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March 20, 2024 Podcast

Co-Parenting with a Narcissist: Strategies for Protecting Your Children and Your Sanity

Co-Parenting with a Narcissist: Strategies for Protecting Your Children and Your Sanity
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In this episode, join Jaime as she delves into the complexities of co-parenting with a narcissist with the renowned social psychologist, Dr. W. Keith Campbell. As a distinguished expert in personality and narcissism, Dr. Campbell provides valuable insights into navigating the challenges of co-parenting, whether dealing with narcissistic traits or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Together, they explore common behaviors of narcissistic individuals that impact co-parenting dynamics and discuss effective communication strategies for non-narcissistic parents. Dr. Campbell also shares crucial advice on establishing healthy boundaries, protecting parental rights, and ensuring the best interests of the children. If you’re facing the emotional drain of co-parenting with a narcissist, this episode offers practical coping mechanisms to safeguard your well-being and mental health.

Need help from Keith? Contact him by visiting www.wkeithcampbell.com.

Learn more about his books here, including his latest book “The New Science of Narcissism.”

If you are in need of legal assistance in North Carolina, contact us at Gailor Hunt by visiting www.divorceistough.com.

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Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.

Jaime: Welcome to a Year and a Day. I’m Jamie Davis, board certified family law attorney at Gaylor Hunt. On this show, I talk with lawyers, psychologists, and other experts with the goal of helping you navigate Divorce Without Destruction. In this episode, we’ll be talking with Dr. W. Keith Campbell about how to co-parent with a narcissist. Dr. Campbell is a distinguished social psychologist specializing in personality and narcissism. Co-author of The bestselling book, The Narcissism Epidemic, he is a sought-after expert known for translating complex psychological concepts into accessible insights. As a professor and prolific researcher, Dr. Campbell brings a wealth of knowledge to discussions on co-parenting with a narcissist. Offering practical guidance for navigating these challenging dynamics. Thanks for joining me, Dr. Campbell.

Keith: Oh, thanks for having me, Jamie. I appreciate it. Please call me Keith, too, or whatever you want

Jaime:All right, Keith, well, let’s dive right in. How would you define narcissism, especially in the context of co-parenting?

Keith: Well, when you’re talking about narcissism, the simplest definition is a sort of an inflated view of oneself, a lack of empathy in relationships with other people, and a tendency to use or exploit other people to increase one’s self-concept, positivity, or self-esteem, or whatever. Basically, you use people to feel good. In the context of co-parenting, it can be challenging because we can talk about narcissism as a personality trait. So yeah, my partner’s kind of arrogant. They’re full of themselves. They’re self-centered. They care about themselves more than me. But it’s not necessarily a clinical or psychiatric disorder. Or we can be talking about narcissistic personality disorder or NPD, which is the more extreme clinical or psychiatric disorder. Condition of narcissism. So the term narcissism can be used as more of a personality trait and more of a disorder, which they can be different extremities. And there’s a couple different flavors of narcissism you can see as well.

Jaime: So in my practice as a divorce lawyer, I hear that term thrown around a lot. I have lots of clients and potential clients come in and they say, oh, my spouse is a narcissist. How often would you say that narcissism is just, I guess, naturally occurring? Like when is it true narcissism versus just a trait?

Keith: Yeah, and that’s, you know, I think what you’re running into is sort of what I was getting at. Lots of people, when they talk about their ex, they’re saying, yeah, my ex is a narcissist. And what they can mean is they can either mean my ex is sort of a self-centered jerk, which is just one thing, just well within the normal range, but a jerk. Or they can mean my exes. Incredibly self-centered, is aggressive, is potentially violent, is manipulative, lied to me, has poisoned the kids against me. You can talk about narcissism as something very basic everyday narcissism to something more extreme. In the case of divorce, often you’re dealing with something pretty extreme. If it’s pushing somebody to end a marriage, it’s something bad enough that it’s leading to the end of a marriage. It can be pretty significant.

Jaime: What are some common traits or behaviors of narcissistic individuals that can affect co-parenting dynamics?

