Narcissism: What it is and some Typical Behaviours
Narcissism is often said to be the most common personality trait in the Western World. Perhaps this is not surprising - these days, we seem to be constantly bombarded by messages about putting ourselves first and enticements towards shallow displays of vanity. When we switch on the TV, we find people dismissed as “The Weakest Link,” and are encouraged to vote for people with little talent so that they can become “a celebrity,” or asked to watch them do idiotic things in jungles or crazy houses. Perhaps it’s no wonder that in today’s Primary Schools more boys want to be pop stars or footballers than anything else, and girls want to be models or “famous.”
It’s important to say what narcissism is not. I find it worrying to hear people use the phrase, “it’s good to have a healthy degree of narcissism.” That’s sloppy language. What they are trying to say is, “it’s healthy to have some self-love and strong self-esteem” – which is true - but that is not narcissism. If you haven’t got self-love and self-esteem it’s almost impossible to function healthily or form loving relationships. A large part of what defines narcissism is an inability to love, so it’s not about “self-love” or any other love at all. A narcissistic heart is hardened to itself and to everyone else. No matter how much it may appear that narcissists “love themselves too much,” inside, they certainly don’t!
Narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus. When you study the original Greek story fully, it is much deeper than it first appears and has many nuances.Narcissus is not just a figure of ridicule and negativity. He is also viewed as a wretchedly pitiable person who, in the end, after facing what he has become, has his hardness turned into a beautiful flower. The vast majority of narcissists are capable of long-term, positive change with some support.
As a humanistic counsellor, I seek neither to label nor to diagnose, but it is important to be pragmatic – we do talk about anger, depression, paranoia, stress, anxiety etc, and to an extent, these are all labels. Humanistic counsellors need to perform a balancing act between on the one hand recognising that patterns of behaviour and difficulty occur in the world and on the other viewing each of their clients with new eyes as a unique individual. If the balance sways, it always sways towards the latter.
It can be too easy to label someone “a narcissist” when they may have other issues or be in need of support more than approbation. Displaying some narcissistic behaviour is not the same as being a narcissist. There is something in Jung’s idea that what we are most repulsed by is something we see a little of in ourselves – most of us in the West have been brought up to be at least partly narcissistic. It’s humbling to remember that none of us are perfect and to ask, “is this behaviour fleeting and trivial or is there a pattern of very selfish and insensitive behaviour?” In practise, counsellors will be visited by very few people claiming to be narcissists (for reasons that will be described later) but they may well see many who have suffered the miserable effects of narcissistic behaviour.
Types of Narcissism
Psychologists have discussed at length how Narcissism is on a continuum – at the lower end, there are the Traits of it (which most of us have if we are honest); then there is Narcissistic Style, where a person exhibits a noticeable and problematic level of narcissistic behaviour; then there is actual Narcissistic Disorder, which is often split into three types – Fragile, Exhibitionistic and Grandiose – being increasingly difficult to handle in that order.
If you are interested in the typical behaviour of the different types then there are many books about it, and the differences between the types can be quite marked. You are unlikely to meet many “Grandiose Narcissists” in your lifetime, which is a good thing – they are very difficult people to deal with. Narcissistic behaviour is very popular in novels and plays – since it often causes fireworks!
Typically Narcissistic Behaviour
Typically, a heavily narcissistic personality is mainly concerned with maintaining front and bluster. Generally speaking, the more they appear to “love themselves,” the deeper the self-loathing is likely to be at heart – though they would never easily admit to that. Narcissism is actually about promoting a false self to cover the real, damaged and hurt self. Research indicates that the root cause of narcissism is often a dysfunctional childhood.
Some narcissistic behaviours and tendencies include: entitlement, inflated sense of importance (and occasional severe feelings of inferiority), grandiosity, manipulation and objectification of others, pride, a readiness to treat others with coldness and indifference as an indication of the fact that they have no present use, exploitation of others, high levels of jealousy, emotional shallowness (love, even for the self, is hard or impossible for some narcissists), exhibitionism, tendency to rage for little objective cause, deep shame (often hidden), feelings of emptiness, a tendency to first idealise and then devalue people as they tire of them, an inability to empathise with others. Unfortunately, narcissistic personalities tend to have little insight into their own behaviour and are apt to blame others for their problems.
Narcissism You May Encounter
The following examples are all of those rare people who are high to very high on the narcissistic spectrum. Those lower down will cause far less problems and are likely to have far more self-awareness when they do.
A narcissistic friend is likely to be the epitome of “it’s all about me,” and will have a habit of quickly steering conversations around to them. If you tell them about your problem, you may be allowed a few seconds on it, before they say, “oh, I know all about that,” and then the rest of the conversation will be about their related problem. Whatever you do – even it’s a major achievement - they’ll have a tale to trump it. They may only be in touch when they want something from you or when they have something to boast about.
Narcissistic bosses are likely to be thoroughly uncompromising, driven and without sensitivity. They will demand that their every instruction is followed and they will probably fly into a rage at the least provocation. It’s quite simply best to keep your head down and get on with things – or better still move to another job.
Narcissistic lovers (especially spouses) are hard work. They always seem to manage to get their own way, whether subtly or forcefully. They are most unlikely to consider your feelings, and at the times that they do, it is likely to be a manipulation to keep you in place. They are good at charm and may tell you things you want to hear in order to get what they want from you.
A narcissist lover’s charm hides a vampire-like quality. Any new lover that seems almost too good to be true or even like a fantasy ought to set your alarm bells ringing: high levels of initial charm and sex-appeal are easy for a narcissist – it goes with the territory of “look at me,” the drive for perfectionism and the game of attention
At worst, strongly narcissistic individuals scarcely consider their lovers as people so much as a source of “supply” to feed a need to boost the false-self with attention. They are happy for a while whilst they get what they want – usually sex, money, affirmation and attention.
Narcissistic lovers can be like the plate spinning act in a magic show. They can nurture several sources of “supply” and when they get bored they are inclined to visit the other ex-lovers in rotation – indeed they may well boast about doing it! In addition, a typical narcissist can feel emotionally overwhelmed or swallowed up if partners get close or feelings are intense. This may be the excuse they need to run and leave their lovers feeling abandoned, though it is very likely that they will return – to lay on thick charm and say how foolish they have been. At this point, they will want focus on their pain, however badly they treated their lover when they left. Narcissists will not usually feel guilty as they are unaware that they have broken any moral rules, or are so focused on themselves that nothing can disturb their view of events.
Narcissistic parents cause all sorts of problems in their children. There are many good books about this matter, such as Trapped in the Mirror by Elan Golomb. Narcissistic parents tend to see their children as extensions or reflections of their own importance, which means genuine love is in very short supply. The damage this causes needs careful unpicking in counselling. That is what part two of this article will be about.