Christa Alexander is Clinical Director of Heart Thyself, LLC, which focuses on narcissistic abuse recovery; here is a link to her website:
Q: What is your professional and educational background?
A: I completed my undergraduate degree at Syracuse University with a B.A. in French. I had originally planned to go back to France to teach English as a second language. It’s a bit of a long story, but I didn’t go, and instead I eventually moved back to Portland, OR where I grew up. I wasn’t sure where to go from there. I stewed over it for a few years, and after slumming through several jobs in corporate America decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I realized I needed to get my Masters degree so I could do something other than office work. I got back in touch with myself, with my passions, and through a series of connections was led to counseling. I then spent 5 years getting my M.A. in counseling from Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. My first counseling experience was as a motivational interviewer at the Salvation Army ARC, and then I moved to a clinic at the Grotto Counseling Center in Portland which had a much more private practice feel. As soon as I graduated I opened my own private practice and I’ve been counseling ever since.
Q: What kind of research have you done regarding narcissism?
A: At this point I am not a researcher. I am more focused in my practice on clinical work with clients. Personally I have not conducted my own research on narcissism, but I may move in that direction at some point. I do follow the work of some other people, such as Dr. Karyl McBride and Alice Miller.
Q: How can one identify a narcissist?
A: Great question! Often, it is hard to spot them right away, especially if you don’t know what you are looking for. They come in a variety of shapes and forms. They can be male or female from any socioeconomic background. At first they can seem like amazing, charismatic people that can easily impress, naturally lead, and are quick to charm anyone they come into contact with. They are very image focused so they go to great lengths to create the perfect image for themselves.
The best way to determine if you are experiencing a narcissist is to see what kind of empathy skills they have. Can they see and understand the world from your perspective and from the perspective of others? Are they able to show compassion for people in need? What is their EQ level? If you find that empathy is non-existent than you are most likely engaging with a narcissistic individual.
If you’d like to watch some utterly savage narcissists in action, just watch Mad Men. Focus specifically on Don Draper and Peter Campbell. This show is extremely well done, even in its portrayal of the victims of the narcissistic abuse, such as Betty Draper-Francis. Focus specifically on Peter though because he tends to show the harsh cruelty that is intrinsic to narcissism.
Q: What makes someone attracted to a narcissistic personality type?
A: A narcissist will wine and dine you, shower you with praise, show you off with pride, admire you and compliment you. That is hard to resist. They have mastered the art of charming anyone and everyone. If you haven’t developed good boundaries or know what to look for, any person could be caught in this web.
Often times adults who were raised in a narcissistic family system or had some kind of narcissistic parent will then gravitate towards narcissistic partners simply because it feels familiar. Adults tend to try and work out their unresolved conflict with their opposite sex parent with their spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, partner, lover, etc. So a woman who has been raised by a narcissistic dad, for example, will then often times grow up and be drawn to a narcissistic man simply because the dynamic feels familiar and she hasn’t done any work around her unmet developmental needs. Keep in mind that it isn’t inevitable that this will happen, it is just not uncommon.
Q: What do you think causes someone to be a narcissist?
A: Many times a narcissistic wound can develop in infancy. If a baby is not being cared for, if no one is responding to his or her cries for food and comfort, they develop mistrust. Shame begins to grow. They do not feel worthy. If their primary caregiver did not find them worthy enough to care for appropriately, then they must be a “bad person”. This is the idea that they internalize.
This is an example of the dynamic that takes place. A child will grow up with so much shame and rejection, will be dismissed in many ways and not valued so the narcissistic defense develops. They are unable to grow into adulthood with a healthy understanding of themselves and the world. Instead, they feel deeply ashamed. So much so that they spend their lives trying to hide it, avoid it, and cover it up with their image because they are trying to feel better about themselves. The self-absorption takes over.
Ultimately a narcissistic person is someone who feels so badly about themselves, so insecure and full of anxiety that they are overtaken with trying to make those feelings go away. They build up a wall around themselves so they can’t be hurt again. They feel so badly about themselves inside that their whole life then becomes focused on building an amazing image, being surrounded by incredible people, promoting themselves, etc. because this is how they find their self-worth. Unfortunately it tends to hurt anyone they come into contact with because they haven’t developed empathy. They can only focus on themselves and everything they do is to make themselves feel better about existing in the world.