Keith: Well, some of the real challenges with narcissism in a marriage are going to be dishonesty, deception, and infidelity. Those are where you’re going to see some of the big problems. So cheating and lying. In terms of co-parenting, if you’ve given up the romantic part of the relationship, we’re kind of separated that part, but we’re still trying to parent together. The problems you can have are the narcissistic parent is self-centered. They might use the kid as a weapon against the spouse. They might say, hey, I’m going to use my time with the child to bully or manipulate my former spouse. They can use the child as a way to gain self-esteem. I need the child around because the child’s successful and that’s going to boost my narcissistic ego. They can do all sorts of really bad things. Often, the thing that gets really bad is they use people like a child either to build their own ego up, to build the narcissistic ego, or to tear the other spouse down. So it’s using the kid as a weapon. It’s using the kid as a prop or as a weapon, exploiting. That’s where it gets really problematic.

Jaime: Yeah, I will say in my experience, cases involving an actual diagnosed narcissist are far more likely to be heavily litigated, they are very difficult to settle. And it almost seems as if the narcissist loves the fight in the courtroom, that they enjoy that attention.

Keith: Yeah, that’s really interesting. The attention piece is really interesting that you’ve mentioned, because that’s one I haven’t heard. Often it’s, you know, the battle with a narcissist becomes about ego and about winning. I have to win this battle. And so a narcissist in a courtroom will end up doing a bunch of destructive things that even might hurt him or her. They can even be self-destructive, but they go, I’ve got to do this to win. Sometimes the best way to beat a narcissist is to lose. I mean, sometimes you just go, OK, you won. I lost. You win it all. And that’s off. I mean, sometimes that can be better, even if it’s painful, because the person is willing to keep this fight going for years and years. I mean, it’s what we call a pyrrhic victory. It’s like I won the battle in court, but I spent all this money, wrecked my relationship. My kid wrecked everything else because it was about my ego. So yeah, that’s. That’s not uncommon. And in fact, in psychotherapy, you see the same thing. So you see somebody narcissistic in psychotherapy and the therapy lasts for years or falls apart because the patient is antagonistic, is self-centered, self-absorbed, et cetera. They’re a real problem.

Jaime: What specific challenges do parents face when trying to co-parent with a narcissistic ex-spouse?

Keith: Well, I think that the problems can be one, how to arrange the parenting. So it’s sort of how do we agree on how to parent ourselves? So typically you come up with an agreement, but the narcissist is like, well, I don’t really have to follow the rules of the agreement. I can do whatever I want. So on one hand, you have that just simple agreement and having somebody agree to something and stick to that agreement, which is a challenge. And then the second piece, which I think gets more toxic. Is poisoning or weaponizing the child to either boost the narcissistic parent’s ego or to put down the other parent. So sort of poison the child to help one parent against the other parent. And I think that’s, I mean, being kind of a hard to work with a co-parent is one thing, but poisoning a kid, I think, is where it gets more toxic and more negative.

Jamie: Right. In those situations, do you think it might be better to try to parallel parent with the narcissistic ex-spouse versus trying to actually co-parent with them?

Keith: I think it can be. I think this is the kind of thing where you need experts and you need to really deal with the situation. I mean, you have to deal with the marriage that you have, but I certainly think There’s a place where you can go, look, we’re just going to each come up with our own roles. We’re going to have someone make sure you do your part, you do your part. And we’re not going to spend a lot of time trying to coordinate each other because it’s just not working.

Jaime: Yeah, and for folks that may not know, I just mentioned the term parallel parenting. Basically, that’s where there’s two separate households and the parents don’t communicate very much about the child. Like Keith just mentioned, the folks come up with their, you know, separate roles about what they’re gonna do adhere to those roles, but there is not the constant interaction with, you know, discussing issues about the kids and attempting to mutually agree on things.

Keith: Yeah, and that mutual discussion and agreement, and I don’t have research on this. This is just from me talking to people. I want to say that up front. What you see is those relationships get very, very sticky. Often people say, yeah, I’ve got this real narcissistic ex, you know, ex-husband. I need to do some gray rocking. Right. So they’ll talk about a gray rock method, which is I need to interact with them, but I don’t want to be too involved in the interactions. I want to be kind of boring. I want to be dry, just like a gray rock, not really do much. So I’ve heard that advice a lot, just to not get too stuck. People sometimes say, well, be nice, be a yellow rock, be sort of nice to your ex, be polite. But that’s all you do. Don’t get more involved than you need to. Hopefully, they get bored and move on to another, you know, go wreck someone else’s life. And stay away from yours.

