We have the impression nowadays that more and more people don’t care about other people’s feelings, they want to satisfy their own needs no matter how. We call these people self-centered, egoistic, selfish or narcissist. Hard statistics and science point out that we live in an increasingly narcissistic world that is the by-product of the consumer society. We just have to have a look at social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram etc. where everybody presents images of him-/herself and people get satisfied by posting their photos and getting likes for them. The term “narcissism” got pretty popular the last years and we tend to label people easily with this diagnosis.
If we focus too much on the stereotypes about narcissism then we won’t be able to see the point of the problem that has nothing to do with vanity or self-centeredness. That is why it is important to get over these stereotypes and generalizations in order to understand the true nature of narcissism. A tendency toward narcissism is present in everyone, to more or less of a degree. We are all social beings, we like talking about ourselves, sharing our stories with others, we like getting attention, praise and positive feedback, we all long for feeling special, interesting and being loved and usually we don’t like being criticized. That doesn’t mean that we are all narcissistic but we all have narcissistic needs. The question is how much we let these needs dominate our behavior and how we satisfy these needs. Sometimes narcissism is beneficial for us because we can see ourselves in a more positive light and it can give us the strength and courage to make decisions and take risks that we might normally not do. In addition, our ability to love ourselves allows us not to let negative feedback destroy our entire self-esteem.
Anger can also trigger our narcissistic self. Just think of a heated debate when we are not able to empathetically consider the other’s feelings and needs but we focus on our own perspective and how to protect ourselves. This kind of self-centeredness and the lack of empathy characterize the narcissistic dynamic. The difference is that people without narcissistic traits are able to reflect and feel empathy after a debate and they are able to see their own failure and apologize for that. People with narcissistic personality disorder lack this kind of self-reflection because it would mean admitting their defeat that would be unbearably shameful for them.
There are specific diagnostic criterias of a narcissistic personality and we can’t diagnose and generalize from one symptom. Sometimes you don’t recognize at first whether someone has narcissistic personality until you’ve gotten deeply involved in a relationship and come to realize that the qualities that attracted you to a person are the narcissistic qualities that you find annoying now.
What is Narcissism?
The term of “narcissism” itself comes from the story of Narcissus in Greek mythology, dating back to at least 8 A.D so we can say that narcissism has been around and it has also been recognized as long as humanity has been around. The formal diagnosis was made by the psychoanalytic school, but the different schools of psychology accept slightly different understandings of the pathology/personality disorder.
The word narcissism can be used in a positive and also negative sense, as we label people narcissist if they have a good self-esteem but in most cases the word describes a pathology and we tend to use the word narcissist to describe a person who’s self-centered and short on empathy. Narcissism is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
It is estimated that around 1% of the population suffers from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It is just an estimation as many people who have NPD are so called therapy resistant, that means they do not seek treatment and therefore are never diagnosed. It is because narcissistic people tend to be happy (or at least they see themselves so) and they don’t experience discomfort (that usually brings people to therapy) as they don’t face the negative consequences of their disorder, generally their unfortunate targets do. Besides they often lack the kind of empathetic self-reflection that might make them wonder whether they have a problem. Studies show that men are more likely to be narcissistic, roughly 75% of the individuals diagnosed with NPD are men. Although almost everyone has some self-centered or narcissistic traits, most people do not meet the criteria for having a personality disorder and the diagnosis requires to be made by a mental health professional.
What is the easiest way to identify narcissistic people?
You can tell if someone is a narcissist by just asking him/her. Research shows narcissists feel so good about themselves they don’t mind admitting it and narcissism can be quite beneficial in the short term. They make fantastic first impressions e.g. in job interviews and on first dates. In youth, being a narcissist, also makes you happier. Narcissists are more likely to become leaders and narcissists who obsessively work hard are more likely to get promoted. But what works for them so well in the short term proves not beneficial in the long term. After three weeks people regard narcissists as untrustworthy and narcissists might become leaders, but they’re not good ones. When prestige isn’t on the line, most narcissists don’t work that hard. What about relationships? After an awesome first date relationship satisfaction with them shows a big decline after four months. As adults, narcissists aren’t happy and if you’re around them, probably you won’t be either.
What are the diagnostic criterias of the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)?
The following is an abbreviated summary of the diagnostic criteria for NPD according to the DSM-V which is the industry standard for the diagnostic of psychological conditions. If someone meets at least 5 of the 9 diagnostic criterias then we can suppose that the person has NPD but as I have already mentioned just a mental health professional can make the diagnosis. A personality disorder is a type of mental disorder in which you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning and behaving. A person with a personality disorder has trouble perceiving and relating to situations and people. This causes significant problems and limitations in relationships, social activities, work and school.
The diagnostic criterias of NPD:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g. exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- A belief that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by or should associate with similar high-status people and organizations.
- A need for excessive admiration.
- A sense of entitlement or unreasonable expectation of special treatment or extreme loyalty.
- A tendency to use others for their own needs or wants.
- A lack of empathy, or unwillingness/inability to recognize and honor the needs and feelings of others.
- Proneness to envy or having a belief that they are envied by others.
- A sense of arrogance shown in behaviors and/or attitudes.
Narcissism can wear many masks and it can happen that we can’t recognize these symptoms as narcissism can be hidden deep inside. The narcissistic person’s behavior is a coping mechanism to cope with his/her suffering. Here’s a list of other traits of a narcissist person:
- Extreme sensitivity to negative feedback or criticism and they lash out if they feel slighted in any way.
- Significant need for approval from others due to inadequacies that are real or imagined.
- Poor self-esteem is often expressed through self-deprivation or arrogance.
- Poor emotional regulation, aggressive impulses, psychologically fragile.
- Difficulties within most relationships.
- Intolerance for imperfections in others.
