How Do you Know a True Hero from a Narcissist?

Today on the front lines are health workers in hospitals with the severe cases of the Corona Virus during  the Pandemic risking their own lives to benefit others. We applaud them, revere them, admire them, view them as superior human beings of great importance who are special and unique with unusual empathy for others. They are our Heroes to whom we are deeply grateful. Because they save lives and put others before themselves, we honor their talents, expertise, and outstanding, tireless efforts, and thus I emphasize, do put others before themselves. However, these unusual people do not act so selflessly to seek our admiration—they are indeed altruistic and merit our unending admiration.

On the news I listened to the kind words of a health care worker in an Intensive Care Unit usually referred to as the ICU. He spoke not of his daily medical care (which indeed was extraordinary though he didn’t say so) but of how families could not visit their sick loved ones in isolation because they couldn’t risk the virus being transmitted to them. So. these ICU patients were even more isolated than usual ICU patients who have visitors to comfort and empathize with their suffering. So. who was there for them to comfort and empathize? This spokesperson on the news—those medical workers in the ICU who were doing their best to be there in lieu of families and friends who would normally visit those sick people they love.

This man on the news and scores of others like him around the country are not only medical workers—doctors, nurses, and other supportive staff but mental health workers, caring beyond their job descriptions. Only out of such empathy and caring could they carry out this huge, no mammoth, service of giving such total care to others who need them. This is the quiet hero whose only daily audience consists of each other and those who need them

Now let’s compare them to the also often accomplished person who reminds us constantly of his or her outward virtuosity—who seeks our admiration and in fact performs for that reason though it may not at first be apparent. This is a particularly different person who does not strive to benefit others. He seeks acclaim. That is his motivation.

He or she is not empathic but striving to be applauded perhaps tirelessly because of a desperate need to feel continually reminded he is superior. He needs to be regularly recognized as such. This is a person who seeks from others his Narcissistic Supplies of praise and adulation. This is the Narcissist who cannot be trusted. He or she may be a doctor or other medical professional, but you will not find him or her in the ICU or on the front lines benefiting others. He will not be tending empathically to those in need of physical and emotional care.

This person is not empathic. He isn’t wired to put himself before others. He exploits others to gain excessive admiration that he often receives. It is a defensive, often unconscious cover for a deep-seated feeling of inferiority. If this person is understood, we may feel compassion if we are inclined to realize the emptiness he is trying to avoid. But he (and the majority are statistically men) will not thank us for our empathy but rely upon it.

Why make this distinction? Because the real hero described above has such a different motivation that we need to recognize his empathy isn’t scripted like the narcissist who knows how to manipulate others to gain admiration–who is not genuinely interested in others. We must be careful not to be the object of his self-interest and exploitation that may be subtle until it’s not and you then find yourself caught in his web feeling most uncared for and used. Duped. Betrayed.

Here are the characteristics of the adult with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder often referred to as NPD:

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual, 5th Edition,

Diagnostic Criteria of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder

“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes 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).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.” (669-670)

I have treated men with NPD who are charming wordsmiths, often highly accomplished and successful, and you may live with or know one quite well. Often unexpectedly you are betrayed and mistakenly blamed as the cause of this betrayal. If you are in need of feeling attached to a person who is admired to raise your own self-esteem it may take a long time to realize you are not in fact at fault for how you are mistreated. You most likely are the empathic one giving the narcissist his needed daily dose of admiration. You may have been misled into thinking he is heroic because he feels superior and you feel special by association. Then you find in time you feel demeaned, unworthy, emotionally lost, and confused.

So, let me return to our actual heroes who are indeed selfless, to whom we must be grateful, for whom we are fortunate to have as trusted allies during the Pandemic. The quiet heroes we must never forget.