Narcissism and high self-esteem – how can we tell them apart? It may be difficult to tell if someone is self-absorbed or rightfully self-assured as they may present in a similar manner. Confidence is extremely important in helping one set the foundation for a healthy way of living, promoting personal growth, success, and a sense of fulfilment. On the other hand, a narcissist’s self-absorption would hinder said personal growth, and such a way of thinking enables a toxic lifestyle.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is defined as comprising a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts. For one to be diagnosed with NPD, the individual must fulfil the following, as indicated by the presence of at least 5 of the following 9 criteria:
A grandiose sense of self-importance
A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
A need for excessive admiration
A sense of entitlement
Interpersonally exploitative behaviour
A lack of empathy
Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her
A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviours or attitudes
However, not everyone with NPD will get a clear diagnosis from a mental health professional. It is rare for someone with NPD to commit to seeking help, openly talk about their thoughts, or even attend a therapy session. Here are some points to consider when wondering if someone is confident or narcissistic.
Are they self-focused?
A narcissistic person may be obsessed with grandiosity, fantasising about achieving unlimited power, acceptance and resources, so much that they believe they deserve it more than others. As such, narcissism can be associated with the need to dominate others. However, a person with a healthy self-esteem will be inclined to establish deeper relationships with the people around them. Narcissism involves the inability to see beyond one’s self-interests, while self-confidence extends beyond self-focus, and to the needs of others.
Do they have a strong sense of entitlement and a tendency to exploit others?
As we have explored, people with NPD might feel they deserve more than others and have a strong sense of entitlement. This can manifest as the tendency to manipulate and exploit others to achieve their desires. Tactics such as spreading lies about others to get ahead are common, as they put personal gain above everything else.
Do they crave affirmation?
Praise, attention and affirmation are important to a narcissistic individual. With the need to fuel their sense of specialness, they may crave a constant expression of admiration and praise from others. Of course, we do not deny that everyone needs to be affirmed and encouraged to build self-confidence. However, unlike truly self-confident individuals, narcissists are hyper-sensitive to such attention and crave continual affirmations for emotional stability. Without them, they may feel disconnected, and even resent those who don’t think what they’re doing and saying is exceptional.
Do they have difficulty accepting constructive criticism?
Despite the sense of specialness and outward sense of superiority, people with NPD may in fact struggle with pervasive feelings of insecurity. A subtype of NPD, covert narcissism, can enable one to be defensive and over-sensitive to criticism. While the criticism may be a constructive one, they may treat it as a personal attack and react strongly against it. Their replies may be laced with contempt or passive-aggressiveness. This helps them seek relief and protect their self-esteem.
How do they respond to success?
We are all prone to a little envy when we compare ourselves to people of higher social status or with greater achievements – but how we manage this sense of envy sets a confident person and a narcissist apart. In order to uphold their image and take the spotlight, a narcissist might put others down and attribute their successes to luck or financial background instead of acknowledging their skills or character. Moreover, these may be baseless comments. In contrast, while a self-confident person may also feel envious at times, they are less likely to dim someone else’s light in order to prove their worth.
Hence, for persons with NPD, why is it important for them to seek therapy? Narcissism is found to be associated with externalising behaviour, including alcohol or substance abuse, antisocial behaviour, and aggression. These can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle and can be detrimental in the long run if no proper treatment is received.
While the pointers in this article may act as a guideline to help you differentiate between a confident person and a narcissist, a diagnosis for NPD should be left to trained mental health professionals only. While it may be tempting to label someone with a personality disorder or to make judgements with such information, the presentation of mental health conditions goes far beyond a few attitudes or behaviours. If you believe a family member or a close friend is in need of an assessment and therapy for NPD, feel free to contact us for more information.
The Straits Times spoke with Senior Forensic Psychologist June Fong about her thoughts about “Some clinics see an uptick in young people seeking help for mental health issues”.
She shared: “I think the incident… has actually opened a lot of parents’ eyes to the stressors that children are facing, while previously in the past, they might have just brushed them aside and dismissed them.”
