On the Popular Ridicule of Narcissism

Reorienting the discourse on narcissistic disorders.

Posted Aug 11, 2018

Author's note: It has come to my attention that some associated with the narcissistic survivors movement have interpreted this article as excusing or condoning abuse by narcissistic persons. Nothing could be further from the truth. The intent of this article is to reposition narcissistic personality disorder as a serious psychiatric disorder necessitating skilled and empathic treatment. This is a view shared by experts on narcissistic disorders, including Heinz Kohut, M.D., and Otto F. Kernberg, M.D.

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The topic of narcissism is in vogue. Hundreds of popular articles have been written in recent years on the narcissistic personality, its symptoms, and its effects on human relationships. The popularity of this topic is enough to lead one to believe that narcissistic personality disorder has reached pandemic levels. Indeed, some have insisted that it has.

Almost all of the popular literature on narcissism is bound by one theme: the toxic nature of narcissism as a personality trait and disorder. Just within the past week, I have found articles — written by professionals — referencing the "despicable nature" and "evil" of narcissism. Surely, working or living with a narcissistic person may be no easy task, but could you imagine the uproar if schizophrenia or autism or bipolar disorder were described as "evil" and "despicable"?

The fact that narcissism (and, more specifically, narcissistic personality disorder) is a difficult problem does not excuse its now-fashionable and pervasive ridicule. Writings such as those referenced above remind us that the narcissistic person is just as worthy of understanding and empathy as others. In fact, it is only through empathic understanding that narcissistic personality disorder can be treated (see the vast writings of psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, M.D.).

This recent trend also reminds us that narcissistic personality disorder is one of the most readily weaponized psychiatric diagnoses. One has to look no further than common claims of narcissism in divorce proceedings and the abundance of articles written on the supposed narcissism of our political enemies. It is almost as if narcissism has become a catch-all to describe those we dislike or with whom we disagree. Even mental health professionals can be guilty of diagnosing narcissism in disagreeable patients due to counter-transferential mechanisms. This gross overapplication of the narcissistic concept can render it meaningless.

The psychiatrist Thomas Szasz put it this way:

Narcissist: psychoanalytic term for the person who loves himself more than his analyst; considered to be the manifestation of a dire mental disease whose successful treatment depends on the patient learning to love his analyst more and himself less.

If the concept of narcissism is to have meaning, we must be cautious and guarded in its application. We must also remember the psychoanalytic wisdom that all of us have some degree of narcissism. And, most importantly, we must bear in mind that narcissistic individuals experience genuine suffering and are just as worthy of empathic treatment and understanding as other mentally ill persons.

Greater emphasis should be placed on the dynamic interpretation of narcissism as a defense mechanism and its treatment as a psychiatric disorder rather than on its popular description as an "evil" and "despicable" phenomenon.