Let’s start with a true story…
A few nights ago, I was having a coffee with a psychologist and Gestalt therapist from Barcelona. We were talking about the story I had published in 2008 in Singapore, when he suddenly said, “You wrote your biography, so you must be a narcissist!”. I felt taken aback by the random and out of the blue accusation. Having a stronger sense of myself today however, I chose to reply with compassion and calm rather than reciprocating the judgement.
Unlike in the past, today I am aware that when we send out judgement to others, often it is because we are recognising something of ourselves (whether we know of it or not) in the person we’re judging. It might be a projection of a behavioural pattern we don’t think we have or don’t want to know we have (denial) because we judge that trait or behaviour negatively.
In the past, I would have reacted to the therapist’s statement because I would have felt accused of something I didn’t feel I owned. This time was different, I didn’t react. Instead, I felt strong within myself and let the voice within me say, “It’s ok Elisabetta, that is his point of view”. I then went on to offer a logical and honest explanation.
“Well, just because I wrote and published my own story doesn’t necessarily make me a narcissist. It all depends on the motivation behind the choice to write and publish the story. Someone doing so could simply be confident and brave enough to confess their story, reveal a history of family disfunction and denounce themselves. It all depends on the existing motivation at the root. In my case, I didn’t write Stella’s Mum Gets Her Groove Back to attract attention, or praise, or sympathy… I did it to be an example of taking responsibility and to show others how doing so can transform their lives. In those pages I recognised myself as an abusive and neglectful mother and wife who had found herself repeating toxic cycles despite my promise to be a different mother and wife than the one I’d had.
I also wrote it to inspire others to write their stories for two clear reasons: healing (catharsis) and giving a voice to their stories. Writing is an excellent tool for to shift internal blocked energy and move you to a new stage of recognition and authenticity. I also firmly believe that owning our story can inspire us to become true to ourselves and in so doing, invite others to do the same.”
The therapist then looked at me disarmed, open and wanting to know more.
His accusation or judgement however still rang in my ears and is what led me to write this second piece on narcissism.
While the concept of narcissism dates back thousands of years, narcissistic personality disorder only became recognised as a mental illness within the last 2 decades. But how did narcissism come to be?
As you may have been taught in school, narcissism has roots that date back to Greek mythology. One of the infamous Greek mythological characters, Narcissus, was the personification of it and the myth acts much like a fable in teaching us how narcissism can lead to our ultimate demise. In his story, he was self-involved and so in love with his image that he ultimately drowned, consumed by his self-love and unable to stop looking at his reflection in a pool of water.
image by Fares Hamouch
This excessive self-admiration as a personality trait has been explored by philosophers and psychologists throughout history including Sigmund Freud and Heinz Kohut. In the 60’s, psychoanalyst, Otto Kernberg described “narcissistic personality structure” and developed a theory of the personality trait that suggested three major types: normal adult narcissism, normal infantile narcissism and pathological narcissism (which breaks into different types).
By the early 80’s, pathological narcissism was officially recognised as a personality disorder with recognised criteria for diagnosis. Today, we’re very aware of the growing epidemic that is narcissistic personality disorder, which is characterised by symptoms like grandiosity, over the top sense of self-important and a lack of empathy for others.
As a disorder, narcissism can stem from childhood if the person was either overly spoilt or overly judged. In reality, someone with narcissistic characteristics may be struggling with insecurity, low-self-esteem or jealousy. The disorder may develop as a way to combat these internal struggles by raising oneself above others in the hopes of feeling better.
Narcissism usually refers to someone who is arrogant and self-absorbed, to the point of not being able to care about or consider others.
It’s important to note that it is a spectrum disorder, which means there are various degrees of narcissism from having a few traits to the full personality disorder. Whilst the clinical personality itself is rare, nowadays non-clinical narcissism is ever-growing.
Psychologically speaking, narcissism is a personality trait that all humans possess to a certain degree and it is in fact very normal to sit a the lower end of its spectrum. A certain amount of self-centredness can be healthy as research shows it contributes to confidence, resilience and ambition. A healthy dose of narcissism can facilitate authentic self-love too.
However, as with any personality trait, once taken to an extreme, it can become pathological and disordered. How can we tell the difference between someone self-centred or a narcissist? Someone self-centred can still exhibit compassion and empathy, thus someone with mild narcissistic traits can come across as self-centred but is not necessarily suffering from the diagnosable mental illness. Someone with narcissistic personality disorder, on the other hand, exhibits self-centredness as an ingrained, pervasive and uncontrollable trait and pattern.
Swiss Psychologist, Jean Piaget’s theory says the following about child development:
In observing children describe the way a small table-sized model of a mountain might look to someone else, Piaget found that prior to the age of 8 or so, this seemingly easy task was actually quite a challenge. Young children seem cognitively unable to see somebody else’s perspective. Although we all grow out of this developmental stage, some adults still may find it difficult to overcome this cognitive type of ‘egocentrism’ or self-centredness. Most people still find it very difficult to see something in someone else’s perspective, however, this does not mean they are suffering from NPD.