The year 2020 saw a rise in uncertainties. Many have experienced anxiety, job loss, a strain on finances and family relationships due to the impact of the pandemic. By default, couples need to adjust to working from homes, with blurred boundaries between work and family, lesser personal space and challenges in new routines. They may not have readily communicated effectively about their roles, given the constant changes in adjusting to tightening and lifting measures. Coupled with the labour crunch, families may find it increasingly formidable or costly to hire a helper to care for children, who are required to stay home for home-based learning or the care of elderly parents who may be weak and frail. This may inevitably lead to unresolved conflicts between the couple due to the stress and demands of constant transition and change. In 2020, a survey for mums showed that 60% of the participants rated their stress level at a 7 out of 10. In addition, 3 out of 10 of the participants felt sad most of the time.
Children and young people are not spared from the raging wave of anxiety. According to a survey conducted by Focus on the Family, kids are more anxious about exams than Covid 19 (The Straits Times, 18 Sep 2020). However, in an international study of 72 countries (including Singapore), only 6% of teens share their problems with their families (Impact of the Pandemic on Family Life Across Cultures 2020, Namad Bin Kalifa University). No wonder the CEO of the Institute of Mental Health says that “Gen Z faces different forms of stress, maybe more anxious, depressed than others before them (Today, updated on 1 Mar 2021).” President Halimah also urged Singapore to step up efforts to protect children’s mental health early (The Straits Times, 2 Dec 2020).
Given the tremendous stress that kids and adults are facing, families are stretched very thinly. Therefore, they ought to rise above their concern of seeking a mental health facility to deal with their issues early, so that family members can get the professional help they need.
It is timely for the family to consider attending family therapy to address and deal with the mental well-being issues, be it stress or anxiety collectively.
You may have some questions about family therapy, and here are some FAQs that seek to answer your questions.
Why Family Therapy?
Having to deal with unhealthy family dynamics constantly puts a toll on one’s mental wellness.Family therapy focuses on improving family communication; it deals with family conflicts, seeks and creates better functioning and environment. It provides family members with an opportunity to talk about how they think and feel, being affected by the issue they face. It enhances skills to facilitate healing. Therefore marriage and family therapy are essential.
Family therapy shifts the focus from blame, diagnostical lens, linear causality, and looks at circular causality in an issue. For example, a teen who exhibits school refusal may be staying home because of his worry and caregiving role to his mum, who is in chronic health and has a strained marital relationship with her spouse. It helps the family understand the issue confronting them in the family context and the larger contexts, i.e. the pandemic.
Family Therapy is often used to help treat an individual’s problem that has dire effects on the entire family, i.e. depression, anxiety and behavioural issues. This type of psychotherapy is also helpful in addressing family-centric problems, i.e. conflicts between spouses, siblings, parents and children.
What is Family Therapy?
Family therapy is psychotherapy designed to identify family patterns that may have contributed to behavioural or mental well-being concerns. The idea is to help family members break those habits as the family therapist involves the family in discussion and problem-solving.
What can I expect when my family and I attend a Family Therapy session?
During family systems therapy, the family therapist works individually and collaboratively to resolve their issue, which directly affects one or more family members. Each family member has the space to say what they think and how they feel as the issue affects them. For example, when a teen has anxiety issues, a family member gets to talk about how this issue impacts them.
How long is each session and how long is the therapy period?
1.5 hours per session over a period of 4-8 sessions, subject to review with your family therapist. Family therapy is a specialised counselling process. No one is a miracle worker. It takes time and commitment for the family to work through their issues.
Are family therapists trained?
Yes, systemic family therapists are trained with a Masters in Family and Systemic Psychotherapy, a specialised skills competency in systemic couple and family work. It draws on systems thinking and views the family as a unit. It evaluates the parts of the system (individual) in relation to the whole (family) and examines how an issue of one or more members of the family affects the whole family. It suggests that a family member’s behaviour or issue may be embedded in the family dynamics and influenced by the family of origin issues.
Family Therapists would have undergone at least 560 hours of academic instruction and supervised clinical practice, accompanied by years of experience.
When should my family and I attend Family Therapy?
It is always helpful to seek family therapy early before the issue snowballs and becomes more difficult or complicated to manage at the later stage.
Who should attend Family Therapy?
Immediate Family members in a family nucleus should attend Family Therapy, i.e. couples, parents, children (includes teens and adult children) siblings.
Does my whole family need to attend? What happens if I am unable to get all my family members to attend Family Therapy?
It will be helpful if your family can attend therapy together. However, it is okay if not all family members can turn up for therapy. The family therapist will collaborate with the members who come for therapy sessions.
How do I prepare for Family Therapy?
