I. Symptoms of Narcissism
Narcissists display extreme selfishness, a lack of empathy, and a craving for admiration. Freud aptly named the disorder after the mythological figure of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, and was doomed to never receive any love back from his reflection.
There are degrees of narcissism, ranging from excessive self-importance to full-fledged Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It is natural to enjoy praise and admiration, particularly given our current media culture, which prizes recognition for image, power, and status more highly than wisdom, responsibility, or a sense of meaning. However, narcissists don’t simply enjoy occasional admiration; the craving for admiration is THE PRIMARY DRIVE in their lives.
To obtain the praise and admiration they seek, they will exaggerate their talents and accomplishments. Their desire to be viewed as superior can lead to misrepresenting their history and accomplishments. They may even lie and cheat in order to get promotions, win races, or seduce people.
Narcissists are preoccupied with self-aggrandizement to hone public opinion of their image. They fantasize about and seek power, fame, status, or money, and are often envious of others who have an abundance of these resources. With grandiosity and arrogance, they demand that others treat them as special or superior.
High-functioning narcissists present themselves well and are socially adept, because they work hard at creating a praiseworthy image. In casual relationships, they are likable. However, in intimate relationships, they frequently display envy, arrogance, and entitlement. They protect themselves from criticism, humiliation, and rejection by over-reacting with contempt or outrage. Underlying all these emotions is often a feeling of emptiness.
Feeling entitled and lacking in empathy, narcissists tend to exploit others to serve their own needs. Focused on their own needs and frustrations, they become skillful at controlling and blaming others. As you can see, superiority and entitlement do not promote mutually-satisfying, long-term close relationships.
You cannot change a narcissist, as they rarely, if ever, believe they need to change. However, whether your husband is merely selfish or narcissistic, you need to take care of yourself to avoid being exploited and hurt. You can’t expect him to set the boundaries needed to protect you. Nor can you expect him to fulfill your needs and desires, unless it suits his goals for stardom.
Generally you should not count on anyone fulfilling your deepest needs and taking care of you. However, it is definitely desirable to be with someone who is considerate, loving and thoughtful—traits, which the narcissist can temporarily fake, but cannot truly embody.
II. Causes of Narcissism
Narcissism is basically a psychological coping mechanism for low self-esteem. Ironically the narcissist rarely believes that he or she has a problem with self-esteem.
Very young children naturally feel they are the center of the world. They need to experience healthy narcissism to feel good about themselves, to gain the confidence to grow up and take care of themselves and be able to initiate social interactions.
Children generally grow out of this healthy narcissistic phase if they experience “mirroring” and “idealization.” Mirroring means receiving empathy and approval from one’s parents. Idealization means being able to look up to a caregiver as a respected person separate from oneself.
Lack of mirroring occurs in one of the following ways:
1. Approval is erratic or lacking all together. The child is ignored.
2. Admiration is too unrealistic to believe, while realistic feedback is lacking. “You’re the cutest, smartest…”
3. Criticism for bad behavior is excessive. “You are bad, evil, stupid!!”
4. The parents are excessively permissive and overindulge the child, implying a lack of caring. “Sure, have a bowl of candy, more juice, toys, throw your food if you want to, I don’t care.”
Children are deprived of idealization in one of the following ways:
1. The parents are unpredictable, unreliable, or lacking in empathy.
2. The parents are emotionally or physically abusive.
3. The parents have no interest in the child’s needs, but exploit the child to feed their own self-esteem.
Without receiving empathy or the ability to look up to others, children do not develop empathy for themselves or others. They may grow up being psychologically stuck in the narcissistic phase.
As a result, they feel flawed and unacceptable. They fear rejection and isolation because of their perceived worthlessness. To avoid this pain, they focus on controlling how others view them by embellishing their accomplishments and skills.
They feel deep shame, which causes them to develop an artificial self. While we all develop an artificial self to some degree, narcissists IDENTIFY with their artificial self. Preoccupied with presenting the right image, they are ironically rarely aware of their own low self-esteem.
People with adequate self-esteem are usually willing to look at themselves with honest self-reflection and consider areas in which they could improve. This makes sense because they have empathy for the flaws and inadequacies in both themselves and others.
Sadly, the narcissist believes that flaws are to be hated and concealed, and that only perfection and superiority can be displayed. Thus, they view themselves and others with a perspective that swings from over-valuation to loathing. In their quest for approval and acceptance, they use their charm and charisma. Once dependent on others’ approval, the smallest hint of disapproval can send them into a state of punishing vengeance.
To protect oneself from the emotional pendulum of the narcissist, it’s best not to make your self-worth dependent on one by perpetually trying to please the narcissist. While the charisma bestowed on you might feel irresistible at first, it could soon turn into punishing scorn and retaliation.
III. Avoid raising Narcissistic Children
Children who grow up to be narcissistic adults seek praise as addicts seek their drug of choice—in increasing quantities from anyone who will give it to them. Neglect, abuse, harsh criticism, and erratic or exaggerated praise can lead children to feel unloved for being who they are. To avoid raising a narcissist, a parent needs to be present, empathetic, accepting, and consistently responsive to the young child’s needs.
We can be busy most of the day but it’s important to take some time every day to simply enjoy your young child. When you have a child on your lap while talking on the phone, you’re not present to the child. The mental/emotional presence is the important factor, even for an infant. Ultimately, spending time and playing with a child is one of the most fulfilling things we can do.
Showing empathy when children express their feelings and ideas allows them to develop empathy for themselves, and eventually for others as well. Parents shouldn’t deny, downplay, or redirect their children’s feelings. Nor should they overreact when children disagree or share experiences. Otherwise, they will develop shame and learn to hide their opinions and experiences in the future.
