Narcissism

Narcissism’s “Bright Side” Is Fool’s Gold

New research adds confusion to our understanding of narcissism.

Posted Nov 07, 2019

In a recent paper entitled “The bright side of dark: Exploring the positive effect of narcissism on perceived stress through mental toughness”[1], the authors argue that grandiose narcissists – people who have an inflated view of their own importance and are obsessed by status an power – have a “mental toughness” that offsets symptoms of depression. This “mental toughness,” lead author D. Kostas Papageorgiou is reported as saying, explains the survival of a trait that is “socially toxic” – thereby using, oddly, an evolutionary framework in which traits only “survive” if they serve a positive use.  Papageorgiou goes on to suggest that this approach secures “diversity and inclusiveness," and that "dark traits, such as narcissism, should not be seen as either good or bad, but as products of evolution and expressions of human nature that may be beneficial or harmful depending on the context.”[2] We have entered the land of politically correct tolerance for “dark traits.”

There is a common ploy in academic research that involves starting off with a dummy proposition – one that no one really holds – and then launching an elaborate argument against it.  There is, in fact, no puzzle as to why a socially toxic trait such as narcissism has survived.  We all need some narcissism to get by.  We need to feel admired and, within our close interpersonal circle, to feel special.  Initially parental love and admiration meets these needs. But as adults, too - at home, at work, and in our wider social lives – we need to feel we are “pretty good” and that the right sort of person would approve of us.  As the 18th-Century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith wrote: “Nature, when she formed man for society, endowed him with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren.  She taught him to feel pleasure in their favorable, and pain in their unfavorable regard.  She rendered their approbation most flattering and most agreeable to him for its own sake; and their disapprobation most mortifying and most offensive.”[3]

The “original desire to please” is not a sycophant’s urge to cater to others’ wishes or a pathological demand for admiration.  It is a feature of social beings that have evolved to live alongside others, to cooperate and compete with them, to care about whether they are valued by others and to experience pain when condemned by others. [4] 

Our very normal and healthy and depression-defying belief that we are “pretty good” is easily confused with grandiose narcissism because of the different ways the term narcissist is used. In everyday usage a narcissist is a person with a big ego.  It is someone who thinks what he or she does is so much more important that what others do, and what he or she thinks and feels should take priority over others thoughts and feelings.  Such a narcissist is sometimes a difficult bore, but might also be fun, providing stimulus and pizazz. This modest, everyday narcissist might also have pockets of empathy and show interest in others.  People close to this kind of narcissist will probably have techniques for shutting down the self absorption long enough, often enough, to enjoy times of easy, reciprocal exchange.  And most of us habor within us some form of this self-centeredness.  Without believing that on some level we have a special value, then indeed we are at risk of depression.

But in clinical psychology, someone who suffers from narcissistic disorder is significantly different from someone whose self-absorption is simply higher than normal.  In clinical terms, a narcissist has a fragile ego and the façade of grandiosity represents a desperate battle to shore up a sense of self. [5] He or she compulsively bolsters their his or her esteem by demanding admiration from others.  Adulation and attention are constantly sought out to glue the disintegrating self together again.  

The narcissist’s demands have a devastating effect on relationships, both intimate and casual.  They feel any criticism, however slight, as an attack, and launch an aggressive counterattack. They bully, humiliate, devastate. Any thrills they get from ego satisfaction are very short term, and are indifferent to the damage they wreak on others.

The confusion between healthy and grandiose (disordered) narcissism is also at the root of many new alarms about an epidemic of narcissism among young people.  The so-called discovery of “a new generation of narcissists” has been made about each generation for the past 40 years.[6] The most recent papers, however, purport to calm any alarm over narcissism by advocating tolerance and inclusion, arguing that sometimes narcissists do good things.

Here is another dummy proposition.  I have never heard anyone deny that narcissists can do good things.  In fact, it is widely recognized that narcissistic traits are useful in business (where they are certainly prevalent) and in politics (where they are certainly prevalent).  The confident vision, the certainty of purpose, the endless drive, the risk-taking and imperviousness to collateral damage are sometimes very useful. The concern is, however, that they are also very, very dangerous, and very, very difficult to contain, particularly when a narcissist wields significant power.  What is alarming is that in recent decades narcissistic traits have bled into our notion of what makes a person likely to succeed. Confidence and the ability to slay your critics are seen as predictors of success. What is ignored is the ruthless indifference to the wreckage, and the value of listening, collaborating and reflecting. 

What we need is not tolerance of grandiose narcissism, but the means to call it out and contain it and the appreciation of the less showy traits including awareness of the constraints of morality and humility at our limited knowledge.

References

1.  Papageorgiou, K., et.al. The Bright Side of Dark: Exploring the positive effect of narcissism on perceived stress through mental toughness. Personality and Individual Differences.  Vol. 139. 116-124. March 1, 2019.

2.  https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/narcissists-are-happier-than-the-rest-of-us-after-all-it-s-all-about-them-zt9kkpdch

3. Smith, A. (1982).  The theory of moral sentiments. Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith. Vol 1. In D.D. Raphael&andA.L. McFie (McFie (Eds.),Oxford University Press.

4.   Apter, T. (2018). Passing Judgment: Praise and blame in everyday life. New York: W.W. Norton. 

5.  From Lasch, C. (1979). The Culture of Narcissism. W.W. Norton to Twenge, J. (2010). The Narcissism Epidemic. Atria.