’d say would be very different, is narcissistic individuals are very sensitive to any form of criticism, and it can be the tiniest slight. It could be that you don’t give them the right seat at the dinner table. It could be that you make an off-handed comment about a restaurant that they chose. You might even say, “Wow, I like that tie you’re wearing. I saw you wore it last week and I meant to compliment you on it,” and they will say, “What are you saying, I only have two ties? Is that what you’re saying?” You’re like, “Oh my gosh, I was just trying to tell you you have a nice tie.” There’s a sensitivity.
You’re not going to see that with psychopathy. There is a coldness in psychopathy. If you don’t know to look for coldness, a lot of people look at that coldness and they see it as confidence. They might even see there’s almost masculinity, and if you don’t see it for the coldness that it is, and almost surgical precision, you might miss that warning sign.
I think the narcissistic give more warning signs in a way because they are so sensitive to criticism of any kind. Psychopaths lie more. If you can catch them in a lie…they’ll lie earlier. They’ll often have aliases. They’re giving you so many stories that if you’re listening carefully, you’re like, “That’s interesting. You said he was growing up in Indiana, but he was still talking about that warm winter.” You’ve got to pay attention because they are, again, the ultimate conmen, our psychopaths. It doesn’t matter if that psychopath is the CEO or a guy running a racket in the streets. They’re still conmen.
Let’s go out of order of what we talked about a little bit before because you mentioned CEO. Do we see narcissists playing bigger roles, having advantages, or even being celebrated in certain occupations or roles?
Narcissists have huge advantages. They make more money, they’re more likely to end up in leadership positions. There’s a couple of reasons for that. Narcissists want to be the leaders. They like being the center of attention. They like the power. They like the validation. A lot of the rest of us are perfectly competent to be the leaders but are like “I don’t want the headache, I like what I do, and I don’t need the attention.”
They’re naturally drawn to fight for and they often will get it because they’re really, really good at self-promotion. Because most of us aren’t good at self-promotion and they’re so good at it, people actually believe their hype, and the world enables them. We make excuses for them, rationalizations, and justifications for their behavior. We’re like, “Well, they must know what they’re talking about because they certainly are awfully confident” instead of saying, “This fool doesn’t know anything they’re talking about,” and you don’t question it.
We see them over-represented in leadership positions, over-represented in the roles of things like CEOs, overrepresented in people with positions of power. We do because they want power, and power is very important.
Would you also see them in roles like social activism or philanthropy?
You’re a genius, Chris, for asking that question. You set me up beautifully with something that many people don’t know. What gets really interesting is that there is a subset of narcissists.
Here’s the bottom line, narcissists are motivated to get validation. That validation can come through anything. It could come from how they look, how they gain attention or the money they have. But there are some of them who will give charitably—their time, their money—because they want validation. It’s actually not because of the meaning and purpose that they believe in the organization. They also want a lot of attention for it. They insist on their name on the building, they want the big gala, they want lots of people seeing how wonderful they are, they go to the soup kitchen and make sure that the lighting is perfect that day at the soup kitchen so everybody can see them giving meals to those in need.
They only will do charity as long as the lights are on and the cameras are rolling. It’s very validation-seeking. It is actually a form of narcissism called communal narcissism where they get their validation by giving to other people, but they’re still really jerky. People are like, “Wow, what a humanitarian,” and they’re abusing their staff and they’re mean to their partners. They’re mean people, but with their ladle at the soup kitchen, so they have it on.
Are people dismissive of the jerkiness or the problematic stuff because they’re such a philanthropist—we’ll accept that they’re cheating on their spouse, or they’re really obnoxious to people?
We absolutely make excuses for people on the basis of what we believe to be their good work. That $2 million they gave certainly helped a lot of kids, and I’m not his wife so why should I care? There’s a lot of excuse-making. This excuse-making is part of the enabling of narcissism in our society at large. It’s honestly why I think we’re in the messes we’re in right now. It’s like if you never gave a child a bedtime, you’re going to have a 7-year-old who’s lying on the couch watching the late show at 1:00 AM. You’ve got to give people some boundaries.
What we’ve done is we’ve turned these narcissists into the spoiled children of our world. The problem is, these spoiled children are running our countries, running our companies, they’re running our institutions, they’re running our systems, and this world is a mess right now. I do think that we’ve enabled this.
