Many of us have heard of the myth of Narcissus-- the Greek hunter who saw his reflection in a body of water and was so overcome by his own beauty that he fell in love with the image and could not bear to leave it. He ended up dying, although the means vary from one version to the next. But the basic idea is that Narcissus could not love anyone other than himself.
Fast forward to now, 2019, and we can all attest to the longevity of the Narcissistic character. So I thought I would try to shed some light on this problem, because it's actually more complex than you might expect.
First, there are different types of Narcissism--
While it’s true that at its’ core narcissism can be thought of as self-involvement it can manifest in so many different ways that I think it’s often missed. The obvious narcissist is what psychologists call the Exihibitionistic or Grandiose Narcissist. This is the person who clearly is “in love” with themselves (or so it appears!). They strut around preening and posing and letting everyone around them know that they think they are superior. They try to surround themselves with other “special” people and are strongly drawn to wealth, power and status. They can be obsessed with their physical appearance, wanting to appear young, sexy and attractive at all times. They can become fixated on small flaws-- a mole, a small fat deposit-- and go to extreme measures to “perfect” themselves. They tend to be immature and may have tantrums. They tend to blame others. Apologizing is not in their wheelhouse. They are competitive and must have the newest, best things. They tend to treat their children as extensions of themselves and want their children to reflect well on them. Their children must be well groomed, well educated, well mannered and they must excel in everything important to the narcissistic parent. They expect everyone around them to adore them and see them as powerful and worthy of worship. They take advantage of others as, clearly, they deserve special favors, status or exceptions to rules. They may exaggerate their accomplishments in order to win approval of others and tend to be envious or assume others are envious of them.
Yes, they are exceedingly annoying to be around. What a lot of people don’t know is that narcissists, the exhibitionistic kind and others, actually don’t love themselves. Quite the contrary, they secretly (and usually unconsciously) deplore themselves. If they were to be able to get in touch with what is going on in the deepest levels of their mind they would see that they loathe themselves and feel inferior, ugly, useless and without value. This is why they have such a strong need to appear the opposite and cannot tolerate any criticism or question of their perfect veneer. They usually had childhoods where their emerging authentic self was not accepted. Typically they had narcissistic parents themselves who needed them to fit into a particular mold rather than be themselves. These parents would often withdraw love or affection as punishment if the child was not acting the way the parent wanted, even if that was as simple as the child having a different favorite color or food from the parent. This kind of rejection of who the child fundamentally is gets stuck deep down as a feeling of being emotionally abandoned. This abandonment feeling is mixed with shame, guilt, loneliness and feelings of emptiness at not having the approval of the parent, but also rage at being rejected. That rage can oscillate between being directed at others, who are seen as the potentially rejecting parents, or at the self in an attempt to kill or harm the “bad” self that the parent rejected. However again the self-loathing is deeply unconscious and usually is not expressed directly but rather projected onto others who are then tortured for their failures. Sadly one way or another if you are around a narcissist you are likely to be the object of their scorn, at least eventually.
All of this inner conflict is not only shoved under the rug with narcissism, it is usually then covered in six feet of steel-reinforced concrete and then buried under a mountain. People around the narcissist rarely see the inner turmoil and the narcissist is almost never aware of it other than a vague sense that other people need to be kept at bay and cannot be trusted. This is the narcissist's fear of being vulnerable and letting anyone get to know them, lest these inner painful wounds come to the surface.
So, if this is the Exhibitionistic Narcissist, what are the other types of narcissism? The flip side, so to speak, of the Exhibitionistic Narcissist is the Closet Narcissist or Fragile Narcissist. These people look on the outside as though they have poor self-esteem. They tend to be self-effacing and anxious and shy away from the spot-light tending to end up in supportive roles (often with an Exhibitionistic Narcissist). They are the “wind beneath the wings” of the more grandiose Exibitionistic style. However, don’t be fooled. These people are still narcissistically organized but are manifesting it differently. Instead of competing in the world directly to be the smartest, best, richest, most powerful, etc. person in the room they want to affiliate with that person. They want to work for them, marry them or be their best friend. They do this so that they can get the feeling of also being important by admiring and supporting the Exibitionistic Narcissist. These people usually had narcissistic parents who would attack them if they tried to “steal the spotlight”. These parents did not want their child to be #1 on the debate team because it made the parents feel inferior. They wanted their children to worship them but at the same time make themselves small so as not to compete with the parent. These kids grow up craving and needing the adoration that the Exhibitionistic Narcissist needs but they go about getting it quite differently. If confronted about possibly being selfish or self-interested they are quick to defend that they “do everything” for the Exhibitionistic Narcissist in their life, not admitting that the reason they are providing all of these “goodies” to the Exhibitionistic Narcisisist is so they can bask in that person’s reflection (which is essentially self-serving). The Closet (or sometimes called Fragile or Covert) Narcissist does not have the inflated defenses of the Exhibitionistic style and therefore is more prone to experiencing envy and low self-esteem that they are painfully aware of. They are also more likely to be depressed and may fail to achieve their potential in life.
Finally there is one more type of narcissistic type-- the Malignant Narcissist. You can think of this person as a cross between Narcissistic pathology and Antisocial Personality Disorder. While the Exhibitionistic Narcissist may be difficult to be around (a “blow-hard” , “egomaniac”, insensitive, etc.) the Malignant Narcissist is dangerous. They are cruel, sadistic, deceptive, manipulative and see themselves as “above the law”. They are likely to commit criminal acts (although if highly intelligent they may never be held accountable). They are often rageful, vengeful and dehumanize those they have contempt for. Your Exhibitionistic Narcissistic uncle may forget to tip a bell hop at the hotel because he is so focused on bragging about how he was upgraded to the penthouse because he knows the owner; but the Malignant Narcissist may spit in the direction of the bell hop and use racially derogative terms to let him know he does not deserve a tip. Or if he feels the bell hop has offended him in some way he may stalk him over the weekend, determine which car in the employee lot is his, and slash his tires. These people are criminally-minded and not only lack empathy but enjoy hurting others. Malignant Narcissists are sometimes called Pathological Narcissists and are definitely the kind of narcissist you need to stay away from at all costs.
If you have a narcissist in your life, and many of us do, it helps first to figure out if they are the Malignant kind. If they are then you really need to protect yourself with strong boundaries. These are predatory people who you cannot trust in any situation. However if you have an Exhibitionistic or Closet narcissist in your life you may choose to continue to have a relationship with them. However you would do wise to understand that they are never going to be great at empathy, are extremely vulnerable to shame and feeling exposed, and are often not self-aware to any degree. Narcissism is actually one of the earliest pathologies to develop (it comes about from problems between the parent and child before the age of 3) and as such it is very difficult to change. Interestingly twin-studies on narcissism show a 64 percent correlation, indicating a strong genetic component. Medications do seem to be helpful for the condition. There are psychotherapies that help narcissists (usually ones that focus on "transference", or the relationship between the therapist and the client). However narcissists rarely seek out therapy. So those in relationship to them shouldn’t hold their breath and it may also be a waste of time trying to confront them. Adjusting your expectations around a narcissist may be the most reliable way to manage the relationship. And it does help to remember that deep down they are just a little kid who feels they cannot be loved for who they truly are.
I hope this information helps make sense of what you may be hearing in the media or over your holiday meals with extended family...
And as always if this information has been helpful or interesting to you please reference it on Twitter, Facebook or any other social media you use. It will help others find good mental health information. And thanks!
As always wishing you peace and happiness,
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.