I’m often asked how you can spot a narcissist. Here’s my standard list:
I wrote that list two years ago – long before Donald Trump started running for president. Yet it could have been written just for him. As others have pointed out, the Donald is a textbook case of narcissistic personality. He is clearly functioning well and thus can’t be classified as having narcissistic personality disorder, the clinical-level form, which by definition only describes someone whose traits are causing them difficulty. Trump, instead, displays narcissism as a personality trait – the type we focus on in The Narcissism Epidemic.
Here’s the question: Is Trump’s narcissism a cover for insecurity? This is known as the “mask model” – the idea that grandiose narcissism is a show to distract people from the deep psychic pain underneath. A recent piece on time.com made this claim, arguing that Trump is trying to cover for a “profound insecurity and lack of self-esteem.”
Here’s the problem: At least for grandiose narcissism like Trump’s, there’s no evidence that the mask model is true. Narcissists have high self-esteem on average, not low, and the most aggressive people are those with both high narcissism and high self-esteem. Children who become narcissistic are not those shamed by their parents, but those told they are special.
Perhaps the best evidence comes from studies measuring self-esteem in a subtle way, such as with an implicit self-esteem measure recording people’s reaction time in pairing words like “I” and “me” with words like “bad” and “good.” People who score high on grandiose narcissism also score high on implicit self-esteem. In other words, deep down inside, narcissists think they are awesome.
This is also just plain common sense: Does Trump really seem like he is insecure underneath? Does he seem to be in a state of psychic pain, or even covering for one? No – he’s having the time of his life. So why does he seem to crave all of the attention and adulation? The time.com article argues that Trump is trying to fill a deep “psychic hole.” I have a more straightforward explanation: He likes all of the attention because he thinks he deserves it. It’s never enough not because of psychic pain, but because he thinks everyone should pay attention to him. Attention is fun and gratifying; it has nothing to do with insecurity.
I will go further: I think it’s dangerous to believe that narcissists are insecure underneath. Not only is it not supported by empirical evidence, but it promotes the idea that the way to deal with narcissists is to boost their self-esteem and heal their “wounds” through more love and affection. This is like suggesting that the way to cure obesity is by giving everyone more doughnuts. The narcissistic person who ruins relationships through his self-centeredness does not need more love or attention – he needs to get kicked to the curb. The young adult who takes advantage of everyone around her does not need her self-esteem boosted – she needs to learn responsibility.
Narcissism is known as the "disease that hurts other people," and the cure for it is real life – losing a relationship because of selfishness, losing a job because you've alienated people. Yes, we should try to understand narcissists and realize that their behavior is explained by this personality trait. But that does not mean we should believe that they are actually insecure – that myth undermines our understanding of narcissism because it presumes that it's only skin-deep.
Many, many people have been hurt in relationships with narcissists by believing that they can change the person with more love. If only that were true – but sadly, most of the time, it's not. We can have empathy for people with narcissistic traits, but that does not mean we have to believe they are suffering underneath. Most of the time, they are making other people suffer. They won't suffer themselves until bad things start happening to them, often as a consequence of their narcissism. It is sad, but it is not due to insecurity.
Trump is not insecure. We should not be looking for the source of his “psychic pain” or expect that someday he will break down and show his true, doubting self. He really does think that he’s that great, and that his ideas are that great. If we believe otherwise – about him or anyone else with these traits – we risk underestimating the true power of the narcissist.