Another form of egocentrism, particularly prominent during adolescence is what child psychologist, David Elkind, referred to as “imaginary audience”. It refers to a teen’s tendency to envision how friends would react to his or her actions or thoughts. We don’t ever fully outgrow this youthful form of self-centredness.
Egocentrism can cause us therefore to make incorrect assumptions about what other people are thinking or feeling. For example, we show a bit of self-centredness or egocentrism when we fail to communicate with sufficient detail. We’re assuming that others can understand what we’re thinking and fill in the blanks because we’re assuming what they think without really knowing.
Narcissists have an extremely fragile and volatile sense of self-esteem (masked by an inflated sense of superiority) to the point where it interferes with their lives and relationships. Scientifically, some have suggested this could be a result of varying brain chemistry as it’s been found that people with NPD often have less brain matter in areas related to empathy. Not a surprise then to find that the opposite of a narcissist is an empath (more on this in the next blog).
With the recent rise in non-clinical narcissism as well as the growing popularity around the topic on social media, I have become aware of an increasing interest in self-diagnosis and diagnosing the difficult people in our lives. Although the disorder is very uncommon, many people seem to believe they have a narcissist in their lives, especially within workplaces where relationships can be complex and harder to navigate.
So how can we tell when narcissistic traits tip over to NDP?
Here are 9 criterion stated by the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder:
These following behaviours also act as a criteria but must be “relatively stable across a person’s lifetime and many situations, including in their personal relationships outside of the workplace”:
Can I grow from an self-centred personality into a narcissistic personality? Absolutely.
In fact, it’s very easy to slip from ordinary self-centredness to narcissism. If we do not encounter any adverse consequences to our self-centred behaviour, we tent to find no reason to change the behaviour. If nobody complains out of fear of confronting us, if no job or relationship is lost, we experience no real consequences for being self-centred. So we experience no downsides but often times rewards for exhibiting these characteristics because we can draw attention and get our own way, and thus the self-centredness augments and can grow into narcissism.
The problem can also extend to people in a position of public recognition. Actors, musicians, celebrities and politicians become particularly prone to developing what would begin as mild and innate narcissistic traits. If they don’t remain grounded in their original reality and have an actor in a healthy set of morals or spiritual values, they can become victims of the narcissistic bubble in which their new reality is based on. They lose a sense of accountability for their behaviour, which is when the personality trait can move along the spectrum to new extremities.
The ‘grandiose image’ that comes as part of their job can lead them to develop entitled attitudes towards friends, family and colleagues. As their narcissism progress however, people in the public eye tend to find that their self-esteem becomes increasingly dependent on attaining their position in the spotlight. Many confuse this with ‘confidence’ or ‘ambition’ but as history has shown through the losses of people such as Robin Williams and Whitney Houston, many ‘confident’ people were suffering inside.
Being occasionally self-centred is understandable. However, as we start to move along the spectrum of narcissism, it can start to take on a much more complex and problematic form. As egocentrics, we are unable to see someone else’s point of view and in narcissism we may see it, but just not care. When we become more self-centred, we can begin to see how the two character traits do not marry well and create a very dysfunctional personality.
image by Annie Spratt
What’s going on inside the mind, and emotions, of entitled narcissists? Or a strong ego-centered human being? Are they just incredibly confident people with lots of conviction?
During my work as a trainer, coach and counsellor, I’ve often heard managers and people being misled around the topic of narcissism and unhealthy ego-centrism. These traits can often be misunderstood as self-confidence but couldn’t be further from it.
Miami based psycotherapist, Whitney Hawkins, affirms that people with NPD often struggle with a less stable sense of identity. As explained earlier in this blog, the development of the disorder can often be due to lacking self-esteem. Hawkins says, “Underneath this tough, boastful exterior is often a very fragile individual who cannot handle criticism or judgement”.
Narcissistic or egocentric people are so because in reality they are the least confident of us all.
Now that we know the consequences of allowing egocentrism to get out of control, what action can we take to prevent ourselves from beginning the spiral into deeper egocentrism towards narcissism?
No matter where we are on the egocentrism-narcissism dimension, I believe we can pull ourselves out from those depths (if we really want to) towards a mindset that allows us to see ourselves as others truly see us. Once we’re able to do so, we can start living a more healthy, autonomous and authentic reality based on a more solid and internally connected sense of self.
If you think you exhibit narcissistic tendencies, it’s worth seeking help from a therapist. While it’s challenging to commit to treatment and you might never fully get rid of narcissistic tendencies, you can work on becoming more self-aware as to how you affect others and your environment at home and in work, especially if you are leading teams of people or if you are a parent.
If you think you know someone who is a narcissist, it’s important to set boundaries. Speak to them calmly and don’t engage in arguments or attacks, as narcissists don’t really listen or hear you when you speak negatively about them. Be firm, and remember it’s OK to disengage and end the conversation always, if you can, with loving compassion.
header image by Mathieu Stern