Jamie: Can you share effective communication strategies for parents who may be dealing with a narcissistic

Keith: There’s no easy answer to these. Like, hey, this is the effective way to do it. This will work. It just doesn’t work like that. What I would suggest is, be very direct, have very strong boundaries, and very reliable, consistent boundaries. So if you’re doing communication, you communicate this, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, just in the same line, don’t vary, and don’t let the person… So what narcissists love to do is they love to rattle people, manipulate them, game playing. Sometimes we use the term gaslighting, which comes from an old British play. There’s an old American movie too. Basically make people feel they’re not in touch with reality. So often if you start getting in a back and forth with a narcissistic ex, they’re going to destabilize you, make you feel insecure, make you feel that you don’t know what’s going on. So really you want strong boundaries when you go into those interactions and you really want a good partner on your side, either a really good family law attorney that’s kind of got your back, a coach, a best friend, a psychotherapist, somebody who can help you deal with the narcissist because the challenge with narcissists is they will destabilize you and make you question your own sense of reality and sanity.

Jaime: Right. It’s like you need that support person that you can go to and say, okay, am I the crazy one here? What’s going on?

Keith: A hundred percent. Yeah. No, he’s the crazy one. You need to have another way to test reality. Just really important.

Jaime: Yeah, what I try to tell my clients who, you know, think they’re dealing with a narcissistic spouse, I always try to get them to be very concise in their communications with the spouse and to, you know, address whatever the issue is on the table, but not to get sucked into all the superfluous attacks that are in the communications from the ex. I also think it’s really important for those folks to set the record straight since, in my experience, the narcissist likes to spin their own version of reality in their email communications. And so I like my clients to respond in a very short, concise manner, set the record straight, answer whatever question was asked, and then move on and ignore all the rest of it.

Keith: That is perfect advice given what we know about communicating with somebody narcissistic. Because what you’re trying to do is you have to have the communication, you have to have the relationship, but that’s all you have to have. And what you don’t want is anything else. And that advice you’re giving is perfect.

Jaime: Well, great. That’s good to know. Yeah. How can a non-narcissistic parent establish healthy boundaries while still facilitating effective communication for the sake of the kids?

Keith: Well, again, I think this is a challenge, not just a super easy thing to do. I think the communication that is clear, consistent, and reliable. What you said about not going outside the lines, I think is perfect. Don’t bring up Christmas from 1997 because that’s done. Let’s just focus on 2024. I think staying really grounded in what matters to you and your own relationships as the non-narcissistic parent, I think is going to be key. Just not getting caught up in the relationship again.

Jaime: That can be easier said than done, right?

Keith: Absolutely. That’s why I’m saying these things are easy to say, but it’s very hard to do. People who are narcissistic are very attractive. They can be very manipulative. And if you married somebody, Yeah, you know, obviously we’re attracted to them. It’s hard.

Jaime: What steps can individuals take to protect their rights and ensure the best interests of the children are protected when dealing with the narcissist.

Keith: I think the challenge is that if you’re in a marriage with somebody who’s narcissistic, you’ve been married a long time, your first thought, maybe your first thought or one of your first thoughts is, I’m going to be nice. I’m going to be cooperative. Let’s just get the show on the road and get this done. And I think that sounds like the right thing to do. But with somebody who’s narcissistic and maybe somebody who doesn’t want to let go of their marriage, maybe somebody wants to stick with it or at least keep control over you even as they move on, it might not be the smartest thing. So what I suggest to people to do is even if your first instincts are to be nice and cooperative, I think it’s better to talk to somebody like you. Talk to an attorney who knows what they’re doing, who’s dealt with this stuff before and get some really solid advice. And know what your legal boundaries are, and also make sure you don’t get caught up in something. So the horror stories I hear, and you’ve probably heard much worse because you’re in the profession is, hey, I have my narcissistic husband, I think we’re getting divorced. He got me really mad and I threw a plate at him and he called the police, and then the police arrested me for domestic violence and now I’m losing my kids. Now, I’ve heard that story more than once. That is a really normal way that somebody narcissistic who’s planning for a divorce can manipulate you into doing some really dumb things ahead of time. You have to be smart. Then as smart as you are, you have to be extra smart because you’re dealing with somebody who’s a little bit more, maybe more conniving and more manipulative than you are by nature.

