Why Narcissistic Personality Disorder Loves Social Media

by Brett Borders on December 8, 2009

Spend any length of time in the social media scene and you’ll almost certainly encounter a person with a severe psychological issue called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The psychiatrists’ DSM manual describes it as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.” Narcissists (NPD people) have a “big personality” that is excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, power and prestige. Everyone has some need for attention, but NPD people are pathologically obsessed with it.

pesci

Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas is a perfect example of malignant Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
He’s ruthlessly oversensitive to criticism and only feels alive when he’s the center of attention.

NPD is Commonplace in the Social Media Scene

People with NPD have a fragile, deeply wounded self-concept and they puff their ego up like blowfish in order to hide the flaw and overcompensate for it. Some use their cunning & charm to become materially successful and accomplished in the business world. A significant percentage of venture capitalists (VCs) have high-functioning NPD… and some of the online “rockstars” and glitterati do too. If you go to a big city tweetup or social media conference, you’re almost guaranteed to meet a clique of NPD people and their minions engaged in an ego-stroking circle jerk.

blowfish

Deeply insecure NPD people puff up their ego and use defensive spikes to obfuscate their vulnerability. image: vociferious

Certain professions supply a continual buffet of ego food: politics, acting, modeling, television, pro sports and social media. Social media participation has no barriers to entry and take minimal skills – just drive and copious free time. It’s the perfect habitat for NPD people to put themselves on a digital pedestal and receive lots of one-way attention (“narcissistic supply”). The exhibitionist aspect provides endless opportunities for narcissists to reinforce their vanity and activate their grandiosity.

Identifying Narcissistic Personality Disorder

social media narcissism

Narcissus was a Greek god who fell in love with his own reflection for so long, he starved. image: sahaja meditation

Some common characteristics of NPD types who inhabit the Web 2.0 / social media scene:

  • Narcissists can be irresistibly charming. They appear to be so deeply in love with themselves that others get taken along for the ride with them. They develop polished communication and manipulation skills that can easily dazzle you like the Wizard of Oz. Narcissists “go big” leave an “epic” first impression on many people.
  • Narcissists are all about themselves. A relationship with a narcissist is typically a “one-way street.” When the conversation is focused on the narcissist, they become alive and animated. When it’s someone else’s turn to talk or take the stage, they tend become distant and withdrawn.
  • Narcissists lack empathy for others. Narcissists are impostors who are so wrapped up in the drama of their own internal world, they almost completely lack the ability to empathize with others. The best they can offer is “psuedo-empathy” of the type that a telemarketer offers during a closing pitch. They may act nice when they want something from you, but that’s about it.
  • Narcissists are preoccupied with power, status, recognition, money, followers, fame. They will stop at nothing to get more fans, more followers, more time in the limelight, more accolades. They are relentless, inexhaustible social climbers who sometimes excel at sales, business development and executive roles. Many high-level narcissists use money and its privileges as the perfect bait to draw the chosen into their inner circle of loyal supporters and admirers.
  • Narcissists are defensive & hypersensitive to criticism. NPD people protect their brittle self-esteem by launching biting, harsh attacks on those who dare to criticize and question them. They are also very controlling about how others view and think of them – by positively rewarding the praise and tyrannically punishing dissent. When it’s impossible for them to attack the critic directly, they’ll do anything in their power to block or sabotage their future success.
  • Narcissists indulge themselves extravagantly. They’ll do anything to get first class travel, new gadgets, sexual conquests, spa treatments, exclusive after party invites, fancy swag bags, exclusive club memberships, extravagant homes and cars. All these things provide external proof of their adequacy and help (momentarily) fill the enormous emptiness inside them. When they get them, they’re quick to brag about it and post lots of details and TwitPics.
  • NPD people can be exhibitionists. In order to keep the life-sustaining supply of attention focused on them, they will metaphorically “drop their pants” and reveal TMI that most professionals never would. They will open talk about their drug use, sexual life or fantasizes, their income, their enemies or their business exploits. They especially love speaking gigs, interviews, video blogging, karaoke, etc., – becuase moments in the limelight are life-sustaining soul food for their inadequate self concept.
  • NPD people keep score. They watch rivals with microscopic vigilance, and will come up with cunning ways to sabotage, outdo or humiliate them. Multimillionaire VCs with NPD are envious of the billionaire ones. On Twitter, you’ll notice that narcissists almost always maintain a very high ratio of followers to friends — reflecting their lack empathy and primal need for their numbers to reflect “one- way” attention. They never “give back” and pay attention to someone else unless they absolutely have to.
  • Narcissists demand total loyalty from their followers. No matter how badly an NPD person behaves, their fans and subordinate “yes men” will cheer them on and publicly declare how “awesome” they are, etc. People (unconsciously) sense they have a dangerously fragile self-concept… and are intuitively afraid of getting on their “bad list” – so they tend to leave lots of ego stroking (“You rock!”) comments. One you get on the bad list, there is no way off without heavy ass-kissing and contrition. (Unless you get access to something they desperately want.)

