Episode 211 | March 10, 2020

How to Spot a Narcissist with Dr. Ramani Durvasula

A Personal Note From Orion

My guest, Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a psychologist, professor, author, and speaker. Her most recent book, Don’t You Know Who I Am?, provides a deep insight on how narcissism is impacting all of us, what it is, and what we can do about it. Her work focuses on the impact of narcissism, entitlement in high conflict personalities in our relationship, health, workplace, and the world.

I had to deal with a narcissist. I was in a relationship with one and it messed up my life, but it turned out to be a gift because now I know how to value myself better. And I’m sure all of you came across a narcissist at some point in your life. If you’re still dealing with one or if you are in a relationship with one or if you just want to know how to spot one so you won’t get hurt, this is the episode for you.

Dr. Ramani is brilliant. The conversation was awesome and I’m sure you’re going to enjoy it just as much as I did. And now without further ado, on to the show


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About Today’s Show

Don’t You Know Who I Am? by Dr. Ramani Durvasula

Hi, Dr. Ramani and welcome to Stellar Life Podcast. It’s a pleasure having you here. 

Thank you so much for having me, Orion.

Thank you. How did you get into Psychology?

Most of us get into Psychology because it’s a personal journey. I think for me, it was that perfect place between neuroscience and understanding more of the human psyche and soul. It had enough science in it to keep me satisfied but enough mystery in it to keep me engaged. 

Wow. Is this the perfect profession for you?

I think so. Certainly, I had my moments and my days. I think the way I do it, you can definitely feel like there are days your compassion is running out. I think for anyone there is this fatigue and exhaustion, but in many ways, it really is perfect because you get to be a detective. You get to explore new things, and most importantly, you get to meet so many interesting people and hear their stories.

One of your main specialties is narcissism. Why narcissism?

Narcissism is the problem of our time. If you understand narcissism, you understand mental health and you really do understand the current day human condition. For me, this became a very slow evolution because something I was seeing more and more in people was how testy and difficult people were being with each other. 

What I initially saw, a lot of the impacts were in healthcare settings, that some people would come in and be very difficult in healthcare clinics and in medical appointments because of the nature of the work I was doing at that time. That explored me further to understand the issue of personality, personality disorders, and then I really honed in on narcissism.

It started there for me, and at the same time, in doing private clinical practice I was also seeing more people coming in and talking about the same kind of relationship over and over again. Feeling very invalidated, feeling devalued, feeling discarded, a bit of a rollercoaster ride. It was dehumanizing, unsettling, and confusing. It kept coming in with the same question over and over again. 

Then the third piece is the world had some significant shifts. While I can see many of the virtues and assets—things like technology had brought to us—I can also see that we have become a world where people are much more concerned with what they own and how many likes they get, their followers, their superficial public image, and in so doing we squeezed the intimacy out of close intimate relationships.

All three of those things happening at the same time really got me hooked into this topic probably about 10 years ago and I have been deep in it ever since.

To have a real fairy tale love story - get to know someone gradually over time, yet still hold on to your own identity. Click To Tweet

Now, with more social platforms rising, it’s very hard to get people not to just show that superficial self. 

I think it’s because we are not showing them an alternative. I think that when everybody has fallen for it, everybody is viewing it as important and it’s creating this really odd confusion. It used to be once upon a time before all of this happened, you had a job. You get up in the morning, would drive to the job, and the job could only be done in the workplace. So at some point, it would be the end of the day, you’d come home, and you would be home.

It was much more unusual for people to be working all the time, or for there to be such a blurred boundary between the very space you were telling people talking about yourself, was also the space you were trying to sell something. These days, people are their own brands. So it’s not like, “Hey, I’m selling a pie I baked.” “I am the pie,” is the thing.

Those blurred boundaries are creating a lot of confusion and I think adults generally get it but we have a whole generation that is coming up with this and like this. We’re seeing much higher than expected rates of anxiety in adolescents and college student populations. These chickens are coming home to roost. Everyone is like, “No. Don’t be silly. Every generation adapts to their new technology,” and to some degree I think they have. 

If you can view, for example, social media as a tool rather than as an identity, I think it was okay. But I think increasingly, there is this sense of I am measured by this public persona I’ve created which can really get people removed from who they really are. 

Absolutely. Even if I want to look for speaking gigs or I want to publish a book, it’s all about my followers. It’s all about my social media presence. It’s the currency today.

It is absolutely the currency today. What that means is that people are almost obsessively courting followers. I get it. I write books, I do these things. We have to have a presence in that space, but for example, it is no link to my personal life. I do not post anything I do personally. Nobody knows where I’m having dinner or what I’m doing. People say, “That’s hurting your brand,” and I say, “I don’t care.” There has to be a line we have to draw where I don’t want people to know what I’m eating for dinner. I don’t want them to know the specifics of my life. 

I’ll share the content that is germane to what it is that I do, but that’s not the case with what everyone does and I agree. What ends up happening is you have to create this facade rather than the work being judged on the work. Those days seem to be gone. Now, publishing contracts will be awarded on the number of followers you have rather than the quality of the book proposal.

I think that’s extended to all areas of life. As I said, I’m not going to sit here and say, “We got to put the genie back in the bottle.” That’s not possible, but I do think that we now have to teach people how to be with it. How to develop their identities and most importantly, how to find meaning and purpose in a world where a lot of those seem to not be valued as much anymore. It’s almost like we need to rethink how we educate people. 

I have a six-month-old baby and I don’t post his photos online even though he’s the cutest little thing.

I’m sure.