Discuss with your family members about attending therapy together. Think and write down what you want to discuss before each session. Then, ask your family therapist how you want to improve the communication in the family.
Is there confidentiality?
Yes, the session is confidential under the Singapore Data Protection Act 2012 (“Act”).
Winifred Ling, spoke with thehomeground.asia about failing marriages. Read on to find out her thoughts in the article below.
In Singapore, the law states that there is only one reason for divorce to be granted – the irretrievable breakdown of marriage. Currently, this must be proven by one or more of five facts: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, separation of three years with consent, or separation of four years without consent.
A sixth fact was recently introduced as a proposed amendment to the Women’s Charter, divorce by mutual agreement of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.
This amendment enables couples to take joint responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage. Mr Ivan Cheong, a partner in family and divorce law at Withers Khattarwong, notes that the changes would benefit more couples who wish to go their separate ways amicably, and do not want to have to find fault with the other party’s behaviour to obtain a divorce.
“Often, the act of having to list out the faults of the other party as a means of seeking dissolution of the marriage increases animosity, and may result in each party trying to pin fault on the other,” says Mr Cheong.
While Mr Cheong welcomes the development, he adds that he doesn’t think divorce rates would increase simply because of the introduction of the option. “This option does not make it easier for parties to get a divorce, or render divorce as the default option simply because parties have minor disagreements in their marriages”, he says, pointing out that certain safeguards will be put in place.
So, how do you know when it is worth fighting for your marriage, or when it is truly time to think about splitting up?
Red flags in a marriage
The late American author and journalist Mignon McLaughlin once said, “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person”.
But what if that fails to happen?
Dr Edmund Wong, principal family life educator, and Ms Chang Mun Lan, senior family life educator at TOUCH Integrated Family Group, says that some common problems that married couples go through include unrealistic and unmet expectations, unmanaged conflicts, relationships with in-laws, financial matters, and personality or cultural differences.
These recurring problems could even get worse, if left unacknowledged. Here are some warning signs to look out for.
1. Total breakdown of communication
Arguments happen in all marriages, even healthy ones. But there may be situations where the couple can no longer spend time together without constantly getting into arguments and would rather be physically apart from each other as much as possible, says Mr Cheong.
“It’s a major red flag where couples refuse or are unable to talk civilly with each other, preferring to spend as much time away from the other spouse as possible and where they start keeping separate households, either by living physically apart or in separate bedrooms.”
2. Lack of physical closeness and companionship
A lack of physical intimacy and physical affection, including hugging, kissing and holding hands, can be signs of greater problems to come. It could start off with reasons such as busy work schedules, being preoccupied with the children or household matters, or even a major event such as the loss of a close family member.
However, these could easily lead to spouses getting habituated to the momentary dry spell, and start feeling increasingly distant from one another. Over time, either spouse may begin to experience abandonment issues.
3. Being emotionally checked out
Another major red flag is a lack of awareness, interest and knowledge in what your spouse is doing. Ms Winifred Ling, a couples therapist and relationship coach with Winslow Clinic, Promises Healthcare, says that when you have checked out emotionally, you are “living a parallel life and see nothing wrong with it”. The person may feel alone in the marriage and yearn to regain independence by cutting off emotional connection with his or her spouse. “You stop making the effort to take the initiative to be kind. Instead, you engage in a ‘waiting and comparison’ game where you refuse to be the one to reach out to your partner but you want your partner to make the first move’.”
In such cases, Ms Ling adds, the couple has forgotten why they share a life together – and they engage in negative communications such as criticisms, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
4. Violence or abuse
Abuse does not necessarily have to be a slap or a kick in the stomach. Besides physical abuse, there may be instances where a spouse controls, bullies, or even threatens the other party. Some signs include blaming the other for everything that goes wrong, throwing things when angry, constantly yelling at the other to make him or her feel small, threatening loved ones, or controlling the other party’s expenses, as well as who he or she goes out with.
5. Presence of a third party
Infidelity is a clear warning sign that the marriage is on the rocks. But third parties can come in other forms. Addiction – be it social media, alcohol, gambling, video games and so on, can easily become a third party in the marriage. You may find that your scrolling through Facebook and Instagram is putting a dent in your couple-time and relationship, or that you are constantly sneaking or making excuses to get a drink. If these actions make you feel guilty and make you feel like you are cheating on your spouse, it’s a huge red flag and a sign that your relationship needs help.
Is it time to say goodbye?
