Explaining the Many Facets of Narcissism!

Narcissistic Personality Disorder, what exactly is it? Trying to explain exactly what narcissistic personality is takes some doing, the reason being that there  are so many facets of behaviour involved.  However, Narcissism, roughly translated means “love of oneself”.  The term itself refers to a set of character traits that involve self-admiration, self-centeredness, and self-regard; to the point where the narcissistic person becomes very grandiose, arrogant, aggressive, lacking in empathy for others, superior to everybody else, and sporting a sense of entitlement that leaves them in constant need for attention and admiration in all their relationships.   The term was coined by Sigmund Freud who picked the myth of Narcissus as a symbol of a self-absorbed person whose libido is invested in the ego itself, rather than in other people.  There are several versions of the myth, but roughly translated Narcissus, in Greek mythology, was a beautiful Greek boy who found himself to be so attractive, that he falls in love with his own reflection. The term narcissistic personality disorder, also taken from the myth, describes a self-loving character with grandiose feelings of uniqueness.

The Spectrum of Narcissism is on a Continuum.

Narcissism is a spectrum of behaviour that is prevalent in the human condition universally.  What this means is that we are all narcissistic to a degree, and the narcissistic traits can range on a continuum from 1 – 10, from what we call Healthy Narcissism (being a 1), all the way to a pathological form, called Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD (being a 10), with varying degrees in between.   When narcissism reaches a stage called “Malignant Narcissism” the person consistently manifests at least 5 of the 9 criteria necessary to put it into the category of being a mental disorder.

To the casual observer, telling the difference between a normal range narcissistic personality and a narcissistically disordered personality may not be very evident to begin with, because the difference is the difference between the individuals “intentions”.  The healthy narcissistic personality operates from a place of good will towards another person, while the unhealthy malignant disordered personality operates from a place of ill will towards another person, which naturally enough puts a chasm between them.

 Healthy Narcissism Style V’s Unhealthy Narcissism:

Every human being craves approval.  This need for approval is driven by the ego in order to make us feel loved, important, powerful and in control, and perhaps even more importantly, to steer us away from any criticism, which can lead to feelings of  inferiority.    Adler (psychologist) believed that it was the pain of inferiority that motivated all human action to strive for a sense of superiority and perfection. This is natural, and is healthy narcissism in action, a normal defense that is essential for psychological health.  It is this action that protects us from painful disappointments, failures, and keeps us away from feelings of helplessness.  This boosting of our morale (Healthy Narcissism) is what motivates us to do better with our lives.

Healthy Narcissism:

However, with regard to narcissism, our structure of psychological well-being requires balance if it is to stay healthy; too little narcissism can be just as pathological as too much. Too little sense of narcissism leads to a lack of confidence and esteem.  Without confidence and esteem we become fearful, and this exposes us to feelings of inferiority; whereas too much (Unhealthy Narcissism), we risk the likelihood of having inflated egos, and putting ourselves in danger where we may compromise social cohesion in order to make ourselves stand out.  However, when one is balanced they have a healthy narcissism driving their ego forward.  The person sports a confident attitude where they are aware of their strengths and weaknesses of their personality, and they have both the negative and positive aspects available to them.   Because they “know their selves” they are able to have realistic expectations of their self, and their expectations fit comparatively with their abilities.  They are fully aware of being separate from others, and they have faith in their own set of ideas and ideals.  They use their healthy narcissism in a way that channels them in the direction of getting their needs meet, without having to disrespect or harm anybody else in the process.  It is in this healthy or mature narcissism that there is balanced giving and taking, and it is this balanced giving and taking that allows a person to enter into mutually satisfying relationships that last the test of time.  In this space there is a healthy respect for both the giver and the receiver to retain their uniqueness and independence with each other.  Both are equal, so there is no need for any “one-up-manship” or “one-down-manship” in the relationship.  Unhealthy narcissism on the other hand is in complete contrast.

Unhealthy Narcissism:

Where there is unhealthy narcissism, the individual manifests their behavior through a personality disorder, and therefore they are incapable of having a true reciprocal bond in any relationship.  They will operate through either one-downmanship (the practice of outdoing others in a negative way), or one-upmanship (the practice of any assertion of superiority).  For example, their need for one-down-man-ship is used when they have a need to idealize someone; whereas their one-upmanship is present when they need another person as a mirroring self-object (narcissistic supply) in order to confirm their specialness for them.  This does not usually last long, because all self-objects are eventually devalued once they have lost their functional one-upmanship.  They are then held in contempt, and discarded after their usefulness is used up.  It is nothing personal, it is how the unhealthy narcissist treats everybody; he/she uses, abuses, and discards, then goes on to the next victim with no remorse what so ever.