But I do feel the urge some days. I really want to post this, but no. I’m going to protect his identity. I’m going to try to protect him. But I think it’s in my nature to look for validations or look for the like, “Look at what I co-created.” 

That’s what it is and I think it’s about validation. Kids are taught sadly from an early age to seek validation outside of themselves rather than to be very much at peace and say, “I feel good at what I am creating. This is good.” We have to go out and promote it but if the initial validation comes from ourselves, the rest of it becomes less powerful. We are all vulnerable to these patterns. When these patterns become pathological, that’s when we call them narcissism. 

What is your definition of a narcissist?

My definition of a narcissist is an individual who, at the core, is deeply insecure and this ends up getting manifested to a variety of patterns including inconsistency, superficial empathy, entitlement, grandiosity, chronic validation and admiration-seeking, a rather superficial way of interacting with people or valuing superficial things, being very arrogant, a tendency towards rage if they don’t get their way, difficulty managing disappointment and frustration, and difficulties with regulating their moods with the by-product that they can often look impulsive. 

That’s what a classical sort of narcissism looks like. In addition, we also see that narcissists can be quite hypersensitive, that they can dish out criticism to other people but they absolutely can’t take it.

Are narcissists born or created?

They are definitely much more created than born. The most likely guess on the basis of the evidence we have so far is that there are certain temperaments a person is born with—you know this since you’re the mother of a six-month-old—that a baby has a temperament. When you have another child, you are really going to understand temperament because you are going to see right from the jump that babies have different temperaments. 

A temperament, you can definitely see that there is a certain vulnerability, a certain hypersensitive, really tightly-wound temperament. Sometimes that can be a vulnerability to becoming narcissistic in adult because what we will see is, for example, you have two siblings quite close in age from the same family system, who were treated rather similarly and one become narcissistic and one doesn’t, there has to be some sort of environmental reason for that on top whatever temperament they had. 

Narcissism, entitlement, and incivility have become the new world order, and we are all in trouble.

The temperament is a piece of it, but it’s a very small piece of it. By and large, this is a parenting issue. How we parent our kids in terms of, is the home life consistent? Is it safe? Are parents emotionally available? Are there caregivers responsive to the child? Does the child have a life that’s somewhat predictable? Are they aware of how the world works? In other words, if they call someone they come. If they share a feeling, it’s respected. 

But when things start getting dark, for example, is the child only get validated if they succeed at something that matters to the parent? Then at other times, that child is not noticed at all, whether the parents don’t want to deal with that child’s emotions, a parent might not want to deal with a child whose not succeeding the way they want to, who doesn’t look the way they want, or simply because the parent almost views the child as a little toy that they want to play with when they want to, but in other times, they nearly view the child as an inconvenience. 

In addition, parenting that’s very conditional. “I love you when…” I love you when you keep your room clean. I love you when you get straight A’s. I love you when you help me. I love you when you pour my drinks for me. It’s any kind and number of things, but the child really learns that they are only loved when they are useful. 

These dysfunctional, toxic, early family systems could definitely place a person at risk for narcissism. Not everybody who comes from these starts in life ends up narcissistic; that temperament piece I also talked to you about. But then there’s a final piece which is society is in this, too. We often differently validate kids in school and by society for a child that is very attractive or has a particular talent, particularly a very visible talent, like an athletic talent or another talent we can see. 

As I said, they are very attractive, or they could sing or dance very well. Those kids sometimes get a lot of favor from society and that child starts to learn well, “I’m kind of a one-trick pony, so I’m really being validated on what’s outside of me.” The more a child is validated for what’s outside of them, rather than for the depth of their inner and emotional world, the more likely you’re stacking the deck towards that child having a risk of becoming narcissistic as an adult.

How can I raise my child to know that I validate his inner being?

When they are very small, a lot of that is simply holding them and looking at their face. I have two children, but they are a bit older now and so when they were born, there were no smartphones and I feel like the luckiest human being on the planet as a result. I’ll be honest with you, when I was holding them late at night, they have fallen asleep but I couldn’t quite put them down or whatever, I could read a book or maybe watch TV, but I certainly wasn’t on the phone playing games, texting, and all of the other stuff. 

Now, parents have to be more mindful of not being distracted, especially parents of infants. An infant needs to look at their parent’s face straight on like they are able to see their face. As the child makes faces, the parent mirrors those faces. But the child gets held almost like they can feel the touch of the skin of the parent that’s holding them. That they have those quiet opportunities for connection.

I think people are already almost over-programming their babies these days. It’s like, “Got to take a walk here. Got to take them to a baby class there,” rather than just letting the child be and being with the child. As the child gets older and your child shares an emotion, you would never want to shame that emotion. You would never want to say, “Well, don’t be ridiculous. That’s nothing to be sad about.” 

If a child says they are sad, then you want to say, “Tell me more about that feeling.” You’d tell them it’s completely acceptable to feel sad. It could be something as simple as their brother or sister won a game, or their cookie broke in half. Instead of pathologizing them or devaluing them for saying, “That’s so dumb. No one gets sad about a cookie breaking.” You say, “I’m so sorry, honey. Do you want to talk about that feeling?” That child then learns that their emotional world is valid.

Some of your listeners may be thinking, “Well, God. That seems really indulgent. I’m supposed to listen to them every time they have a feeling?” It’s actually not indulgent. The better you are at this earlier at the game, the more the child gets better at: (a) identifying their emotions, (b) talking about their emotions appropriately, and most importantly, (c) regulating those emotions.

