Updated: Mar 12
The label is everywhere, but it's widely misused to describe anyone who offends us. The truth?
Last winter, a friend told me she was considering a divorce. "I really think my husband is a narcissist!" she said. More recently, over brunch, an acquaintance explained his family dynamics: "My aunt is such a narcissist, we're not sure why my uncle is with her."
The term narcissist has been widely deployed to describe not only a passel of difficult relatives and regretted exes, but also both nominees for president and the entire generation known as Millennials. Is narcissism really so widespread or on the rise in the general population?
A growing consensus among psychologists says no, it isn't. True pathological narcissism has always been rare and remains so: It affects an estimated 1 percent of the population, and that prevalence hasn't changed demonstrably since clinicians started measuring it. Most (but not all) narcissists today are innocent victims of an overused label. They are normal individuals with healthy egos who may also happen to indulge in the occasional selfie and talk about their accomplishments. They may even be a bit vain. But while we're diagnosing friends, relatives, and our kids' classmates, true pathological narcissists may be evading detection because most of us don't understand the many forms the condition may take.
What Narcissism Is (And Isn't)
Narcissism is a trait each of us exhibits to a greater or lesser degree. As it has become trait non grata, though, it's become necessary to add the qualifier "healthy" to specify the socially acceptable type of narcissism. "It is the capacity to see ourselves and others through rose-colored glasses," says psychologist Craig Malkin, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and the author of Rethinking Narcissism. That can be beneficial, because it's helpful for all of us to feel a bit special. It fuels the confidence that allows us to take risks, like seeking a promotion or asking out an attractive stranger. But feeling too special can cause problems.
The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) is the most commonly used measure of the trait. Developed by Robert Raskin and Calvin S. Hall in 1979, it asks an individual to choose between pairs of statements that assess levels of modesty, assertiveness, inclination to lead, and willingness to manipulate others. Scores range from 0 to 40, with the average tending to fall in the low to mid-teens, depending on the group being tested. Those whose score is a standard deviation above that of their peers could reasonably be called narcissists. But a score anywhere along a wide range of the scale might still indicate a fundamentally healthy personality.
The Many Faces of Narcissism
Popular culture has long relied on narcissistic traits to sketch problematic characters in sharp relief, from Dorian Gray to Don Draper. Gaston from Disney's Beauty and the Beast presents a silly but fairly apt model of grandiosity, probably the most recognisable feature of people high in narcissism and those with NPD. That brawny braggart sings, "As a specimen, yes, I'm intimidating!...As you see, I've got biceps to spare!...I'm especially good at expectorating!...And every last inch of me's covered in hair." Other narcissists may indeed perceive themselves as being in the top .1 percent in terms of talent, appearance, success, or all of the above.
But it's a mistake to assume that all narcissists will be such obvious preeners. "Not all narcissists care about looks or fame or money," Malkin says. "If you focus too much on the stereotype, you'll miss red flags that have nothing to do with vanity or greed."
What all subtypes of narcissist have in common, Malkin says, is "self-enhancement." Their thoughts, behaviours, and statements set them apart from others, and this feeling of distinction soothes them, because they're otherwise struggling with an unstable sense of self.
"Narcissists feel superior to others," Brummelman says,
"but they are not necessarily satisfied with themselves as a person."
A Link to Depression
That struggle is at the core of a new conception of narcissism, one focused as much on depression as on grandiosity. "What people hypothesise is that narcissists are prone to higher highs and lower lows," says Seth Rosenthal, a research specialist at Yale's Program on Climate Change Communication, who did his doctoral research on narcissism. "They have this constant need to have their greatness verified by the world around them. When reality catches up with them, they may react by becoming depressed."
When a clear setback, such as a job loss or divorce or even a plan being scuttled, dents the carefully burnished self-image of a narcissistic individual, "this is a real attack on who he is," says Steven Huprich, the president-elect of the International Society for the Study of Personality Disorders and a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. "Somebody he thought was going to trust him now very much dislikes him and is unwilling to put up with him anymore. Not surprisingly, he finds himself a little more down and depressed."
