People with narcissistic personality disorder see themselves as the center of attention, and crave the approval and admiration of others. Short of having a diagnosable personality disorder, however, there are many other people who have narcissistic tendencies that lead them to see themselves in a favorable light. These self-enhancing qualities can become a problem when such individuals must confront the passing of the years after their supposed prime of young adulthood. Because our society associates youth with beauty, getting older can mean loss of social standing. The aging narcissist looks in the mirror and sees a reflection of someone whose status is heading downhill.
There is very little research to guide us in understanding the fate of aging narcissists. In general, people with personality disorders experience significant deleterious effects on their psychological functioning and relationships with other according to work by Colorado Springs psychologist Daniel Segal and colleagues (2006). On the positive side, however, as Segal has also shown, as people get older, some of their symptoms moderate as they mature and they become better able to handle the problems created by certain personality disorders.
Do narcissists find a way to reconcile their desire to be seen as beautiful with the reality of the fact that their appearance is moving away from social ideals? Segal’s work would suggest that through maturation, at least some narcissists become less preoccupied with their image and don’t mind receding into the background. They may come to redefine their standards for being accepted away from outer appearance and toward less superficial forms of recognition by others. Perhaps they seek to draw attention from their children and grandchildren or younger associates.They brag about the accomplishments of the families they’ve raised or the supervisees they’ve mentored. “See what I’ve done?” they seem to be saying, clamoring for approval through the reflected glory of their offspring.
It’s also possible that people with narcissistic tendencies approach the advent of midlife and beyond by using the all-purpose defense mechanism of denial. In research I’ve conducted with my Queens College co-author Joel Sneed (2002), we’ve found that many midlife and older individuals maintain high levels of self-esteem despite the age-related changes they experience on a day-to-day basis. Through what we call “identity assimilation,” they preserve their sense of self as competent and attractive. They simply don’t allow society’s negative views of aging to penetrate their identities.
For narcissists who rely on denial to get them through tough times, then, aging may represent less of a threat because they refuse to think of themselves as getting older. They wear the same type of clothing styles they’ve always worn, or frequent stores designed for teens and 20-somethings. Browsing the makeup aisles, they’re constantly on the prowl for products that will keep their skin glowing and wrinkle-free. At every turn, they seek to defy the calendar.
A certain degree of youth-oriented behavior by the aging narcissist is probably fine. There’s no real harm in wearing their go-to faded jeans or t-shirts. It can even be healthy if these strategies include exercising to keep off the fat and wearing sunblock to protect their skin from the sun’s harmful rays. Apart from the potential expense, loading up a shopping cart worth of anti-aging products isn’t going to hurt anyone.
The problems for narcissists who try to battle the aging process start when they take things too far, subjecting themselves to plastic surgeries that rid them of those hated sags and bags under their eyes or around their middles. Putting themselves under the knife for surgery after surgery can put them at risk for other complications.
In relationships, the midlife or older narcissist may fall prey to the vain desire to be as attractive to younger romantic partners. This could lead to their exploitation if these younger partners see them as targets for financial gain. Even without such dire consequers there may still be hurt feelings that result from such encounters. Behind their backs, others ridicule the narcissists seeking eternal youth for not “acting their age.”
Psychologically, the constant quest for a youthful image can become not only counterproductive but detrimental to well-being. The fact is that the clock is ticking, and they are getting older whether they like it or not. They’ll have to attend to their maturing bodies and adapt their self-concept to incorporate these age-related changes in their appearance and physical functioning.
Fortunately, there are ways to handle the turning of the years for people with more than a touch of narcissistic personality tendencies. These 5 steps can provide a start:
1. See yourself realistically but don't despair. Getting older does present its challenges, not the least of which involve your self-esteem. Instead of wishing you looked younger, take pride in the visible signs of maturity that can attest to your wisdom and ability to survive.
2. Take pride in your coping skills. You've gotten to this point in life by adapting to change, adaptations that rquired you to manage with many stresses over the years. If you're feeling overwhelmed by the idea that your life will change even more as you get older, think about the strategies you've used before when things got tough and put them to work now.
3. Take advantage of healthy ways to boost your physical wellbeing. If you have been exercising as a way to stay young, keep up the good work. Just don't let it get out of control. Eating disorders that involve extreme ways to keep weight down aren't limited to the young. People can become preoccupied with their body shape as they get older which can lead to overdoing what would otherwise be good for you.
4. Consult with someone who can give you an honest opinion. Take the advice of a trusted friend or relative who doesn’t stand to gain from telling you how best to present a good face to the world. Be prepared to take constructive criticism and continue to use this person as a sounding board for making the changes he or she recommends.
5. Look to others who are handling their 30s, 40s, and beyond successfully. There are plenty of celebrities who are now embracing their getting older. True, many of the rich and famous have access to personal trainers and plastic surgeons but if you look selectively among them to those who are aging gracefully, you can take heart and maybe even a few beauty pointers from them. Of course, turning to your own circle of friends and relatives for inspiration is always a great option.
The 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond have their challenges. By following these tips, you can preserve both your happiness and your dignity, changing with the times even while you hold onto your self-esteem and sense of identity.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Segal, D. L., F. L. Coolidge, et al. (2006). Personality disorders and older adults: Diagnosis, assessment, and treatment. Hoboken, NJ US, John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Whitbourne, S. K. and J. R. Sneed (2002). The paradox of well-being, identity processes, and stereotype threat: Ageism and its potential relationships to the self in later life. Ageism: Stereotyping and prejudice against older persons. T. D. Nelson, The MIT Press: 247-273.