The Personality Disorder called Narcissism is in the news quite a bit these days. This week’s post deals with two questions: “What exactly is a Personality Disorder”; and, “What are the general dynamics of the individual who exhibits narcissism to such an extreme degree that it can be labeled a disorder?”
Narcissism is one of several “Personality Disorders” listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Personality disorders can be tricky because they include personality traits that are pretty common for most people.
For instance, have you ever thought friends whispering over in the corner were whispering about you? (Paranoid Disorder) Have you ever shared an idea with someone and they said, “That’s kind of weird, you know!” (Schizotypal Disorder) Do your relationships get so “rocky” at times that you fear being rejected, abandoned, and alone? (Borderline Disorder) Do you ever feel kind of indifferent toward some of your friends, sort of a “whatever” attitude? (Schizoid Disorder) Do you sometimes fear rejection and criticism that makes you hesitant to enter into a relationship? (Avoidant Disorder)
Most people would answer these questions, “Sure, doesn’t everyone?” Does this mean that everyone has a personality disorder? (In the previous paragraph, the type of disorder would be the word in parentheses following each question). Of course not. So how do personality disorders differ from “normal” everyday tendencies in all of us?
Personality disorders involve traits, emotions, and actions that are chronic, enduring, intense, and exaggerated. We’re not talking about everyday tendencies that come and go; we’re talking about habitual, reliable, and consistent ways of acting that extend across time and different situations. Because these tendencies can become thoroughly ingrained in the brain, personality disorders are notoriously resistant to treatment.
Take narcissism, for instance. The narcissist is chronically consumed by egotism: “I am the best at everything. It’s all about me. I am the primary ingredient for solving any problem.” Narcissists see themselves as special, entitled, perfect, and always right. To help them assert their dominance, they love to “stir the pot,” keep things out of kilter for others. They create chaos so others can’t react sensibly, and the narcissist can step in and take charge.
Narcissists need constant praise, support, and validation from others, like a leaking balloon that regularly needs air. Ironically, however, what narcissists want from others – empathy – they can’t give to others. Narcissists habitually lack empathy and insensitivity to others’ emotions. Who has time for others when wrapped up in oneself? Others must be constantly devalued, which makes stability in relationships impossible. Treating members of the opposite sex as equals is impossible; to do so would elevate them in status, and make them a threat to the narcissist’s extremely fragile ego.
Here’s the key to the narcissist: Deep down, probably at an unconscious level, they’re filled with self-doubt, low self-esteem, and feelings of worthlessness. They constantly fight against letting these “I-am-inferior” impulses out. Such a threat – I am inferior – to their gargantuan ego must be suppressed, kept hidden, or their personality will disintegrate. Anyone who disagrees with them or challenges them must be defeated, bullied, and subjugated so they can reassure themselves that, “I am superior and in total charge.” They can never admit they were wrong, or apologize to someone, because that would release too much air from the “ego balloon,” and they would be plunged into psychological chaos.
The narcissist is vulnerable to these core insecurities that generally have their origins in childhood. Therefore, any circumstance that triggers childhood fears – often the fear is of authoritarian parents criticizing and ridiculing them as unworthy – has the potential to plunge them into anxiety. Thus, they must constantly be on the attack against others to convince themselves that they are in control. One thing for sure: Give an extreme narcissist power and the results will likely be catastrophic.
Most of us have narcissistic tendencies. That is, we like to look out for good old number one! Few of us, however, habitually – and with great exaggeration – display the traits and actions described above in our interactions with others. Most of us do not let our egos constantly get in the way of being sensitive to the feelings of others, and developing empathy for their discomfort. Thank goodness for that!