The Narcissists Intolerance to Shame:

Because individuals with a true Narcissistic Personality Disorder are contemptuous and shameful of the less-than-perfect aspects of themselves, they cannot tolerate those same aspects in others.  Any flaws that they see in another are likely to mirror back their own flaws, and that enrages them.  At this point their narcissism has ceased to be a source of healthy self-respect and self-esteem, but rather, it has become a defence of a false grandiose self that needs to be guarded against painful feelings of shame and low self-worth if it is to survive.  It is shame or humiliation that is always the underbelly or the driving force behind their narcissistic defenses.  Neurotic shame is the root cause of the narcissist’s multi-addictions.  Alcoholics Anonymous has long recognised that it is the individual’s grandiosity, self-centredness, and lack of humility that are the most difficult obstacles to overcome in addictions.  False-pride, inflated ego and grandiosity are viewed as defenses against feelings of inferiority and inadequacy.  One has to inflate against the intolerable affects of shame…which of course is the cornerstone of the narcissist’s psychopathology.  Pathological narcissism occurs in a spectrum of severity. In its more extreme forms, it manifests itself as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

DSM IV-TR: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The American Psychiatric Association brought out a manual that covers all mental health disorders for both children and adults.  This Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM IV-TR as it is better known) is considered the bible of psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals everywhere, and it specifies the nine diagnostic criteria for identifying narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). By the way, this manual is constantly being updated as more about the condition of narcissism is understood.  At present, for the clinician to make the diagnosis, an individual must fit five or more of the following nine descriptions:

Narcissistic Personality Disorder Criteria:

  1. He or she has a grandiose sense of self-importance (exaggerates accomplishments and demands to be considered superior without real evidence of achievement).
  2. He or she lives in a dream world of exceptional success, power, beauty, genius, or “perfect” love.
  3. He or she thinks of themselves  as “special” or privileged, and that he or she can only be understood by other special or high-status people.
  4. He or she demands excessive amounts of praise or admiration from others.
  5. He or she feels entitled to automatic deference, compliance, or favorable treatment from others.
  6. He or she is exploitative towards others and takes advantage of them.
  7. He or she lacks empathy and does not recognize or identify with others’ feelings.
  8. He or she is frequently envious of others or thinks that they are envious of him or her.
  9. He or she “has an attitude” or frequently acts in haughty or arrogant ways.

Characteristics of Destructive Narcissism:

As humans we are called to live as a real or authentic self, that is, to live fully conscious through the True Self.  For the narcissist this is not possible, because their True Self has been banished since childhood, because sadly, it was unable to cope with its painful world.  Instead, the narcissist installs a proxy for the True Self which serves to protect it; this self is referred to as a False Self.  The False Self is quite a tyrannical and grandiose self that can bat off huge amounts of pain, giving the narcissist immunity from further hurt.  Sam Vakin describes it well when he says, “the False Self is a cloak, protecting and rendering the narcissist invisible and omnipotent at the same time”.

The narcissist’s attachment to their grandiose false self accounts for the first three attributes in the DSM-IV’s checklist for NPD shown above (i.e their sense of self-importance, exaggerated accomplishments, superiority, powerfulness, genius, and specialness).  At the core of the malignant narcissist is the creation of a grandiose False Self, not a healthy True Self.    Therefore, just as in the Myth of Narcissus, the narcissist is in love with their reflected self, (a counterfeit version of the true self) that is superior and perfect.  Having rejected their true self, the narcissist invests excessive love in an illusionary fantasy self to which they are besotted.   Disordered narcissists consider themselves to be unique and superior to others, they possess a grandiose view of their own self importance.  Their grandiosity goes beyond mere boasting; it is more a self-aggrandizement, which is not borne out by reality.  They maintain their grandiose self by fantasizing internally about fame, wealth and power; and externally by defending themselves from criticism, shame and humiliation.   Their superiority complex is really a response to their feelings of inferiority.

The hallmark of the narcissist is their grandiosity:

The Narcissist’s grandiosity can be seen in the way they exaggerate their sense of self-importance with regard to their family, their work, their “anything” in fact.   They give the impression that everybody they have to deal with is useless (their spouse, their family, their co-workers, their friends, etc.).  Wherever there is success, naturally, it is due to them, because (according to them) everybody else is undependable, unskilled, or just not up to par with them.   In their world they are the hero, and if it were not for them, their family would be in the gutter, the business would not function, and everything would be a disaster.  Their motto is “I am the greatest”.  The truth is that they expect others to do the day-to-day chores as they feel too important to waste their time on common things.  It is their families (or others) that do the lion’s share of the work, they are in effect high maintenance, and yet they complain that they have to do everything.  Of course, this self-sacrifice gets them a good deal of attention and respect from those who do not really know them.