The Narcissist’s Bleak Inner World

The narcissist selectively chooses an “inner circle” of others who will resonate with her vision of self. The successful NPD person creates an intricate matrix of positive feedback in the form of fans, friends, followers and partners who fulfill their endless needs. When the sources of these ego rewards (comments, accolades, retweets, speaking gigs) become unavailable or fail, the narcissist experience intense feelings of emptiness.

In her excellent book on high-level narcissism, Dr. Linda Martinez-Lewi says:

“The narcissist’s experience of emotional emptiness is beyond longing or sadness. It is a severe and intractable wounding, a pain so savage and deep that it seems intolerable. The psychological landscape of the narcissist is bleak. He has no inner resources to sustain him. He cannot turn to himself or others for real affection or solace. Although he enjoys the transient loyalty of dedicated followers, no one really cares about him.”


Social media addiction is the ultimate dual-action stimulant + painkiller for the narcissistic personality.

Dealing with NPD Individuals

Being in a family, business, or romantic relationship with a narcissist is living hell. Working for one can be an ‘emotional holocaust.’ There are some excellent books on the deeper aspects of defending yourself against the narcissist’s insidious nastiness – The Wizard of Oz & Other Narcissists: Coping With the One-Way Relationship in Work, Life and Family is highly-recommended.

In a more shallow social media type of relationship, you must remember that narcissists they demand loyalty and perfect ego stroking. If you choose to get involved in their world, prepared to perpetually walk on eggshells and keep your true feelings masked – no matter how disgusting or annoying the person’s behaviors are. Never criticize them unless you are willing to go on their permanent “shit list.”

If you don’t need or want anything from the Social Media Narcissist, it’s best to be cordial and distant from them. Keep firm boundaries. Stay far away, don’t be drawn into their charismatic web of illusion, and if they attack you — you don’t have to attack back. Recognition and awareness of the painful-yet-common disorder in the social media scene can save you a lot of annoyance and grief.

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  • http://asourparentsgrowolder.com/ Mike Gamble

    If the person afflicted with NPD offers information of value, I’ll listen, read, or watch, as the case may be. But, if they attempt to introduce their warped NPD needs into the equation, I’ll drop them like a hot potato. I don’t have the time to waste feeding their egos. If the subject matter of their offer is important to me, I’ll find another way to obtain it which, in the end, will probably more accurate and actionable than that offered by the NPD.

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  • http://www.thecommscorner.com Adam Vincenzini

    Quite possibly one of the most entertaining (albeit disturbing) posts I’ve read in 2009.

    The score thing is big for me…but then again there are probably a thousand reasons for that apart from simply being narcisstic.

    I actually wrote something a little siilar today look at the common traits of Italians and how (in theory) they’d make perfect role models for brands conducting social media activity – you can read the post here: http://bit.ly/ItalianSM

    A

  • http://techbytes.biz techbytes

    This needed to be written so I’m glad you were the one because you nailed it. I’ve worked with NPDs and have crossed paths. I ignore them but if they approach me I maintain solid boundaries.

    I would disagree that on twitter they don’t follow as many as follow them. I know some where the balance is about equal but the sole purpose is to get more reciprocal followers. I think these follow-getter bots were made especially for NPDs.

    Following are 2 other consistent characteristics that are part of my NPDar:

    1. Quantity over quality
    2. Hype over substance

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Mike,

    the problem with NPD people is that it’s easy to enrage them if their ego isn’t fed properly. Any minor tweet, comment, hand gesture can signal disapproval / disloyalty to them, and thus and enrage them. If you want to tango with them, be prepared to walk on eggshells!

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    techbytes,

    The key is maintaining solid boundaries. What you say is true… many NPD people will follow hundreds of thousands in hopes of gaining a wider audience… but the classic high-level NPD Twitterati, in my experience, has a few hundred friends and several thousand followers. They will do anything and everything to get more one way attention….. usually lots of hype and quanitty over quality.. and oftentimes exhibitionism. They will say cocky, grandiose or “inappropriate” stuff so frequently that people follow them just for the “peep show” effect… just to see what they’re gonna say next – and it works. People like the spice they bring to the otherwise dull and professional stream… so they do follow them.. and the narcissist never reciprocates unless they NEED to get something back from that specific person.

