The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.
When we think of psychological disturbances, we think of something that is always present. And since it's always present, we believe we will always see it. When someone is dealing with something like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, this is usually how it is unless they're on medication and things like that. But with pathological narcissism, this is not the case. Their behavior doesn't always seem disordered. They often seem very capable of navigating life like everybody else. Until they don't.
This is very confusing. How can someone have a psychological disturbance but it doesn't always affect them? The truth is that it actually does, but it isn't always obvious, so to us it looks like it's not affecting them at all during these times. Many people believe that if someone is behaving "normally," they are not being affected by something. If they are not being affected by something all the time, they don't have a psychological disturbance.
We often hear people say things like, "Well, they were OK for a little while but then they went back to the old them," or, "They seemed normal for a few days or a few months but then they went back to being a narcissist again." But as we've discussed in articles like "Narcissists Are Narcissistic 24 Hours a Day," there is no "going back to being a narcissist again." The whole cycle is narcissistic. The whole cycle is their normal behavior. This is how they are all the time. Their entire experience is alternating between these different states of being. Their identity is unstable and their perception is affected greatly, causing them to constantly shift between these different versions of themselves depending on what is needed at the time.
It's important to remember that just because some versions of the person fit better into the box of "normal behavior" than others, this is not evidence someone is not psychologically disordered. It's in fact a red flag that someone probably is disordered, because people who are not disordered don't do that. They don't try on different versions of themselves until they find one that is beneficial to the moment. They don't have different personalities for different moods or situations.
One of the biggest reasons it's so difficult to accept that this really is disordered thinking is the narcissist's notorious ability to control their abusive or toxic behavior in front of others. We automatically assume that if someone is affected by a disorder or psychological disturbance, they can't help any of their behavior or are not conscious of any of it. That is not the case with personality disorders. That's one of the main problems with treating them. The reasons people are making these choices in the first place, how they are coming to these conclusions and how they justify their behavior are actually part of what classifies narcissists as disordered. The way they process information and how they think of things is where a huge part the problem lies.
People often say that narcissists are capable of behaving as they should when they know they need to, and that is absolutely true. However, they are not capable of doing this for very long. It really is a smoke screen in a manner of speaking, and it's not a very good one. For example, they may be able to pull the right version of themselves out in front of the police, but what if the police stayed for 6 hours? Or three days? Or a week? What if they were there for a month? It would likely become a different story. Someone who is pathologically narcissistic has s true psychological disturbance, and it's not one that can be hidden. Even when they are doing a pretty good job of controlling their behavior, they will often still reveal their dysfunctional mindset and way of thinking because you can't hide something if you can't - or won't - acknowledge that it's even there.
If people don't accept that pathological narcissism truly is a psychological disturbance - and a severe one - there is only one other explanation: this person is doing these things because they either don't understand or because they are just mean. While both of these things can be and usually are true in a manner of speaking, they carry the unfortunate connotation that they can be changed if someone can be convinced they should change them. This keeps people hanging on to these relationships for years, trying to convince the narcissist to agree with them that they are an abuser and agree to get help or stop the behavior. In their so-called moments of epiphany, the narcissist may even do so. They may agree they are abusive and need help. They may even attempt to get help. Contrary to popular belief, this is not really that uncommon, and it keeps people hanging on even longer, as they think they've made a breakthrough and real change will follow.
This is a big reason there is danger in demonizing narcissists; when one comes along who doesn't fit the stereotype, they are not recognized for what they are and can do a huge amount of damage before the truth is finally understood. People hold tightly to what they perceive as - and what might actually be - positive qualities because they believe this means someone cannot be a narcissist, therefore they can change.
"He says he will get help! He can't be a narcissist!"
"She apologized! She can't be a narcissist!"
"They said they understand that they are the problem! A narcissist would never do that!"
All of these things are untrue. They are stereotypical over-generalizations that just cause more confusion. Narcissists are just like anybody else in that they don't usually fit neatly into any box or category. Trying to put them into one is only leaving ourselves vulnerable to hurt and abuse when we can't recognize someone for who they are because they don't fit into our preconceived notions of what something or someone is supposed to look like. With narcissists, it is hard enough already to understand what you're dealing with because it can seem like every day you are dealing with a different person.
This is how these disorders work. There is no stability in the emotions, thought processes, mindsets, decisions, convictions, personalities or identities of narcissists. Everything is simply "in the moment." They may have meant what they said at the time or they may not have meant it, but either way it doesn't matter, because that was then and this is now. Today they are a different version of themselves and so reality has totally changed. So has what they will agree with and what they want or are willing to do. And even if someone is willing to address their disordered thinking and dysfunctional behavior, it doesn't mean they can. The desire to do something does not confer or even indicate the ability to do it.
This is why it's important to understand that having a mental illness, psychological disorder or a history of trauma does not excuse or justify abusive behavior. Ever. Understanding that pathological narcissism is a disorder helps combat cognitive dissonance as well, because when we can stop trying to fit the narcissist into either the "good" or "bad" category and start putting them in the "disordered" category, we can make better sense of their behavior - or realize that it will never make sense and be OK with that.