As they get older, they recognize they have permission to have this emotion and that they also feel that they have the tools to work it through. Lots of parents want to fix their kids’ problems. A kid would say, “I’m really sad because I didn’t get on the sports team,” “You know what? I’m going to call that coach right now and give them a piece of my mind,” No. Your child didn’t get on the sports team. Sit with your child. Let them share that feeling. Let them learn what it feels like to be disappointed and learn that they are going to be okay. But so many parents feel compelled to fix things rather than just being present with their children’s pain.

Me as a mother, I’m very present with my child and we have long gazes. I feel like I’m validating his emotions, but I do sometimes am on my phone and he’s obsessed with my phone. I’m not letting him watch TV or screens, but I’m on my phone a lot. We take selfies a lot and now every time he sees them, he’s six months old and he already smiles at selfies, and this morning he was a little cranky and when he’s cranky, I show him photos of himself, of us, and he loves it. He smiles back in the photos.

I took a video of us and he was smiling at the video and the moment I took the phone away, he started crying. The moment I put the phone back so he could look at himself he started smiling again. Am I creating a narcissist?

I don’t know that you are creating a narcissist, but I would suggest switching it up a little bit. Start using things like mirrors. Like using a mirror and maybe using printed photographs because what you don’t want is for even at an early age, for the child to look at the phone as a source of something that brings something so good.

I would even print back in the day. When I had kids, we didn’t have phones, so if I wanted my daughters to see what they look like, they would look at the mirror or I would print out a picture of themselves, but that’s a piece of paper. In and of itself, you can even crumple it. I print out another, and so on and so forth. But I do think that now the phone is being associated with all this good stuff and I would say, I would definitely switch it up a little bit.

Social media is just a tool, not an identity. The number of your likes and followers shouldn't define who you truly are. Click To Tweet

If you have a regular old camera, use that sometimes or let him interact with the actual paper picture. So the phone doesn’t start feeling like this big old source, not only source of validation but more than anything, a source of reward so that in a very short span of time, he’s going to know how to play with that phone and what buttons to push, then you are going to have a child that often gets difficult to soothe unless you give up the phone.

Then as they go into childhood and then they go to pre-pubescence and puberty in high school, it becomes their sole way of soothing. I can tell you this as somebody who works with lots of adult narcissists. They still try to use their phones to soothe when it no longer works so they are always angry at the world.

It’s very difficult to be a mother.

It’s very difficult to be a mother and I got to tell you, I don’t envy people who have to be mothers at this age of electronics. By the time electronics came up, my kids were already pretty firmly embedded in school and I got a lot of good years of playing in nature and coloring books. There was no other option but to do those things and I feel like I dodged a massive bullet.

Sometimes people say, “Ramani, don’t you feel like you missed out because you could have calmed them down at restaurants?” I’m like, “No, we figured it out in restaurants. We found restaurants with koi ponds and we learned how to build things out of sweetened low packets.” I really have to say it’s one of my greatest gifts from the universe that these things didn’t exist because if I could wipe out an iPad at dinner, I probably would have done it. 

Sometimes we just chose not to go out to dinner as a result and we eat at home because it wasn’t worth the headache and we still got that family time. I actually think, Orion, you’re parenting at a much more difficult age. Anyone who’s got small children now, you have to have almost a level of discipline, because for many people, the phone is their source of how they work and all of that. I almost say to them that there may be times you’ve got to come up with something whether it’s your partner or caregiver who has time with the child when they are not watching the adult in their purview being always on the phone. It really requires a different level of discipline.

Thank you for acknowledging my struggles.

It’s really hard. 

Do narcissists have empathy and how do I recognize one?

It’s a challenging question and it’s one that’s come up and I morphed my answer over time as I read more literature feedback from people who I follow with my work. It’s actually not accurate to say that narcissists don’t have empathy. They actually do, but it’s very selective and very inconsistent. Empathy is a human capacity. It’s the capacity to be able to understand and recognize the emotional experience of another human being. That’s part one of empathy.

Part two of empathy is to be self-reflective and self-aware of how your behavior and how your words are impacting another person. Narcissists cannot do part two almost at all and they are okay at part one at times. My point is that if narcissists need something from you, or they want something from you, or they are trying to win you over, they can actually play it being incredibly empathetic because they can give you an almost laser focus to learn about you and try to win you over.

To me, that’s empathy. They are aware that you are having an emotional experience. They are studying it, learning about it, and they know it’s important. The challenge is that narcissists aren’t built for empathy. They actually have a lot of contempt for human emotion and in fact, probably some contempt for empathy in and of itself. When they no longer need to study you, they don’t need anything from you, or they got what they needed, or they are not just interested in it anymore, they’ll shut that off.

All of a sudden, this person who once seemed like they got you and are emotionally connected to you, has almost seemingly disappeared like they are completely almost indifferent about you and they don’t care about you. What they don’t often have is the capacity to monitor the impact on other people. Once again, they can do it from time to time when they need something from you. 

For example, you’ll see someone who is able to be absolutely charming and very careful with what they say to a boss, but when they are dealing with employees who work under them, they treat them horribly and they don’t care how badly their words hurt them. Their self-awareness or their caring is very variable, and because of that, people get confused. 

They’ll say, “Doc, I actually thought this person had empathy because they seem to be on it at the beginning.” I say, “They needed something from you.” Anything from money to a job, to a connection, they wanted to have sex with you. I don’t know what their angle was, but they had an angle. So, they used their empathy almost like a weapon. They know you’ll bait to get what they need, and then they can’t be bothered with it anymore.

It’s such a cold empathy. I can’t explain it.

It’s very agentic empathy, meaning that it achieves a goal.

With the rise of AI, it’s almost like an AI will learn empathy.

