NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY DISORDER
by: Dr. Maria Hsia Chang, Professor, Political Science, University of Nevada, Reno
In psychology, personality disorders refer to individual traits that reflect ingrained,
inflexible, and maladaptive patterns of behavior that cause discomfort and impair a
person’s ability to function--including her relations with friends and family. At least ten distinct personality disorders have been identified, one of which is the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) that the American Psychological Association (APA) classifies as a “cluster B” disorder. NPD is a highly complex psychological-behavioral syndrome that confounds and baffles those close to the afflicted. Once understood, however, one achieves clarity of vision. Socio-biologists maintain that narcissism is natural for both individuals and groups because self-love is an instinctive, natural-selection trait. That is why all children are narcissists. As individuals mature into adulthood, however, they become less narcissistic because their insecurity tends to diminish as a result of concrete achievements and successes. A certain degree of healthy self-love nevertheless continues into adulthood. It is when narcissism in adults is excessive that psychologists consider it to be a sign of immaturity or worse, a pathology--that of narcissistic personality disorder.
Although the phenomenon of excessive narcissism is as old as humanity, the formal
diagnosis of NPD was made by the APA only as recently as 1990. The following list of traits comes from the APA’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by 5 or more of the following:
• Has a grandiose sense of self-importance.
• Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
• Believes that she is “special” & unique & can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions.
• Requires excessive admiration.
• Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with her expectations.
• Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve her own ends.
• Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings & needs of others.
• Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of her.
• Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
In addition to the above, I’ve compiled the following, after having read, assimilated, and synthesized a great deal of the literature on this subject. Instead of the typical approach taken by the psychological literature on NPD--which describes the disorder as a syndrome of various attributes--what I attempt to do here is to uncover the central logic that accounts for the syndrome. In the following description of the NPD syndrome, I use the pronoun “she” to refer to the narcissist, for the sake of avoiding the cumbersome “he/she” and “ his/her.” The psychological literature, however, claims that male NPDs outnumber females. The literature also claims that the incidence of NPD is relatively rare, afflicting an estimated 1% of the population. Both of these claims, however, are not verified by my own personal experiences. The problem, as the psychological literature itself admits, is that the very nature of NPD prevents narcissists from admitting they have a problem and to seek professional help. As psychiatrist M. Scott Peck explains: “To receive treatment one must want it, at least on some level. And to want it one must consider oneself to be in need of it. One must, at least on some level, acknowledge his or her imperfection.”i
The few narcissists who do seek therapy, do so when their narcissism has led to a major life crisis, such as divorce, drug addiction, unemployment, and imprisonment. Even when NPDs seek counseling, they typically do not complete the course of psychotherapy. Instead, when the therapist confronts them with their pathological narcissism, the NPD would simply abandon treatment and flee. Given this, I have every reason to conclude that the statistics claimed in the literature are suspect. The simple truth, I believe, is that psychologists don’t really know how many NPDs there are in the population, nor do they really know that male NPDs outnumber females.
The NPD Syndrome
At the core of the NPD syndrome is the construction of a false self as a way to cope with the external world by compensating for the individual’s feelings of insecurity and uncertainty of identity.. Like its namesake, the mythic Narcissus who is in love with his reflection in water, the self that the narcissist loves is not her real self, but a false self that is grandiose, perfect, and superior. The particular basis of the grandiosity is what the narcissist loves herself for. That varies according to the individual, and may be physical beauty, intellect, talent, power, etc. As a consequence, psychologists divide narcissists into two types: the somatic and the cerebral. The former are those whose narcissism is focused on their bodies; the latter are those who have a grandiose conception that they have a superior intellect. I would add a third type: the spiritual narcissist. These are those who ooze with false piety, having a false conception of themselves as supremely virtuous. Regardless of the particular basis of grandiosity, the narcissist strives to maintain and protect that false self at all costs. In effect, the grandiose false self acts like the enter of a wheel, to which are affixed the spokes. The latter are the syndromatic attributes of NPD, which function to protect and maintain the grandiose false self. The constellation of attributes is not accidental because there is a functional reason for the various attributes. This is the underlying logic that accounts for the syndrome. Together with the APA’s DSM IV criteria, those “spokes” may constitute a particularly malignant form of narcissism. They include the following attributes:
• Using people—even supposed loved ones—as tools of self-aggrandisement to affirm and maintain the false self. The narcissist is hollow inside and derives her sense-of self from seeing her reflection in the eyes of others. The psychological literature calls this “mirroring”: the narcissist mainly uses other people as a mirror to reflect her grandiose self-conception. Like a vampire who must feed on others’ blood in order to live, the narcissist feeds on other people’s love, approval, admiration, and compliments. Once the source is sucked dry, the narcissist no longer has use of that person and will abruptly and mercilessly cast him/her aside.
