Despite having a seemingly strong personality, narcissists lack a core self. Their self-image and thinking and behavior are other-oriented in order to stabilize and validate their impaired self-esteem and fragile, fragmented self.
Poor Narcissus. The gods sentenced him to a life without human love. He fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and died hungering for its response. Narcissism was named for him. Like Narcissus, narcissists only love themselves as reflected in the eyes of others. It’s a common misconception that they love themselves. They actually dislike themselves immensely. Their inflated self-flattery, perfectionism, and arrogance are merely covers for the self-loathing they don’t admit–usually even to themselves. Instead, it’s projected outwards in their disdain for and criticism of others.
Narcissists are too afraid to look at themselves, because they believe that the truth would be devastating. Actually, they don’t have much of a self at all. Emotionally, they’re dead inside and they hunger to be filled and validated by others. Sadly, they’re unable to appreciate the love they do get and alienate those who give it.
Diagnosis of Narcissism, "NPD"
All personality traits, including narcissism, range from mild to severe. Narcissism can be viewed on a continuum from mature to archaic. Mature individuals are able to idealize romantic partners, express their talents and skills, and accomplish their goals, while employing only neurotic defenses; a middle group has unstable boundaries and employs borderline defenses; and those highly sensitive to wounding use destructive, psychotic defenses and have unstable relationships (Solomon, 1989).
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), first categorized as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 1987, occurs in 1 to 6.2 percent of the population; males exceed females at a ratio of 3:2 (Dhawan, 2010; McClean, 2007). Although nonprofessionals often label people with NPD who show a few narcissistic traits, clinical NPD ranges in severity from those with only the minimum required five diagnostic traits to narcissists who strongly manifest all nine symptoms. Here’s a summary of the Diagnostic Criteria in the DSM-5:
Someone with a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (sometimes only in fantasy), need for admiration from others, and lack of empathy, beginning in childhood, as indicated by five of these characteristics:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance and exaggerates achievements and talents
2. Dreams of unlimited power, success, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3. Believes he or she is special and unique, and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
4. Requires excessive admiration
5. Unreasonably expects special, favorable treatment or compliance with his or her wishes
6. Exploits and takes advantage of others to achieve personal ends
7. Lacks empathy for the feelings and needs of others
8. Envies others or believes they’re envious of him or her
9. Has arrogant behaviors or attitudes
In addition to the grandiose “Exhibitionist Narcissist” described above, James Masterson identifies a "Covert" or “Closet Narcissist”–someone with a deflated, inadequate self-perception, a sense of depression, and inner emptiness. He or she may appear shy, humble, or anxious, because his or her emotional investment is in the idealized other, which is indirectly gratifying (Masterson, 2004). “Malignant” narcissists are the most pernicious and hostile, enacting anti-social behavior. They can be cruel and vindictive when they feel threatened or don’t get what they want.
Cause of Narcissism
It’s hard to empathize with narcissists, but they didn’t choose to be that way. Their natural development was arrested due to faulty, early parenting, usually by a mother who didn’t provide sufficient nurturing and opportunity for idealization. Some believe the cause lies in extreme closeness with an indulgent mother, while others attribute it to parental harshness or criticalness. This latter position stems from Otto Kernberg’s emphasis on parental anger, envy, hate, or indifference that expresses veiled aggression. (Ellis, 2009; Russell, 1985)
The two views converge on the underlying psychodynamics. An idealizing, indulgent mother may be unable to experience her child as a separate individual and provide sufficient empathy, mirroring, or opportunity for idealization. Although leniency can result in healthy narcissism, when psychological control is added, like guilt induction and withdrawal of love, a solid self doesn’t develop, because the child’s focus is to gain external approval. Rather than receiving support for an emerging autonomous self, the child learns that love and involvement are conditioned on conforming to parental needs and expectations. (Horton, Bleau, & Drwecki, 2006)
Heinz Kohut observed this in his narcissistic clients who suffered from profound alienation, emptiness, powerlessness, and lack of meaning. Beneath a narcissistic façade, they lacked sufficient internal structures to maintain cohesiveness, stability, and a positive self-image to provide a stable identity. (Russell, 1985) He believed the cause lay in the empathic failure between the caregiver and child.
He differed from Otto Kernberg, who thought the pathology began during the oral stage, claiming that it could even begin in latency. Narcissists are uncertain of the boundaries between themselves and others and vacillate between dissociated states of self-inflation and inferiority. The self divided by shame is made up of the superior-acting, grandiose self and the inferior, devalued self. When the devalued self is in the inferior position, shame manifests by idealizing others. When the individual is in a superior position, defending against shame, the grandiose self aligns with the inner critic and devalues others through projection. Both devaluation and idealization are commensurate with the severity of shame and the associated depression (Lancer, 2014).