There may be situations where staying in the marriage is more detrimental to the psychological and emotional health of both individuals. Ms Ling explains that it can be exhausting for the couple to be “living a fake life”. “The dishonesty and inauthenticity will take a toll on them emotionally,” she says.
In addition, it can also affect other members of the family. There may be cases where the couple fights so much that the mental well-being of the children is compromised and they grow up in a high-conflict environment. “Some parents may also feel guilty about giving the wrong impression to their children of what a marriage should be,” Ling adds.
It remains to be seen whether the introduction of the option for couples to mutually agree to divorce will have an impact on divorce rates. But experts seem to agree that the change would be beneficial in that a long-drawn, acrimonious divorce process could be avoided. With the new option, the two parties would file as applicant and respondent, compared to the current proceedings where they would file as plaintiff and defendant.
Mr Cheong says he had previously received feedback from parties and other family lawyers that “having to recount past conflicts and play the ‘blame game’ by finding fault with the other party’s behaviour as a reason for the breakdown of the marriage causes further animosity between the parties.
Even more importantly, NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser is of the view that a simplified track would surface what could have ended up hidden. He says, “It reduces the acrimony or the prospect of having to put up with a broken, through apparently intact marriage.”
He also adds one could argue that a broken marriage would lead to a divorce in any case, the only difference is not in the “divorce statistics, but in causing further hurt and pain”.
Recognise when you need help
But it doesn’t necessarily mean that your marriage is doomed, even if you have ticked off one, or more, of the above warning signs.
Research has shown that marital relationships can be repaired if both parties are willing to put in the effort to make things work, by addressing the hurt and pain, understanding each other’s perspectives and taking active steps to hear each other out.
Dr Wong and Ms Chan add that marriages need consistent effort and nurturing. They recommend a marital health check on a regular basis, for instance, once every two years, or in preparation for transitions in life, such as parenthood or career changes. It could highlight the areas of growth in the relationship and guide couples towards areas that may be causing tensions, and help nip any potential issues in the bud.
Research shows that couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before getting help – by which time a lot of hurt and resentment has built up. Ms Ling urges couples to seek help at the first sign of trouble. “This can be as early as the first year of marriage when you notice that there are perpetual issues that keep surfacing and you simply can’t find ways to resolve them.”
If you think a divorce is the best option for you, seek professional help in guiding you through the process. Look at the motivation and reasons for the split and assess if the situation is salvageable or not, she says.
“Divorce doesn’t just affect the couple, it affects the extended family as well”.
I made an analysis of the 10 Rules of Marriage that I found on the internet recently and received several requests for proactive and positive rules that couples can abide by.
Based on what I understand and practise as a relationship expert, I came up withWinifred’s10 “rules” that I hope will encourage you to invest in your marriage or relationship.These rules are derived from the principles used in Gottman Method Couples Therapy as well as Applied Positive Psychology that I am skilled in.
While I call them “rules”, they are not cast in stone. Pick and decide with your partner on the rules that are most relevant to your current stage of relationship. Let’s dive in and look at each of them.
Be a safe harbour to each other
What this means is that you will be the person that your partner will turn to for connection, support, comfort and love. There is intimacy and closeness when you can be your real and authentic self. You also prioritise each other when you make decisions. For this safe harbour to be strong, you make effort to safeguard the relationship by setting clear boundaries on rules of engagement with the opposite sex. You don’t take the marriage for granted. For couples who share the same faith, pray and grow your faith together.
Adopt a growth mindset
Be willing to learn and change, recognising that there are skills that each of you can learn in order to deepen your relationship and connection. Instead of seeing your partner from your own perspective andforming your own conclusions, entertain the possibility of discovering new things about each other. Continue to work on being the best version of yourself for each other. Cultivate self-awareness so that you can continue to reveal your true self to your partner.
Listen, summarise and validate
The first rule in listening to each other is that you’re not both talking at the same time! Unfortunately, I observe thecontrary a lot in my couples. After a while, both persons are talking at the same time and no one is listening. Alwaystake turns to speak. To ensure that you are truly listening, make sure that you are able to summarise and validate the point or position of your partner to his/her satisfaction. Always check to see if you’ve heard each other’s side of the story correctly. This is the foundation of good communication.
