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Narcissism: The spelling is the easy part. (Part 2)

We opened our series yesterday, sharing the story of Narcissus. So let’s move forward and come to understand just what narcissism looks like.

Interestingly enough, it was Sigmund Freud – Uncle Siggy himself – who coined the term narcissism. And, yes, he based it upon the tale of Narcissus, derived from Greek mythology. You really do need to read yesterday’s piece. It’s a great story.

Narcissism is typically viewed upon negatively; however, it’s an essential – healthy – part of all of us. Balancing our needs with those of others is necessary, and at times the scale needs to tip toward us. I mean, to have it any other way would equate to a total lack of self-regard and living life as a doormat.

But, of course, when the scale tips our way time after time, problems may begin to occur.

Narcissistic Traits

Without suggesting anything pathological, let’s take a look at some narcissistic traits

Arrogance, conceit, being argumentative, vanity, frustration, obsession with appearance, being fretful, cycling between superiority and inferiority, selection of a partner with similar background and characteristics, striving to be better than one’s friends.

Again, these are traits – not diagnostic criteria. As much as any of the above may make someone unpleasant to be around – well – there are tons of folks like that on this planet earth.

Pathological Narcissism

The keystone of pathological narcissism is grandiosity. And it can present in two forms – a grandiose state of mind, especially in young adults, that can be willfully corrected; and a more pervasive presentation less about grandiosity than disturbed and disturbing interpersonal relationships.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

And that takes us to the front door of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). By the way, here’s a link to a chipur piece on the personality disorders. I believe you’ll find it informative and helpful.

It’s thought that 1% of the general population is pathologically narcissistic, and 75% are narcissistic men.

Here’s the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). I suppose we could say they’re a list of narcissistic personality disorder symptoms…

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  4. requires excessive admiration
  5. has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  6. is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  7. lacks empathy:  is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  8. is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

So that gives us a glimpse of what narcissism looks like. Come back tomorrow, as we wrap the series by discussing the causes and treatment of pathological narcissism.

In the meantime, any descriptive input or personal experiences will help us all better understand narcissism. It would be great if you’d comment!

  • karen

    hmm, an awful lot of people certainly suffer from one or more of the narcissistic traits, but not NPD. It certainly makes them not fun to be around, work with or be related to. There was certainly a societal tendency to encourage a lot of men toward narcissism when I was growing up. Hopefully it has changed…

    • Well, I think it has changed a great deal, although NPDs are so shrewd and cold they can still get away with amazing things. I like your emphasis upon someone having a few traits v. NPD. In the field, counselors so often very freely throw diagnoses around. That’s dangerous biz, as it can be extremely hurtful and harmful to the individual. Traits and symptoms don’t always equate to a diagnosable disorder.

  • Jonsid

    Bearing in mind that psychologically women are more narcissistic than men in terms of;-
    preference to receiving love as opposed to giving love (freud et al)
    the need to develop manipulative behaviour from a young age to counter the male’s more imposing and forceful pysique (clarke et al)
    vanity and importance of physical appearance
    fashion and the impulse to “fit in”
    the urge to reproduce (ie replicate themselves)
    I find it strange that you then go on to state that 75% of pathological narcissists are men. I know of only one ubiquitous figure on the internet who (along with his accolytes) repeatedly quotes this figure as a fact and if you are going to use Mr V****n’s ideas of narcissism as facts then you are never really going to understand the condition. He has encouraged a large number of women to blame their relationship problems on their husbands/boyfriends/partners “narcissism” pandering to his own need for attention and selling his ludicrous book to gullible distraught people. Mr (not Dr) V****n knows his market and target audience, you run the risk of alienating 50% of your potential contributors by mentioning gender issues at all.

    • First of all, I appreciate your visit to chipur and your comment. Your opinion is valued here, as are the opinions of anyone who stops by. I’m assuming Mr. V****n is Sam Vaknin. If that’s who you’re referring to, I can assure you I am not one of his acolytes. To me, the gender issue is simply a matter of citing clinical realities. Is it possible the statistics are skewed? I suppose so, but I have no problem whatsoever buying into the fact that a significantly higher number of men are pathologically narcissistic v. women. Maybe we could come to a compromise of sorts if I threw in the qualifier “of those who have sought treatment.” Again, thank you for visiting and commenting!