Narcissist as pathological liar:

Narcissists are apt to tell lies, and when they get away with them, they think they are clever and superior.  They often use lies in order to manipulate people, and to set up people against each other. You may never catch them out in their grandiose lies, unless you work with them, or visit them in their home.  Then you will really see how much others do pull their weight, and carry the narcissist’s share as well.  You may also be very surprised to find that this wonderful fun loving individual is really a bully when at home (home being really anywhere they feel they are in control).  Often their grandiosity will seep into religious ideology, where they believe that they have been specially chosen by God, therefore exempt from the rules that other plebs have to adhere to.  When they do pull on religion to gain control, you are likely to find out that the rules are much harsher for you than for them.  For example, you will be the one to make the pilgrimage to the top of the mountain (physically or metaphorically speaking), while they wait at the bottom in a nice warm place while waiting for you’re return.  They always get others to do the lion’s share of the work, and their dirty work.

The narcissist’s self-esteem:

The narcissist unstable self-esteem constantly craves love, attention and admiration from other people.  Just like a child, they are unable to take their sense of self esteem from within their own self, they look outside themselves to others in order to have their self-esteem mirrored to them.  Their demands are so insatiable that they will constantly seek narcissistic supply in order to boost their self-esteem, and meet their constant demand for attention.  Their assessment of others is always in terms of their usefulness to them, and they are likely to fly into a rage when their demands are not met.  All of their relationships start out by the unrealistic idealization of the other person.  At first the individual is put on a pedestal of dizzy heights, but before long they will find that they are not able to meet the unrealistic expectation of the narcissist, and they will topple off that pedestal with a bump.  Once disappointed in the person who has been chosen to be their source of supply, the narcissist perceived the disappointment as a threat to their self-esteem or self-worth, causing them a “narcissistic injury”.  Any narcissistic injury (real or imagined) reminds them of their shame and “self loathing”.  Whenever this happens, their rage will be triggered, and without warning they will very soon exploit and devalue the person without any remorse.  The narcissist is hypersensitive to any rejection or criticism, no matter how mild.  It is their unstable view of themselves that cause them to fluctuate between two extremes; the extreme of self-praise, and the extreme of self-contempt.  Because they cannot tolerate their extreme feelings of self-contempt, they set about creating an illusion of superiority in order to compensate for their feelings of inferiority, and they will even lie about their achievements and accomplishments (to themselves) in their bid to build up their image of high self-esteem, so that they can self-praise,  and feel safe once again.

The Narcissist lacks empathy:

Empathy is the ability to infer and experience another person’s emotions. The narcissist has disturbances in their capacity for empathy, so they don’t know what others value or why.  That is why they have a history of intense, yet short-lived relationships.  Actually, they seem to have an inability to make or sustain genuine intimate friendships.  The pathological narcissist’s lack of empathy is a direct result of their grandiosity; however, even though they lack empathy, they are adept at faking it when they need to convince someone that they really do care.  They are masters of using pseudo empathy in order to manipulate others (narcissistic supply) into getting what they want, and they will use other people to get what they want without caring about the cost to those people.  In fact, they seem to have an inability to recognize and accurately interpret other people’s emotions.

Their lack of empathy and fear of rejection colors everything that they do.  For example, they avoid intimate relationships because of their “rejection sensitivity”.  Attachment in an intimate partnership is frightening for them, because it makes them too vulnerable to the pain of rejection.  Their rejection sensitivity originated in childhood as a self-protective reaction to rejection by primary care-givers, and this reaction continues into adulthood, where it undermines all of their relationships; causing them to fear intimacy.  The narcissist experiences high levels of anxiety because they always expect others to reject them, so they self-protect by avoiding intimate relationships.  Unfortunately, their fear of rejection becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, because (due to their behaviour) they often find that people do reject and leave them.  When a relationship appears to be going well, they become scared by the level of intimacy they are receiving, and they abort the relationship with no consideration for the other person.  It seems that they prefer to first reject rather than risk being rejected.

