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How to Tell If Someone Is an Episodic Narcissist

We can all be self-absorbed, but some people have a pattern.

Key points

  • Entitlement schema is preoccupation with certain thoughts, feelings, or needs to the point of self-absorption.
  • Entitlement is the experience of a long unmet childhood need for validation.
  • The solution to self-absorption involves patience, kindness, and never engaging when triggered. 
shutter stock Marcos mesa sam Worley
Source: shutter stock Marcos mesa sam Worley

Entitlement schema, originally outlined by Jeffrey Young, is the experience of being preoccupied with certain thoughts, feelings, or needs, to the point of self-absorption and having difficulty considering or respecting the point of view, feelings, or needs of others. Entitlement originates in childhood experiences of being treated like a "supporting player" for a caregiver, or of getting overattention from caregivers. The word "entitlement" can have a critical, triggering effect, so some therapists work with the term “self-absorption." When triggered, it looks like an episode of narcissism. Entitlement is the experience of a long unmet childhood need for validation, triggered and back in the present.

Episodic periods of self-absorption include the following:

  • Stubborn insistence on your point of view on an issue, refusing to consider others' views.
  • Flashes of anger if your feelings are not prioritized, with lashing out.
  • Flashes of sulking if your feelings are not prioritized, with moody withdrawal.
  • Impulsive, childlike behavior to self-soothe hurt feelings when you don’t get your way, such as turning to eating, compulsive screen use, or substance use.
  • Refusing to complete tasks that require patience because they are “beneath you.”
  • Avoiding tasks in life, including in the workplace, in romantic relationships, or in personal life, leading to a pattern of self-sabotage.

So what causes this, and does it mean someone is a narcissist? Actually, no. It turns out we are all capable of some kind of episodic “narcissism.” Often, it’s healthy. The trick is understanding, in ourselves and others, when it’s reasonable to be in a narcissistic state and when it’s problematic for all involved. The good news is there are some tools you can use to manage it.

Why Self-Absorption?

Self-absorption (or "healthy narcissism") is a type of self-care. We all go through times when we are totally caught up in our feelings and thoughts, to the point that we can’t focus on other people.

It can be perfectly healthy to be preoccupied with our feelings; it’s how we take care of our emotions and cope. The first days and weeks of grief over a loved one are an example: People going through grief are so preoccupied with the pain and loss that it takes all of their energy just to get through a day, and they have difficulty thinking of others.

Or imagine someone going through physical pain: They may be preoccupied with coping with the pain, to the point of a kind of self-absorption. The self-absorption is healthy in the sense that the person is giving their attention to where it is most needed.

Origins of This Behavior

From birth, human beings are prone to having demands put on them by the process of growing up. Children must learn how to handle intense emotions and cope with their needs going unmet for a time as they develop the skills to get their needs met. If all goes well, this is still a tough process.

Maturing is founded on feeling deprived “enough” to grow, but not so much that it becomes real neglect. To overcome unmet needs, children learn how to read their environment, put their needs into words, and problem-solve. But if a child is raised in an environment where needs are unwelcome or ignored, the child develops intense emotional reactions and must cope with them alone.

Paradoxically, if a child is overindulged, they don't have the chance to work through needs on their own, which can also lead to self-absorption.

These intense feelings then become “frozen” in the child’s character, so when certain triggers occur in adult relationships, those frozen reactions return as an episode of narcissism, or problematic self-absorption.

How to Tell if You Have Self-Absorption Schema, and How to Manage It

  1. Notice whether there are issues in your life you feel so strongly about that you are not open to discussion on them. If those issues are thematically related to your own history of unmet needs, they may be self-absorption triggers. Examples include topics like divorce, privilege, “keeping your word,” and fairness.
  2. When others upset you or overlook your needs, be honest with yourself about how well you can see their point of view or motivations. Is there a theme to what upsets you that may be more connected to your own story?
  3. Is the “universe” sending you a message? If you feel the world keeps telling you that you “don’t deserve nice things,” it may be self-absorption schema talking.
  4. Take a time-out. Consider how to communicate your needs more directly, but “strike when the iron is cold” and consider how to ask for what you need after you have calmed down and had a chance to reflect.

Remember, these needs come from an authentic place of pain in the past and deserve your validation. You’re just translating them into adult experience.

How to Cope When Others Have Self-Absorption Schema

  1. Practice good boundaries. Don’t tolerate mean or abusive behavior.
  2. Calmly take a time out during a triggered event, returning later to calmly explore what happened.
  3. When tempers have calmed, patiently explain your point of view, and ask them to really consider it, while validating their feelings as well.
  4. People in self-absorption schema may trigger you, too. It can be a challenge to be with someone in an episode of narcissism. Take your time and accept small victories.

Don’t forget, the solution to self-absorption involves patience, kindness, and never engaging when triggered, but asserting healthy, firm boundaries when the drama stops.

If these signs and behaviors look to be more than “episodic,” you may want to seek psychotherapy and explore the role of narcissism in your life.

Learn more in my book, Your Coping Skills Aren’t Working and subscribe to my newsletter to receive Self-Talk Tips.

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