What does it mean to be a narcissist?

I would like to think I’m quite proud to have gotten this far on the Doctoral programme with the New School for Psychotherapy and Counselling – in having got through to the third year – and that maybe I will get to the end of it one day. But, not too proud, just proud enough... I hope that I’m not vain, smug or conceited about that.


But what does this mean? What is the difference between pride, vanity, self-esteem and narcissism? What is the right amount of pride? Are we becoming too tolerant of the self-obsessed?

As you’ll hear, these questions have been getting under my skin since thinking and reading the thoughts of Neville Symington in his book Narcissism: A New Theory, as well as reflecting on my own thoughts and experience of what it means to be a narcissist.

Narcissism: Source of all mental disturbance?

Symington believes that narcissism is the source of all mental disturbance and pathology. It is a bold claim but one which he might not be too far off from.

Symington looks at the development of an infant which becomes narcissistically disordered by making an unconscious choice, either towards the ‘lifegiver’ (its authenticity or spontaneity) or to its disavowal and the use of magical pretence in order to evade psychic reality and to avoid external reality. The lifegiver is understood to be an internal, phantasmal, transitional-like object that is composed of aspects of the self and of the external life-supporting object. For example, in the infant’s case, this might be the mother’s breast, in the context of Kleinian object relations theory.

Symington is now convinced that the traumas of childhood are insufficient to explain the origin of narcissism and thinks that the cause is not the trauma itself, but the individual’s response to it. The individual, as the clinician meets him or her, has an emotional relation to the trauma. The person is responding to life events, and it is this crucial element that Symington says he had ignored for many years to the detriment of his patients. He believes that narcissism, thus produced, is the ultimate source of psychopathology in general.

Hatred of the relational

Symington makes the claim that, if the ‘self’ is inherently relational, it is always in relation to other selves in the human community. The narcissist, in their hatred of the relational, operates to destroy separateness. In people dominated by narcissistic currents, there is a failure of separateness between themselves and others, and they will assume that you think in the same way that they do. 

I am reminded of a kind of rugged individualism that is generally upheld in our Western cultures by viewing freedom, choice and responsibility entirely at a separatist and individualistic level, and thus each distinct individual experiences his or her freedom, choice and responsibility in a solely personal and independent sense and in contrast to competition and co-operation with, any other’s individual’s distinct sense of freedom, choice and responsibility.

Another problem, as Spinelli recognised in his book The Mirror and the Hammer, is how English, as a language, appears to be founded upon an attitude of ‘having’ or ‘ownership’ that, as a result, sometimes obviously, at times more subtly, forces upon us a world-view that is essence-focused. As such, no matter how forcefully we seek to convey the notion of ‘self as an interactive process’, the word ‘self’ defies our very enterprise by asserting its ‘it-ness’ or ’thing-ness’.

So, can we manoeuvre around this difficulty by speaking of ‘self-in-relation’ in the sense that Heidegger construes the self as ‘Dasein’? A key point that is often misunderstood by readers of Being and Time, is that, for Heidegger, the ‘I’ expresses the wholeness of being, and is not a specific singular entity or agent. Heidegger wants to show us that the introspective experience of self in self-consciousness is no longer to be considered a primordial phenomenon. Rather, it results from the original experience of interaction, or ‘being-with’.

A failure to recognise this foundational premise in Heidegger’s thought opens us not only to the dangers of demands from ‘the they’, but just as importantly to the dangers and errors created by our own self-elevated views of an isolated, originating self – and so could this be the beginnings of a narcissist as envisaged by Symington? The narcissistic option leads to an appearance of unity, but underneath there is disunity.

Although the formulation is different, it is along the lines of what Winnicott talks about – the true self and the false self. The person in the narcissistic situation spends a great deal of energy trying to look as if he were acting in a coherent way when in fact he is not.

Narcissism in therapy

In therapy, Symington believes that psychotherapists have largely failed in their understanding of narcissism. There are various criteria that signal the presence of narcissism, one of which is the capacity to receive criticism. One might think that someone who has been through a course of intensive psychotherapy would be able to receive criticism, but this is frequently not the case.

Symington goes on to espouse that the ability to recognise narcissistic currents in our own characters is of the greatest importance. None of us is free from narcissism, and one of the fundamental aspects of the condition is that it blinds us to self-knowledge. 

This idea that none of us are free from narcissism came to me as a surprise and a realisation that this might be a condition of what it is to be human. Is it the case that we tend towards narcissism to protect something valuable about ourselves? 

Earlier, I mentioned how the infant, in the early developmental phases of the self, chooses to turn towards or away from the life-giver. Symington says that if one accepts the idea of the life-giver being the source of emotional life and also the source of biological survival – and that the two are linked – then the self can never effect a total repudiation, and so the split takes place, with one part of the self turning against the life-giver. As the life-giver is incorporated into the self, a division and a repudiation of the self’s own nature occurs, resulting in an anti-relational position being taken. 