  • http://techbytes.biz techbytes

    That’s them alright. I see your point. I’m based in Cleveland so our NPDs are less sophisticated because there is less competition.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Adam,

    That was a great post! Italian culture definitely has some positive traits (I learned a little about it from an Italian GF once) that make for a natural and healthy attitude towards social media. In my mind… the passion, enthusiasm and sincere social generosity stand out most.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Lucky you!

    My impression of midwest people is they are relatively humble. In
    “bigger ponds” like NYC, LA, Sillicon Valley, Boulder… NPD is
    commonplace in the business and tech scene.

  • http://techbytes.biz techbytes

    You’d be surprised. I’m not sure if it is better to live in a market with a bunch of NPDs or one with a few and an audience that is more receptive to their tactics.

  • http://glennhilton.com Glenn Hilton

    social MEdia… love it Brett! I follow a couple on Twitter mostly for the amusement. I enjoy counting how many times they say “me” or “I” in there tweets, who they’re name dropping or how many Twitpics they can put out in a day with the latest pictures of what they’re eating, doing or wearing. ;)

  • MJW

    it’s some kind of reminder and alert :) good post.
    wanna ask your permission to share this link in facebook. may i?

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    MJW,

    sure, go ahead!

  • http://www.ElegantInsights.com/ Andrew BE

    Well done, Brett. Casual mention or warnings against the “guru complex” (as I most commonly see it phrased) are useful, but I’m quite pleased to see a more comprehensive article addressing what is perhaps the most frequently encountered personality disorder incubating within social media- a disorder which dilutes true value and often creates a noise-level which is hard to hear through.

  • http://kikolani.com/ Kristi Hines

    I really think that all personality types can flourish in social media… the anti-social can just acquaint themselves with other anti-social types, the narcissistic can find people to constantly follow and flatter them, and so on. Social media gives everyone the chance to truly be themselves in ways that they may not dare to be in real life.

    ~ Kristi

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Kristi,

    I agree all types are represented … but I think social media is
    ESPECIALLY attractive to narcissists because it gives them a personal
    showcase with no barrier to entry. Dealing with these types is very
    grating / fatiguing to me.

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  • Anonymous

    This would probably be funny if it wasn’t quite so disturbing. Actually I wonder whether social media attracts a larger number of NPD types – or whether they are just the loudest.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    I think it naturally attracts them. Social media has no barriers to entry… and people with this disorder tend to become most addicted to it.

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  • http://ariherzog.com Ari Herzog

    Do you run any “ego” searches on your name, blog, twitter account, etc? Do you receive alerts from different places so you can listen to people mentioning your name online or linking to you? I’ve yet to meet any long-term blogger who doesn’t; isn’t an ego search an exercise in narcissism?

  • http://www.digitaltip.com.au tiphereth

    You’ve just described my ex-husband to a tee.

  • Anonymous

    ari, i think you missed brett’s point.

    (using social media speak) managing your brand is different from indulging in the glory of yourself. metrics are completely different from obsessing about whether you’re still king of the hill.

    (using psychology speak) being self-aware and having self-esteem is far from the destructive habits of a narcissist. a narcissist usually has borderline personality disorder tendencies in addition to their ego focus and that is not a pleasant or healthy person to conduct business with. being successful in the long run means establishing appropriate habits of interaction and developing healthy relationships. when those things are forgotten, we descend into a lord of the flies style of madness.

  • http://www.seattledirectcounseling.com/ Imei Hsu

    I’ve posted some similar thoughts to a blog post about NPD and Social Media, but I came to a different conclusion. I actually think there is a place for NPD people, as they do bring something to the table. You don’t have to kowtow to their antics, but the world would be colorless if we simply avoided NPDs, BPD’s, and other personality disordered individuals. As a nurse and psychotherapist treating people with various disorders, I’ve come to see the unique roles that those with personality disorders have. Also, NPD has a variety of ways it manifests, including one that doesn’t follow the classic formulae described in the article. Simply overlaying a DSM-IV description upon a person is an inappropriate and damaging application of self-help psychology upon another human being. – B.I. Hsu, RN, MAC, LMHC

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Ari,

    Sure, we all like to see our name or make the home page sometimes. Or read comments about or work. That is normal, healthy behavior.