It will learn. In fact, not only will AI learn empathy. I have a feeling that a lot of the AI interfaces will be better at empathy than narcissism because at least the AI can be programmed to be consistent. 

Yeah, but when AI surpasses human intelligence, they can be very logical with the way they use empathy to do whatever they want.

I think so. But I have to tell you, as I am seeing more and more about the AI programming capacities, it will take time because of the massive downloads of data that are going to be used to fill in these AI systems. I still think that yes, it will be logical, but even that might feel better than the narcissist empathy because if it’s programmed with just clear logic, then it would see some of the sadness, “I’m going to respond to some of the sadness.” Someone is laughing, “I’m going to respond to happiness.” If someone’s ambivalent, “I’m going to try and draw them out.”

With narcissists, they don’t care if you’re sad, ambivalent, or happy. They just don’t care. Whereas at least the AI-programmed thing will keep responding to those emotions in some possible way and that true empathy is given.

I always say empathy is an incredibly inefficient state to be in. It’s magnificent, wonderful, and inefficient. The reason it’s inefficient is when we actually stop to show empathy, we slow ourselves down to attend to other people. If I’m running around a mile a minute but then I notice one of my employees or coworkers in the corner’s having a hard day, I might stop running around and go and talk to her and check in on her. I just lost some time.

That’s why so many CEOs, other executives, and people who are leaders are narcissistic because they often don’t take the time. That’s how they get things done so quickly because they just don’t bother with the feelings and needs of other people.

What types of people attract narcissists?

There are patterns of who attract narcissists. There are people who are rescuers. When somebody has a sad backstory, we can rescue them, we can make everything better, and it’s almost like a very Pollyanna-ish thing. Those folks are very vulnerable to narcissists because they meet them and they think that they can save them.

Other people who attract narcissists are people who are overly empathic. They’re so empathic that they almost keep giving the narcissists allowances. It’s like, “Oh, I really want to try to understand them,” or, “Oh, I don’t want to be mean and just dismiss them.” It’s almost like they keep allowing themselves to get knocked down by the narcissists and they overly try to understand the narcissist’s point of view to the point of getting hurt.

People who are very positive and very optimistic like, “I see the good in everyone and I think everyone has good in them.” They tend to be narcissistic magnets. People who are incredibly overly forgiving who says, “I always believe in turning the other cheek, I believe in forgiveness.” Those people can be narcissistic magnets.

Health and wellness campaigns preach avoidance of unhealthy foods, sedentary lifestyles, tobacco, drugs, and alcohol, but rarely preach avoidance of unhealthy, difficult or toxic people.

Then there are things in a person’s history that can make them vulnerable to narcissism. For example, kids who grow up from households that are characterized by trauma, abuse, alcoholism, or narcissism. Those are often kids who don’t trust themselves, who grow up into adults who don’t trust themselves, who don’t always feel socially very confident. Because they grew up with so much dysfunction, they often are willing to accept it. Not consciously, but they will accept it in adults in their relationships and thus allow narcissists around.

Also, I’d say people who come from very happy families are very vulnerable to narcissists. People say, “Why is that?” Because they often came from families where everybody loved each other and everyone was so nice, that they actually don’t have the capacity to understand that some people can actually be not nice. As a result, these folks really are like, “I don’t get this” and they’ll go to their family and their family will say, “I don’t get this. Just love them a little bit more because that’s what works for our family.” They may often find themselves completely stuck in these relationships. They can take their families a while to actually get that actually some people are really not just very nice.

I took a StrengthsFinder and one of my strengths is empathy and another one is something that sounds like empathy. Two of my five strengths are in the realm of empathy. I experienced an abusive relationship and I believe he was a narcissist. I know that there were red flags and I chose to ignore them. Because in my character, I’m very optimistic and very empathic, and I come from a dysfunctional family. It fits so many boxes.

There you go. Yes, you do. I feel terrible that I have to tell people to be more cynical, but I’m telling people, “Be more cynical.” If something doesn’t pass the smell test, pay attention. If you see a red flag, honor it. If you give somebody a second chance and they misuse it, there’s your answer. This person is probably not somebody who’s going to lean towards change. The earlier you figure this out, the more unscathed you will be when you get out but it’s when people say, “No, I’m going to try this. No, I’m going to try that.”

Sometimes narcissists meet people who are very distracted at the time they meet them. They’ve gone through a recent move or they recently left another relationship, those are people who are so prone to narcissists. They’re almost so busy with their own chaos that they’re not paying attention to all the red flags that the narcissist is showing them.

I can understand ignoring the red flags because it was a relationship and because I was in love. He put me on a pedestal and I believed all the beautiful promises, the fantasy that we created together. The one that I believed in and the one he just created to fool me or get me. How do I recognize the red flags when it comes to everyday people that are narcissists? Where you don’t have so much contact? You’re not in love with them. How can I recognize that fast?

Pay attention to how people make you feel. It always goes back to that Maya Angelou quote, “When someone shows you who they really are, believe them.” I think that when we see someone being dismissive, unempathetic, rude, or they’re dismissive of other people in a really harsh way, like they’re just really anxious and they don’t know what to say, I actually tend to be very quick to dismiss people maybe because of what it is I do for a living.

The challenge also, Orion, is that a lot of people have trouble with this. Because even when the red flag shows for them, they’re like, “This is not a nice person. This person is saying things that are very unkind. They’re being very disrespectful.” But the other people around you are saying, “Oh, it’s okay. They’re just a little anxious.” Other people are making excuses for them.

