The label “narcissist” in my opinion is quite loosely used in jest or disgust for anyone that indulges in any type of vanity. Celebrities are most often accused of being one. Thing is, it’s also very easy for us to categorise people, mainly because we believe that they are so full of themselves and we assume that they don’t give a care about what people think about them. But these are all surface level conclusions. There’s always more to the story.
A Small Mythology Lesson
For those that aren’t Greek mythology buffs, let me tell you the story of Narcissus-a proud, handsome young man. It was prophesied that he would live to old age, if he never looked at himself. Due to his good looks, he always had a steady stream of admirers that he would reject. Out of these admirers was Echo, a nymph. She was so upset by the rejection that she eventually faded to nothing and left behind only a whisper. A whisper that was heard by the goddess Nemesis, who made Narcissus fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water while he was trying to quench his thirst. He was so in love with it that he would try to bend down to kiss it, only for it to disappear each time. Soon he would become thirstier and thirstier, but would refuse to leave or even disturb the water to ensure that his reflection remains. Eventually, as a result of his self obsession, he died of thirst. This story is the origin of the word “narcissist” or “narcissism”.
The Narcissistic Personality
It’s very important to distinguish between narcissistic personality traits and the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). We all have portrayed some degree of narcissistic traits in our lives, but an individual that’s diagnosed with NPD shows significant impairments in personality functioning in most domains of their lives. Also, the expression of personality traits must be stable over time, and not attributed to the individual’s culture, environment, stage of development or influence of any substance/medical condition.
In a nutshell, people with NPD are self centred. They have an exaggerated sense of their abilities and require constant attention and validation. They have a tendency of comparing themselves to others and have a preoccupation of being better than the world. Due to this preoccupation, they can and will exploit other for personal gain, which in turn proves a lack of empathy. Now, this is where I question the facade of grandiosity and believe that truckloads of insecurity lies behind it.
The Masked Insecurity
Abraham Maslow has proposed the idea of a need hierarchy in which he said that when all the needs are fulfilled, the individual is self actualised. One of the key traits of a self actualised individual is a high self esteem. They are true to what they believe and other’s opinions about them will not create a sense of inferiority or resentment. They are secure in their own skin. Let’s discuss the narcissist. They show that they have extremely high self esteem, yet the slightest amount of criticism is enough to send them into a frenzy. Odd, isn’t it? The portrayal is of security but the actions are of insecurity.
In the DSM 5, it’s written that people with NPD have an extremely fragile sense of self esteem. Hence, feelings of inferiority are constantly churning and the individual compensates by acting superior, aggressive and shows rage. Some of the compensating behaviours include:
- Self Flattering Statements: “I’m so much better than them” Such affirming statements can boost the fragile ego of the individual temporarily. The more others are put down, the more the individual feels like he rises up. These statements also are intended for others to notice them and notice how unique or special they feel they are. The attention of others makes them feel validated.
- Poor Response To Criticism: Normally, constructive criticism for most is a way for personal growth, but for the narcissist, it’s more of a personal attack. Any type of criticism reinforces the inferiority that the individual battles with, and is met with offence and a fear of being exposed. This is called as a narcissistic injury.
- Envy: Since there is a constant comparison between the individual and others, the narcissist feels threatened when others are praised or when they succeed. Feelings of resentment occur, because they start feeling insignificant and unnoticed.
- Manipulation: In order to seek validation and keep their ego intact, they use manipulation of different forms to make sure that they have control. Since they truly feel insecure about their capabilities, they resort to exploiting others to get what they want.
Can A Narcissist Change?
Of course. Anyone who wants to make a change, will. With NPD, it’s not an easy process, but with the help of a mental health professional and psychotherapy, it’s definitely a possibility. Any treatment focussing on personality traits is always a lengthy process. Unlearning years of unhealthy behaviour and relearning new adaptive behaviour is not a task that can be taken so lightly. But, where there is a will, there is a way.
Until next time,
(M.A. Clinical Psychology, PGD Counselling)