Jaime: Yeah, that’s a great point. I mean, we do see that. Quite a bit. In North Carolina, where I practice, there are very limited ways to get a spouse out of the house if you are ready to separate and nobody wants to leave. But one of those ways is domestic violence. And so if you have a narcissistic spouse and they set you up to either, number one, do something that could be considered domestic violence, or put yourself in a situation where they can claim you did it and you have no defense that you didn’t. You know, they may very well get you kicked out of the house and there you are alone and they’re sitting in the house with the children.

Keith: Yes, 100%.

Jaime: So as we can imagine, co-parenting with a narcissist is going to be emotionally draining. What coping mechanisms or strategies do you recommend for parents to maintain their own well-being and mental health.

Keith: I think there’s that… It’s a hard time for everybody right now. And you add to that a marriage that’s fallen apart. And then you add to that kind of a spouse who’s not really a partner, but who’s more of a predator in the relationship. And that’s going to be really, really hard. And so as a parent, The first thing you have to do is you’ve got to make sure you’re happy, you’re optimistic, you’re healthy, no matter how hard that is, because you need to bring that energy to your kids. You know, that’s the challenge. So no matter how bad it is, you have to stay energized enough to take care of your kids. So what that means you need to do is you have to build your own kind of mental, physical health plan and you have to do it. I don’t know what people want to do because everyone has their own way of doing it. You find a therapist. You find a pastor. You find a rabbi you can talk to. You start meditating. I think exercise is super important. Get your diet right. Make sure you’re sleeping. It’s all the basics. Kind of foundational work to do for yourself. But I think what’s important is people, they’ll go, well, I’ll do myself last. I got to worry about my kids. I got to worry about this. I got to worry about that. And I would say, hey, maybe put yourself as an early priority here. Make sure you’re physically feeling good, mentally stable, at least when you get up before you hit the day. You start off at a good place because you’re going to have to have the energy to protect your kids going down the line. It’s kind of like the plane crashing, you know, and they’re like, tell the parent, grab the oxygen mask for yourself before you give it to your kid. It’s sort of like that. You have to take care of yourself and stay strong to protect your kids going through this whole process, even if your natural response is to protect everybody else before yourself.

Jaime: Right. I mean, divorce is hard enough on a good day. And divorcing a narcissist and trying to co-parent with the narcissist is a whole new ballgame. And so when those folks come into my office and I can tell that’s, you know, an issue that they’re probably dealing with, one of the first things I say is, Do you have a therapist? No? Okay, well, we need to find you one because you’re going to need that support person to get through this process. Okay. I think that folks don’t understand that there are certain decisions that lawyers cannot make for their clients, right? Like, I can’t tell my client what custody schedule is best for their children because they know their family, and I can’t tell them how much alimony they’re willing to accept. And so I need them— mentally healthy so that they can make good decisions for themselves in their cases.

Keith: That’s a really interesting point. What that makes me think of, and I assume this is what happens, is that it becomes so stressful and people get so beaten down, they’re willing to take something that’s really bad for themselves just to make the suffering go away. Right? Yeah, absolutely. Strong enough that they can kind of defend against that and let the process work out, let negotiations work out so that at least they end up with something and don’t end up just on the street and not being able to take care of their kids.

Jaime: Yeah, that’s very true. In your experience, how does co-parenting with a narcissist affect the children involved? And what can parents do to try to mitigate any negative impacts on the child?