And social media didn’t help. I mean who wins the most in social media? Narcissists. They love attention, so they’re going to double down on making it a full-time endeavor to take selfies, edit selfies, live a life where they can always be taking pictures. Perhaps, ensuring that they’re going to said soup kitchen or whatever it is to get those moments. Even that space enables them, because the influencers and all of that, what are they? The people who are drawing attention to themselves for their own profit.
Even under the condition of bad publicity is good publicity, do they even really care whether it’s good or bad? I hear they want the attention, but if they’re also really sensitive to whether it’s affirming or non-affirming, does that backfire for them?
It backfires all the time for them because what’s very interesting is that one of the biggest crises for the narcissist is shame. The one thing a narcissist never wants is to be found out. If somebody can really see that “I’m not really the real deal.” Remember, they’re very fragile inside and the idea that anyone would ever see their fragility, the fact that they are not perfect is very unsettling for them.
If by your criticism, or your feedback, or your mean social media comment, you lift back one of the layers on that, they get incensed. Rage is the only word I can use. You’ll see the Twitter smackdowns they’ll have. They’re going after people’s kids and grandmothers in the attacks, and then they’ll say something regrettable. They will be tried in the court of public opinion, that account might even get shut down, but they can’t stop themselves. In other words, they want to be able to say what they say with impunity, but they’re absolutely not able to handle it when people come back at them with the criticism and they completely fall apart.
The whole concept of don’t dish it out if you can’t take it, doesn’t apply to…
No. One of the big core issues in narcissism is hypocrisy. They’re incredibly hypocritical. That’s the entitlement. One set of rules for me, one set of rules for you, and they don’t seem to have a problem with it. That completely makes sense to them. Remember, they have to believe they’re special to protect that fragile…
They’re even celebrating that the rules don’t apply to them?
Yeah, they absolutely are. We’ve seen this left and right in the world we live in right now. I shouldn’t have to wear this, I shouldn’t have to do that. It’s very much, “I am too special for the rules.” They become oppositional little children if they’re made to follow a rule. In fact, they often organize themselves around breaking rules, getting away with it, or filing lawsuits or all kinds of things if they can’t get their way. They will use whatever systems they need to to ensure that they win and feel like the rules are for them because otherwise, they feel very victimized. If things don’t go their way, they get lost in their victimhood, and they get very angry, very sullen, and they’re going to use that.
I can start to see things coming out of the midst of my mind, like okay, I can start seeing things coming together. I suspect there are some very significant risks of either working directly for, or working at a company that’s run by a narcissist, or being in a relationship with one. What are those risks?
It’s really bad for your health. It’s insanely toxic. The risks are things like feeling chronically confused, full of self-doubt, anxious, having other negative mood states like depression, having difficulty sleeping, not engaging in adequate self-care, feeling helpless, hopeless, and powerless. These are all very, very bad states of mental health. You’ll find people who might actually cope in maladaptive ways. They may use drugs or alcohol to numb the discomfort they are experiencing. They may isolate themselves from other people.
There may be a sense of shame, of “How did I get into such a mess, and why am I in this situation?” Part of what keeps people in these situations is they do not understand what the most basic precept of narcissism is—it doesn’t change. What you see is what you get. There is no magic wand, and I’ve got to tell you, as a therapist who works with lots of narcissistic clients, if this is healthy, and this is where they’re at, I can get them to here, the big gap.
Even when they do get help, they’re not often willing to integrate it. It’s too threatening to them. I mean you see a unicorn every so often—somebody makes a big turnaround—but it is literally a unicorn. If you don’t understand that it doesn’t change, you could actually destroy yourself in the process of trying to make a change in that other person.
Wow. Maybe I’m a little bit on a tangent here. Is it more of narcissism, a learned behavior, or are people kind of, I don’t want to say born that way, because I feel bad about putting somebody in a box, but is it born out of childhood trauma, or just a learned behavior over the years that I’ve learned that this is effective?
It’s a very developmental pattern, and I agree with this. There are some inborn elements to this that are probably what we call temperamental. There might be people who were born into this world with a slightly more hypersensitive temperament, and more of an oppositional temperament. That can be shaped depending on the world they’re in, but that definitely could set a vulnerability.
However, what we do know about narcissism is there’s a couple of different pathways that get people to adult narcissism. One is what you mentioned—trauma, neglect, inconsistency, lack of safety. That can come from literal trauma—a child growing up with abuse and all of that. It can also come from inconsistency that comes from growing up in a very chaotic space, and some of that can’t be helped. It may be what’s happening in the world that they live in; that can be a war or something like that.