Although most people fluctuate in these positions, the Exhibitionistic and Closet Narcissists are more or less static in their respective superior and inferior positions irrespective of reality, making them pathological. Arrogance, denial, projection, envy, and rage are among the defenses to shame (Lancer, 2014).
Although more research on narcissism is required, twin studies revealed a 64-percent correlation of narcissistic behaviors, suggesting a genetic component (Livesley, Jang, Jackson, & Vernon, 1993).
Relationships with Narcissists
It’s easy to fall in love with narcissists. Their charm, talent, success, beauty, and charisma cast a spell, along with compliments, scintillating conversation, and even apparent interest in others. Enlivened by their energy, people gravitate toward them and are proud to bask in their glow. Read about narcissistic parents.
The two views converge on the underlying psychodynamics. An idealizing, indulgent mother may be unable to experience her child as a separate individual and provide sufficient empathy, mirroring, or opportunity for idealization. Although leniency can result in healthy narcissism, when psychological control is added, like guilt induction and withdrawal of love, a solid self doesn’t develop, because the child’s focus is to gain external approval. Rather than receiving support for an emerging autonomous self, the child learns that love and involvement a conditioned on conforming to parental needs and expectations. (Horton, Bleau, & Drwecki, 2006)
Many narcissists are perfectionists. Nothing others do is right or appreciated. Their partners are expected to meet their endless needs when needed – for admiration, service, love, or purchases – and are dismissed when not. That their spouse is ill or in pain is inconsequential. See "How to Tell if a Narcissist Loves You."
Narcissists don’t like to hear “No” and often expect others to know their needs without having to ask. They manipulate to get their way and punish or make partners feel guilty for turning them down. Trying to please the narcissist is thankless, like trying to fill a bottomless pit.
They can make their partners experience what it was like having had a cold, invasive, or unavailable narcissistic parent. Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat had such an emotionally empty mother, who devotedly bonded with him to survive. The deprivation of real nurturing and lack of boundaries make narcissists dependent on others to feed their insatiable need for validation.
Read more about "The Heartbreak of Relationships with Narcissists."
Narcissists' whole personality is a manufactured defense of their shame-based, fragile self. It's important to understand this so as not to be intimidated and take their behavior personally. However, it's a mistake to empathize with a narcissist more than you do with yourself and neglect self-care. Read more about their defenses and underlying motives.
For loved ones of narcissists, doing the exercises and using the recommended strategies in Dating, Loving, and Leaving a Narcissist: Essential Tools for Improving or Leaving Narcissistic and Abusive Relationships can be helpful in dealing with a narcissist. Doing them can also help ambivalent partners get clearer about whether they want to stay in the relationship.
Dhawan, N. K. (2010). Prevalence and treatment of narcissistic personality disorder in the community: a systematic review. Comprehensive Psychiatry 51.4, 333-339.
Ellis, A. A. (2009). Personality Theories: Critical Perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Hepper, E., Hart, C., & Sedikides, C. (2014). Moving Narcissus: Can Narcissists Be Empathic? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Horton, R., Bleau, G., & Drwecki, B. (2006). Parenting Narcissus: What Are the Links Between Parenting and Narcissism? Journal of Personality 74.2, 345-376.
Lancer, D. (2014). Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Minnesota: Hazelden Foundation.
Lancer, D. (2013 Jan.- Feb.). Does Our Codependency Help or Harm Our Clients? The Therapist, pp. 13-18.
Livesley, W. J., Jang, K. L., Jackson, D. N., & Vernon, P. A. (1993 December). Genetic and environmental contributions to dimensions of personality disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry 150 (12), pp. 1826-31.
Lowenstein, S. (March, 1975). An overview of the concept of narcissism. Social Casework, 136-172.
Masterson, J. F. (2004). A Therapist’s Guide to the Personality Disorders: The Masterson Approach: A Handbook and Workbook. Phoenix, Az.: Zeig, Tucker, & Theisen, Inv.
McClean, J. (October, 2007). Psychotherapy with a Narcissistic Patient Using Kohut’s Self Psychology Model. Psychotherapy Rounds, 40-47.
Russell, G. A. (1985). Narcissism and the narcissistic personality disorder: A comparison of the theories of Kohut and Kernberg. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 58, 137-148.
Solomon, M. F. (1989). Narcissism and Intimacy. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.
Stolorow, R. (1976). Psychoanalytic Reflections on Client-Centered Therapy in the Light of Modern Conceptions of Narcissism. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 13, 26-29.
© Darlene Lancer, 2015
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