Keith: This is really, it’s really tricky. Imagine this, so imagine I’m a narcissistic parent. What I want for my children is I want to use my children to bring me status or esteem or attention. So if I have a child who’s maybe really successful at athletics or very good at school or maybe physically attractive or has some other skill, What I will do is I will spend a lot of time with that child, talking about the child, promoting the child, because that’s all feeding back into my ego. Right? I have a child who looks bad, who’s not as attractive, who’s not as successful, oh my goodness, I don’t want to be associated with that child because that’s going to make me look bad. So I’m going to push that child away. So imagine you’re growing up as a kid with a narcissistic parent. If you’re one of these special children, you’re going to be like, yeah, my dad was really nice to me. He always treated me well. He kind of put me on a pedestal. If you’re one of those kids, my dad who wasn’t great, you’re like, my dad hates me. He never paid attention to me. He always puts me down. He always belittled me. I was never on the Christmas card, whatever. Yeah. So you can get two different lives. But what happens when both those kids grow up is they go, both of them realize they weren’t loved. The kid who was the special child who thought she was the center of attention goes, I wasn’t loved. I was a tool for my dad’s… Ego, and that makes me feel really empty. The child that was not loved goes, that makes me feel really empty. I was never loved, but now I know why. It was because I didn’t make my dad look good. So you can have… A childhood that seems very different growing up, but there’s often a point of awareness where the kids realize no matter how good it was, dad was doing it for dad. It wasn’t about me. And that’s a very painful experience. I’ve talked to plenty of people who have gone through this. And then there’s kind of, you know, you do the work, you get over the pain, you grow, you vow to be a better parent. You vow to stop the pain from going down to the next generation. And that’s kind of how it goes. But yeah, it’s very hard for people both ways. Both ways.

Jaime: So if you are the child of a narcissistic parent, Are you at higher risk of becoming a narcissist yourself? I guess what I’m asking, is it genetic? Is it learned? Do we know?

Keith: Yeah, it’s genetic. Like all personality has pretty strong genetics in it. About 50% or so is heritable. In terms of learning, there’s a little bit you see with parenting and narcissism. So maybe, like I said, your parents kind of treat you like you’re a superstar and make you the special child and you’re the center of attention. And maybe that leads to a little narcissism. But the parenting effects aren’t really huge. Most of the effects seem to be more genetic than anything else. You kind of have a certain way you’re wired that leads, or it’s more likely to lead to narcissism.

Jaime: So non-narcissistic parents. Does not need to worry that spending 50% of the time at narcissistic parent’s house is going to negatively impact the child.

Keith: Well, it could negatively impact the child, but I don’t think the child is necessarily going to become narcissistic. Because you can imagine maybe you’ve got a narcissistic parent who’s a role model and says, you’re going to be mini me. You could see a case like that, but typically that’s not what’s going on. Typically, you don’t see parents, kids going, yeah, my narcissistic dad, I want to grow up and be an egomaniac like him. It’s just not super common. And it’s weird to think about, but as a narcissistic parent, you’re using your kids for status. It’s creepy, but it’s what you’re doing. And so it’s not always appealing to the kids.

Jaime: Co-parenting, in most cases, is a long-term commitment. How can parents sustain their resilience and commitment to effective co-parenting over time when dealing with the narcissistic co-parent?

Keith: My hope… In most of these cases is that the co-parenting starts off with some challenges. Over time, those challenges get worked out, and your hope is that the narcissistic parent finds something else to fill up his or her time. So the NARTS, and it could be a man, it could be a woman, but they go find another partner that takes up their time. They go find something else to do. They go move to Hollywood or whatever. They just find another way to use their time. That’s kind of the hope. It’s not always the case, but you hope, I mean, 18 years with this really narcissistic Sex is a painful thing to go through. So you hope they find something else, another marriage, something else to get them interested and not interested in you.

Jaime: Yeah, it gives all new meaning to when clients say, I really wish my ex would just find a new girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s like they really just want the attention focus off of them.

Keith: On someone else. Right, 100%. And it’s weird you’re saying that. Yeah, I wish my ex would just remarry. But you’re like, yeah, then it’s somebody else’s problem, not my problem anymore.

Jaime: What role can mental health professionals such as therapists and counselors play in supporting both parents and children in situations involving co-parenting with a narcissist?