The other pathway is what we call a person who is over- and under-indulged. They may be very overindulged in terms of there may be enough—more than enough—resources around them. They grow up in a beautiful home, they’re given lots of experiences, they’re lavished with gifts, but they’re under-indulged with regard to their emotional world. There’s absolutely no discussion with emotion, especially with boys. We see this: “Don’t cry.” When they try to talk about their feelings, there’s nobody who will listen, or they’ll shame them for sharing their feelings. That combination is also a nice fast track to narcissism.
Another way that a person can also get there is what we call growing up in a very conditional way. You are loved when you get the soccer goal, you’re loved when you get into the good kindergarten, you’re loved when you get into the ballet pageant—whatever it is—you’re loved when you win the beauty pageant. You understand that your love comes through a condition and you please the parent when you give them something. It’s likely a combination of these pathways.
The final one is that you got a narcissistic parent. Not only is that a very impoverished way to grow up, but you also may be modeling their entitled, kind of dismissive behavior. You can see it’s a mish-mash of pathways that get a person. The kind of narcissist they are has a little bit to do with what pathway got them to their adulthood narcissist.
Got you. I think we kind of covered it, but before we go on, are there consistent expressions, manifestations, that we see from narcissists in day-to-day interactions?
Yeah. What we do see is that at the surface level, they’re often very charming, engaging, charismatic, confident. People are drawn to them; that’s why they often become leaders. But the other things we’ll often see is dismissiveness, especially when things that are emotional being discussed, or things that have nothing to do with them.
Many narcissists walk around saying, “I have ADD.” The reasoning is that they may expect full attention when they’re speaking, but when somebody else is speaking, they’ll be fooling with their phone and fooling with this something. People say, “How come you’re not paying attention when he’s speaking?” “I have ADD.” “That was selective because you just talked for an hour without interruptions. Clearly, your ADD wasn’t happening an hour ago.”
They’ll come up with these excuses for why they feel superiority that you’ll see from them. They can be very superficial. They’re very concerned with the cars people drive, houses that they live in, where they go on vacation, and how they look. They’ll often make comments about people’s appearance, like a man making a comment about a woman’s appearance, disparages her; she doesn’t look the way he thinks a woman should look.
They’re very entitled. They don’t want to wait in line. They leave, they are VIP, they believe the rules don’t apply to them. They just make the rules that work for them and they have no problem, like walking into the post office, 20 people in line and they’ll just try to walk right up to the front and they’re a little bit shocked when people say there’s a line back here. Instead of saying “I’m sorry, I didn’t see that,” they’ll huff and puff.
Those are the things. They’re very sensitive. When you give them constructive, well-thought-out feedback, they will lash out. What it means is you can’t work with them, you can’t communicate with them because anytime you’re going to give them anything but good news, they really lose it and they rage.
Oh, wow. If you’re working for someone like that or you’ve got a relationship with someone like that, how do you protect yourself? We can probably make the distinction maybe in a relationship that’s a little different.
Versus a family.
Yeah, or versus a job of like, “Gosh, I’ve got to provide for my family so I have to deal with this, but if it was in my personal life, I’m out of here, I’m not going to deal with that.”
The rules are always the same. Here’s the thing: not everyone can get out of every relationship. Whether it’s a mother or a father, a partner, a sibling, or a boss, some people can’t leave any of those situations. I’ve worked with a lot of people who cut out their parents. I’m not doing this anymore. Anything is possible and anything is impossible.
The key is pretty simple, actually. Number one, realistic expectations. This is who this person is and they are not going to change—not for you, not for me, not for anybody else. It’s radical acceptance, frankly, that this is a jerk. Once you have radical acceptance, you do the most key element of all—you don’t personalize it.
They blow up. It is not about you.
They would’ve blown up at anyone who made that comment about the tie. They would’ve blown up at anyone who made the comment about the restaurant. They just blow up. You happen to be in the purview of the blob. Just like a bomb isn’t personal, just goes off, blows up anyone who’s near it. They are like moths. They’re just going to blow up at anyone who’s near them.
You have to not take it personally, radical acceptance, it’s not going to change, realistic expectations, what you see is what you get, don’t try to fix it, and don’t believe their false promises. Narcissists do a lot of whatever’s called future-faking. “I’m going to change. I’m going to go to therapy. It’s going to be better. I’ve been under so much pressure; just give me six months.” That future faking is how they keep buying six months, six months, six months. You stay in, that’s fine.
