The Three Faces of Narcissism: A New Look at an Old Problem
There are three types of narcissists—and it’s critical to know the difference.
Posted Jul 01, 2019
The term "narcissism" refers to a constellation of human psychological traits which, at its core, are self-absorption, beliefs in one’s own superiority over others, and a resultant sense of entitlement.
Narcissism's genetic effect size may only be around .59, but the epigenetic expression can be greatly shaped by the environment and child-rearing practices. Narcissists represent a small percentage of the population, but they can have an impact on interpersonal relationships, childrearing, business practices, the economy, health care, and even politics—an impact that may far outweigh their demographic representation. (Indeed, perhaps more than any other pursuit, politics attracts narcissistic individuals.)
Narcissistic personality disorder (the dysfunctional variant of the constellation) occurs in less than 1 percent of the population, with subclinical narcissism occurring in about 6 percent of the population. The term "narcissist" has typically been used as a pejorative. While often well-earned, it is also an oversimplification. In some cases, the narcissistic traits express themselves in prosocial ways. In other instances, narcissism expresses itself in asocial or even antisocial (and sometimes, misogynistic) ways.
History of Narcissism
Our recognition and development of the psychological construct of narcissism have grown from ancient mythology. Its most common interpretation dates back to the 8th-century tale of Echo and Narcissus, written by Ovid (although an earlier, somewhat divergent version dates back to 50 B.C.).
Narcissus was a physically captivating hunter who was seen in the woods one day by the nymph Echo. She fell instantly in love with him. Her advances were rebuffed, however, causing her to wander throughout the woods until she wasted away, leaving only the mere reflective sound of an echo. As punishment, the goddess Nemesis caused Narcissus to fall into an intoxicating (narkōtikos) love with his own image. He too eventually wasted away, leaving only the beautiful yellow and white narcissus flower (daffodil).
Narcissistic personality disorder was famously written about by Sigmund Freud in his 1914 paper "On Narcissism: An Introduction," although Otto Rank had described the psychoanalytic view three years earlier. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) first listed narcissism as a personality disorder in 1968.
What the DSM failed—and still fails—to fully appreciate is that narcissism lies on a continuum of varying phenomenology and severity. Simply said, narcissistic personality traits may be aligned on a descriptive and functional continuum.
Theodore Millon's Formulation
Dr. Theodore Millon was the most influential personologist of the last century. His influence continues today. He developed the most widely used, comprehensive theory of personality and personality disorders, as well as the most widely used psychological tests for the measurement of personality and personality disorders (the Millon instruments).
Traditional interpretations of narcissism saw the traits as compensatory, arising from deep-seated insecurities. Thus, narcissists compensated and overcompensated for a deeply ingrained, negative self-image. While acknowledging that and recognizing narcissism could—and often did—reach psychopathological manifestations, Millon boldly asserted that there was a form of narcissism that was prosocial in nature.
Here, I’ve simply built on Millon’s original construction and my subsequent collaboration, Personality and It’s Disorders (Millon and Everly, 1985), to herein propose the existence of "Three Faces of Narcissism" (not to be confused with the “Dark Triad” of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathology) residing on the narcissism continuum.
Three Faces of Narcissism
Generally speaking, the individual with a narcissistic personality, even in its normal variation, has difficulty postponing gratification and may be intolerant of others’ delayed actions and even questions. Such persons often resort to interpersonal exaggeration (“white lies”), as well as the intra-personal creation of self-illusions of extraordinary competence or influence which can lead to unrealistic expectations and excessive, if not dangerous, personal, professional, and financial risk-taking. These individuals act to secure for themselves a position of “entitlement” and the trappings of sublimity and success which they believe are owed them. It is noteworthy that narcissists are commonly viewed as highly attractive to others. It is a truism that confidence is alluring, if not seductive.
More specifically though, the Three Faces of Narcissism consist of three variations on the narcissist theme: 1) Prosocial Narcissism (charitable, albeit sublime), 2) Asocial Narcissism (lack of consideration of others), and 3) Antisocial Narcissism (malevolent actions against others).
The three variations are listed and described below using the heuristic developed by Millon wherein traits are aligned within five categories: how they appear to others, how they interact with others, their cognitive processes, their affective expression, and their self-perception.
I. Appearance to Others
Prosocial: Poised, Self-Assured
Asocial: Sublime, Pompous
Antisocial: Arrogant, Aggressive
II. Interpersonal Conduct
Prosocial: Composed, Assertive, Dogmatic, Expectation of Deference
Asocial: Entitled, Unempathic, Self-Absorbed, Shallow, Condescending
Antisocial: Exploitive, Controlling, Bullying, Abusive, Cruel
III. Cognitive Processing
Prosocial: Calculating, Prone to Exaggeration and Illusion
Asocial: Impassionate, Inhumane
Antisocial: Scheming, Nefarious Intentions
IV. Affective Expression
Prosocial: Cool, Serene
Antisocial: Angry, Irrational, Intimidating
V. Self Perception
Prosocial: Kind, Charitable, Superior
Antisocial: Disdainful Toward Others
Using the simple heuristic above allows one to quickly assess the presence of meaningful constellations of human behavior as they relate to narcissism. Recognizing and understanding that there are three primary “faces” of narcissism allows us to identify narcissism early in personal, business, or political relationships. By doing so, we can better learn to constructively collaborate with—or avoid at all costs—those at various points on the continuum. Just because a person seems highly self-assured doesn’t mean they are pathologically narcissistic.
As noted earlier, arguably more than any other endeavor, politics attracts narcissistic individuals. Before you begin a relationship, hire someone, or vote, ask yourself, "What type of narcissist might this person be?"
© George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., 2019.
Millon, T. & Everly, GS, Jr. (1985) Personality and It's Disorders. NY: Wiley.