It can be very hard to be the one lone dissenting voice saying, “This makes me uncomfortable, I’m stepping away.” I’m talking about people saying, “This makes me uncomfortable so much so I’m going to leave this dinner.” You’re leaving dinner and everyone else is staying there with the narcissistic person.

So you almost feel like you might be missing out on stuff and to really be bold enough to say, “You know what? It’s not healthy for me to spend time with this person,” and tell other groups. I’ve run into this in a group I work with and it even came up recently again where this person who the first time he opened his mouth, it was so clear who and what he was.

Why? What was clear about it?

Because it was the way he spoke about his life. It was very grandiose, it was very pompous, it was very arrogant. I thought, “Okay, maybe he’s just a jerk.” It was clear he was insecure, which is why he was bragging so much about his silly life. Then, he started speaking poorly of other people’s lives.

I’m going to turn the example around so no one can identify, but here this person is saying like, “Hey, I’ve got this great life. I’ve got this really important job. Just so you know my wife is 25 years younger than me. We have a house on the beach and I just have the best life. In fact, I’m listening to all of you and I wouldn’t want your lives. Your lives living in small apartments, they sound awful. I’d much rather be me.” I was like, “Who is this guy?” I shut down. I wanted nothing further to do with this guy and I got to work with him several times a year.

As recently as a couple of weeks ago when I had to encounter this person, people were sharing very warm emotions of someone we all know and who we weren’t going to be able to see any longer. We’re all talking about it and when it came to his turn to speak, he said one nice thing about this person and then he turned it into a long speech about himself. After all these years and what’s interesting is everybody in the group keeps enabling him, keeps emboldening him, and I am the one who actually looks like a not nice person.

Again, this is what I do for a living. I said, “You guys, do you. Pay attention to his patterns, they’re not good for you and they sure as heck are not good for me.” Over time, people have come up here and they’re like, “We’re just indulging him because we need to group to work together.” I said, “I’m fine with that.” I was the head of the group, I said the group work had the best outcome with me running it, they really did. I don’t need to interact with this guy though. It’s not good for me.

What he kept trying to do is kept trying to win me over because I was the only member of the group he couldn’t. I’d always say I had to go to the bathroom like, “I’m so sorry. Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.” I had a whole list of excuses. I had to call my kid, I got to do this. It was his insecurity, what was coming up, and he’s very toxic. You see and sense it right away, but I had to feel strong enough that I was okay with other people’s disapproval. I was never rude to him, I was never intentionally cruel to him in a public group. I would often tune him out because of things he was saying were so offensive, but I didn’t have the final authority to shut this guy up.

We find ourselves in these situations all the time. I’ll meet friends of friends who I find to be quite narcissistic and I’ll sometimes even say to my friend, I’ll come up behind them and say, “I love you. This isn’t healthy for me, I’m going to stay for another hour but then I’m out.” Then I’d say, “This isn’t about you. I get that you have a history with this person, I don’t need one with them.” It really does me holding your ground but it’s a very funny space to be in because sometimes people think I’m not nice and they’ve called me a few choice names. I’m okay with it.

How do you know if he’s a jerk, he’s arrogant, or a narcissist? He or she.

You pay attention to things like empathy. If all that guy did, in my example, was brag about his house and his much younger wife, I would’ve thought this guy just sounds like a jerk. But when he started using that as a way to diminish other people, that’s when they started jumping the rails.

It’s all his bragging, “I have a plane and I have a boat. I went to Hawaii, I did this, and I did that.” You just read them as immature and insecure. I actually feel sorry for people like that. Once they started sticking it to other people like, “Don’t you envy my wife because your wife is very unattractive.” Then we’re done. You’re a narcissist.

When dealing with toxic partners, always remember that it's not because you are not enough. The other person simply is too foolish not to see your worth. Click To Tweet

Going back to what we spoke about at the beginning of the conversation, the boat, the life, the young wife, it’s all being rewarded on social media. It’s hard for people to really distinguish what’s good for them and what’s fake. It’s getting very confusing.

It is getting very confusing, I totally agree.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is the intentional and sometimes not intentional, but sure it sure as heck feels intentional, denial of another person’s reality in a way that you lead the other person feeling confused, crazy, and sometimes even anxious. Though it typically involves the denying of someone’s emotions. The most classical example of gaslighting is to tell someone who’s having a feeling, “You’re being too sensitive,” or, “You’re a crazy person,” or, “I never said that,” or, “That never happened,” or they’ll deflect.

You’ll bring up something that’s very important like, “Listen, it’s been taking me a few days to bring this up to you but this has made me really uncomfortable. You had said that you are no longer going to have dinner with that woman at work, it makes me a little uncomfortable and you promised me you would, and then yet here’s a photo of you guys at dinner together that someone took because they thought that was just a friend of mine, too. You clearly were at dinner together.” Then they will do something like, “How about we talk about that time 10 years ago when you went on a business trip?” They don’t address the issue at hand.

All of these gaslighting behaviors are considered manipulation and they qualify as emotional abuse because they’re designed to destabilize the other person. Let’s say we had our podcast set up today and then you contacted me today at one in the afternoon and you said, “Hey, we have an appointment for the podcast,” and I said, “No, we don’t, Orion. I never got your email.” You think, “What is this woman talking about?” and then you’d quickly go to your computer and check. You’d second guess yourself first before you would doubt me. Now imagine that happening every day multiple times a day across a variety of emotional issues and that’s what gaslighting is. It is one of the cruelest things you can do to another person.

A narcissist will get into your head by gaslighting in it. What other types of behaviors will it do to mess with your head?

