Narcissists are more common than you might think. They are there on Instagram, on TV reality shows, Hollywood movies and the tabloid press. They are are symptoms of the disease of modern life, with its exaggerated emphasis on individual glamour and self-advertisement.
Narcissism runs on a spectrum from exaggerated self importance, through to grandiosity and self-entitlement, all the way up to full blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This article explore the causes and consequences.
What is narcissism?
Narcissism is an extreme type of egoism. In which individuals believe they are superior to others, or else special in some way. These people often dress in a style which makes them appear wealthier than they really are, or buy expensive cars and jewellery they cannot afford. Because they half-believe their own lies about their success in life (or successes that are just about to happen) they can appear convincing and charismatic.
At one end of the spectrum we have the spoilt child, brought up to believe she deserves special treatment. In that sense the majority of people brought up by adoring parents are mildly narcissistic. A study published in 2009 estimated that narcissistic traits were significantly more prevalent in American college students than 30 years before. This leads to claims that modern western societies are facing an ‘epidemic of narcissism‘. However that might mean little more than that young people have a higher opinion of themselves than their parents. In that (loose) sense most people are narcissistic to some degree.
In groups further up the spectrum the problem becomes a little more serious. Here the two traits of grandiosity and self-entitlement kick in. Individuals with these characteristics suffer from ego-inflation, in which their self-perception is unrealistic, and out of line with their real achievements. Ego distortions may stem from childhood experiences, or they may not. For example, children may grow up with the idea that they are superior to others, and entitled to special treatment simply because they come from a privileged background and inherited wealth. This is especially true if other family members suffer from the same delusion.
Others develop this ego-delusion later in life: B-list celebrities, lucky millionaires, pop singers, royal family members and politicians are good examples. All of them recognisable for the cliche “Don’t you know who I am?” when denied their entitlements.
Social media is fertile source of narcissistic attitudes. Having your tweets liked and shared by thousands can be intoxicating, and leads straight to ego-inflation. The same is true of other media sites in which mundane activities, snapshot selfies, likes, dislikes and opinions are relayed to a horde of followers, leading people to believe they are more important than they really are.
So far these have been problems of self-attribution: the person lacks insight into the external sources of of the attention he is receiving, and imagines that it is due to his astounding personality. Over the course of life, as setbacks and misfortunes multiply (or followers dwindle), most develop a little a little more realism and humility. While those still stuck in the narcissistic ego become embittered and twisted.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Things get more serious when we come to Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It is one of the personality disorders, and approximately 5% of the population carry it, with twice as many men to women. In addition to exaggerated egoism, grandiosity and self-entitlement the full-blown narcissist is manipulative, amoral and ruthless. Lacking empathy, their actions may cause serious harm to others.
Traits of narcissistic personality disorder include:
- Risk-taking and impulsive behaviour
- Deceitful (sometimes criminal) activities
- Contempt for others
- Difficulty in sustaining relationships
People with NPD exploit others in order to gratify their fantasies. This may entail sexual exploitation, deception, theft, law-breaking and bullying. Because they lack genuine empathy they are oblivious to the pain and hurt they inflict on others.
Contrary to appearances, narcissists are not happy people. Given their dependence on attention on others they are fundamentally insecure and anxious. Their egos are only as strong as their last admirer. They are sensitive to criticism and may turn nasty when thwarted. They frequently use drugs and alcohol in order to numb their anxiety.
The tell-tale sign of full-blown narcissism lies in their behaviour when confronted. Since they are never in the wrong they may resort to lies, gas-lighting and rage in order to regain control over the relationship. They are experts in undermining confidence in their partners, leading them to question their own sanity.
Causes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
All personality disorders are based on dysfunctional relationships in early life. Either in the family, or elsewhere. The child comes to believe that the only way to preserve the ego is through acting out in some way. Through hostility (paranoid personality disorder), clinginess (borderline), withdrawal (schizoid), rule-breaking (anti-social), and self-importance (narcissistic).
There is a partial genetic basis for all the personality disorders and the individual is likely to have family members who exhibit odd, eccentric or dysfunctional personalities. If the parents have problems in relating to others the child’s genetic disposition is reinforced by what they see, hear and learn inside the family.
In some cases personality disorders are fostered by absent parents (this includes children who end up in care). Lacking in love the child adopts behaviours designed to attract attention. Unfortunately, these behaviours attract the wrong kind of attention, occasionally ending up in the law courts. The narcissistic personality, for example compensates for early neglect by fantasising about his own uniqueness. This, in turn, might look to others like showing off. Leading to frantic attempts to seduce others into joining the fantasy. Equipped with great charm they sometimes succeed – with unfortunate results for their camp followers. However, none of these relationships are based on genuine feeling, and most are short-lived.
Treatment for Narcissistic disorders
Given their illusion of superiority narcissists seldom volunteer for therapy. In most cases they attend only when ordered to by a partner – or by a court of law. However, therapy does not usually go well, as narcissists are reluctant to examine their own flaws and weaknesses, spending most of their time convincing the therapist that – appearances to the contrary – they are well-balanced, happy and successful. When challenged they may assert that apparent problems are due to a misunderstanding, or the result of envy, weakness and stupidity on the part of others.
Successful psychotherapy will only occur if the narcissist takes ownership for the problems they cause. This may happen if the client has reached a low point in life: career failure, desertion by friends, partners and children, bankruptcy, or criminal charges. This may lead them to question their personal emptiness, and their inability to love.
Ultimately narcissists can only be ‘cured’ when they learn to empathise with other people. The first step is to recognise the harm they have done to others and, from there, to develop relationships based on care and concern rather than lies and manipulation. This, for them, can be a painful process
“In the future everyone will become famous – for fifteen minutes.”