    All humans have some narcissistic tendencies. My narcissistic side, for instance, tend to increase when I am feeling upset or on the edge.

    There’s a continuum.. though… when normal narcissism becomes a full blown personality disorder. Where people lack any ability to feel empathy. Where there entire
    online life is a quest to get attention (often negative attention) at any cost to themselves and the people around them. Where people get really nasty and outrageous and have
    borderline psychopathic tendencies.

    I can think of a dozen or more “infamous” online marketing personalities who have the full-blown personality disorder.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Imei,

    I understand that there is place for NPD people in the world. Social media is one of them. My family has several cases.

    Until I understood more about this personality disorder, I found myself driven to the brink of insanity by the behavior of certain people that I met. By reading some books and having compassion for these people as wounded people, I was able to be more healthy and keep my bearings around them.

    I’m not a psychologist, but I now understand more about the self-centered people who misbehave, shock and curse a lot on Twitter – seemingly craving attention more than oxygen.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    wow, that must have been hell!

  • http://www.seattledirectcounseling.com/ Imei

    Hi Brett,
    Thank you for your personal and thoughtful response. At least a portion of what I wrote was not addressed to you personally, but to the larger audience, of which you have to your credit as a fantastic writer.

    I don’t think anyone needs to be a psychologist to understand the level of hurt and woundedness that goes into the life of an NPD individual. Just look at the adult child of an NPD, and you get the idea. Once you can separate yourself from the NPD mindset (i.e. not your fault the person is going off, once again), you are freed from the insanity of his/her behaviors, and can feel a measure of compassion.

    You nailed it on the head that Twitter — and really any forum that allows virtually anyone to have an instant platform — feeds the unique pathos of the NPD individual. I wrote the same thing in my blogpost last year coming out of BlogWord and LeWeb 2009. As I am a “n00b” to Social Media but not to psychology, it was a no-brainer to observe these “celebrities” through a psychological lens to try to understand why they do as they do, and why so many people enable them.

    Again, brilliant article, and I look forward to your next one.

    Cheers,
    Imei

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Imei,

    Where is your article about BlogWorld? I’d love to read it.

    -Brett

  • http://www.seattledirectcounseling.com/ Imei

    Hi Brett,

    Here is the link to my post Blogworld and LeWeb 2009 commentary. I renamed NPD as BEF’s (Big Ego Freaks) to put a lay spin on the DSM IV category of NPD; thought it would be easier for people to hear if I stripped it of its clinical label, and talked about Ego. At the same time, Chris Pirillo, who is crazy about LEGO, triggered the clever “LEGO my Ego” title of my obscure and unread observation. Honestly, there were a few personalities that triggered my thoughts about writing this article from both conferences, but if they don’t already know who they are, it isn’t my business to name them here.

    P.S. I am a n00b, so be nice! :)

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    Brett,

    C’mon man you know this is not all accurate. There are disorders in which narcissism presents as a coping mechanism, a defense mechanism concealing deep self esteem issues, for example. There’s the medium, too, which can disguise some behaviors, amplify others, and make diagnosis pretty much impossible. It’s a good post, but a bucketful of extremes, don’t you think?

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Adrian,

    I’m not a trained psychologist, but I am pretty darn sure there is a minority of people who have certified Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the social media and venture capital worlds.

    There are some people in the scene who are not what they seem, in your words “a bucket of extremes” in their own psyche.

    I am not writing this post to hurt anyones feelings or belittle this disorder.. but to help the victims of the narcissist’s games and emotional abuse understand what they are up against.

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    Brett,

    There’s no denying some folks in social media probably present Narcissism, my point was that not all those who may appear to be narcissists suffer from the personality disorder. And some behaviors that may appear to be narcissism can be something else. The DSM shows other kinds of mood as well as personality disorders in which narcissism may present but which are not full-blown narcissism.

    In some ways our entire culture is narcissistic, unfortunately I think. Social media can feed different degrees of egocentrism, projection, communication and social difficulties, and so on. No doubt about that.

    I was really just splitting hairs a bit on the definition. And I appreciate your reply.

    cheers,
    Adrian

  • http://twitter.com/samueltruly Samuel Koh

    Hi Bret,

    Very informative post you have here. Only about a year ago, I found that I have 90% of the traits of ADD/ADHD, and recently to my surprise, I found that I have most of the symptoms of bipolar disorder, something very related to “grandiosity”, as you also described in NPD. I think as much as it is hell of people who live around people like us, it is also a living hell for us. All the more when I was trying to overcome myself, working hard against something which I have no name to call it, until recently. I am thankful about all the information I found in this regard lately and I started working on some self-help systems. It is really difficult for me to go around telling friends and business associates about my struggles. Nobody really cares and its easily labeled as “excuses” for failings. Indeed, understanding and empathy is very much required to co-exist with people like this. So I must say this is the part that touches me.