- Often idealize others that represent perfection followed by devaluing that very person when they are perceived to have failed them.
- Insist on having the best of everything and believe that they deserve this.
- Vain, self-righteous and prideful.
- Care quite a bit about their appearance and can come across as quite charming.
- Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it, and will discount any evidence that doesn’t support their belief of their own superiority.
- Are highly manipulative.
- Aren’t opposed to taking advantage of others to get what they want.
- Have no remorse for hurting others and rarely apologize unless it will benefit them in some way.
- Tend to project their bad behavior onto others, meaning they may accuse you of the very behavior they are conducting.
- Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior.
These criterias give us the impression that narcissistic people are horrible human beings but they can also be fun, charismatic, or good at what they do. Having them around can give you more pleasure than pain and, in the workplace, they can enhance your team’s success. You may, if you have a choice in the matter, prefer the idea of “reforming” the narcissist in your life rather than leaving him or her by the wayside.
Types of Narcissism
In fact, there are two different types of narcissism, the Grandiose Narcissism and the Vulnerable Narcissism. These types of narcissism stem from different early childhood experiences and lead to different behaviors in a relationship.
1. Grandiose narcissists display high levels of grandiosity, aggression and dominance. They tend to be more confident and less sensitive. They are often elitists and have no problem telling everyone how great they are.
Childhood experience of grandiose narcissists: Usually they were treated as if they were superior in their early childhood and they move through life expecting this type of treatment to continue. In relationships, grandiose narcissists are more likely to openly engage in infidelity or leave their partners abruptly if they feel that they are not getting the special treatment that they think they are entitled to.
2. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, are much more emotionally sensitive. They have a kind of “fragile grandiosity,” in which their narcissism serves as a façade protecting deeper feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. Vulnerable narcissists swing back and forth between feeling superior and inferior. They often feel victimized or anxious when they are not treated as if they are special.
Childhood experience of vulnerable narcissists: This type of narcissism usually develops in early childhood as a coping mechanism to deal with abuse or neglect. In relationships, vulnerable narcissists often worry about how their partners perceive them. They can be very possessive, jealous and paranoid about their partners having flirtations or affairs.
Comparing the two groups of narcissists, studies show that grandiose narcissists tend to be happier, more extroverted, and more emotionally stable. The vulnerable narcissists are less agreeable, less emotionally stable, and higher in manipulativeness and psychopathy.
What happened in their childhood?
A narcissist doesn’t necessarily come from a dysfunctional or abusive family, but narcissism can develop because a parent or caretaker wasn’t able to provide emotional attention, or it could be the flipside: a parent provided too much attention and the child never learned frustration tolerance. It really depends, and the same situation can result in different outcomes for different people.
Narcissistic people often have narcissistic parents, who wanted them to be great, so they could be the parent of a great person, the best artist, smartest student, etc. and the parents can feel special through the achievements of their children. The children got the attention from the parents but they were also neglected, as their parents were so focused on themselves that they couldn’t see or hear their children and they were unable to meet their child’s emotional needs. The children were only useful to these parents when they were serving a purpose for them and satisfying their needs and that is how narcissistic people develop the basic experience of the world that they are not enough and not lovable. Often, the parents of a person with NPD alternated between emotional hunger toward the children and disinterest and they also probably were excessively critical to their children. It is a conditional parental love where the children are not perceived valuable in themselves. In case the children achieve or accomplish what the parents expect, they can receive something from the parents in turn that is perceived as love. As a result, the children were forced to develop a false self in order to please the parents and hide their actual feelings, thoughts and preferences from them and from themselves as well. A false self can be formed in many ways, for narcissists the solution is perfection. Narcissistic individuals develop a self in which they can feel perfect, invulnerable, and superior to all the others in order to compensate for the great emotional deficit, shame, and inferiority.
Narcissists have inflated self-esteem, that is very fragile, because the flip side of their self-aggrandized feeling is very low self-esteem and a lot of shame. This shame is a hidden and very intense feeling of discomfort with inferiority. Shame versus guilt affects the individual, so the whole personality becomes the source of shame. That is why slight criticism can be a narcissistic injury for these people, leading to an angry outburst and desperate attempts to regain their fragile, inflated self-esteem. Often, a condescending remark will help them to reestablish their superior image. Condescending is a common dynamic in narcissistic relationships. This behavior can be traced back to the desperate need narcissists feel to be above others and to compensate for their fragile and low self-esteem.
The roots of narcissistic people’s childhood:
- Loneliness: this does not mean physical loneliness, but emotional loneliness, their emotions were not reflected.
- Isolation: even in peer groups, they are strange, separate, often like small professors, unable to fit in with other children because they tried to adapt to the adults, so they could never really be children.
- Insufficient boundaries: there are parents who neglect their child so much that the daily rhythm is not even taken into account.
- In the absence of the other parent, one parent uses the child for his/her own needs: the child gets the feeling of being special from the parent, but in ways that are dear to the parent.
- There are families who are of higher status, famous, have a lot of money. Their children are at risk where they may not be mistreated by their parents, but the situation of the family is a special case.
The psychotherapy is pretty challenging with narcissistic people. It is very hard to get them (mainly grandiose narcissists) into therapy as they usually don’t suffer from their behaviour and as I have mentioned above they are therapy resistant as they often lack empathetic self-reflection. Through hard work in therapy, the narcissist can change destructive patterns and cultivate empathy, but it’s very difficult to get them to want to do that, or to even acknowledge that their behavior is the cause of so many of their problems, because therapy can work against the narcissist’s best interest. Another challenge in the therapy that there’s a risk of feeding them through psychotherapy as they get to talk to someone about themselves.
I hope you enjoyed the article! You can find out how you can deal with a narcissist in the next article, so stay tuned and feel free to give me a comment! 🙂