The Truth About Narcissism

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Narcissus, the mortal son of Gods in Greek mythology, fell in love with his beauty and drowned while staring into his own reflection in a pool of water.

Narcissism, a term often thrown around in the media, is being used more frequently by the general public to describe people who appear selfish and egocentric. In fact, narcissism is a lot more complex than many of us realize, and signs and causes of this personality style span far beyond selfishness. 

As rates of narcissism continue to increase among Western youth, contributing to increased rates of violence, mental health disorders, and drug abuse, it is important to explore the truth about narcissism in detail to understand the signs, causes, and prevalence of the disorder.

What is Narcissism?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) can cause people to be arrogant, entitled, or vain. Narcissistic people will often act pretentious in group settings, belittle others, and attempt to control conversations. They often display an excessive need for attention and admiration, have problems in relationships, and demonstrate a lack of empathy for others [1].

While their self-concept often appears overinflated, people with NPD typically have a fragile ego, which is really at the heart of narcissism. The narcissistic traits that make a person appear confident and self-serving are actually maladaptive protective mechanisms [3]. This means that the constant need for validation and success and their control and belittling of others are shields of armor that protect their fragile self concept and unprocessed insecurity. A narcissistic person is always fighting against internalized shame and the unconscious fear that people will discover their insecurity and vulnerability. 

This shame is what causes most narcissistic people to lash out and act in cruel, selfish ways. When their internalized shame is activated and their power or worth is questioned, they go to extreme lengths to protect their ego and maintain secure dominance.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is estimated to affect less than 1% of the population and is very rarely diagnosed or treated. When we discuss narcissism, it is most often as a personality style as opposed to an official diagnosis or disorder.

While individuals with NPD may appear to love themselves, what they actually love is a grandiose, idealized version of themselves, which allows them to avoid intense feelings of insecurity and poor self-image. However, this doesn’t come easily, or certainly not as easily as it may appear. Maintaining this image takes constant, careful construction and maintenance, which causes the dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors that we label as narcissism. 

Signs of Narcissism

While there are common signs of narcissism, they generally differ between males and females [2]. Male narcissists are likely to be more recognizable as they display traits that we generally associate as narcissistic, such as a determined pursuit of status, money, and power along with habitual infidelity. Female narcissists can be equally, if not more, manipulative than males and tend to be jealous, overbearing, competitive, superficial, and often identifying as a victim.

In a relationship, narcissistic people may initially appear incredibly caring, generous, and loving but become cold and disinterested once they receive the love and attention that they seek. While this is common for both male and female narcissists, in relationships, female narcissists generally use neglect or guilt as a form of control whereas males are more likely to use power and status. 

Narcissistic people will often use gaslighting in relationships to maintain control. This may look like demeaning or belittling language and diminishing their partner’s achievements only to question their reactions or call them crazy, emotional, and unreasonable.

Causes of Narcissism 

People are not born narcissists; narcissistic personality style is something that people develop over time. While there is no linear path to narcissism, two commonly accepted routes suggest that it is rooted in early socialization [3]: 1) proximity to trauma and adverse childhood experiences and 2) overzealous approval, appraisal, and internalization of the message that a child is fundamentally superior to others.

There can be many outcomes from early childhood adversity and trauma, and many victims of these conditions go on to develop adverse mental or physical health conditions in adulthood, such as depression, PTSD and chronic pain. In these cases, people are often unkind to themselves and have poor self esteem, anxiety, and unusually high levels of agreeableness. However, such childhood adversity can also cause a high degree of disagreeableness, a lack of empathy for others, and selfish, narcissistic behavior. 

Conversely, another route to narcissism is through parental overvaluation, where children are told that they are more special and entitled than others. 

Neither adverse childhood experiences nor parental overvaluation is the sole origin of narcissism, however. As with most personality traits, narcissism is partly heritable and connected to early emerging temperamental traits [5]. Certain temperamental traits can make a child more susceptible to narcissism when they are exposed to parental overvaluation, [4] adverse childhood experiences, and neglect, and they may be more likely to develop an insecure attachment disorder when chronically dismissed or misunderstood. 

Responding to a Narcissist

Loving or living in close proximity to a narcissist can be incredibly difficult. Those with parents, partners, or friends who are narcissists can develop chronic people-pleasing behaviors. Due to the manipulative, power-seeking behavior of the narcissistic person, the people they love can end up buckling under the guilt and pressure put upon them to do or say certain things to appease the narcissist.

If you suspect that a person is a narcissist, though it may feel important or empowering, confrontation will ultimately lead to a more aggressive, defensive reaction. It is worth remembering that power-seeking, gaslighting, and belittling behavior are responses to an unstable self esteem, and questioning or exacerbating this will provoke an even more defensive reaction. Instead, adapt your behavior and responses, set your boundaries, and stick to them.

Ultimately, you will not change a narcissist on your own, no matter how kind, loving, and dedicated you are. If you wish to respond to their behavior while respecting your own boundaries, it can be helpful to point out how their behavior makes you feel as opposed to phrasing it in terms of their weaknesses. 

By pointing out a narcissist’s hurtful or dysfunctional behavior, you are threatening their image of themselves as the ideal, perfect person, and they will react in a manipulative, demeaning way that will re-shift the balance of power in their favor.

Treating Narcissism 

Treating narcissism is notoriously difficult because it requires a narcissist to admit there is a problem with their behavior. Due to the very nature of the disorder, this is very rare. However, in cases in which narcissists do seek support, talking therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy can help narcissists address the root of their maladaptive traits and adapt their thought and behavioral patterns. Although the hope of treating narcissism has historically been low, recent studies have demonstrated that some narcissists are, in fact, capable of learning and feeling empathy through intervention [4].

Narcissists are at increased risk of developing substance use disorders and mental mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety [6], and treatment for co-occurring disorders will often increase the likelihood of an NPD diagnosis.

When narcissistic traits are observed in children, family therapy can be a useful way of examining and addressing parenting styles and behavior as an intervention to decrease narcissism. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates – call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.

References 

[1] Miller, J. D., Back, M. D., Lynam, D. R., & Wright, A. G. C. (2021). Narcissism Today: What we Know and What we Need to Learn. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 30(6), 519–525. https://doi.org/10.1177/09637214211044109

[2] Grijalva E, Newman D A, Tay L, Donnellan M B, et al. (2015). Gender differences in narcissism: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 141(2), 261–310. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038231 Accessed September 14, 2020/

[3] Brummelman E, Thomaes S, Nelemans SA, Orobio de Castro B, Overbeek G, Bushman BJ. (2015) Origins of narcissism in children. PNAS. 2015;112(12):3659-3662. doi:10.1073/pnas.1420870112

[4] University of Surrey. Psychology research breakthrough suggests narcissists are capable of empathy. July 21, 2016. Available at: https://www.surrey.ac.uk/features/psychology-research-breakthrough-suggests-narcissists-are-capable-empathy Accessed September 14, 2020.

[5] PA Vernon, VC Villani, LC Vickers, JA Harris, (2008) A behavioral genetic investigation of the Dark Triad and the Big 5. J Pers Soc Psychol 44, 445–452.

[6] Stinson, FS, et al., (2008) Prevalence, correlates, disability, and comorbidity of DSM-IV narcissistic personality disorder: results from the wave 2 national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. J Clin Psychiatry 69, 1033–1045.

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