Narcissism can be defined as an individual’s tendency to consider him or herself as superior, deserving, entitled, or “special,” along with the propensity to marginalize, demean, and invalidate others in order to feel good about oneself. This false, superficial persona often comes across as either exaggerated, grandiose, and “above others” (the overt narcissist), or quietly judgmental, dismissive, and self-absorbed (the covert/introvert narcissist).
Reasons for the formation of an individual’s narcissism can be complicated and multi-faceted. Among the various factors, two of the most common are the “narcissistic wound” and “narcissistic indulgence.” Below is an overview of each, with references from my books: How to Successfully Handle Narcissists and A Practical Guide for Narcissists to Change Towards the Higher Self . Many chronic narcissists have either one or both of these pathologies, whether they are aware of them or not.
Narcissistic wound can often be traced to one or more difficult life experiences when an individual felt rejected, not “acceptable,” or not “good enough” as their real self. These challenges often, but not always, begin in childhood, and may involve familial, social, and/or societal pressures for the narcissist to be a certain way. The narcissist adopts a superficial persona, contrary to the genuine self, to be loved, accepted, and respected, and to avoid pain, hurt, and humiliation. This compensatory role may also help the narcissist suppress their internalized shame and self-loathing.
Everyone has challenges in life. While a healthy individual tends to respond to life difficulties by harnessing strong resiliency skills (i.e., inner strength, the desire to grow and develop, the ability to learn from one’s mistakes), the narcissist tends to employ false compensatory schemes (i.e. superficial image, the desire to be above others, the tendency to rarely admit one’s flaws and mistakes). By enacting this well-rehearsed, false persona, the narcissist hopes to gain attention, approval, and admiration, and avoid the pain of being seen as the injured, disenfranchised real self.
“I never want to be looked down as poor. My fiancé and I each drive a Mercedes. The best man at our upcoming wedding also drives a Mercedes!” —Anonymous
“Looking back, I became image-obsessed because of the way my father treated me when I was young...I felt I was never good enough.” —Anonymous
“My accomplishments are everything.” —Anonymous
“I’ve always been ashamed of (my background), so I married a man from (another background) to feel better about myself. I wanted to show people what I’m not.” —Anonymous
Unfortunately, although many narcissists adopt superficial and pretentious roles in hopes of becoming more acceptable to themselves and others, the opposite often becomes true, as they continue to struggle with their own sense of inadequacy within, while their narcissistic tendencies create toxic and damaging relationships without.
Narcissistic indulgence often stems from familial, social, educational, professional, and/or societal conditions which influence the narcissist to think that he or she is “superior,” “special,” “a notch above,” “better than others,” or “one of a kind”; that they can do "as they please” and “get away with it.” This form of under-criticism induces the narcissist to believe that she or he is entitled to special treatment, deserves higher privilege, and should be granted exception to the rule. Many indulgent narcissists believe they can instigate misconduct and mistreatment of others with impunity.
It is said that some people carry their positive circumstances in life better than others (with greater maturity, equanimity, humanity, and gratitude). Indulgent narcissists, however, carry themselves poorly. They presume that it is their “natural right” to be placed on a pedestal and catered to by others who should be at their beck and call. In the mind of the narcissist, the world revolves around them.
Significantly, although indulgent narcissists seem conceited and/or arrogant on the outside, the nature of the pathology is such that their self-esteem is almost exclusively dependent on external and materialistic trappings. This “narcissistic shell” often betrays a hollow human being on the inside: someone who lacks a meaningful life purpose (serving only self-interest), is beset by insecurity and self-doubt (from numerous superficial comparisons), and snaps to anger when others do not quickly cater to their needs (narcissistic rage). Many indulgent narcissists are not capable of being “simply human,” and therein lies the source of their often fragile self-esteem — that without their “superior” external trappings in life, they feel like nobodies.
Most damaging of all, many narcissists, wounded as well as indulgent, lack the capacity or willingness to engage in truly healthy, loving, and equitable relationships. People are merely manipulated and exploited as extensions of the narcissist’s own selfish needs and desires, with little regard for others’ thoughts and feelings. Pathological narcissists do not relate, they use .
“To me, they mean nothing more than numbers on a budget line.” —Executive referring to his employees
“You have not given me exactly what I want immediately. I am not pleased!” —Anonymous
Can a narcissist change for the better? Perhaps. But only if he or she is highly aware and willing to go through the courageous process of self-discovery. For narcissists no longer willing to play the charade at the cost of genuine relationships and credibility, there are ways to liberate from falsehood and progressively move toward one’s higher self. For those who live or work with narcissists, perceptive awareness and assertive communication are musts to establishing healthy and mutually respectful relationships. See references below.
© 2019 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.
Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Narcissists. PNCC. (2014)
Ni, Preston. A Practical Guide for Narcissists to Change Towards the Higher Self. PNCC. (2015)
Ni, Preston. Understanding Narcissism’s Destructive Impact on Relationships — An Indispensable Reader. PNCC. (2018)
Bursten, Ben. The Manipulative Personality. Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol 26 No 4. (1972)
Buss DM, Gomes M, Higgins DS, Lauterback K. Tactics of Manipulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 52 No 6 (1987)
Mayo Clinic Staff, "Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Symptoms." Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2016)
Johnson, S. Humanizing the Narcissistic Style. W. W. Norton & Company. (1987)
Johnson, Stephen. Character Styles. W. W. Norton & Company. (1994)
Ornstein, Paul (ed). The Search for the Self. Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978. Volume 2. International University Press. (1978)