  • Nik

    Any related psychological research done in this realm? Links?

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    I’m not sure.

    -Brett

  • tiny tim

    my friends are. im not.

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  • josh

    of course each ones has a different roll to play, its just different ppls personalities, its so easy to say that just cause certan ppl have a more extreme tendency that they have a condition…no its just everyone is different i meen if were all different do u think normal makes any sence of course not saying something is normal, or borderline normal is like saying humans r robots and if there different then they r malfunctioning, i meen come on world stop making everything so complicated and treing to change everyone …im 17 and i realise this on my own

  • gmc

    Josh, evidently you have never been involved with a full blown “N”…and your age basically says everything.
    You are correct…everyone is different; however, everyone “SHOULD” posses a spirit of humility, compassion, concern, carring, true laughter love and joy….
    I dated someone on and off for 3 years..Before I met him I was happy…I believed and hoped for the best in people and situations. I enjoyed little things..nature, flowers…laughing over silly goofy things. He told me in the beginning no one can be that happy unless they are on something….but I truly was…
    By the time this man was finished with me…I was questioning why I was laughing at something so goofy…was I crazy??? These people suck the life and spirit out of you. They drain you……I know in time as you mature you will figure things out in truth but I pray you dont have to find out the hard way!
    By the way I still do believe the best in people, but I am not so naive to know there are just some people on this earth that are not “all there”.

  • Kay

    This describes about half of the fans of Twilight on Twitter, and most are grown women with families. Specifically fans of Rob Pattinson who hate Kristen Stewart and the fans who love them as a couple. They have a forum (www.nonsten.com) that used to be public but they’re now private. They claim not to care if Rob and Kristen are together but they spend lots of time and energy devoted to trying to disprove it and discredit anyone who believes otherwise. Though they may keep their threats against Kristen under wraps they have no problem attacking other fans.”NPD people keep score. They watch rivals with microscopic vigilance, and will come up with cunning ways to sabotage, outdo or humiliate them.” This describes them to a T. I see it every day. Truly disturbing but can see underneath all the anger and vitriol they are sad, insecure women. I feel for their kids.

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  • http://twitter.com/sayno2wmma_ sayno2wmma

    This blog just described just about every hollywood actress.

  • http://twitter.com/HipsForHire Imei

    Hmm, I wouldn’t link it to actresses and females. NPD can be equally linked to males and male celebrities. I think it doesn’t get diagnosed as often as females because 1) males are less likely to seek help for their problems and 2) male psychiatrists may be reticent to diagnose another male with this disordered thought process if they also struggle with their own narcissism. 

  • elainedoxie

    Actually, I wasn’t running any “ego searches” on my own name as you call it for a long time.  Just a very short time ago, however, I discovered that I had to.  I was married to a narcissist for many years, and his new wife has been following me nearly everywhere I go online to try to tell people that he is the perfect man and I am name-calling by saying he’s a narcissist.  

    In addition to that, she has posted many derogatory remarks about me that are outright lies, but I’m the liar.  It wasn’t until someone told me on my Twitter account about a blog that was dedicated to denigrating me that I actually realized how bad it was.

    I would suggest that if you are a writer, especially if you have been through a relationship with a narcissist, you should be regularly doing searches with your name, and recording any false or defamatory information that you find about yourself.

  • http://ariherzog.com/ Ari Herzog

     Whoa. Did you just reply to my comment from 2 years ago?

  • http://www.serr8d.blogspot.com/ Serr8d

    Somebody else knows @Shoq I see!

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  • Guest

    this is the reason I left Facebook. People treated it as if the were the stars of their own reality tv show and their friends are their fans. Facebook is the common man’s People Magazine and they get to be on the cover every day. And the checkins!!! I bet that was probably the most exciting and awesome thing that Facebook ever came up with for the narcissist. The ability to show off every single place you go and cocktail you drink. Are they trying to appear to be fascinating or are they trying to convince themselves that everyone is jealous of them? Not sure. I know people that go places and do things JUST for the sole purpose of putting it on their facebook page. I found myself also doing these things just to keep up with other people but I knew better, I knew what I was doing, and I didnt like myself for it. So I just deleted myself. It turns out that there are so many people out there who I was friends with that I honestly just could stomach anymore, even family members.