By definition, narcissism is toxic self-love. Narcissists have a self-image that’s pathologically out of balance. Such individuals have failed to heed and master the lessons associated with what I call the “third commandment” of sound character development. (See: Keeping a Balanced Sense of Self-Worth). And, as we’re learning about so many of the different psychopathologies, narcissism exists along a spectrum. In fact, it exists along two spectra: one of quality, and one of degree.
There’s been a lot of talk about narcissism in recent years. And there’s been a near explosion of debate on narcissistic personality types as well, especially since the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-5) saw fit to drop Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as a distinct, official category. But whether or not certain powers formally recognize NPD as a mental disorder, there are plenty of folks who know all too well how painful it is to live or deal with a narcissist. And most folks who know a narcissist want to know how they got to be the way they are and what really makes them tick. So it’s worthwhile to explore the roots of this pathological form of self-love.
The term narcissism comes from the ancient tale of Narcissus, who, as the ancient Greek myth goes, was a strikingly handsome and gifted young man who clearly knew what he had going for him. So aware and enamored of his endowments was he that he wasn’t at all fazed by the relentless amorous advances of a nymph who fancied him. Rather, as he gazed upon his own reflection in a pool of water, he found all he’d ever dreamed of in perfect complement to himself: himself! Narcissists simply don’t need people in the way healthy others do. They might desire others for self-serving purposes. (One highly pathological reason is to look even more “special,” powerful, or worthy of envy because they managed to seduce and possess someone else of beauty, talent, or character value.) But they don’t have genuine regard for others. Narcissism, therefore, at its core is not the healthy self-love that leads to adaptive self-protection and care, but rather the haughty perception of oneself as such an idol that one has no real need for anyone else.
Classical psychology paradigms portrayed narcissists as individuals with “fragile” egos who are inwardly insecure and unconsciously compensate for their underlying low self-esteem with their braggadocio. And this can indeed sometimes be the case. But research has been bearing out what I first asserted in my book In Sheep’s Clothing 20 years ago: In our age of widespread character disturbance, “vulnerable” or “neurotic” narcissism is relatively rare. (For more on the two types of narcissism see, for example, the article: Two Main Varieties of Narcissists). As I explain in my books Character Disturbance, The Judas Syndrome, and How Did We End Up Here?, these days there are many more vain and self-centered folks who aren’t lacking in self-esteem at all but actually believe in their greatness and superiority. And their inflated views of themselves are not an unconscious, anxious compensation for anything. Dealing with a person who truly believes they’re nature’s gift to the world, can be a monumental challenge, especially if you have to work with or live with them every day.
I mentioned earlier that narcissism exists along two spectra. One spectrum has to do with the type of narcissism someone has (i.e. “vulnerable” or “neurotic” vs. character-disturbed), and the other has to do with the degree of narcissism they have. If you’ve done any reading about narcissism of late, chances are you’ve also heard the term “malignant narcissism,” which is most severe form of narcissism. It’s hard to imagine any kind of narcissism that’s completely “benign,” so it’s worth understanding what makes some narcissism more “malignant” in character.
Narcissism is something we all have to a degree during our early stages of growth. But most of us eventually grow to develop a healthier balance of perspective with respect to our self-interest and self-regard versus our regard for and need of others. This part of what mastering the first three “commandments” of sound character development is all about. When a person enters adulthood carrying the narcissistic tendencies they had as a child, their relationships are bound to be full of trouble. Narcissism is always unhealthy or pathological self-love. But it becomes particularly “malignant” — malevolent, dangerous, virulent, even incurable — when it goes beyond mere vanity, excessive self-focus, and haugtiness to outright disregard for and disdain of others. Malignant narcissists truly see themselves as superior to others. And they believe in their superiority to the degree that they view others as relatively worthless, expendable, and justifiably exploitable. This is the very type of narcissism at the heart of psychopathy and some sociopathy. And it’s what leads to a person’s sense of entitlement to prey upon others. Malignant narcissism has its roots in a deficient capacity for empathy. (Sometimes, the capacity for empathy is absent altogether). And it’s almost impossible for a person with such shallow feelings and haughtiness to form the kind of conscience that has any of the qualities we typically associate with a humane attitude, That’s why most researchers and theorists on the topic of psychopathy view psychopaths as individuals largely devoid of conscience. (To learn more about psychopathy and sociopathy, see my other articles on the subjects, including: Malignant Narcissism: At the Core of Psychopathy.
Because ours is the age of permissiveness, moral relativisim, and especially “entitlement,” narcissism in all its forms has flourished. Narcissism isn’t just “enabled” by modern culture, it’s actively promoted and even often rewarded, which is why we’re seeing so much of it. Just about everyone has a story to tell about dealing with a narcissist. And the key to ridding ourselves of this plague is grooming our children to both learn well and embrace the third “commandment” with all its tenets on how to forge a balanced sense of self-worth. Adult narcissists who’ve come by some motivation to change have to learn the very same lessons, but as almost anyone knows, changing one’s character after becoming fairly set in one’s ways is pretty difficult. An you have to have just the right motivation to change. So, our real hope is in helping our young folks get the balance right to start with. Noble character is largely about healthy self-love. Narcissism is the manifestation of pathological self-love. Getting the balance right is what the third commandment of sound character formation is all about. Look for more on the “10 commandments” of character development in my upcoming book with Dr. Kathy Armistead: The Ten Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life.
Character Matters will be live again this Sunday Evening at 7 pm EDT on UCY.TV, so I can take your calls at (718) 717-8296. Our topic for discussion will be how “desensitized” we’ve become to the character crisis we face, the loss of outrage and the apparent resignation we have to it, and what we can do about reversing this unfortunate trend.