In fact, one of my books is called Should I Stay or Should I Go? How to Survive a Relationship with a Narcissist. I called it that because 50% of people stay. And for the 50% of people who stay, I get to give them ways to stay. A lot of it are workarounds. A lot of it is cultivating other sources of friendship, support, therapy, places you can go. Have sanity, support, mirroring, and empathy because you are not going to get it with this person.
In a job situation, I tell people, “You’ve got to figure out what you can to get out of this job. Document the heck out of everything so you can protect yourself because it still may not work in your favor. But if anything ever comes down the pipe, you’re not going to be able to get anywhere with HR unless you’ve got documentation.” And more often than not, the narcissist outlasts the sane people in most workplaces, because most people say, “I’ve had it. Life’s too short.” They get out and then before you know it, there’s a critical mass of narcissists and their enablers in the workplace. Those are the last people that are standing. In short, thereafter, the companies usually crumble because those people just can’t. There’s no way you can keep going.
I tell people, “Don’t engage. There’s nothing left to talk about. There’s nothing you can say to this person without them getting angry, so stick to the weather.” Stick to the, “Oh look, they’re repaving your road, can you imagine? What an interesting time of year to do that.”
Definitely nothing about them.
It can be about them if it’s good.
If it’s positive.
If it’s good. I tell people one of the great strategies, especially in the workplace, and sometimes in families, is what I call narcissistic fluffing. If you really need the workaround, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I feel so lucky to work with someone of your magnitude in this field.” “Gosh, and then blah-blah-blah, fluff-fluff-fluff, get what you need, get back down.”
If these people are so explosive, how do you get out of the relationship or out of the business relationship safely if they’re going to explode and that’s their modus operandi.
Extricating from a narcissistic relationship is a nightmare. Now, in your luckiest scenario, they leave. Even if you take some hits on it. A lot of people will feel abandoned and hurt. Oh, heck no. You just won the toxic people lottery. They got out. If you try to extricate, it is going to be a campaign of vindictiveness—a smear campaign—they’re going to rally other people around you to do their bidding—those are called flying monkeys. They will run your name through the mud, they will pursue legal action because one of the things that narcissistic personalities are obsessed with is winning. They have to win. Again, that’s fragile ego. Winning might mean they will spend more in lawyers’ fees in a divorce to avoid giving you more of that.
Yeah, exactly. Divorce has gotten messy. In workplaces, they will run a business into the ground before you can leave the business partnership. I tell people, “There is no graceful exit. You’re almost limping out of here, lucky to have the shirt on your back.” That is where—especially when it comes to business situations—I tell people, you almost think you’ve been more careful there than you would in a marriage because they really could take anything you’ve even earned and destroy it. It’s often not easy.
What that does sometimes mean, is very, very carefully clad agreements on the front end. Will the narcissist follow them? No, they’re hypocrites. They don’t believe the rules apply to them. If the document is crafted well and it can have legs in court, you’re in a better place. But anyone who knows when they have tried to extricate, everybody’s relieved once they’re out of the relationship, but it almost can feel like post-traumatic stress, given what they have to go through to get out of those relationships—stalking, you name it. This can be pretty awful.
It’s almost like a scorched earth policy with narcissists. If I can’t have it, nobody can have it. I’m going to make your life miserable just because I can.
Yep, because I can. Again, the ego is so threatened, they have to just destroy everything in their wake.
It’s rough. I’m sure you know people who’ve gone through this where they’ve dissolved businesses and it was a nightmare for their marriages. It is a nightmare to watch this. Ironically, despite the nightmare, people say, “I still know I did the right thing.” They don’t say, “I wish I had stuck it out.” It’s only sad at what got lost.
Is it almost like intentionally giving up certain things to give the appearance of winning?
That way the person is like, “I’ve gotten something, therefore, that way you can actually get out without harm or with less harm?”
It’s a big, big issue when you go talk about narcissistic divorces. It’s this idea of somebody I worked with, her name is Rebecca and she talks a lot about leverage. It’s always leverage everyone. With a narcissist, a big part of the leverage is to figure out how they need to feel like they want. What I always say to people, “You can never, ever, ever, ever let a narcissist know your hand.” You’ve got to think like a poker player. They cannot know the cards you’re holding.
In the divorce example that I could give you, so many people want to be a lioness about their children. “You are never going to take my children.” You know what they’re going to now spend? That narcissist is going to take every cent they have to ensure they get more custody than they even wanted those kids just to stick it to.
