The Heart of Narcissism
You can read a lot about narcissism these days. That’s partly because narcissism is so commonplace. Narcissists are everywhere, it seems, wreaking havoc in relationships. And many believe culture has had a lot to do with that. A culture that promotes or even rewards egocentric, self-serving behavior is bound to produce more narcissists. But what exactly lies at the heart of narcissism? What things contribute to its development? What really makes narcissists tick? These things have long been subjects of debate.
Traditional theories tended to see low self-esteem as lying at the heart of narcissism. They viewed the narcissist’s braggadocio as an unconscious compensation for feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth. Now, to be sure, this can sometimes be true. But it’s a huge mistake to assume so. Some narcissists aren’t unconsciously compensating for anything. In fact, they truly believe they’re all that! They hold an inflated opinion of themselves. And just because that opinion often doesn’t match reality doesn’t mean they’re unconsciously compensating. It also doesn’t mean they’re delusional in the true sense of the word. (See also: Two Main Varieties of Narcissists.)
At the heart of narcissism of the “grandiose” type lies something quite sinister. Grandiose narcissists simply cannot acknowledge a “higher power.” This kind of narcissism is more than a psychological disorder. It’s fundamentally a spiritual disease and a serious defect of character. And it’s rooted in an unwillingness to acknowledge or respect anything bigger or more important than oneself.
What Flows from the Problem
The troubling behaviors grandiose narcissists display all stem from their “higher power” issues. Let’s take the problem of the exaggerated claims they make. Sometimes it seems to us they must be blind to how preposterous their claims are. They play so fast and loose with the truth. Their lies flow so freely. We’re tempted to think they just don’t see themselves. And we’re tempted to think they just don’t see how others regard their behavior. But it’s not a matter of blindness. For the grandiose narcissist, reality is only what he/or she insists that it is. And that’s because objective reality represents a “higher power” of sorts that they simply refuse acknowledge or respect.
Grandiose narcissists bow to no one and no thing. That includes the objective facts. They live in a world of their own creation. In that world they can reign unchallenged. They are their own authority. Moreover, it’s not that they don’t see how others regard their strange, grandiose behaviors. They’re aware alright. But they simply don’t care what others think. The opinions of others simply don’t matter.
Grandiose Narcissism and Empathy
So, at the heart of narcissism of the grandiose type lies a lack of reverence. Reverence for what? Anything or anyone other (or “bigger”) than self. Grandiose narcissists find nothing outside of themselves worth revering. That’s partly why they have trouble having empathy. To care about something you have to first find value in it. But the grandiose among us see others as inferior. Grandiosity makes it hard to care and all too easy to disdain. Now, grandiose narcissists can fake caring, especially when it suits their purpose. But they can’t really care. To do that they would first have to acknowledge your value. And that’s impossible to do when you just know in your heart that everyone around you is inferior.