Narcissism is definitely one of the hot button topics in psychology. The term comes from the legend of Narcissus, the mythical Greek nymph who fell in love with his own reflection in the water. Transfixed by this image, which he did not recognize as his own, he was unable to leave the pool and died.
It was not until the early 20th Century that the myth of Narcissus became embraced by psychology. According to Freud, narcissism is a normal stage of development, when infants need to love themselves to survive. The pathological condition develops when infants fail to overcome this normal phase, called “primary narcissism.” When all goes well, primary narcissism becomes the basis for healthy self-love on which we build a solid sense of our self-worth and identity.
Freud believed, then, that a certain amount of self-love is essential for having a positive approach to yourself and your life. Following Freud’s ideas, other psychoanalysts defined a phase early in life in which children have a grandiose sort of narcissism in which they see themselves as capable of anything. Over time, children’s narcissism transforms into a more realistic view of what they can accomplish. In both theories, the child’s family plays an important role in setting the path from healthy narcissism to healthy, and more limited, self-regard.
Narcissism wasn’t considered a psychological disorder until 1980 when the psychiatrists who developed the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Diseases (DSM) decided to introduce it as an official term in the nomenclature. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), as it was called, was intended to fit a pattern of behavior in which an individual shows such behaviors as excessive grandiosity, attention-seeking, and sensitivity to being rejected or ignored. In the revision of the DSM slated for 2013, the working groups on personality disorder diagnoses tentatively decided to scrap the diagnosis. Ironically enough, a loud clamoring by clinicians to preserve the NPD diagnosis occurred and now it will still qualify as its own diagnosis.
Apart from the diagnostic disputes, narcissism remains an area of focus in personality and abnormal psychology that continues to – shall we say- draw attention. In a recent issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, Dr. Donna Bender (2012) organized a series of papers to help advance our knowledge of the way that narcissism is conceived of and treated. Her summary of these papers provides us with a brief and useful snapshot to summarize the status of the official diagnosis and an understanding, even more importantly, of its cultural and social connections. These points show where narcissism is and where it is going as an area of study in psychology:
1.No one agrees on how to define narcissism. This is a little bit of a disappointment, I suppose. It would be nice to tie up the definition with a bow and present it clearly to you. However, although the myth of Narcissus is itself pretty straightforward, the way that mental health practitioners and researchers pin down the specifics of the disorder is surprisingly murky and difficult to measure. The basic criteria include feeling grandiosely self-important, fantasizing that you have unlimited power, believing that you are “special,” needing to be admired, feeling entitled, exploiting others, being unable to empathize with others, jealous, and arrogant. Quite a collection of undesirable traits, is it not? And this is the heart of the diagnostic problem, according to Bender. The people who came up with these diagnostic criteria may be showing just a bit of what psychoanalysts call “countertransference” meaning that they don’t like working with narcissistic clients and so paint them with an overly negative label. If we move beyond those pejorative terms, as the newest DSM authors hope to do, we could avoid these harsh terms and instead rate people with more neutral terms such as identity, empathy, intimacy, and self-direction. To diagnose someone with NPD, you would not just check off their negative traits, but scale them from high to low on these dimensions.
2. Narcissism can be healthy and begins as a normal part of development. It’s not always bad to be narcissistic, at least early in life. If we stamp out all forms of narcissism, including those that exist in childhood, we could run the risk of creating a generation of children who lack a foundation of healthy self-regard. Children develop into adults who accept themselves more realistically when their parents have propped up their self-esteem early in life. It’s not only the Freudians who believe this, either. Carl Rogers and other humanistic theorists talk about “unconditional positive regard” as a parenting style that can help children accept themselves rather than feeling that they constantly have to meet someone else’s expectations.
3. Narcissism isn’t an all-or-none thing. When the DSM authors considered dropping narcissistic personality disorder as its own category, they thought that they could do the condition more justice by making it a dimensional rating. As Bender indicated in point #1 above, mental health workers may be more accepting of their clients who have this personality disorder if they rate them along a continuous dimension. Similarly, if you’re thinking about the people you know, it’s important not to throw the narcissistic label around just because they strike you as selfish and self-centered. When it comes to thinking about yourself, it’s also helpful to realize that you may be a little bit narcissistic (especially if you hear this enough from other people) but it doesn’t mean you’re a hopeless case. If we think of narcissism as a dimension instead of a category, it provides hope that people can slide up or down that scale as they (or you) learn from life experiences to be more empathetic and less attention-seeking.
4. Social and familial factors help to shape narcissism. Bender brings up this next important point, one that is too often neglected when we think about this personality disorder. It’s easy to blame someone for being too self-centered and egotistical and attribute these behaviors to a personal flaw or failing. However, people who suffer from pathological narcissism may have received not too much, but too little attention and acceptance by their parents. Their outward grandiosity covers up their fundamental insecurities, the result of having been rejected or devalued by their parents. They’re constantly hoping that someone will fulfill their need to be admired and accepted. In extreme cases, their actual sense of self becomes indistinguishable from their ideal self, and they seek the approval only of those people who they see as up to their unrealistically high standards. Called by one psychoanalyst “malignant narcissism,” people with this form of pathology can’t get intimate with anyone because they can’t find anyone who they think is qualified enough to evaluate or judge them.
5. Pathological narcissism may be fairly common and even on the rise. It’s undoubtedly come to your attention that in a society focused on “me” time, amplified by minute-by-minute Facebook and Twitter updates, narcissism is becoming a fact of life. Back in 1979, author Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism” in which he argued that the individualism of Western society is leading us to pursue happiness above all else. When all we care about is our own feelings of comfort and well-being, it’s hard for us to care about anyone else’s. Considering that the era of all these me-focused social media were far distant on the horizon, Lasch’s work seems especially prescient. Reality shows, from Honey Boo Boo to MTV’s Real World only reinforce the focus on the self. Bender suggests that the proposal that narcissism is becoming a more prominent social disease may have some truth in that the diagnosis of NPD is becoming more prevalent among young adults. Again, this begs the question of whether we should blame the narcissists for their own disorder or the society in which everyone has become just that much more self-focused.
Now that you’re up on the narcissism news, how can you use this to improve your life? I think the findings can help you understand that not all narcissists really want to be that way. If at their core they are insecure and afraid of being criticized, you might be more sympathetic to your narcissistic friends. You can also realize that people can change, especially if they are helped to feel more secure and grounded. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be annoyed, angered, and even hurt by someone whose narcissism is out of control. However, if you put their behaviors into perspective, you’ll at least be able to feel less likely to think the problem rests within you. Finally, therapy can work to help people with narcissism become more empathetic, less inwardly self-critical, and more in touch with their problematic feelings. Great narcissists may be made and not born, but with the right kind of intervention, they can be tamed.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Bender, D. S. (2012). Mirror, mirror on the wall: Reflecting on narcissism. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 68(8), 877-885. doi:10.1002/jclp.21892