The other things that they will do to get into your head is not just the gaslighting but all other forms of manipulation. One thing that a narcissist is very good at is studying a person. A lot of times when that’s happening, we think it’s because this person’s crazy about us, and they want to know everything about us, and they’re so interested in us. What they’re doing is they’re gathering weaponry. Once they know everything about you, including your vulnerabilities, I can all but guarantee you, they’re going to pull it out and use it against you in a fight.

They will spend a few months doing what I call their fact-finding. They will learn everything about you and they carefully put it away in the ammunition section of their brain. When you’re having an argument, they will come out and hit you with your own vulnerabilities. Your own fears and secrets. The things that you made yourself vulnerable to enough share with them and use them to shame you and they will often use shame.

They also use things like projection and denial. Denial is sort of a variation on gaslighting and projection is when they project the feeling or experience they’re having into you. They will literally blame you for things you’re not doing but that they’re doing. For many, they’re like, “What?” You’d feel like you’ve completely gone out of your mind.

I always say to people, projection’s actually very useful information. When you’re accused of something by a narcissist, that you absolutely know you didn’t do, it becomes a moment for you to realize that the narcissist is accusing you of what they’re doing. When a narcissist accuses you of cheating and you’re absolutely not cheating, I’m willing to bet the farm on the fact that they’re cheating on you.

They’d give you the information in these backward ways but you’re so busy defending yourself you don’t stop and listen and say, “How interesting that they’re accusing me of this? This is their stuff and now I know something about them.”

What are things should we listen to?

I would say too that what you want to look for in a narcissist is inconsistencies, they’re incredibly inconsistent. Again, a lot of this is all about their insecurity. They barely know who they are so they can be very inconsistent in their approach to another person.

The other thing is that they’re very hypocritical. They have one set of rules for themselves and they have another set of rules for everybody else. That confuses people in these relationships. They’re like, “Wait a minute, they said that’s okay for them but it’s not okay for me.” Then you’ll argue with them about it as anybody would, nobody likes hypocrisy. Then the narcissist will then start gaslighting you, blaming you, telling you that you’re petty. It’s very confusing but if you know you’re dealing with a narcissist, then you’re ready for hypocrisy, gaslighting, denial, deflection, and all that other stuff.

The other thing a narcissist does is they love bombing you, talked about being love-bombed in your relationship. It’s that early phase of the relationship where they put someone up on a pedestal. A pedestal is the last place you want to be on in your relationship. The reason I say that is, it hurts when you fall off of that.

With social media’s popularity, narcissism is not only normalized but also increasingly incentivized.

I know, it hurts so much when I did.

It’s because you didn’t belong there in the first place, nobody belongs on a pedestal. We all belong on pedestals, in which case let’s get rid of the pedestals and all of us will stand on the ground where we belong. The challenge is that we want to be on that pedestal, we want the fairytale, and narcissists are great to the fairytale because they block them from the idea of real life. They live in fantasies because the fantasies come true.

I used to receive poems and letters that are written in this beautiful Shakespearean language about how much I was loved and how amazing I was. It was a great boost for my confidence, my ego, and I was like, “I’m so in love and he loves me so much. This is it.”

Because we’re sold to fairytales. The real fairytale is that you get to know someone gradually over time yet you hold on to your own identity. You don’t spend 24/7 with them immediately. You take your time, you pace it well, you become friends, you slowly develop trust.

You look with suspicion on extravagant gifts and extravagant experiences wondering, what is this hiding? It’s like someone putting on perfume instead of taking a shower. Because I’m thinking like, “What smell are you trying to hide here because this is a lot and I want to get to know you,” and they’ll laugh that off. That love bombing is very classical. It doesn’t happen in every narcissistic relationship. A lot of people fall in love with the fairytale. If people are suspicious of love bombing, they’ll get criticized for being cynical. There’s that piece.

Then after love bombing, once you finally let down your guard and say, “I think I’m in love with this person.” That’s when the narcissist starts to devalue you. It’s very complicated, but to simplify it is that the narcissist is so insecure that at some level if you’re willing to love them they start to become suspicious of you. On an unconscious level, they feel worthless. Now you love them like you got to be no good.

They also get bored very quickly. They don’t like the idea of putting all their eggs in one basket so they want other sources of narcissistic supply and validation. Then they start to devalue you, they might find other sources of supply. Now they got you where they want you, they don’t need to love bomb you anymore.

After the devaluing period takes place, they discard you. They’re no longer interested. They may have an affair and they may end the relationship. They also may want a hot and cold. A lot of people say, “I can’t get rid of my narcissism. They just won’t go away. I wish they would just end it because I don’t have the courage to end it.”

Many times narcissists love the window dressing of a relationship. They love looking like a family man or woman to the world. They like their house, they like their Christmas cards, they like their vacations, but they have contempt for the actual relationship. The person stuck in that relationship with them, over time they realize that they’re just a puppet in a theater. It’s a very destabilizing feeling because many times many of us do get caught up in that rat race of like, “I got to look good to the world. I have a fantasy of having a really happy family and all that.” It is just that, it’s a fantasy.

My now-husband, we met at Tony Robbins’ event, A Date With Destiny, and after six days of doing a lot of inner work, we really fell for each other really quickly. He invited me to go to Vegas and he proposed on a hot air balloon nine days after we met.

Your current husband?



I said no because I had the experience with the other guy. I was like, “No.”

Good for you.

It was a painful descent into the earth, but it was very important that we really take our time and get to know each other, grow together, and understand each other before we really commit. Then nine months later he took me to the same place where I prayed for him to show up and he proposed there and I said yes.

See that is a great story because I think a lot of people would’ve felt pressured during that balloon ride.

