I devote a lot of attention in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome to narcissism and what I believe fosters this aspect of character. I’ve also posted several articles on the topic (see, for example: Egotists: “Above” the Need for a Governing Higher Power, Malignant Narcissism, and Malignant Narcissism: At the Core of Psychopathy). Those familiar with my work know I’ve long been of the opinion (based on years of clinical experience and research) that the majority of narcissists are not, as we once used to think, anxious, insecure individuals who unconsciously compensate for underlying feelings of low self-worth by presenting a facade of competence and haughtiness, but rather individuals who do indeed think far too much of themselves and who, in their sincere belief in their “special” status, harbor problematic attitudes of entitlement. When I first began espousing these views in the mid-nineties, many of my colleagues found reason to question my perspective. But I was bolstered in my efforts by the support I found among readers of my work whose experiences more than resonated with views I was advancing. Gradually, however, empirical research also began providing support for my perspective and recently two respected journals published studies that provide even more support, the results of which I thought appropriate to share.
One study, published in Psychological Bulletin (Reference: Gender differences in narcissism: a meta-analytic review, Emily Grijalva, et al., Psychological Bulletin, doi: 10.1037/a0038231, published online 29 December 2015) distinguished between the “vulnerable” or more neurotic type of narcissism thought to be fueled by anxiety, inner emotional conflict, introversion, and underlying feelings of low self-worth, and the more prevalent and socially problematic narcissism characterized by feelings of entitlement (qualities that predispose a person to abuse and exploit others), grandiosity and exhibitionism (qualities that predispose a person to be vain and showy), and leadership/authority striving (qualities that predispose a person to seek positions of superiority, power and control) and looked at differences between the sexes on these dimensions. Interestingly, the study found that while men and women appear equally predisposed to vanity, when it comes to ascendance-seeking behaviors and feelings of entitlement, men are more prone than women to harbor such tendencies. What I found most validating about this study, however, is that researchers are now solidly recognizing that not all narcissism is of the “neurotic” variety, and that the attitudes of entitlement and difficulty recognizing or acceding to a higher power are part of a very different kind of narcissism that is not rooted in pretense but rather is a manifestation of a person’s true (yet clearly disturbed) character.
Even more recently, a study co-led by researchers at Ohio State University and the University of Amsterdam and published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (reference: http://news.osu.edu/news/2015/03/09/little-narcissists/) found that overvaluing children and especially praising them excessively or in the wrong way fosters in them an unwarranted sense of being “special” and invites them to see others as inferior and, therefore, to treat them unkindly. What the study did not detail, however, is just what kinds of praise are of the detrimental variety. As readers of my work know, it’s always been my assertion that praising or affirming children for things they cannot legitimately claim credit (e.g., their looks, their intelligence, their innate talents, etc.) is the way we most often foster an unhealthy narcissism in them (because the aforementioned characteristics are nature-conferred as opposed to self-developed), an unfortunate circumstance only compounded by the fact that we rarely recognize and reinforce our children for what they can rightfully claim credit: the responsible exercise of their will. Recognizing and reinforcing that helps engender healthy self-respect (I count myself among those who make a distinction between “self-esteem” and “self-respect,” which some researchers have lately been referring to as the “healthy” kind of self-esteem, and you can read more about what my experience has taught me about how a person’s ego typically becomes inflated in the article: How to Inflate an Ego in Three Easy Steps).
It would certainly not surprise me to see more studies affirm what many clinicians working in our age of widespread character disturbance have been surmising for some time now. For in the end, the folks we work with are the best teachers we can have about the human condition. Of course, to really learn we have to be willing to set aside biases and preconceptions and more objectively evaluate what our clients are trying to tell us through their attitudes, thinking patterns, and behaviors. And if we’re to really help, we have to confront those things head-on, using tools both research and experience have demonstrated to be effective.
This Sunday night’s Character Matters program will again be a live broadcast, so calls can be taken.