It is somewhat like a prisoner saying, "I am going to have nothing to do with these prison wardens", but nevertheless having to have something to do with them in order to receive meals and so on, or he will die. This turning away from the life-giver forms the core of narcissism. The life-giver comes into being through being chosen and the existential reality comes out of the paradox that the life-giver has independent existence and yet does not exist without being opted for. This turning away from the life-giver is a turning against the self. 

Symington emphasises that a person governed by inner currents of narcissism always tries to conceal it. Narcissism never stands nakedly in the open. This is yet another difference between selfishness and self-centredness. People are quite often openly, and unashamedly selfish, but self-centredness is always hidden.

Interestingly, Symington claims that narcissism always has to be flushed out. Paradoxically, when it is flushed out, its structure is changed in the act. When people begin to grasp the narcissistic elements in themselves, these elements will already be losing their hold.

One sees this clearly where something has arisen as a result of narcissistic currents – for example, extreme jealousy. When the patient becomes aware of his jealousy – he might have a dream about it – he is already entering into some relationship with it, so its strength will be diminishing.

Symington says that the person dominated by narcissistic currents is enclosed, shut off from the other. So this raises an important technical question for the therapeutic encounter. There is a common view that if the client is silent, the best response from a therapist might be to stay silent too. He will say that this approach is below the threshold of awareness and that in these situations therapists need to get in touch with their own thoughts, to allow their imaginations as free a reign as possible, and to thus speak from these thoughts. 

The aim in therapy, therefore, is to bring about a reversal of narcissism. Like Merleau-Ponty, Symington would see narcissism as a ‘sedimentation’ that requires excavation and a necessary step to exposing one’s self. The process is expected to be a painful experience and the therapist should not shy away from this and neither should the client if he or she is to bring about a change. 

When narcissism is opted for (through an existential choice of sorts), it is to protect the individual against appalling pain rendering the person into a kind of Sartrean ‘bad faith’ position. What is being asked for, of the person, is to give up a particular way of defending him or herself. The therapist’s task is to support the struggling life-enhancing side against the side that desperately wants to keep within that narcissistic refuge and remain anaesthetised.

Another typical therapy technique which Symington deplores is ‘mirroring’. Instead of mirroring, the therapist has a job to do! Instead of gabbling, the therapist should be thinking about why the patient is depressed. In therapy, the healing process is in one mind to another, and the words are the vehicles that carry the mental attitude back and forth. Think of that when you next speak. Ask yourself ‘What sort of vehicle was that?’

To give an example: a client says ‘I’m afraid of saying this because I think you will disapprove.’ In Symington’s experience, it would be quite common for a therapist to respond with ‘I wonder what leads you to think I’ll be disapproving’. This is tantamount to saying, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t be disapproving’. In this way, the therapist is playing into the narcissistic currents rather than providing an environment that assists the person to take the creative step and to dare!

So perhaps a more useful response would be ‘Why does my disapproval prevent you from speaking?’ By approaching the client this way, the therapist can avoid the colluding and huddling with the client, which does nothing to solve the client’s problem in relation to other disapproving people in his or her life.

Mythical narcissism

So what does narcissism mean to me and how does it differ from other phenomena which appear to be quite close to it, for instance, selfishness and self-centredness as I discussed earlier? Well, I think, the fundamental difference is that the narcissist is wrapped up in himself as in the Greek myth, the way Narcissus, as we all know, looks at his image in the water and falls in love with it and becomes self-obsessed.

However, what people sometimes miss about the myth is that the only voice that he ever hears is that of the nymph – Echo. What this mythologises is that the only voice that he hears is that of his own imagination, and he imagines what other people are saying about himself. He doesn’t actually care about other people at all. So the voice of praise in his head is his own voice.

On the face of it, this may sound like a straightforward case of vanity but, I think, there is more to it. Vanity is a broader category and the very standard instance of vanity is caring too much for the opinion of other people, and so in a sense, it is the very opposite of narcissism. The vain person seeks applause, seeks admiration and craves the pedestal that he imagines or hopes other people will put him on.

So, vanity has more to do with a reflection of the views of others and less to do with self-sufficiency. I would say that vanity shades into conceit where the others are becoming less important because you’re becoming self-sufficient. Then finally the pathological end of it turns into narcissism, where one has lost any way of hearing the voice of other people.

So in a way, narcissism collapses into solipsism. And the tragedy of Narcissus in the Greek tale is that he withered away and died. But more importantly, his social existence disappeared, as if it had never existed at all. That is the existential tragedy.

