Sunday, 25 Nov 2018
Understanding Narcissism: The Many Faces of Deceit
By Dr Becky Spelman
Everyone nowadays is familiar with the term narcissist, but not so much its roots. The word originates from Greek mythology and refers to Narcissus, famed for his incredible beauty, who one day, looking to admire his reflection in a body of water found he was unable to turn away. He remained, fixated with his image until he eventually withered and died. Thus, his name endures as a reference for extreme self-regard.
In the modern world, understanding narcissism has become increasingly difficult, due to its use as a byword for someone who might otherwise be described as having a healthy sense of self-worth. This is partly due to its use on reality T.V shows, ushering it into the lexicon of pop psychology, leading to its frequent misuse. The term has become devalued, applied too liberally and out of context in many cases.
The truth is though, narcissism as a whole does encompass, and in some way apply to many of our personalities. However, as with all things in life, it doesn’t conform to definite shades of black and white. It operates on a spectrum, and as such, there are multiple shades of grey to contend with.
So what is it exactly? Let’s take a look at some definitions.
Narcissism can be defined as, ‘extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.’ It can also be characterised as a ‘self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects,’ or, in other words, assigning too much of one’s identity to the acquisition of material wealth. A third and final definition cites ‘an excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance,’ as in the example of Narcissus.
The Narcissistic Scale
You can divide narcissism roughly into three levels of severity. These are:
Healthy Narcissism – This tag can be a little misleading, and where much of the confusion surrounding the trait compared to the condition can take root. ‘Healthy Narcissism,’ isn’t really narcissism at all in the way it is traditionally presented. It refers to having a healthy ego, positive self-image and the ability to function in society. Someone fitting this description is still capable of caring about others and displaying empathy while looking after their own interests. They might be a little larger than life, but you’d generally expect them to be good-hearted individuals.
A Narcissist Personality Type – Sitting somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, are those who display narcissistic traits, but are not necessary full-blown or pathological narcissists. This type of person may be the sort that many of us know; self-centred, obnoxious and vain with little to no regard for others. But they’re what you might consider a high-functioning narcissist; what they’re experiencing isn’t a mental illness. It’s more akin to a personality defect. The difference between this person and someone with a diagnosis of NPD, is, they probably still have the self-awareness to change – if they wanted to.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) – On the far end of the spectrum lies the pathological narcissist, where the need for attention and validation is such it’s impaired the personality from functioning correctly. These are the rare case’s, accounting for 0.5-1% of the population, which is still a sizable number, relatively speaking. Owing to the reduced capacity to rationalise, and sense of superiority that characterises NPD, getting someone to admit they have a condition that requires treatment can be hard to initiate.
There also exist a number of personality types that define the condition. The common assumption is that narcissism is an absolute with no variables, when, in fact, there are multiple ways in which it can manifest.
Grandiose – The classic type of narcissist we defer to when making generalisations about the subject; arrogant, ego-driven and forever seeking the attention of others. The defining trait that underpins all their actions is one of superiority. As such, they can often be found in positions of leadership, due to their dominant personalities, and ruthless decision-making. However, what serves them as a strength is also their greatest weakness. This archetype might attain positions of authority, but they rarely make great leaders, due to their inability to listen.
Although outwardly, they might appear to be confidence personified, the truth is this exterior hides an acute insecurity. As their character is the result of an idealised or false construct, they require the continued validation of others to maintain this act. They’re the type of person that will listen to everyone’s point of view and then do exactly what they wanted to do in the first place. The grandiose personality ultimately has no shame and will seek to discredit anyone whom they don’t see as giving them the respect they feel is their right.
Malignant – Although it’s still regarded more as a hypothetical diagnosis of narcissism, the malignant archetype is one that is not all that hard to define or recognise. It is characterised by a mixture of NPD, antisocial disorder and heightened states of emotion, – namely aggression – contributing to an extremely volatile personality. Malignant narcissists find hostility comes quite natural to them, and is often their first resort, whether it takes the form of physical, mental or emotional abuse.
Social psychologist Erich Fromm, who first coined the term, described it as a “severe mental illness,” and “a disturbing form of narcissist personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of becoming self-idealised.” This type of behaviour is often present in those at the centre of dysfunctional relationships. They’re known for creating rifts within social circles and are capable of lying, cheating and stealing, should it serve them. In some ways, malignant narcissists could be considered borderline psychopathic.
Covert – Covert Narcissists are much harder to recognise, and for good reason. As the name suggests, they come across as being extremely authentic. The central theme of this archetype is of the victimised ego. They are in no doubt about their greatness, but not in the same manner that typifies a grandiose narcissist. The feeling is always that they’ve been cheated out of the success they’re due, acting as though the world owes them a favour. They can be so convincing in their assertions they could be mistaken as suffering from depression.
It can be hard to discern whether you’re in the company of a covert narcissist, but there are several tells in which they give themselves away. The first is never taking ownership of their mistakes; they will always look to find blame elsewhere. The second is their passive aggressiveness. For example, if you were to get a promotion at work, they might congratulate you, but do so by saying something like, ‘I’m really happy for you; I’ve been working to work my way up the ladder for years. It must be so much easier to get promotions as your place.’
Communal – Similar to the covert personality, you might be oblivious to the presence of the communal type. Their particular drama is seeking the recognition that comes with charitable work. The issue with this form of narcissism is the intention is less about the people they’re ‘serving,’ and more about how much credit they can garner by association. They might appear to do a lot, and they may, in fact, help many people. But it is a side effect of their search for validation. If you were to point this out to someone, you may be accused of cynicism, but true goodness works quietly and asks for nothing in return.
The life of the communal narcissist, as with all archetypes is all about the creation and portrayal of a narrative. While engaged in an act of service, you will never see them looking natural or caught in the moment; everything will be stage-managed. They will always be looking immaculate, as part of their elaborate PR stunt. There are no genuine feelings of empathy towards those they’re ‘helping.’ An example of this type of behaviour is characterised by politicians during elections, knocking on doors with a full camera crew in tow. It’s a self-serving act, designed only to benefit they agenda by appearing empathic towards others.
***If you suspect you’re suffering at the hands of a narcissist, and are unsure of how to approach the situation, one of our specialists would happy to provide you will an initial consultation to determine how best to assist you.