3. Consistently responsive to the child’s needs
Parents should become aware of ways in which they project their own needs for status or convenience onto their children. By becoming aware of our own biases and desires, we can become more open to really listening to what the child needs and desires. This doesn’t mean becoming an indulgent parent; it simply means being open to the fact that our children are distinct individuals. So, rather than projecting on them our own desires that they become football quarterbacks or Olympic stars, we can allow them to develop their own direction.
Accepting children means interacting with them without constantly judging them positively or negatively. When we play referee with regard to every action they take, we miss out on really knowing and loving our children.
Excessive praise often causes kids to secretly fear being found out that they are not really as talented or smart as thought. The child may also hyper-inflate the importance of the attributes praised, while neglecting or concealing other perceived weaknesses.
While parents have to have expectations and give guidance, children should not be made to feel that they can’t do anything right. Criticism is much more effective when it’s constructive and given in reasonably small doses.
No parent is perfect. But if, for the most part, we can provide guidance while be accepting of our children, they are likely to become compassionate, authentic, and self-reflective adults.
IV. Celebrity, Power and Prestige
Narcissism brought on in adulthood by celebrity, power, or status has been called “Acquired Situational Narcissism*.” The attention received as a result of celebrity or prestige intensifies any EXISTING tendency toward narcissism.
Adult narcissists with status or celebrity become more self-centered because of the favorable treatment and praise they receive. They thrive on attention, and conclude from the fact that people fawn over them that their own satisfaction is what’s best for everyone.
Praise and admiration boost the narcissist’s self-esteem, but only temporarily, because it merely reflects the false self. When faced with criticism or solitude, the shadow feelings of worthlessness grow in corresponding proportion. To fight off this inner doom, narcissists double their efforts in pursuit of self glorification.
Most people are glad to enjoy some status or admiration. However, true narcissists feel ENTITLED to attention, and shamelessly pursue their own desires at all cost. In extreme cases, they will exploit those in subservient positions or at least those assumed to be subservient. Maids, housekeepers, and interns are convenient targets as they are less likely to resist those with power and prestige.
In their drive for stardom, narcissists hone the ability to exhibit socially appropriate behavior if it serves them to do so. In public, they may act like the perfect husband or wife, charismatically expressing admirable family traits such as warmth and devotion. In private, however, they may show little regard for the family’s well-being and feelings. In fact, they can be sarcastic, arrogant, and insulting.
Deceptions and lack of concern may cause you and your children to feel rejected, humiliated, and angry. It’s important to realize that the negativity is not a reflection of you, but of the narcissist’s limited ability to empathize with other people. The betrayals and attacks are not personal, but result from a craving to be seen as superior even at the cost of degrading others around them.
Nevertheless, it’s vitally important to protect yourself from demeaning behavior. It’s usually a good first step to point out that the culprit’s actions are affecting you negatively. However, it’s probably impossible to persuade a full-fledged narcissist to change given his or her primary motivating force. It’s better to know whom you are dealing with and then decide how to enjoy and/or limit the relationship.
V. Dealing with a Narcissist
Don’t Trust a Narcissist:
Don’t look for intimacy with a narcissist. If you decide to enjoy the narcissist’s charm and charisma, make sure that doesn’t translate into trusting him or her with inner secrets. Don’t set yourself up for betrayal and hurt by having confidence in his or her loyalty. Don’t let your feelings of self-worth depend on a narcissist’s love, actions or behavior.
Speak to the Narcissist’s Self-interest:
It’s usually helpful to express your feelings or needs. But if you’re dealing with a true narcissist, don’t expect empathy and understanding. It’s more effective to show how something will benefit him or her.
Beware of disagreeing with or contradicting narcissists. They behave as though they are confident and strong but they are easily offended. They don’t want to be found to be inadequate. If you confront their weaknesses, they may become vengeful and punishing. Keep your discussion focused on practical goals rather than personal accountability.
Be on your Guard:
Narcissists hide their own flaws and project problems on to other people. Beware of allowing them to blame you for too much. If you are doing business with a narcissist, keep a paper trail. In marriage or divorce, hire a good attorney.
Separating from Narcissistic Parents:
It’s sad to be raised by narcissistic parents, because they view their children as extensions of their own false self-image they present to the world. If the child disagrees or doesn’t abide by the family image, the parents lose interest in or become hostile toward their own child. It’s helpful not to take this personally, but to see that the parents’ preoccupation with their own image and their callousness toward the child are caused by their low self-esteem.
Don’t hope for Change:
It takes a lot of motivation for anyone to change. Unfortunately, narcissists rarely have the desire to change, because they don’t think they need to. They rarely seek counseling, but if they do go, they tend to manipulate the situation in order to look good rather than self-reflect to improve their lives.
Yet, it is helpful to recognize their traits. Then you can choose when to encourage the narcissist’s self-image, to bring a sense of humor, or not deal with him or her at all.
Avoid being Narcissistic:
We all have some narcissistic tendencies, and should beware of becoming dependent on others for their compliments and approval to boost our feelings of self-worth. Psychological dependence on others comes at a cost. It’s good to be reflective and thoughtful to make sure we are considering both our own self-interest and that of others.
There is a big difference, however, between being insecure or self-centered and having the condition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you are self-reflective enough to even wonder whether you are a narcissist, let alone read a psychology blog, it’s highly unlikely that you are!
by Alison Poulsen, PhD
Recommended: Sam Vaknin, PhD’s all-encompassing book, “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited” — a far-reaching book about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and abusive behavior — and other books about personality disorders.
References: “Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders.”
* A term coined by Robert B. Millman.
For an easy-to-remember acronym, try “Acquired Situational Super-narcissism.”