In a business, it may be that there’s one carve-out in that business that was the most important to you. Your business partner was not even interested in it. If they know you are, they are going to do everything they can to ensure they’ve got a piece of that action. If they want to hurt, they want you to feel as bad as they do, and they want to win.
It really is important to keep your powder dry, to not let them see your hand, figure out what matters to them, cry crocodile tears when they take something away so they think it’s the thing that you wanted. And you’ve got to think like them, which is dark, but it’s absolutely true.
Be cool, calm, and collected on the things that matter, and, “Oh my gosh, this is so horrible” on the things that don’t matter to you?
I remember working with one lady. When it came to custody time, I trained her to say—you got to say to him—“Oh man, having every other weekend to myself—it’s going to be great. There are all these friends I’ve been wanting to see, these things I’ve been wanting to do.” That guy gave her every weekend back like that which is what she wanted all along. She wanted to be with her kids as much as possible.
Yes. But it’s much more that you figure out what their pressure points are and you don’t ever let them know, because again, we think that if we express what we want to another human being, they’d be like, “Oh, let me meet you on that.”
Because normal, rational people would be willing to meet you halfway, but they’re not normal, rational people.
Yeah. Even in the business example, even in that carve-out—might not even be the profitable arm of the business, but its intellectual property you want to develop—they would actually lose money taking it. They want to take it because it’s the thing you want. That’s what I’m saying. A lot of people say, “The only part of this business that matters to me is this.” Don’t ever, ever do that.
Got you. Just in closing out, I noticed that most of the conversation talking about narcissists is masculine-focused.
Yes, which is unfair.
If I think back through my mind, I think that seems to be consistent with what I’ve seen in people. Does narcissism tend more male than female? Or is it just expressed a little differently? Or do we make excuses for it differently?
I think we make excuses for it differently. Listen, at a population level, are there more male than female narcissists? Yes, there are. Are there a lot of female narcissists? You better believe it. Part of it is that we may make more excuses. But listen, for the number of people I work with who had narcissistic mothers, I’ve had more people tell me about narcissistic moms than dads. Obviously, a lot of narcissistic women out there. Many men and many women out there have dated narcissistic women and can really tell you that the absolute horrific mess of a divorce it was. Many times, it’s difficult for men to get custody of kids, too. If they had a narcissistic ex-spouse, it gets very complicated.
I think that the way we socialize boys makes men more vulnerable. Men are taught to silence their emotions. They’re mocked for expressing emotion, and a big part of what narcissism is is that incapacity to engage in emotional communication, to be in touch with their emotions, to be self-reflective about their emotional states. I think that in that way, that’s where I think society has done men such a disservice. I wish we let boys cry and encourage men to cry. It will be the most profound revolution of our time if we could do that.
I think that socialization is why we see more of it. Our role expectations of men tend to be more competitive, confrontational, combative. Women who are arrogant, women who are brash and outspoken, tend to get shut down and shaped differently by society. Men would be like, “You’re a player, good guy.” Women would be called obscenities and that kind of thing.
Women, though, might be more likely to express their narcissism through victimhood. “The world is always out to get me, nobody ever cares for me.” It feels like this passive-aggressive maneuver, but at the end of the day, it hurts the person on the receiving side.
Got you. It’s just probably not so much that it’s more or less male or female, but how these roles are nudged along by societal factors.
Yes. Again, at a population level, there are no two ways about it. It’s a more male-prevalent pattern for sure, but it doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of women. I think people have misheard when I’ve said that. They’re like, “What are you trying to say, Dr. Ramani?” I’m like, “No, lots of narcissistic women out there. Trust me, I’ve been on the receiving end of more than a few of them and it isn’t pretty.” It’s more of a population level, sure, but I do think that the expression of it, too, can look a little bit different by gender. It’s definitely a pattern that doesn’t know from gender.
The underlying patterns are the same and probably underlying prevalences are the same, but in the way that we see it expressed in society is different, so we look at it differently.
Yeah, absolutely. Listen, social media is a great, great platform to see how many female narcissists there are who are engaging in tremendous attention-seeking. The shameless use of social media, lots of them saying very insensitive things, that kind of thing. All of that happens in that space. I think that probably in social media, it’s probably pretty distributed in males and females, to be honest with you. In that role, we probably see it pretty close to 50-50.
It seems to me social media is the truest expression of who a person really is in some way. Obviously, it’s very curated, but almost the more curated it is, the more you know that it’s not real. That’s who they really are in some sense. Not necessarily how their life is going, but how they see themselves or how they want the world to see them.