Narcissism is the problem of our time. There is an alarming increase in depression and anxiety among children and young adults. Click To Tweet

A diamond ring on a balloon ride, it’s really special.

It’s all very exciting and you’re like, “If I say no to this, am I going to end up alone forever? Is this one going to go away?”

Yeah. The statistics say that 80% or 90% of people don’t propose again.

Right and so armed with all that, you may have agreed to something until you finally did do the deep dive and figured it out. I would be curious for you to go to your husband one day and say, “What were you thinking? Nine days in, going up in a balloon and asking me.”

I asked him and he was like, “I just knew it. It was a down low.”

Okay, and the interesting thing is that I would also say this is not normative. What else was happening? Maybe he was afraid of losing you so he wanted to seal the deal really quickly. We have to do the deeper dives and wonder when there is a rush. There is often sometimes a more dysfunctional reason to rush because if it’s going to work, then with the time it will and that you are open and honest about that. Anyone who’s ever going through a divorce will say it’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever go through even if it’s what you want.

I think many people who’ve turned marriage into a circus, we’ve really stripped a lot of the intimacy away from it. That’s because so many people are getting into marriages with narcissists instead of seeing it for what it is. I know a lot of people out there are very cynical about marriage, I understand that.

When you dismantle as many as I do, you really stop believing in it, but what I believe in is closeness, intimacy, healthy, respectful relationships. You want to put a contract on it, that’s great. If you don’t, that’s great. To me, the core is respect, kindness, compassion, reciprocity, mutuality, all the good stuff. That’s what makes a marriage last. Unfortunately, narcissists can’t do any of that stuff.

How fast can you recognize a narcissist?

Me personally, I’m trying to get the new world land speed record on this one, pretty quick. For me, it’s quick but it’s because this is maturely what I do for a living. I can recognize it when the client walks into my office. I think for many people, it takes a while and it should take a while. I think we want to be very careful about slapping the label on someone two seconds after you meet.

Even if they are joking, I know it right away. I’m leery when I started hearing how some people behave and I’ve cut them a little slack for social anxiety. Then I’ll do my best to put them at ease and if that’s not working I’m like, “Okay, I’m starting to understand.” I might even do some of my background research into the person and say, “What is this person about?”

I think most people aren’t that plugged into it. What you’ll often hear is that they’ll do the cut someone slack thing, they’re a little anxious, they’re feeling awkward, or they’ll say, “He’s just a little arrogant but he doesn’t mean it. His bark is worse than his bite,” kind of thing. People make a lot of excuses for them.

While I get all of that, make the excuses but also keep your eyes wide open because I have watched people who have been harmed by narcissists lose tens of millions in their businesses, lose their businesses, lose their marriages, lose custody of their kids. This is not a joke. It’s easy to think like, “This is just a date going bad.” I’ve seen people lose their entire livelihoods and hearts over how damaging these relationships can be.

My relationship, I was shattered completely, but when I look back, I see it as my greatest gift because I think then, I really learned what empathy was.

Yes. I tell everybody, because most of my work and my seminars and my retreats and all of that, are about survival and thriving after narcissistic abuse. I tell people, “Believe it or not, this was one of the most important lessons you’re ever going to get because it was when you had to finally recognize you were worth more than this.”

A lot of people say, “Listen, my head is stuck. How come I wasn’t enough?” I said, “You are enough. That other person was too foolish not to see it.” People tend to internalize it rather than seeing that the narcissist isn’t able to see the beauty in front of them. It’s almost like those sad people who are at the Grand Canyon and looking at their phone instead of the Grand Canyon. That’s what a narcissist does. They look at their phone instead of looking at you and the beauty in front of them. That’s their problem. That’s not because you’re not beautiful. It’s because the narcissist is limited and stunted.

Well said.

Thank you.

What if you have a family member who is a narcissist and you cannot break the relationship? You have to see them, you have to interact with them. How do you deal with that?

You set boundaries. I always tell people there’s a two-word answer for dealing with every narcissist in your life. Those two words are simply realistic expectations. I think a lot of people get hurt especially when it’s their parents because they’ve been struggling with their parents’ narcissism since they were kids. Now as adults, they’re still struggling in some ways with things that make them feel like kids again.

If you have realistic expectations, if you know your mother’s always going to be disappointed, if you know your father’s always going to be critical, if you know your brother’s always going to be invalidating, that means that every interaction you have with that person is going to be characterized by that. So you go in expecting that.

It’s almost like if you go out in the wintertime in a city like Chicago, you know it’s going to be cold. If you walk out in your bathing suit to be shocked like it’s Chicago and it’s February, what are you doing? You’re dealing with your invalidating mother and you’re upset because she invalidated you. It’s important to go through therapy to have the moment to work through what those feelings are because they’re very painful and to grieve those feelings. But then over time, you have to have realistic expectations.

What that means, and I often tell people, have a list of topics that you can talk about with this person. You can talk about the weather, find something that’s in the news that’s neutral that you can talk about. You can say, “Hey look, the neighbors painted their house blue. Do you like their blue house?” People would say that’s so superficial and boring, but it beats the heck out of being invalidated.

You have to see the limitations of your family. A lot of people struggle with that. They want to believe their family is something it’s not. Until they can get to that full acceptance and I call it radical acceptance as other people call it too. Radical acceptance, realistic expectations, and boundaries. When you do all of that, you can create space. Like I tell people, it’s the little things. Maybe you don’t have to sleep in their house, maybe you stay in a hotel, or you drive or fly back the same night. You set things up structurally in a way to make it as comfortable as possible but you also know that they are going to disappoint you and it does hurt because they are your family.