Narcissistic envy:

Narcissists are plagued with feelings of envy.  These feelings of envy are derived from their sense of low self esteem.  Envy is not jealousy.  Jealousy is the fear of losing something that one already possesses to another person (i.e. loosing a loved one to a rival); while envy is the pain or frustration of not having what another person has.  Envy involves two people, the envier and the rival.  So when the narcissist (the envier) sees someone (the rival) possessing something that they do not have (materially, psychologically, mentally etc.), it provokes in them feelings of inadequacy, and triggers their resentful  longing.  When they experience such a “lack” in themselves, it causes them to feel mortified, shamed and inferior, these distorted feelings causes them to experience another narcissistic injury.  The narcissist reacts in different ways to their distorted feelings than the rest of us; for example, their reactions can be carried out through methods of modeling, devaluing, cognitive dissonance, or avoidance behaviour.  All of these mechanisms protect them against their distorted feelings.

Modeling and devaluing:

Because of their fragile ego’s, narcissists generally want to hang around with people they consider to be inferior to them, usually those with an average intelligence that they can control.  That way they can be seen to be a superior genius, (a God Complex) where everybody else is inferior.  This behaviour strokes their ego, and makes them feel special.  However, from time to time, the narcissist fixates on someone whom they perceive as having a higher intelligence then themselves.  They can see that this person possesses something that they want for themselves (i.e. knowledge, information, power, status etc.), and they become very excited by this person.  They will even elevate that person to a position of superiority, and for a while, and will even seem to admire that person’s superiority.  Unknown to that person, they are now in danger of becoming the narcissist’s source of narcissistic supply, a situation that can only end in disaster for the unsuspecting person once the narcissist gets what they want from them.

If the narcissist perceives this person to be similar to themselves in other ways, then their aroused envy will be particularly intense.  Envy is a huge part of any narcissists experience, it is triggered when they experience a person to possess anything that they want themselves (materially or psychologically).   The manifestation of that envy becomes a dance, with its own particular steps of seduction, mirroring, sucking the person dry, devalue them, then discarding them forever.  The first step of the dance is seduction.  The narcissist will seduce the person in what ever way they can; they will appear playful, exciting, spontaneous, sincere, enthralling and delightful.  They are masters of manipulating in the way they use their charm and seduced by their buoyant spirit.  They create a web of illusion, and very soon the person wants to spend time in their company.  The narcissists intention is to become part of their victims company long enough to get what they want from them.  By being in close proximity, the narcissist can pick the brain of the victim and gather valuable information so that they can become more like that person, the object of their envy.   They then go on to model exactly what their victim says and does.  They will then imitate that person whenever they get the opportunity of an audience, that way they can now become even more impressive to their admirers.  The narcissist is a great actor, but in truth, they find it hard to keep up with those people who have a higher IQ.  Although they appear to have an unusual confidence about them, they are really terrified that any intimacy will render them vulnerable to being exposed as the fake imposter that they are.  Such exposure will surely trigger their shame, and render them helpless.  Once they feel that they coveted those same attributes that they craved from the other person, they now have what they want, and they suddenly lose all respect for that person.  Once they lose respect for the person, they also seem to become very sensitive to any disparaging remarks (innocent or otherwise) that the person should make.  They will react unnaturally to any perceived critical comment or unflattering remark now from this person.  To the bewilderment of the person, the mask of the benevolent Dr.Jekyll comes down to reveal the personality of the evil Mr/Mrs Hyde. Where once the narcissist was so keen to imitate them, and hang around with them, they now view the person as being their inferior prey, and they begin to devalue them by using contempt to minimize them. The final act is one of defaming and discarding the person, and the bewildered person finds themselves dispensed without knowing what has really happened to them, .  The envy of the narcissist is pathological because it is all-consuming and destructive.

Cognitive Dissonance:

Cognitive Dissonance Theory applies to everyone, nobody is immune.  When we speak of cognitive dissonance, we are talking about the discomfort a person experiences whenever they are holding conflicting ideas simultaneously.  When this happens, the person has a motivational drive to reduce their dissonance, and this is achieved by changing their attitudes, beliefs and actions.