Of course, even people with healthy mental states struggle to deal with such dramatic turnarounds, Huprich says, "but for narcissists and narcissistic personalities, loss is really very difficult, because it suggests vulnerability and weakness. It suggests that you actually aren't immune to life's challenges and ups and downs."
The narcissist might also exhibit defensiveness and anger at such moments. "When they don't get the admiration they crave, they feel ashamed and lash out aggressively," Brummelman says. Others are unlikely to have the same sort of aggressive outbursts.
When a disappointment cuts through narcissists' thick layer of grandiosity and self-promotion and breaches their core, their resulting melancholy or boiling rage might motivate them to seek outside help. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), in fact, advises clinicians that individuals with NPD may present with a depressed mood. They rarely, however, come in seeking treatment for their narcissism. "I've never heard anyone say, 'I think I'm a narcissistic personality,'" Huprich says.
Over years of research, Huprich and colleagues have developed a concept that may be related to narcissism. They call it "malignant self-regard." It's a potential explanation for a constellation of not-quite clinically diagnosable personality disorders with overlapping features, including depressive, self-defeating, and masochistic personality styles.
Applied more widely to narcissistic subtypes, the theory suggests that deep-seated insecurity about the self and an exceedingly fragile sense of self-esteem can lead to maladaptive thoughts and behaviour. Extraverted narcissists exhibit grandiose attention-seeking. Vulnerable narcissists, meanwhile, simply succumb to their damaged self-image. "They're not able to keep a coherent sense of who they are, so when they are attacked, instead of fighting back, which is the first reaction of the grandiose narcissist, they have an immediate reaction of sadness and depletion and depression," Huprich says.
People may develop malignant self-regard as children in the context of their relationships, Huprich proposes. These individuals may have had inconsistent experiences with their parents, related in particular to how success and achievement were recognised. Parents might have refused to acknowledge achievements or discouraged bragging about them, taking away the rose-colored glasses of healthy narcissism that could have eased the way as a child encountered new challenges in life.
Are They Made or Born?
Childhood experiences may play a major role, but most experts agree that both high levels of trait narcissism and NPD arise from the combined influences of nature and nurture that likely begin in the genes. "There are personality traits we come into the world with," says Kali Trzesniewski, a social-development psychologist at the University of California, Davis. One's environment can either weaken or strengthen those traits, "though there are always people who don't seem to react to their environment; they're just kind of resilient to it."
Parents who raise narcissists, Ludden says, "present to their kids a world where everything is a competition: There are winners and losers and you've got to be a winner." A healthier approach would be to teach children that "they don't have to be the best, just the best that they can be."
No matter how hard parents try to steer children away from all-or-nothing competition, many eventually have to vie for college admission, internships, and jobs. Shrinking opportunities may be what's contributing to a perception of raging narcissism among young adults.
"When you set up highly competitive environments, you're really encouraging people who are more ruthless," Ludden says. "That's where the narcissists are going to flourish, because they are willing to do more to get ahead than the average person would. We've set up a society that encourages the narcissist as opposed to one where that kind of behaviour is discouraged."
And so young people polish their résumés, update their LinkedIn profiles, brand themselves online, and of course, flood social media with carefully posed, cropped, and filtered selfies. "We have a lot more opportunities to express our narcissistic tendencies than we once did," Ludden says. Many young people who might have come across as quite modest in another time or milieu may just be trying to keep up and may deserve more of a pass for it.
"Our norms have changed," Trzesniewski says. "If you took somebody from the '60s and put them in today's society, would they look any different? I would argue that they would be the same." A better question, she suggests, is "Why is there such a huge trend to be negative about the next generation?" This tendency goes back to the time of Socrates, she argues: "Older generations get fearful when younger ones are doing things they don't fully understand."
Narcissistic behaviours are often observed in those who have the money, power, and fame to cater to the high demands and expectations associated with the personality. If you take a look at your favourite celebrities, you might be surprised to find that many of them are demanding, attention-seeking, and often cruel to those who work to keep the celebrity in the height of popularity.
Who do you think is the most famous narcissist? How do you think the viewof narcissism has changed over the decades? is there more understanding or is it more promeniment in our society today? Do you think there is more narcissism now or just that we notice it more?
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