Content Warning(s): Descriptions of abusive behavior.
For Mental Health Awareness Month, we're highlighting certain conditions that may impact the convention community. This article covers Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and will be different than other articles in this series. Until and unless they get treatment, narcissists can be emotionally draining at best, and dangerous at worst. This article focuses mainly on warning signs, so if you see them in a loved one, you can encourage them to get help, and if you see them in a stranger, you can try your best to avoid them.
This is probably one of mental health conditions with the most stigma attached to it. While we don't mean to demonize anyone with NPD, the fact remains that as long as someone with NPD is in their unhealthy mindset, they will behave in ways that hurt others. We're not encouraging attacks on people with the condition; but you absolutely have the right to avoid someone who hasn't started working on their problem.
The narcissist would tell you that they're just confident. That anyone who criticizes them is just jealous. In actuality, someone with NPD believes they are entitled to admiration and attention. They have trouble empathizing with others and they look down on everyone else - whether you give them the praise they believe they desire or not.
We throw around the term "narcissist" pretty casually in our culture. Anyone who's self-confident may be labeled as one. But self-confidence isn't sole criterion; if someone believes in themselves but also works to support and cheer on others, they don't have NPD. Even someone who we might describe as self-absorbed doesn't qualify if they're too busy gazing at their reflection like the mythical hunter to harm others.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) lists these criteria for an NPD diagnosis; the individual must exhibit five or more:
- Grandiose sense of self-importance - exaggerating abilities and accomplishments and expecting to be treated as superior without having the achievements or talents to warrant it.
- Fixation on fantasies that they are powerful, beautiful, brilliant, and/or popular.
- Belief that they are so special and important that they can only be understood by other special or high-status people.
- Need for continual admiration from others.
- Sense of entitlement to special treatment and obedience from others.
- Need to exploit others for personal gain.
- Lack of empathy with others.
- Intense envy of others, while also believing others are envious of them.
- Arrogance and pompousness.
It's commonly believed that at the core of every narcissist is a feeling of self-loathing and an utter lack of self-esteem, that their apparent arrogance and demand for adoration and praise is a defense mechanism to protect it. While all narcissists seem to have incredibly fragile egos that can't withstand even the slightest criticism, not all of them are projecting a front to cover up low self-esteem. Those who Erich Fromm described as "malignant narcissists" really do think they're just incredibly awesome, and if you don't agree with them, you'll end up in their crosshairs. Malignant narcissists may even play into this belief if challenged - "I'm not arrogant, I'm just hurt and I want people to love me!" - but these people are essentially sociopaths. For them, it's not true, and these people may be the hardest to help. For those that are sometimes labeled "vulnerable narcissists," their inflated self-image may truly be a defense mechanism, and treatment may succeed in getting them healthy.
Regardless of subtype, narcissists need everyone around them to praise them and give them the special treatment they insist they deserve. If you don't, you're an enemy. They truly believe that the party doesn't start until they walk in, and their entrance should warrant fanfare. When it comes to innocuous or coincidental events, they can be seen as attacks on them since everything is about them. If they perceive a threat to their ego their reaction is usually disproportionate to the actual situation.
For example, let's imagine a cosplayer named Serena who often dresses up as Futaba Sakura. One day she sees one of her Twitter friends complimenting another Futaba cosplayer. Serena flies into a rage at what she considers an insult to her. She makes posts on her account mocking the other cosplayer's wig, outfit, or posing - either naming them directly or being just vague enough to deny culpability later. She unfollows the friend who dared to praise someone else, and even starts speaking ill of them to others. It doesn't matter if this former friend used to gush over Serena's cosplay and insist that she was the best Persona 5 cosplayer that they'd ever seen; it isn't enough. Everything is a competition, and the narcissist can't just be satisfied with being built up; they have to make sure everyone else is torn down, as well.
People like Serena exaggerate their own abilities and accomplishments. She'll brag on social media that "everyone" couldn't stop looking at her at her latest con and she was stopped for photos every two seconds, even if the reality is that only a few people recognized her and asked for pictures. If the voice actor for a character she was cosplaying said hi to her, she'll tell everyone the actor was so impressed by her craftsmanship and couldn't stop gushing over it. You'll hear this story over and over and over again to emphasize how amazing she is.
You'll also repeatedly hear stories about negative things that happened to her, things with are never her fault and always caused by people not recognizing how great she is. If someone dropped out of a photoshoot at the last minute, Serena will tell you how that person's selfishness ruined an entire con. If you get into an argument with her and tell her you need space, don't be surprised if mutual friends call you up and yell at you for telling Serena she should kill herself. Whether she's consciously changing the story to make what you did "worse" or genuinely processed your comments as being recommending suicide, any negative interaction you have with them will be amplified and exaggerated when she recounts it.
Narcissists expect that you'll envy them for their talents, friends, possessions, etc. If someone offers criticism of Serena's outfit, they're just jealous of her craftsmanship. If someone starts cosplaying in a small fandom she frequents, well, that person clearly wants to horn in on Serena's fanbase.