When a narcissist is psychologically uncomfortable holding two contradictory thought simultaneously, they use cognitive dissonance as a means of relieving their discomfort and achieving their state of “self-justification”.  They are experts at lying to others, and self-justification allows them to lie to themselves by convince themselves that what they have said or done is not just the best thing that could be done in the circumstances, but the right thing.  That way they are totally free of any conscience, their self-justification allowing them to shift backward and forwards into any role they so desire without blinking an eye.  Unfortunately, the downside for us all is that they do not learn anything new from any encounter.  The cognitive dissonance lends itself to any confirmation bias for them, confirming their preconceptions regardless of whether the information is true or not.  It is this confirmation biases that affirms the narcissists existing attitudes of always being right, which in turn contributes to their overconfidence in personal beliefs in the face of contrary evidence.  For example.  The narcissist is not a fool, they are aware that things are wrong with them and their life, but they never would admit to that.  Rather, they use cognitive dissonance as a way to invent elaborate constructions to convince themselves that there is nothing wrong with them, that indeed everything is right with them.  That way they can lie to themselves in order to justify their behaviour, ideas, attitudes, beliefs and opinions.  They also get to maintain their delusion and manipulate their own thinking, the thinking that sees everybody else as being wrong, while they are always right.  Once that is fixed and their dissonance is lowered, then they can sleep well at night, with no remorse or regret.

George Orwel, in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four describes cognitive dissonance, or as he called it “Doublethink” as thus:

“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them….To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.”

Avoidance Behaviour as a form of protection:

Narcissists are highly anxious individuals, although they tend to hide the fact very well from others.  They are like the proverbial duck that seems calm on the surface, while below the surface they paddle like crazy.  They are extremely sensitive to any form of negative evaluation or criticism that may lead to further rejection by others.   This fear creates a form of social avoidance, and a very cautious behaviour while speaking to others.  This avoidance behaviour is their way of protecting themselves from further humiliation or hurt.  Abandonment and attachment issues from childhood lay the groundwork for the narcissists avoidance behaviour.  The pain of loss and rejection as a child was so painful to them, that as adults they will often choose to be lonely rather than risk trying to connect with others.

The avoidance behaviour is exhibited in symptoms like:

  • Their hypersensitivity to any form of criticism.
  • Their tendency to fantasize situations that they are likely to avoid in reality.
  • Their avoidance of intimate relationships, because it leaves them vulnerable to rejection.
  • Their avoidance to taking social risks, unless they are certain that they will be accepted.
  • Their inability to trust anybody.
  • Their feelings of inadequacy in unfamiliar surroundings, causing them to become extremely shy.
  • Their need for control in every area of their lives.

This avoidance behaviour creates many problems for the narcissist.  It means that they are virtually unable to sustain any intimate relationships, because deep down they expect to be rejected and abandoned.  There lack of self-discipline and control makes it difficult for them to work alongside others in a professional setting, creating further feelings of rejection and isolation for them. They become pathological liars, as they use lies to help them to boost their self-esteem in uncomfortable or awkward situations.  Deep down they are extremely lonely.  Seeing others success is far too painful for them to witness, so often they will choose to stay away from gatherings.  To compensate, the narcissist creates an artificial bubble when they become King or Queen of their own Kingdom, a place where they can become master of their own fantasy and delusion.  Here they feel safe, and they are happy surrounded by their endless source of narcissistic supply to serve their every need.

So, be warned, narcissists are everywhere; they can be mothers or fathers, sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, grandmothers or grandfathers, aunts or uncles, bosses or employees, friends or acquaintances.  You can find them anywhere from the boardroom to the bedroom, indeed nowhere is free from people displaying narcissistic traits.  Probably the best way to recognize a narcissist is to educate yourself about the various narcissistic behaviours and addictions.  Then trust your own instinct when your internal alarm goes off.  Listen for the constant use of “I”, “me” and “my” when they talk.  No matter how exciting, interesting or intelligent they appear, there is something about them that can make you feel ill at ease.  Without being armed with the relevant information on narcissistic traits, it is unlikely that most people would be able to work out what is actually wrong in the relationship with a narcissistic personality, unless things become so bad that they find themselves in the therapy room trying to make sense of their life.

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Christine is a Psychotherapist, Educator, Author and Supervisor of mental health professionals for over 28 years. She was part of a team in the Trauma Unit of St. Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital, Dublin, and has worked specifically with victims of pathological narcissistic abuse in her private practice for many years.
Her books, “The Three Faces of Evil: Unmasking the Full Spectrum of Narcissistic Abuse” and “When Shame Begets Shame: How Narcissists hurt and shame their victims” set out to to help those who have been affected by a narcissist and also to address the shortfalls in a therapist’s education, so that they become better equipped to work with survivors of narcissistic abuse.Much of her knowledge has come from her post-grad studies in Criminology and Forensic Psychology, and it is through these disciplines that she has gained her understanding of “The Dark Triad”, (Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy).
These three faces of evil are vital information for understanding the full spectrum of narcissistic abuse and the dire effects on the victims.It is her vision that narcissistic abuse becomes part of the curriculum of all Mental Health clinicians.
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