• To lure people into her web, the successful narcissist puts on an attractive social mask. She can be charming, gracious, socially adept, even obsequious. She must also be a consummate actor, skilled at simulating the whole range of human emotions, especially those of love, compassion, and kindness. The more successful she is at simulation, the greater her circle of friends and acquaintances who function as her primary and secondary feeding sources.
• More than to lure people into her web, the narcissist’s charming social mask also conceals the false self from scrutiny. Concealment requires secrecy, evasion, dishonesty, and lying. In effect, the narcissist is a consummate pathological liar, i.e., she habitually lies, even about seemingly trivial, inconsequential matters.
• Using other people as her “bloodbank” requires that the narcissist be a human emotional radar. The successful narcissist is psychologically astute and shrewd so that she can “size up” everyone she encounters for their potential to be her blooddonor.
• Cynically using other people also requires that the narcissist be lacking in empathy.
Do not be fooled by her simulations at empathy. A good experiment is for you to withhold your approval and compliments. You will discover that, overnight, the narcissist has lost her kindness and even simple civility.
• The maintenance and protection of the false self also requires the narcissist to be constantly vigilant against being “attacked” by others. This is why the narcissist overreacts with rage and humiliation to any perceived criticism, no matter how minor or trivial the perceived criticism.
• As the saying goes, “the best defense is offense.” More than reacting with rage to criticisms, the narcissist attacks the critic. This is called scapegoating--projecting one’s own faults (what Carl Jung called our “shadow”) onto another person, and blaming the other for the narcissist’s own inadequacies. The narcissist is very skilled at this.
• The false self must be impervious, which requires the narcissist to resist self examination and introspection. Doing so would open the narcissist to reality-based assessment--a dangerous undertaking because the false self is, by definition, unreal. As a consequence, instead of the insecurities of normal human beings, the narcissist exhibits an impassive and uncritical acceptance of herself.
• The inability or unwillingness to be introspective, in turn, results in cognitive dissonance, cognitive gaps, and non sequiturs. Trying to engage a narcissist in serious dialogue--especially about herself or her beliefs and values--can be a disconcerting experience because nothing she says makes sense.
• Since the false self is superior and grandiose, it needs no one. The narcissist dreads becoming dependent on others, but asserts and clings to an exaggerated independence. Since her love of herself is all-consuming, she is incapable of love and emotional commitments to other people. This is why the narcissist reacts to sincere declarations of love (verbal or in the form of behavior, such as significant gifts) by emotionally distancing herself and, in some cases, outright abandonment--because she is unable to reciprocate that commitment.
• In effect, the narcissist’s grandiose self-conception makes her a god unto herself. Gods are not subject to the morality that governs lesser beings--“rules don’t apply to me.” The narcissist refuses to subscribe to society’s moral rules and ethical standards. Instead, morality is subjective: “Nobody can judge me.” One NPD I know exhibited this trait when she blithely received the Holy Eucharist (believed by Catholics to be the actual body of Christ) in Mass--although she is not Catholic! Another NPD, a former student of mine, responded with rage to my critique of his essay-exam, which garnered a respectable “B” grade, insisting that he was not subject to the grammatical rules of the English language.
• Lacking an abstract universal system of moral codes--and being cognitively impaired-the narcissist lives in a world of feelings and sensations: “What’s good is that which makes me feel good.” Narcissists tend to wallow in cheap “feel good” sentiments.
• Since the false self is grandiose and perfect, relationship problems are never the fault of the narcissist. She blames everyone, but herself.
• This also means that narcissists do not ever apologize or admit that they are wrong or at fault. Instead, they will always subtly, if not blatantly, turn things around to blame you.
• All of this means that narcissists do not, as a rule, seek therapy. In the few cases that do, it is because their problems have become so serious that they cannot be ignored (e.g., divorce, drug abuse, job loss, imprisonment). Even then, the narcissist resists therapy and is likely to blame the therapist (scapegoating!) and flee from treatment.
How to Deal With a Narcissist
• The first rule is: Give up on your fantasy that you have an authentic relationship with the narcissist. Sadly, the person you think you love/like never existed.
