The True Roots of Narcissism
The essence of narcissism doesn't boil down to superiority.
Posted Jan 08, 2017
In preparing to write this article, my intention had been to highlight how narcissistic personality remains largely misunderstood by the public. Specifically, I have found that most of the clients and everyday individuals I talk to about narcissism tend to associate it with a sense of superiority, meaning that they understand narcissists as having an inflated ego. While an outward show of superiority is a definite part of the narcissistic personality, a sense of superiority (or pursuit of it) is not the central factor of the disorder. The root of the disorder is actually a strict resistance to feeling vulnerable with anyone at any time.
Here’s a lay description of how it works: The narcissist does not truly trust others in close relationships. Because the narcissist does not trust others, he (Note: you could just as easily change the pronoun to she) refuses to put himself in a position where he feels vulnerable. Despite the outward appearance of grandiosity and superiority, the narcissist actually lives in a state of anxiety and hypervigilance.
Think about it: People can't feel great about themselves all the time, though narcissists desperately try. The narcissist fears that acknowledging any weakness will allow someone else the chance to take advantage of him or gain power over him. To keep up the façade and stave off any occasional feelings of vulnerability or weakness, he learns to overcompensate by acting stronger and more powerful than he feels. Again, the root of the disordered personality always relates back to vulnerability. The superiority part of the personality organization is secondary; the vulnerability aversion is primary.
Because vulnerability is so central to narcissistic personality, my original intention had been to propose that renaming narcissistic personality would help to make this enigmatic and complex personality disorder less confusing to the public. If Narcissistic Personality Disorder were renamed to capture the vulnerability aversion, it might help everyday men and women detect this personality type in individuals in their own lives; education could help save people unnecessary anguish in relationships with people who have a narcissistic personality. The name that I believe captures the central components best is “Vulnerability-Avoidant/Superiority-Seeking Personality Disorder.” True, the term is chock full of jargon, but so is “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder" (ADHD). Even though the name contains pop-psychology jargon, at least it explains clearly to the public what the disorder is. What does the term “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” explain? Very little. Is the public supposed to refer back to an ancient myth—Narcissus stuck gazing at himself in a reflective pool—to make sense of it?
But my intention took a turn when I started to reflect on one particular group of narcissists that breaks with the narcissist's typical orientation. People sometimes say that narcissists don’t go to therapy because they don’t want to let a therapist look at or expose their flaws. It’s not true, though, that narcissists don’t seek out therapy. Many narcissistic men and women do. Why? Because someone or something in their lives has bruised their ego and chipped away at their self-image. Someone or something has made them feel that maybe they are not so great, or maybe they need someone to prop them up so they can feel better about themselves. In short, narcissists who seek out therapy aren’t true or total narcissists. Such men and women would not necessarily meet the criteria required for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, though they may have several key narcissistic traits.
The point is that seeking help from a psychotherapist requires some willingness to be vulnerable, and so true narcissists could not go to therapy because they couldn’t manage the anxiety, sadness, and even rage that would come up if they were to expose their true selves to a therapist. Simply put, true narcissists have zero interest in introspection or self-improvement. Their guiding principle: Never, ever let your guard down.
The fact that some narcissistic individuals seek therapy and others do not is a reminder that all disorders exist on a spectrum, and most people who have disordered behavior or a disordered personality may have several traits of a given disorder without meeting the full set of criteria.
Narcissism is complex, but it can be better understood by reading more about it. I urge my clients to read about narcissistic personality, but therapists must keep reading, too, to ensure the best possible grasp of the subject. My hope is that individuals come to a better understanding of how the superiority displayed by narcissists is actually a mask - a psychological defense - hiding the underlying root of the problem: The narcissist cannot tolerate being vulnerable. Once you understand that, you can ask yourself an important question: What kind of a relationship can I have with a person who can’t be vulnerable with me?