Is it a dangerous mental disorder or a media buzzword?
When people say someone is a narcissist that person is vain and self-important. Narcissists give the impression they believe that they are god’s gift to mankind.
The Greek Myth of Narcissus
The term narcissism originated from the Greek myth of Narcissus.
Narcissus was distinguished for his beauty. Narcissus’s mother was told by the blind seer Tiresias that he would have a long life, provided he never recognized himself. The Greek god Nemesis attracted Narcissus to a pool where he fell in love with his own reflection. He was unable to leave the allure of his reflection in the pool and having developed an unrequited love that could never be reciprocated, Narcissus lost his will to live and committed suicide.
Is Narcissism Natural?
A degree of narcissism is needed to function in society – this is what we call health narcissism. The other, more dangerous type of narcissism is pathological narcissism.
Healthy narcissism is possessing realistic self-esteem without being cut off from a shared emotional life. Everyone needs self-esteem to function in society. A deficiency of self-esteem will prevent someone from doing simple things like going to the store and having a job.
Pathological narcissism is psychologically referred to as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It is characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance and an excessive need for admiration.
The DSM-IV Criteria for 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 inter-personally 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.
Clearly there is a massive difference between healthy and pathological narcissism. But how does one develop Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
The Origin of Pathological Narcissism
There is no definitive cause of NPD, but a common theory is that pathological narcissism is an adaptive strategy to childhood abuse. Ordinary children are naturally selfish. This is a part of ordinary development and is necessary for their needs and desires to be met. This self-centeredness continues in the teenage years as the individual struggles and eventually finds their place in society and the world.
As the healthy child grows up they also begin to understand the viewpoints of other people. Their family members have an emotional life of their own and have their own needs and desires that need to be met. This development of empathy continues through childhood and teenage years and allows the child to grow into a productive member of society.
Sam Vaknin’s Theory Of The False-Self
Having been told repeatedly how “bad”, “worthless”, “disappointing”, and injurious he is, the child comes to believe in his self-imputed delusional ability to hurt and damage family members, for instance.
Such imaginary capacity is the logical extension of both the child’s grandiosity (omnipotence, “I have the power to hurt mommy”) and his magical thinking (“I think, I wish, I hate, I rage and, thereby, with the unlimited power of my mind, I cause real calamities out there, in the real world”). So, it is the child’s natural primary narcissistic defenses that enable him to feel so miserable! These defenses allow him to construct a narrative which corresponds to and justifies the judgemental, hateful appraisals and taunts of his abusers. In his young mind, he accepts that he is bad because he is all-powerful and magical and because he leverages his godlike attributes to act with malice or, at the very least, to bring misfortune on significant others.
To skirt this inner overwhelming negativity, the child “appropriates” precisely these defenses and bundles them into a protective shield, thus sequestering his vulnerable, fragile self. Occupied by the ongoing project of his budding pathological narcissism, the child’s defenses are no longer available to construct and buttress the narratives offered by the abusive voices of his tormentors. Moreover, by owning his fantastic grandiosity and harnessing it, the child feels as empowered as his abusers and no longer a victim.
The “false-self” is created as a defense against the abuses in childhood. Narcissists have lost their “true-self” – the core of their personality. The “false-self” is intended to shield the child from pain with self-imputed omnipotence. This development is completely outside the control of the child and is a natural defense mechanism against abuse. It is an adaptation to the circumstances of abuse the child is in. This adaptation allows the child to survive (albeit at the expense of the true-self) their abusive childhood.
This false-self is the personality that the narcissist shows to the world and themselves for the rest of their life. The false-self is far stronger than the true-self so the true-self becomes dormant, weak, and repressed. The narcissist loves their false-self and they truly believe it to be who they are. They do not realize it is a defense mechanism and they do not understand how it developed.
Just like in the ancient Greek myth Narcissus was in love with his reflection, real narcissists are in love with their false-self.
Narcissism and Other Mental Disorders
Since narcissism is often developed by children in abusive households, people with pathological narcissism often have other mental disorders. When a mental disorder exists alongside another it is termed co-morbid psychological disorders. Disorders that are often co-morbid with NPD include substance use disorder, bipolar disorder, and eating disorder.
NPD is also commonly co-morbid with borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD is a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by unstable relationships with other people, unstable sense of self, and unstable emotions.
Narcissism + Psychopathy = Narcopath
However the most commonly known co-morbid disorder with narcissism is psychopathy. Psychopathy (often referred to a sociopathy and antisocial personality disorder) characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits.
People possessing narcissism and psychopathy are known for their superficial charm, their risk-taking and their skills in manipulation. Narcissism and psychopathy are two of the three disorders in what psychologists terms the “Dark Triad”. The third characteristic is machiavellianism.
The dark triad in psychology refers to the personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, which are called “dark” because of their malevolent qualities. People scoring high on these traits are more likely to commit crimes, cause social distress and create severe problems for an organization. Sam Vaknin has two videos on the dangers of predatory and malignant narcissists.
The reason we are afraid or disgusted by them is because narcissists (and psychopaths) is they lack empathy. This is point number 7 in the DSM-IV criteria for NPD:
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
If you watched the Predatory Narcissists videos above you will realize that the idea that narcissists lack empathy is a myth. Sam Vaknin says, “The narcissist cursed – or blessed – with mental X-ray vision. He sees through people’s emotional shields, their petty lies, their pitiable defenses, their grandiose fantasies.” How can someone have this mental x-ray vision when they are also unwilling to recognize the feelings and needs of others? The issue with understanding narcissists lies in the commonplace definition of empathy. The narcissist possesses what Vaknin has termed “Cold Empathy”, the cognitive element of empathy is there, but not so its emotional correlate.
This is a shocking and antisocial idea, and it is no wonder people hate to acknowledge it. However the traits of narcissism (and other dark triad characteristics) have been associated with at a higher frequency with CEOs and business leaders than the average person. Materially successful people are more likely to be narcissists than materially unsuccessful people (don’t assume this success makes them feel fulfilled – it doesn’t).
Men are also more likely than women to be narcissists. 75% of narcissists are men. This makes sense at first glance, as men are more assertive and power hungry than women in general. This is particularly true at the extremes where the true pathological narcissists are found.