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Hide in plain sight

When you think about it, all personality disorders are characterised by flawed thinking. I’m not a psychologist, but perhaps my decades of direct experience with mental illness gives me a voice of some sort.

After years of clinical depression, I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This helped explain my somewhat erratic behaviour and inability to maintain a ‘normal’ life. Treatment for drug and alcohol dependency gave me further relief, but unfortunately I was still left with the crux of the problem.


Although my thinking straightened out somewhat, I was still haunted by grim reminders of the past. Years of chaotic living and repeated spells in mental institutions had left me dazed and confused, unable to make sense of it all. And so began the arduous task of putting myself back together again, with the help of counsellors, psychiatrists and well-meaning friends.

While researching a novel I was writing, I became interested in the subject of narcissism, and in particular, its clinical label, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Reading through the various books and articles I’d found, it dawned on me that many of the descriptions of case histories were unnervingly close to home. I took an online test, which asked, Are you a covert narcissist? I then took several more in case the results of the first were skewed. The outcome was sobering to say the least.

Narcissism is defined as a preoccupation with self, a tendency towards grandiosity and a hypersensitivity to criticism. This can manifest, amongst other symptoms, in an explosive rage that would appear out of proportion to the stimulus. To complicate things further, there are several subtypes within the definition, all with varying ways of acting out.

Most people think of the narcissist as the flamboyant entertainer, the actress flirting with the camera, or simply as the loudest person in the room. But there is another type, far less eager to seek the limelight, and perhaps even more volatile than its more outgoing counterpart.

The covert, or vulnerable narcissist, chooses to hide in plain sight. He may appear morose or secretive, perhaps given to long periods of silence and introspection. But beneath this, is a desperate need to be noticed and validated, recognised for the many talents he believes he possesses. His moods are tempestuous and volcanic and, like a dormant Vesuvius, he’s ready to erupt at the slightest thing.

We are all born narcissists. Babies believe, naturally, that the world revolves around them, that their every need will be supplied by doting parents. This belief is challenged as they grow older, their perceived omnipotence threatened by small doses of reality. For a variety of reasons, the narcissist never evolves beyond the primary stage. For him, the need for attention and praise is a perpetual hunger which can never be satisfied.

One of the questions that comes up regularly is, are those diagnosed with NPD beyond help? Judging by the observations of clinicians and experts in the field, it would appear that the typical narcissist is an extremely dangerous individual, ranking alongside psychopaths and serial killers. Once identified, they should be shunned, and the victims of their crimes left to rebuild their lives somewhere else.

The Dark Triad lists the three most problematic personality disorders as, Psychopathy, Machiavellianism and Narcissism. Treatment for either of these may consist of extensive therapy sessions, psychological evaluation and perhaps, in some cases, medication. Such is the prevalence of interest in these conditions, and the notoriety surrounding them, that positive outcomes are rarely predicted.

But the symptoms that characterise these disorders exist on a continuum that we, as human beings, are all on. And since no two people are completely alike, it isn’t always helpful to make generalisations. Many of the behaviours displayed by individuals diagnosed with NPD and other conditions, are common to most people, but in a less extreme form.

Whatever my own shortcomings, I have learned to identify my worst traits and to control them to some extent – especially in public. This is a lifelong task and an exhausting one at that. I’m reminded constantly of the demons lurking beneath the surface, waiting to catch me out. And yet, friends and people who know me say I’m sociable and easy-going, qualities I rarely feel on the inside.

We all lead double lives, consumed by hopes and fears that can’t easily be expressed. For most people, this inner emptiness is relieved by the close relationships they form. Friends, lovers and spouses all contribute to a feeling of security and wellbeing. But for some people, the emptiness will always remain, a yearning for something unattainable and beyond reach.

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