• The second rule is: Don’t be a bloodbank for the narcissist.
• The third rule is: Be emotionally detached.
• The fourth rule is: If you must interact with her, challenge the narcissist’s false conceptions of herself by insisting on reality-based assessment. Doing so, however, is guaranteed to alienate you from the narcissist--which is a good thing because the narcissist is incapable of genuine friendship and love. In the last analysis, you are better off without the narcissist.
• If, unfortunately, you must have her in your life because your survival depends on her, as in the case of a child needing the narcissistic mother’s care, the way to get along with her is to feed her fantasies by lavishing compliments on her, i.e., by letting yourself be her bloodbank.
Why Pathological Narcissism is a Spiritual Disorder
A fifth-century theologian who called himself Dionysius the Aereopagite once wrote in The Divine Names that, “The denial of the true Self is a declension from Truth.”ii In the last analysis, in constructing and clinging to their false selves, the entire persona of the NPD is a big lie. That being so, I have come to believe that NPD is not a psychological disorder at all, but a moral and spiritual disorder. Allow me to explain.
An intrinsic attribute of the NPD syndrome is deception--of oneself and of others--in the service of maintaining the grandiose false self. Philosopher René Descartes wrote that “willful deception evinces maliciousness and weakness.”iii A person does not deceive without thinking about and willing it. One does not lie unless one intends to hide the truth, which means that one knows that one is being deceptive. Nor can the NPD put together and maintain the elaborate and intricate NPD syndrome of attributes (e.g., using others for self-aggrandisement, attractive social mask, secrecy, evasion, lying, scapegoating, etc.) without conscious effort. Psychologists say that, in their quiet moments, NPDs know that they are not really as grandiose as they pretend.iv When NPDs cynically use others to “feed” their false self, they know it. When they overreact to perceived criticisms, they know what the truth is. When they lie to conceal their inadequacies, they have chosen to deceive. When they scapegoat others, they do so with deliberation. And when they refuse to apologize, they know they are in the wrong. All of which means that free will is fully engaged in this so-called “disorder.” In effect, the NPD is more than a mental sickness. Pathological narcissism is not some noxious virus or bacteria that overtakes a person. Whatever the early childhood experiences, free will is still operative here. Rather, NPD is a moral disorder, because it is immoral to lie and to use, exploit, blame, and hurt others. More than immoral, NPD is, at its foundation, a spiritual blight. Since the false self of the narcissist is extremely grandiose, she excludes herself from the moral norms that govern “lesser” beings: “rules don’t apply to me.” That makes NPDs their own gods. In so doing, they are in denial of the fundamentally flawed nature of all human beings. The malignant narcissist is more than immoral, she is evil. In his book, People of the Lie, Peck proposed to the psychological profession a new diagnostic category of the “evil personality disorder” (EPD) as a sub-type of NPD. As he put it, “The evil are ‘the people of the lie,’ deceiving others as they also build layer upon layer of self-deception.” And when the narcissist intentionally hurts another, she has crossed the line from being an NPD to being an EPD. In Peck’s words, “evil individuals will flee self-examination and guilt by blaming and attempting to destroy whatever or whoever highlights their deficiencies.”v
Except for atheists (who must be very grandiose because they claim to know a negative, i.e., that God does not exist),vi all of us--the religious as well as agnostics--believe in the existence of some supreme moral being or force in the universe. Recognizing that, most of us harken to these words of Descartes: “I have been so constituted as to be some kind of middle ground between God and nothing . . . . [A]s I am not the supreme being, I lack quite a few things.”vii Dionysius the Areopagite concluded that being self-centered is “inherently wrong” because we have “no right to be the centre of things” as only God is the rightful center of all things.viii
Not only is vanity and pride the first of the Seven Deadly Sins, I believe that narcissism is the root of all evil. Decrying the ills that he saw rampant in modern society--the relativization of all moral norms and the reduction of life to the immediate pursuit of material gain without regard to its general consequences--VaÇlav Havel observed that “Given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity will have to go through many more Rwandas and Chernobyls before it understands how unbelievably short-sighted a human being can be who has forgotten that he is not God.” It is the misdiagnosis of pathological narcissism as a “personality disorder” instead of a moral-spiritual condition which accounts for psychiatrists’ characterization of it as “one of the most . . . difficult-to-treat conditions in the lexicon of mental illness.”ix
Copyright® 2002. Last updated: January 3, 2004.