Keith: I think that’s a great question, and I think You know, the classic thing of a therapist or psychotherapist is you go in with a mental disorder and they help you figure it out. So you’ve got depression and then they help you be less depressed or whatever. In the case of co-parenting with the narcissist, I think what the therapist can add is that reality piece. Help you stay grounded, help you know what’s real. When you start getting sucked into like, oh, maybe I should have done this. Maybe I should have done that. The therapist can walk you back. Remember when this happened. Remember when this happened. How did that work out for you? Oh yeah, this is the pattern. I see the pattern. So I think just… Instead of trying to cure you, just help you stay grounded and recognize the patterns that you have in the relationship can be really helpful. So it’s more of just awareness. I mean, obviously you could have a mental disorder they’re helping you with as well, but I think that awareness piece in the relationship is just really important and not getting sucked back in.

Jaime: Yeah, it’s probably really good to have that support. To just stay the course, right? Like, you know, you’re going to have to co-parent with this individual until your kids turn 18 and even beyond when they start graduating and getting married and having babies of their own. And so just. Figuring out the best course of action to deal with the person and then just the constant reminders that you’re doing the right thing. Just keep doing it.

Keith: Stick with the plan. Yeah, when you said the marriage, you’re going to end up being married. You’re going to have your kid get married. And this ex is going to show up and screw it up. And the kid’s going to be 30. You’re like, dude, 30 years, you’re still screwing up my life. But they’re going to do it. They’re going to make the wedding all about them. And you just need to go, look, just work the plan. Can’t change it. It is what it is.

Jaime: Right. That’s great advice. If you could offer one piece of advice for someone attempting to co-parent with a narcissist, what would it be?

Keith: I keep going back to stay sane, stay grounded. Stay connected with reality. Mostly just stay grounded as much as you can. Because the problem, it’s like you’re grounded and this person’s always going to be trying to suck you back into some head game. They’re always going to be game playing, making you feel bad. Just stay grounded. Live your own life. Let the process go. Work with them as little as you can. And in the interest of your kids.

Jaime: Yeah, I really like what you said earlier about self-care, because I think if the person is practicing really good self-care, they’re going to be in a better position to stay the course and keep doing what they’re doing and

Keith: Hang in there for the long haul. Yeah. And this is very much like a long game, right? I mean, you’re like, you said 20 years, 15 years. This is a long, long time. And people are going to change over that time. So staying it for the long haul, I think, is great. Great way to think about it.

Jaime: Well, this has been a really interesting conversation. Before we wrap up today, is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to add?

Keith: I would just… I’d like to say that it’s nice to talk to a family law attorney who deals with these issues and is talking about these issues. I discuss narcissism and divorce with people. I’ve been talking about it for probably 25 years as an academic researcher with no actual power. And I think the work that you and people in your profession do is incredibly important, especially in protecting children. And I know that judges always aren’t in the best position to see narcissism from the stands because the narcissist walks into the courtroom and he looks like an airline pilot meets an attorney meets a surgeon. And the judge goes, I love this guy. Reminds me of myself. So I think that the role that the legal profession plays in this is super, super important for children. So I guess I say thank you for that.

Jaime: Well, thank you. It’s not often that the lawyers get credit for much. So thank you. I appreciate that. Well, thank you, Keith, for joining us.

Keith: Thanks, Jamie. That was really fun.

Jaime: Thank you for listening. If you liked this episode, be sure to follow the show wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss the next one. While the information presented is intended to provide you with general information to navigate Divorce Without Destruction, This podcast is not legal advice. This information is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have any questions before taking action, consult an attorney who is licensed in your state. If you are in need of assistance in North Carolina, you can contact us at Gaylord Hunt by visiting divorcestuff.com. I’m Jamie Davis, and I’ll talk with you next time on a Year in a Day.

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A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction' is a law podcast produced by Gailor Hunt Davis Taylor & Gibbs, PLLC partner Jaime Davis. You can learn more about Jaime's experience and expertise on her bio page. If you have a question about the podcast, you can email Jaime at jdavis@divorceistough.com. Please note, the purpose of this podcast is not to give legal advice. This podcast is for general, informational purposes only and should not be used as legal advice. The information discussed in this podcast is specific to the laws in North Carolina. Before you take any legal action you should consult with a lawyer who is licensed in your state.
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W. Keith Campbell, PhD is a nationally-recognized expert on narcissism, personality, and cultural change. His interests are far-reaching - from broad cultural processes to basic personality assessment and from money to mystical experiences. They all, however, share a focus on the individual self.

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