The narcissist will manipulate others to get what they want. If they desire adulation for an amazing costume or an entertaining panel, instead of creating it themselves, they may coerce others into doing it for them, while taking all the credit. It doesn't matter if you were the one who sewed the dress together or spent hours putting together a presentation. When the costume or the panel gets praise, they eat it up and act as if they rightfully earned it. If you speak up, you're just jealous and trying to steal the spotlight from them.
You'll always be guessing and trying to defend yourself while you're with them. One day, Serena may be friendly and warm to you, but by Friday, she's ignoring your messages and giving you the cold shoulder. If you ask what's wrong, she'll sigh heavily as she assures you it's "nothing." You see vague tweets on your timeline from her about "jealous people" who try to fuck her over, but she won't elaborate when people ask who she's talking about.
When she finally speaks to you, it's to ask why you're talking about doing Game of Thrones cosplay when you know that she was thinking about starting on Daenerys next month. If you say this is the first time you've heard this, Serena tells you that clearly you don't listen to a thing she says and goes back to ignoring you. At least, until the next month rolls around and she messages you to ask if you can help her with a skirt lining.
Narcissists will never respect your boundaries. Either you exist to serve them or you shouldn't exist at all. If you tell Serena you'll be busy with family all weekend, it won't matter if she has something that urgently needs to be done; expect her to text or call you and demand you come over to shoot some pictures of a new outfit she just finished. If you decline because you want to spend time with your family, she'll see it as a betrayal. In Serena's mind, getting shots of her Mercy cosplay is the only thing that matters. Your life needs to revolve around her.
When good things happen to you, you won't get any congratulations from a narcissist. In fact, it's likely they'll try to spoil it for you. They can't stand situations where they're not the center of attention. If you win top prize in a masquerade, expect something dramatic to happen to Serena, requiring everyone to be focused on her instead of you. She'll also hit you with back-handed compliments - "It's amazing you won, with the shoddy bias tape and your wig not being the right color."
And don't expect the narcissist to ever apologize. If you tell Serena you're hurt that she's constantly insulting your outfits, she'll insist it's just "constructive criticism" and project her thin-skinned nature onto you. If she helps you with your outfit and the seams rip at a convention, she'll tell you that you must have snagged it on something. She'll paint herself as the victim; she spent so much time working on that outfit, and you not only ruined it right away but are trying to attack her. She'll make your mutual friends pick between you and her, a "divide and conquer" tactic where everyone must prove their loyalty to her and leave you behind.
Although specific genes haven't been identified, NPD does seem to have a hereditable component. People with the condition are more likely to have a family member who also had it, and there's a moderately high correlation between twins.
With regard to upbringing, overly harsh, critical parents and overindulgent parents that give excessive admiration can both influence NPD's development. Emotionally abusive, manipulative, or unpredictable parenting can also be factors.
What little research has been done into physical causes has shown that having less gray matter in areas of the brain that regulate emotion and empathy may also play a role.
Unlike post-traumatic stress disorder or body dysmorphic disorder, those with NPD often have little insight into their condition and think they are perfectly fine. A diagnosis of NPD may come if they seek help for another condition such as depression.
There are currently no medications recommended for treating NPD, with a focus mainly on therapeutic interventions. Both individual and group therapies have been found to provide some benefit; in groups, the therapist may be seen as less of a threat to the narcissist's ego than in one-on-one treatment.
Impact on the Cosplay Community
Narcissists are likely to be drawn to cosplay as a way to get attention, just as they may be drawn to the film industry or politics. If you've ever had one in your circle of friends, you know how it can tear groups apart as the narcissist begins dividing them up into factions - either you're on her side or you're an enemy.
So what do you do if you know a narcissist?
First, understand that you can't cure them.
If someone confides in you that they have the condition and they're already in treatment, praise them for taking that step. Encourage them any way you can. It is incredibly difficult for anyone with a mental health issue to seek help, especially someone with NPD. If they're telling you this, they probably already fear it will drive you away. Support them as best you can as long as you also practice self-care.
If you've recognized those warning signs in someone, encourage them to talk to a therapist. You could even offer to go with them to the first appointment if you're comfortable with that. Present it to them as you just wanting to help; tell them you value your relationship with them and are worried about them. Express your concerns in a non-threatening manner. Don't make ultimatums or demands. Avoid "I" and "me" statements; instead of saying something like, "I'm tired of you taking advantage of me," say, "sometimes it feels like your needs take priority over others, even if they're less urgent." You may wish to express your concerns in writing, so you can't be interrupted. Treatment may be a long and difficult road, but recovery is possible for some people with NPD if they buy into it.
If they're not amenable to treatment and they won't listen to you, then you need to get them out of your life until they're healthy. I know, that sounds harsh. But until they get help, narcissists can - and will - tear you down unless you feed their needs. Either you spend the rest of your relationship with them subjugating yourself, lavishing compliments on them, abandoning anyone they turn against, and trying to keep up with their unpredictable nature, or you get them out. Remember how I said you can't cure them? You can be the best friend or family member you can be, but without professional assistance, you can't turn them around by yourself. They have to be willing to try. If they won't, you need to practice self-care. It's okay to tell someone that you can't have them in your life anymore because they're hurting you. You have that right.
You can find a plethora of sites and books with advice on how to get someone with NPD out of your life; we've tried to focus more on resources that help you understand the person as well.
Thank you for reading; our final topic in this series will be on panic disorders.
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