Much research has shown the importance of gratitude not only in the formation of a new relationship but also in the successful maintenance of these intimate bonds. Additionally, the experience of gratitude enables you to feel closer to your partner thereby leading to a greater satisfaction in the relationship. When you are grateful for your relationship, you’re less likely to compare yourself or your partner with someone else. Learn to focus on what is good in your partner and the relationship will become stronger and deeper. Verbalise your gratitude to your partner frequently to minimise the feeling of being underappreciated.
Do small things often
It is more important to show your care and love through tangible actions frequently rather than doing a grand gesture once or twice a year on special occasions.You strengthen the emotional connection between the two of you when you do small acts of service and love to your partner by sending a message to encourage him or her on a challenging day or to share in the joy of small wins. Identify your partner’s love language and show your love accordingly in a way that he or she can receive and appreciate.Thank each other regularly, affirm the virtues you admire in one another and be willing to apologise first to repair any regrettable incidence.
Build a healthy love bank
A “love bank” is a collection of what makes you feel connected, cared for and valued by your partner. The concept is similar to a normal bank account where there are deposits and withdrawals. When you build more positive interactions with your partner, your emotional love bank account flourishes. You feel safe and secure. Even if you have a “withdrawal” (for example, a small argument), it doesn’t feel too threatening. You know that you have sufficient amount in that will not result in a deficit. When you notice that your partner or you are getting more annoyed and easily triggered,there is a danger that you may need an overdraft. For example, things that don’t usually bother you about your partner’s behaviour, irritate you now. Pay attention to it and put in effort to increase the emotional connection. Ways to increase your love bank include understanding your partner’s inner world, showing fondness and admiration, and turning towards his or her bids for connection. Repeat #3, #4 and #5. Be mindful not to turn this into a game of reciprocity where comparisons are made on who’s done more.
Approach conflict with curiosity
The ability to regulate conflicts is critical to the success of a relationship.When you address your differences adequately, they are less likely to snowball into a massive conflict. When you find yourself in a different position from that of your partner, be curious and ask questions about his or her position so that you can deepen your understanding of your partner. What happens more often than not is an assumption is made that your partner is making your life difficult bybeing oppositional or disagreeable. This perception is detrimental as you begin to assume the worst in each other. Those who are conflict-avoidant often find it challenging to regulate their own emotions and the emotions of their partner during conflicts. It’s important for them to learn the skill to call for a break so that they can self-soothe before continuing with the emotionally-charged conversation. When you are curious and re-frame your conflict as an opportunity to deepen your understanding of each other, the differences become less daunting.
Be playful and laugh a lot
Recall the time when you first got together: there were easy conversations, plenty of laughter and fun. As you progress to different stages of the relationship, responsibilities and burdens will increase. As such, it is easy to slip into a routine and forget about having fun together. Cultivate and utilise your sense of humour as it is a good way to connect with your partner and to lift the mood when the going gets tough. Watch comedies, share jokes and funny stories so that you can laugh together. If you have kids, laugh with them too. Life is hard and it will be harder when we take everything too seriously.
Support each other’s dreams
Couples who decide to be committed and marry each other usually have dreams in mind. When you are not intentional in having such an important conversation with your partnerabout their dreams, it is easy to be consumed by day-to-day tasks and activities that you forget the big picture. Take time to find outand revisit your partner’s dreams regularly. Initiate such conversations when you’d like to take a new direction in your life. You can enhance your relationship by creating shared meaning and dreams. Common ones include building a family and home together, finding a cause that’s meaningful for you to support, creating impact through the work that you do either professionally or in the community you serve. Discussion of such dreams is important as it will affect the decisions that you make as a couple and family.
Accept influence and compromise
It is impossible to always find agreement between two individuals. Therefore being able to accept influence and compromise is key to the success of the relationship.Accepting influence is about developing your ability to find a point of agreement in your partner’s position. It is not about insisting that you’re right or finding evidence that your partner is wrongall the time. In accepting influence, it doesn’t mean that you need to change into someone you are not. You need to have a good sense of who you are at your core, and be sure to protect it so that you are not coerced into becoming someone else. If you make the decision to be the person that your partner needs you to be, accept your responsibility for that decision rather than blaming it on your partner. The challenge in accepting influence is really about relinquishing your control and preferences some of the time to prioritise the needs of your partner.
I’d really love to hear what you think of these “rules” and which might be the ones that you will focus on cultivating and practicing. Feel free to email me your thoughts and questions.
If you find this blog post helpful, you have my permission to share it with your friends and family.