How they want the world to see them and what they wish their life was like.
Wow. This has been great.
Thank you, I’m so glad. Again, at the end of the day, you’re trying to blow the lid off with people who are scammers. And if you could imagine, I’d say, the vast majority of scammers are psychopaths and narcissists. No one else would want to so meticulously take advantage of other people without empathy, without guilt, without remorse. There’s a very special form of ick that is able to perpetrate that kind of behavior.
Yeah. That’s one of the reasons why I do the podcast is because I want people to realize that there are people out there that are damaged, whether it’s intentional or whatever, that their goal is to just take advantage of people and they don’t care.
They don’t care.
It’s pretty hard for me to figure that out. I’ll tell a story. Probably 20 years ago, I ran an online bookstore selling Bibles. My biggest sale was on a fraudulent credit card. In my mind, I just would never have thought, “Why would one want to steal Bibles?” But to them, it was like, “Hey, here is an easy mark. This is someone who’s going to assume the best.” Then my truck with the company logo got stolen. That’s pretty messed up also.
Everything from the various internet scams you see, to scams where people are taking advantage of senior citizens, phone scams, 419 scams, and all of that. What did they do? These are people who play on people’s vulnerabilities, on people’s aspirations, on people’s hopes, which shows absolutely no empathy.
I would be willing to bet the farm on the fact that anyone willing to perpetrate any form of scam also treats their partners horribly, is not a good parent, is unkind to the people around them, is probably abusive of their workforce of fellow scammers, if there is such a thing. I definitely think that there’s toxicity in that space. They’re big talkers.
At the end of the day, what happens is the reason scammers get away with so much, in terms of even drawing people towards them, is that they are big talkers. It’s amazing how the whole world can easily get played by somebody who wants to talk a big game and is basically nothing more than a circus barker.
People want to believe the magic. They want to believe the magician’s trick. I’d say if obviously, as all things in life, anything seems too good to be true, it is. But I think there’s enough of that little kid in everyone. They want to believe things that are too good to be true. They could be working in an old conflict.
I think that there’s actually a resistance on the basis of people to believe that there are actually some really rotten horrible people out there. They’re just rotten and horrible. That’s a terrible thing for psychologists to say, but I have to tell you, I have seen too many good people’s lives ruined by horrible ones and I am tired of it, frankly.
You can tell me if I’m wrong and I’ll listen. I sometimes believe it’s easier for people to believe in conspiracy theories and wild schemes than to believe that there’s just bad people or just bad things just happen. It’s easier to believe the conspiracy than we don’t have control over the bad things that happen sometimes.
Yeah, bad things happen sometimes, but I do think it’s also the sense of once somebody takes advantage of you, plan on them doing it again, because if there’s only one simple precept of human behavior, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The first time you scam me, shame on you. The second time you scam me, shame on me. It’s the same for every human relationship. I’m not a big fan of giving too many second chances. I usually give people twice out the gate, and I’m like, yeah, no, we’re good.
If you’re not going to actively change.
People with these personalities, there is no way they’ll ever do the deep dive to view that there’s something that needs to be changed. Every so often, I get that interesting email from someone who’s like, “I see myself in your videos,” and I say, “Okay, here’s an 11-point plan. It isn’t easy.”
If people want to learn more, do you have a website, a video series, where people can learn more about narcissism and beyond?
A great place to start with me is on my YouTube channel. Every day we put out new content. We must now have well over a hundred or hundreds of videos of everything you can ever imagine about narcissism and that’s at Doctor Ramani. That’s probably the best clearinghouse of stuff. You can follow me on Instagram—also @doctorramani.
I have a website, doctor-ramani.com, and that’s a clearinghouse of everything—articles, information, literature, and virtual speaking kinds of events. All of that stuff is in one place and has links too on YouTube.
I have two books. One is called Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist. And the second is Don’t You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Instability. I take it on in many different ways. Yeah, there are lots of ways to get this information.
Great. We’ll make sure to link to all those and link to the books as well. Dr. Ramani, I super appreciate you sharing your expertise with us. Coming from an IT space, this is so interesting to me and very foreign to me, but I really appreciate you being able to explain things, even in a way that an IT guy can understand.
I appreciate that. I know there’s more than a little narcissism in the IT world. I hope that some of your IT colleagues can get themselves out of toxic cycles they’re stuck in.
Yes, I’m sure there is. Thank you very much, I super appreciate your time.
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