Narcissism: A few words about a very big topic

The origins of the term are Greek and come from the myth of Narcissus. Narcissus was a handsome young man who rejected the love of the nymph Echo. As punishment, he was destined to fall in love with his image, reflected in the water. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus turned his gaze into the mirror of water, hour after hour, becoming a flower until the end of time (which bears his name, the narcissus).

What is Narcissism?

Narcissism is a trait each of us exhibits to a greater or lesser degree. When healthy, these traits make us feel confident and fuel safe risk-taking. The problem happens when we begin to feel too special, especially in relationship to others. The word is frequently used today to imply anyone who is unhealthily focused on themselves to the exclusion of what might be considered normal behavior. 

Narcissism – the four types 

Recently, we have begun to think of nuanced forms of narcissism that might be considered to exist along a spectrum. At one end, our healthy adult self will exhibit signs of self-love, and self-care that does not feed on the unhappiness of others. We become aware of our strengths and also our limitations, but we do not diminish ourselves through poor self-esteem, guilt, or unjustified shame. 

The second type of narcissism will be apparent in the person who masks weaknesses and insecurities with positive efforts. We may see this person offer themselves in constructive and non-destructive ways. We can see and feel a tremendous sense of empathy. 

The third type is hidden narcissism. This person will focus on the self, will have difficulty feeling or expressing empathy, is vulnerable to feelings of shame and guilt, is easily drawn toward people who offer flattery; on the other they will avoid people who do not offer admiration. We might also see this person use other people to further their own ambitions without considering the cost to others of doing so. We might notice that the person inflates their importance, or perhaps exaggerate their achievements or claims to be an expert. We will notice the person does not experience or express either remorse or gratitude.

The fourth form of narcissism has four levels of severity (mild, moderate, severe, and very severe) and two organizational types (covert/overt). The fourth form is the dysfunctional or pathological one, and the one that you would find under the heading of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. There is no genetic component, but the environment in which the child grew up will create the ‘narcissistic wound’.  If the child feels that they have experienced strong injustices, they can develop resentment as a defense system, and reach adulthood with certain expectations of entitlement. Their relationships are understood to be based on power and control, and use seductive and manipulative techniques. 

The two big buckets

People with narcissistic traits are categorized into two big buckets: grandiose / overt or vulnerable / covert. You might know people with traits in each category, or recognize some of these traits in yourself. People we might consider having grandiose narcissism are often described by others with these terms: overt, socially bold, charming, oblivious, thick skinned, exaggerated sense of self-worth, little empathy toward others, demanding of attention from other people, manipulative, arrogant and even psychopathic. 

Terms that are used to describe people with more vulnerability-related narcissism are: covert, craving, hypervigilant, thin skinned, shamed child, compensating, shy. These people tend to be defensive, insecure and avoid conflict. They have lower self-confidence and are overly sensitive to criticism. 

You might have noticed that some of these terms are also used to describe people with trauma histories, and mental health disorders. 

Narcissism and mental health disorders overlap

Grandiose or overt narcissists tend to be extroverts, have high levels of self-esteem, a sense of positive well-being, and lower levels of anxiety and depression.

On the other hand, covert narcissism tends to show up as higher levels of anxiety and depression, a tendency to internalize negative emotions, and to ruminate about negative thoughts, feelings or experiences. 

A study that was published last year of 195 college students found a link between narcissism and competitiveness, using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory for measuring overt narcissism, and the Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale to measure covert narcissism. Both have been demonstrated to be reliable.  

And the gender differences? Males had higher levels of both covert and overt narcissism than females. But males were only slightly more competitive than females. The males showed more assertiveness and desire for power than the females, which led the authors to conclude that females could potentially be suppressing their narcissistic traits because they face greater pressure than men when they are equally aggressive and authoritative.

Narcissism was related to high levels of competitiveness in both males and females. People with high narcissism scores were more likely to seek out competitive social environments. However, the results also showed that females who were hypercompetitive also experienced depression, anxiety and stress. The authors suggested that females who exhibit hyper-competitiveness feel uneasy when their behaviours don’t fit with social norms and assigned gender roles, which may lead to feelings of powerlessness and depression.

So there is overlap between narcissism, depression and anxiety, and the key message is one of compassion: we all behave the ways we do for reasons that make a lot of sense to us and help us to organize our worlds!

Development of narcissism

Setting the stage: People who are narcissistic usually have narcissistic parents of two types: the parent who is disinterested (because the child cannot provide the flattery and compliments they need) until their child does something special such as an academic or athletic victory. The other type of parent can be controlling, overly involved in aspects of the child’s life with little respect for boundaries, and use guilt to manipulate the child. Children who grow up in this environment and become covert narcissists may actually experience high levels of self-criticism and learn to deny their own emotional needs.  On the other hand, children who grow up to become covert narcissists may have been the favoured child of the narcissistic parent, ‘the golden child’ and is invested with great expectations regarding his potential which of course offers prestige to the parent. 

In other words, narcissism is a trait that is developed over time, especially in environments where extroversion and competitiveness are highly valued, such as CEOs, professional athletes and ‘rock stars’. But we can find narcissists everywhere: in teaching, medicine, mental health care, and local radio! How can we tell the difference between healthy self-esteem and narcissism? 

Tips to Avoid Raising a Narcissist

Parents may want to avoid telling children that they deserve to win or asking “why weren’t you as good as she was?” and focus on “You did a good job.” Don’t make the world a competition.

Focus on “You don’t have to be the best, just the best you can be.”

Identifying a Narcissist

Narcissists are great at everything – except relationships. They often say that they don’t need anyone.

They are unable to do the fundamental and necessary repair work that is a normal part of every relationship.

They can have sparks of empathy and compassion, unlike a psychopath, but ultimately their own needs come first.

Empathy is often shallow and short-lived. They can show empathy in intimate relationships until something upsetting occurs and they reflexively soothe themselves by putting their partner down. They may believe the partner is worth sacrificing in order to feel superior.

Take Away:

Unhealthy narcissism is a way of coping with attachment insecurity. By increasing security, narcissism can be positively affected.

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