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It does. I have someone in my family and so many times it’s almost like I’m a glutton for punishment. I come back and I’m expecting something different. I’m expecting it to be warm outside and it’s not. Until a few years down the road I decided to have realistic expectations and it still hurts, and I don’t like superficial conversations.

Listen, do some people finally divorce themselves from their family or their family members? Sure, some people do. They realize after having nothing but superficial conversations for five years like this is totally pointless and the relationship starts to fade.

The problem is when you keep going in thinking “Well, this time it’s going to be different, this time they’re going to understand me. This time they’re going to hear me,” that’s when you keep getting hurt. But if you really walk in and say, “I know this person’s a jerk, they’re not listening to me. They don’t care about me, they don’t care what happens to me.”

But you also want to go in with the spirit of civility. You want to go in and say, “I’m not going to be a bad person. I’ll go in with my little list of topics, I’ll help with the dishes.” Sometimes I say that’s the other thing you can do, is to offer to help with little things. That way you don’t have to make a conversation. Maybe your parents have a garden that needs to be weeded, go weed their garden then you don’t need to talk to them.

That’s wonderful, wow. Thank you for everything that you shared. It’s very enlightening and very great.

Thank you so much.

Before we say goodbye for now, what are your three top tips to living a stellar life? My next question is, where can people find you and go to your Youtube channel, attend your seminars, and all that good stuff?

I think those three tips would be number one, know your own value and everybody is valuable so that you don’t sort of pawn yourself off to these narcissists. You talk a good game, but they don’t see your value, that’s number one.

Number two, stop giving over the best of yourself to the most toxic, difficult people in your life. I often say that people give over 90% of themselves to the most difficult people in their lives and 10% to the good ones. Flip the math. Give 90% of yourself to the good people and that little 10% you need to give to the toxic people to get through the day. Do it that way.

Number three, I always tell people don’t be afraid of therapy. Give it a shot. For some people, it might be a few sessions, for some people it might be years. We still live in a culture where we pathologize therapy and therapy done well with a well-trained therapist can really be a place where you can start getting in touch with you. I think too many people wait until things in their life are going wrong to go to therapy, like getting an oil change. The good time to go to therapy is actually when things are going well so you can really feel self-possessed and know who you are so then if you do run into a toxic relationship, you’re prepared to handle it.

Beautiful, and how can people find you?

Should I Stay or Should I Go by Dr. Ramani Durvasula

You can find me on my website, which is doctor-ramani.com and there you’ll find links to my books. My two most recent books are about narcissism. The most recent one came out in October, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. The book before that is called Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist. Those will give you a lot of pointers.

My Youtube channel is chock full of videos that help people. It’s like a veritable library of everything on narcissism. That’s just Doctor Ramani, type that in on Youtube, go to our channel, subscribe and you’ll get tons of great narcissism content that’s very cutting edge.

Then if you go to my Instagram, also @doctorramani, that you’ll also be kept posted on not only daily thoughts on narcissism but my upcoming seminars and retreats which we do all over the world.

Whoever’s listening to this you can find me live, you can find me on my books, you can find me on my videos, and then join our community. It’s a wonderful robust community of survivors and people who are curious about how to keep their lives less toxic and free of narcissists.

Thank you, Doctor Ramani.

My pleasure. Thank you, Orion, for having me.

Thank you and thank you, listeners.

Your Checklist of Actions to Take

{✓} Steer clear of toxic social media culture. Remember, your social media accounts are just tools, not your identity. 
{✓} Don’t overcrowd your system with too much information. Pressuring yourself to do more than you can, normally, is not healthy for your mental health. Driving yourself to exhaustion isn’t okay.  
{✓} Refrain from shaming other people’s emotions especially when they are feeling sad or ashamed, and vice versa.
{✓} Be aware if a person is gaslighting you. It is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person makes you question your own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking low self-esteem.
{✓} Don’t share everything all at once at the beginning of a relationship. It’s important to build trust along the way because a narcissist can use your vulnerability against you.
{✓} Remember the core of a healthy relationship: respect, kindness, compassion, reciprocity, and mutuality. 
{✓} Prioritize your wellbeing before others. You cannot pour from an empty cup. Therefore, it’s difficult to take care of others when you are not feeling good about yourself.
{✓} Don’t hesitate to seek help from a therapist when you feel it’s necessary. Even people without mental health diagnoses can benefit from professional advice on how to cope and deal with life and a place to vent. 
{✓} If you’re a parent, be a role model and refrain from spending too much time on your phone. Reducing screen time for children can help them develop better cognitive skills and social awareness.
{✓} Learn how to spot a narcissist when you read Dr. Ramani Durvasula’s book, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.

Links and Resources

About Dr. Ramani Durvasula

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a psychologist, professor, author, and speaker. Her most recent book. “Don’t You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility” provides a deep on how narcissism is impacting all of us, what it is, and what we can do about it. Her work focuses on the impact of narcissism, entitlement, incivility and high conflict personalities on our relationship, health, workplaces, and the world at large.

Disclaimer: The medical, fitness, psychological, mindset, lifestyle, and nutritional information provided on this website and through any materials, downloads, videos, webinars, podcasts, or emails are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical/fitness/nutritional advice, diagnoses, or treatment. Always seek the help of your physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, certified trainer, or dietitian with any questions regarding starting any new programs or treatments or stopping any current programs or treatments. This website is for information purposes only, and the creators and editors, including Orion Talmay, accept no liability for any injury or illness arising out of the use of the material contained herein, and make no warranty, express or implied, with respect to the contents of this website and affiliated materials.

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