Because you’re worth it

When I reflect on the idea of narcissism, I find several things about it that I don’t understand. One of those is the well-known L’Oreal advertising slogan, ‘Because you’re worth it’. 

Those ads always seemed to get me irritated and despondent at the same time. There is something blatant about the slogan ‘Because you’re worth it’ that got under my skin. I never quite understood why. 

The personas of the models looked so arrogant, self-contained and self-sufficient, which would appear to be beyond us. There’s no sense of reciprocity, there’s no attempt to join in a human conversation. There’s a sort of pout, a sneer or indifference.

And I started to wonder why should this be deemed to be attractive and how it could possibly sell things. Because in real life if you meet someone like that, with all that display of arrogance, you most probably would run for the shower! So, I’m primarily interested in narcissism as a moral issue: there is something about it that feels bad to be a narcissist. 

Aristotle’s vices

Often. Aristotle is held as a kind of hero, in that one needs a decent level of self-esteem and a proper pride. It’s interesting that Aristotle should talk of a proper pride but not of a proper vanity. This is because pride is more a pleasure, where you feel you deserve applause or admiration for doing something well. Whereas in vanity you don’t care that you have done it well, you only really care that you get the applause anyhow. One doesn’t take pleasure in achievement but in other people’s praise for you, irrespective of whether there was any real achievement in the first place. And it’s this kind of distinction that interests me. 

In Aristotle, every virtue lies between two vices; one is in excess and the other is a serious lack of something. Therefore, narcissism is one extreme and the appropriate amount of self-respect is in the middle and then a lack of self-esteem lies at the other far end. And maybe it is this lack of self-esteem which can lead to self-doubt or an unwillingness to try things because you’re sure you are going to fail at them, and you’re sure you are going to attract derision or contempt for your failure. 

If one goes through life expecting that, then of course, one is suffering from a deficit of that thing which is necessary for good deeds, getting on with it and having a go. It’s almost as if someone needs to try more than one can actually manage, to take the risk to truly feel what it is like to really earn the admiration of others in an authentic way. The narcissist never attempts this but enters into deceit in a conceited way.

I often wonder if narcissism is a problem in our society today. I think about the commercial greed which is driven by that vanity slogan ‘Because you’re worth it’. You have someone like the chief executive of the Co-Operative Bank, a bank built upon a strong sense of values and ethics with a view to putting society first, taking home pay of £4 million a year! Is this not vanity coupled with conceit? Is he ‘worth it’? 

Maybe what we have lost in our current social climate, is the the social contract – that nobody is an atom, that nobody has done it alone, and that success has always been dependent on the background of social support. And so, maybe those in their gated communities today have forgotten about their social contract.

Resenting our dependencies

So what is it about that pouting persona of the models in the L’Oreal ads that has irritated me for so long? Why is that appealing to most of the people who buy into this message? 

I think the answer is that we are all conscious of our dependencies on others – all of course except the pathological narcissist. And yet, in a sense, we resent that. 

I imagine it would be nice to be on a pedestal at a point where we didn’t have to depend upon the endless accommodations, the endless worries and fears that our loved ones are going to go sour on us and our partners are going to disappear. Or, that we aren’t going to be appreciated at work and the ideas that we share are going to be brushed off. All of that is part of the normal human lot and yet part of us chafes at it.

The greatest story about this is in Satan’s temptation of Eve, where Satan tells Eve that being here is dependent on the good opinion of one man and a lot of furry animals – well that’s not good enough really! You should be adored by Angels numberless! In other words, you should be on a pedestal ‘because you’re worth it’! 

And of course, Eve falls and succumbs, as she can’t resist the temptation. The way temptation works is against the background of, ‘I’m not worth it’, ‘I am a dependant being’. So it’s a lie. The thing depends on a lie, it depends on false promise, and it is essentially selling a false hope.

So, where are you on this narcissistic continuum? And where am I?

Well, I think, I am somewhere on the Aristotelian Golden Mean – between complete self-doubt and in-excess, the latter leading to narcissism. I like to think, I have proper pride in a couple of things I have done in my life, one of which is taking the decision to downsize my day job to do this Doctorate.

I don’t think that I’m excessively dependent on other people but, I am dependent in the sense that I could be hurt by other people’s bad opinion of me. So, I hope I am somewhere near that Aristotelian mean, and I certainly don’t buy shampoo ‘Because I’m worth it’!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Leicester, Leicestershire, LE2
Written by Schole Therapy, Registered Psychotherapist. BSc(Hons),PG Dip, UKCP, UPCA.
Leicester, Leicestershire, LE2

My 7 year training in psychotherapy began at the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling and Middlesex University, London where my Doctoral research was on pessimism. As a member of the Society of Existential Analysis, I have published articles on a range of subjects from philosophy to therapy....

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