  • Jonsid

    I would agree that the majority of people in treatment who are diagnosed as suffering with NPD are male. Personally I am quite pleased to hear that the APA are intending to review the structure of axis II disorders in dsm 5. I understand their reasoning for this is a) because of the many overlapping features of each of the disorders in each cluster and b) to prevent the labelling of people with these disorders, whereby a sufferer can simply become an “n” or a “p.” From now I understand that someone suffering from a personality disorder (and to be diagnosed as suffering from just one is actually quite a rarity) will not be labelled as simply a narcissist or histrionic but will be described by which of the cluster b traits are applicable to him/her.
    Personally I believe the 4 disorders in the current dsm are merely different manifestations of the same underlying disorder ie. sociopathic/narcissistic/histrionic/borderline are all the same disorder merely revealing themselves in different ways. However anyone who has had dealings with a person with one of these disorders will invariably recognise some behaviours from one of the others. Some of these behaviours are identified more as masculine and some more as feminine, this is different however to male or female.
    I believe that there are some features of ALL of these disorder which are common, hence they are divided into the clusters.
    Some of the common features of cluster B disorders would seem to be;-
    manipulative behaviour
    reduced or absence of empathy
    parasitic lifestyle
    attitude of entitlement
    lack of insight or self-awarenness and reduced desire for this
    There are others but these would seem to be the most frequently reported and many other behaviours can actually be understood as symptoms of the above, for example absence of guilt or remorse is actually an effect of lack of empathy, absence of gratitude is similarly a feauture of entitlement.
    Although the medical world talks of someone as “suffering” from these disorders I’m not sure that this is the right word. Suffering implies…well suffering and the majority of cluster b disorders are actually ego syntonic, which implies that people with these disorders are actually perfectly happy with their behaviour, irrespective of the problems it causes them others around them. Hence the often painted picture that it is those in a relationship with a disordered individual who end up in therapy while the disordered person goes on quite happily believing that any problems they have are always caused by someone elses behaviour. This of course means that there are likely to be far, far more people who could be diagnosed with one of these disorders who never will be making their reporting very hit and miss.
    One of the things that does puzzle me, and you might be able to help me here, is if a person with such a disorder is genuinely convinced they are healthy why are they so reluctant to even consider counselling or therapy sometimes becoming enraged at the thought of it, and why are they so determined to lie and rewrite history to deny some of their actions ever occurred. This does of course suggest that at some level they know their behaviour is “wrong” maybe even not “normal.”

    • You are one heavy thinker, are well read, and express yourself well. Good stuff, all. A few notes. I, too, am pleased to see the APA at least trying to eliminate labeling. As just one example, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve become outraged when a “professional” observed maybe one or two traits and casually stated, “Well, she’s a borderline!” The potential for emotional harm is just so high. I also agree that gender related characteristics don’t necessarily equate to the biological male/female. It’s interesting that you would point out the usage of the word “suffering” is, perhaps, inappropriate. I have always tried to avoid the use of wording such as, “He’s suffering from depression.” I prefer something like, “He’s enduring depression.” For me, use of the word “suffering” is presumptuous. In response to your final question, I would agree one’s knee-jerk reaction would be to assign the dynamics to the egosyntonic nature of the individual’s disorder. I mean, why would he/she consent to therapy if he/she believes nothing’s wrong? But then, of course, why the agitated and animated response? Could it be their disorder is, indeed, egosyntonic – and they truly believe they aren’t pathological. But to be called on their thinking, feeling, and behavior is an ego/security blow they simply can’t absorb? In other words, there’s a partition between their inability to realize and own their pathological traits – and their subpar ego strength. Again, thank you for your willingness to share your perspective. It helps us all learn and grow.

  • Jonsid

    I think you might be right about about the weak ego being unable to cope with the blow of implied imperfection. It is often suggested that these disorders are a result of a dominant “false” self and a weak or fragmented “true” self. I read that the existing borderline designation was so called because those afflicted were believed to be on the “borderline” of psychosis, or in Olde English, half sane, half insane. I wonder if the reality is that in BPD, at least, the person flips from the condition being, during periods of extreme narcissism, ego-syntonic to their being, during periods of self-loathing ego-dystonic. This would probably explain why in this group of disorders the borderline is the most emotionally unstable. The strange thing is that this would suggest that people with BPD should be the most treatable as they are on occasions in touch (painful as it is) with the error of their distorted reality. I suppose the question for the sufferer is can the ego survive the terrible assault upon it that would be necessary for them to break through to some sort of “sanity.”

    • All sorts of good psychoanalytic theory involved here. And the fragmentation piece is significant. It was the psychoanalysts that coined the term borderline. In the early 1900s they realized certain patients didn’t fit any of their existing diagnostic criteria. Some characteristics – psychotic symptoms during session, psychoanalysis didn’t help them, and any progress made was generally followed by a relapse. Terms such as borderline psychosis, pre-schizophrenia, latent schizophrenia, and pseudoneurotic schizophrenia were used. Even then, some referred to these diagnoses as “wastebucket diagnoses.” In 1938, the psychoanalyst, Adolph Stern, published a landmark article that led the way to a more enlightened approach. In it he referred to these patients as the “border line group.” And there you have it. And, again, I believe an egosytonic disorder and behavior based upon sensing the threat of fragmentation can coexist.

  • Jaime

    Oh boy do I have personal experience! I was married to one for 16 years. The overwhelming problems that affected me the most were the sense of entitlement and the need for excessive admiration. There wasn’t enough admiration in the world to soothe him. It was never enough. Never. The sense of entitlement always blew me away too.
    I lived it for years, thinking I was just the worst wife and person. Thank god our marriage counselor brought it up to me one day. I still didn’t really understand even then. It took a year for it to sink in and to really absorb it. I will never look back.
    Here’s a link to a blog which describes it well:

    • Thanks for sharing, Jaime. Always great to have your participation. And thanks for the link. chipur readers – well worth the read. Here’s a line or two…
      “You’ll never get what you think is rightfully yours until you give up your claim to entitlement and victimhood. You’ll be appreciated when you don’t demand it. You’ll be loved when you don’t try to manipulate it.”