Q: What are some of the methods you use to treat someone who has been abused by a narcissist?
A: When people come to therapy for narcissistic abuse recovery one of the first things we start working on is identity. When you have been raised by narcissists you don’t have a loving empathic parent who reflects your identity back to you. Instead, you have a parent who projects themselves onto you. A narcissistic parent sees their children as extensions of themselves. They do not see their children as authentic individuals.
When kids grow up with this they go out into the world confused, lost, and even unsure how to think for themselves. They tend to be very codependent because they have been raised to meet the needs of their parent, not to live an independent life. In therapy we do a lot of work around codependency, developing identity, how to set up boundaries, and ultimately self-care. These are some key areas people need to develop when they have experienced narcissistic abuse. Even adults who are experiencing the abuse from another adult, whether it’s a romantic relationship or a friendship, still need to work through these key issues.
Q: What’s the difference between a narcissist, an egomaniac and a megalomaniac?
A: HAHA, nice! Not a lot of difference. These different terms are used to emphasize different parts of narcissism. Narcissist is a much more clinical term used to describe a condition anywhere from a basic narcissistic wound to full blown narcissistic personality disorder. Egomaniac is a term that emphasizes a person’s obsessive preoccupation with themselves. Megalomaniac (that term cracks me up!) is used to describe a psychological condition someone has when they are obsessed with delusional thoughts and fantasies of wealth, power or omnipotence. I don’t hear many therapists using this term, although they do liven up the conversation. Personally I would refer to a megalomaniac as a full blown pathological narcissist.
Q: What was your most challenging case?
A: Sorry, due to confidentiality I am unable to discuss my cases. I will say though that narcissists don’t tend to come to therapy unless they are mandated by the court for example. Another reason could be if they have come to a point in life where they are in so much emotional pain due to everyone in their lives finally leaving them, that they give counseling a try. This would most likely happen later in life as the typical narcissist believes they are perfect and definitely not in need of therapy.
Q: Do you think social media and (ahem) blogging is making people more self absorbed?
A: I don’t know that social media in itself is making people more self-absorbed. I do think it has become an outlet for self promotion and image building. Like anything, this can be carried to the extreme. We have moved towards a virtual society. Many people spend more time with their friends on Facebook than they do in person. That isn’t going to change. That is just the way our culture is functioning now.
Social media certainly enables people to feed their narcissism. They begin to base their self worth on their online image; how many Facebook friends they have, how many “likes” they get, etc. They carefully tailor how others perceive them by what pictures they post and what kind of statuses they share. These tend to be always positive and flattering. Someone who already had narcissistic tendencies will definitely escalate in their self-promoting obsession as they use social media more and more.
Studies have shown that people who spend several hours a day on Facebook tend to be more narcissistic than others. I didn’t conduct that study, it’s just some information I have come across.
I don’t think social media has to make people more narcissistic. If you use it to enhance your life instead of show it off it can be fun and a great way to connect with people.
Q: What famous person (living or dead) exhibits a text book example of NPD?
A: Well…I’d rather not mention one of the dozens of raving narcissists who are alive today. Considering their issues with image I wouldn’t want to risk coming home to a hit man in my apartment. There are so many in our society that I could name though…alive and well, bullying people through the media, politics, corporate powermongering, etc…Some of them need a time out.
A text book example of a deceased narcissist, may he rest in peace, is Pablo Picasso. I’m kind of an art junkie so he easily comes to mind for me. Obsessed with power, control, domination, and perfection, he got what he wanted, whenever he wanted it, as much of it as he wanted. He was above the rules, demanded rules didn’t apply to him, and ruthlessly made his way to the top while taking out whomever he could and wanted on his way (the fact that he was a genius didn’t hurt either). He had affairs, abused his children, ranted, raved, deceived and got his way no matter what. He hurt many people and left a legacy of crippling pain to his children. Very sad.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)