There may be no more popular put-down in contemporary culture than “narcissist.”In print, online and in social situations, people are falling all over themselves to brand each other narcissists. The funny thing is, narcissistic personality disorder isn’t what they think it is, making it the “ironic” of our day.
No doubt soft definitions of the term abound. I can’t deny a temptation to want to use it liberally as well. When someone cuts me off in traffic, or acts like his take is the only take in a debate, or seems oblivious to his own blow-hard opinions, I want a word with bite, psychological portent, something more than “full of himself.” Still, those who have a conceited moment and those suffering from narcissism as an emotional disorder are two distinct groups. The latter go through something far more dramatic psychologically and are potentially more damaging to those around them.
This problem of distinction is compounded by the fact that narcissistic personality disorder as described by James Masterson in his 1981 ground-breaking text The Narcissistic and Borderline Disorders has been all but completely lost in the sea of people proclaiming anyone who simply exhibits selfishness a narcissist. This confusion is important to clear up because clinical narcissism is far more destructive to those surrounding the afflicted one, and it can be helpful to try and spot it in others to avoid getting entangled with them.
In The Narcissistic and Borderline Disorders, Masterson defines the main characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder as “grandiosity, extreme self-involvement and lack of interest in and empathy for others, in spite of the pursuit of others to obtain admiration and approval.” The first two points remind me of many airline travelers I’ve experienced. The last however goes beyond the normal frustrated commuter and stretches into someone whose lack of empathy borders on cruel. Those suffering from narcissistic personality disorder aren’t just full of themselves; their own emotional needs are so deep and unfillable, they can’t afford to offer approval to anyone else. All affirmation must be for them.
To the narcissist, the world’s job is to reflect back the image she projects. Masterson writes: “The grandiose self-representation is one of being superior, elite, exhibitionistic, with an affect of feeling perfect, special, unique …. When projecting the grandiose self, the patient exhibits his specialness and expects perfect mirroring of his grandiosity and unique perfection.” “Perfect mirroring” is the key phrase here. The narcissist projects his sheen out to the world, a sheen that can be so perfect as to be almost Teflon, and he expects to have this perfection reflected back at him through our validation of him. In other words, those suffering from NPD need to have you see them as perfect, and you need to let them know about it.
This idea differs significantly from the common usage of narcissist in our culture, and I think the confusion stems from the origin of the word, which comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, who famously fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. The narcissist isn’t in love with himself. He’s in love with people seeing him as he wants to be seen, which is entirely different from wanting to stare longingly at your face. The truth is, psychologically, narcissists hate themselves. One could argue someone with NPD is the last person on earth who would get the kind of pleasure the mythical Narcissus gets by looking at himself in the pool.
For this reason, the person with NPD must keep you from seeing her perceived ugliness, and she does so by projecting an image out into the world as put-together, happy, intelligent, powerful, successful, just about any attribute seen as universally positive. Naturally, people notice, and many project it back. “Isn’t Gale amazing? Not only is she the leader of the sales department, she also jogs six miles a day, wrote her husband an epic poem for their anniversary, studies the pottery of ancient Greece, and still has time on the weekend to dish out food for the homeless.” When the NPD sufferer gets this self-image reflected back to her, things are as they ought to be (for the moment). When she doesn’t, her world gets very uncomfortable.
The disorder becomes clearer when knowing how theorists believe NPD develops in a person. One theory, according to Masterson, is that it takes root during what’s called the rapprochement subphase of one’s infancy, roughly 15-22 months old. Once a child learns to walk, he comes to know a level of experience henceforth unfathomed. The child’s world is much bigger and more appealing now, but not without the drawback of separation from his mother. Learning that his mother is not at his beck and call—is indeed an entirely separate person—makes the child deal with his new world in a new way. Masterson writes, “the world is not his oyster and … he must cope with it on his own.”
Enter humility. Again Masterson: “In this manner the infantile fantasies of grandiosity and omnipotence are brought into accord with reality.” He learns to live in the real world, where the mother is not there to validate him in every instance.
So, what would happen if something went wrong during this subphase of development? Say, the child never quite establishes her separateness from her mother and continues to expect motherly attention and protection from the world much later in life; indeed, is entitled to it. That, so the theory goes, is a description of someone with NPD.
No one knows why most infants have a successful rapprochement phase and others don’t. Theories range from issues relating to having a manipulative mother to those from having a narcissistic father. The end result is a person who never learns to adjust to a reality where the mother is not in a sort of dual unity with him, and when the world treats him un-glowingly, he’s forced to deny or ignore that aspect of the world. Masterson: “[One with NPD] is compelled to suffer the cost to adaptation that is always involved when large segments of reality must be denied.”
I’ll never forget a run-in I had with someone I believe suffered from NPD. It was in a creative writing class in San Francisco. On the first day, six or eight students were sitting in desks arranged in a semi-circle. The class had been going for about ten minutes when a woman walked in. She was attractive, in her twenties or early thirties, and asked the instructor if she could be in the class. The instructor told her there weren’t any openings, but should one become available she would be allowed in next week. The woman pleaded to be allowed to stay, claiming she’d gotten a babysitter for her child (even though she hadn’t signed up) and very much wanted to study under the instructor. The instructor agreed to let her stay.
The next week, the instructor started class by having us all free-write on a given topic. (I can’t remember the topic, but let’s say it was water.) We took five or ten minutes to write something compelling about water, and then the instructor asked us to read our pieces aloud, asking the woman to go first. The woman explained that she’d brought a piece from home she’d rather read instead. The instructor looked confused but agreed. The woman stood up and proceeded to read a piece that was very polished, quite lovely, and had nothing whatever to do with water. I’ll always remember her smiling as she read, feeling that rush we feel when reading something aloud we think is good. When she finished, she sat down and looked as though she waited for the praise that was sure to rain down upon her.
Nobody said anything. The instructor seemed miffed, and so did the rest of the class. One classmate mumbled something about the imagery in the piece, and then the next person read his piece.
You could see the confusion borne in the woman by the lack of response. She didn’t quite know how to take people more or less dismissing her, and as we discussed others’ pieces, she seemed obsessed with wanting to turn the conversation into something she could handle. I think most of the people in the room realized we were dealing with someone who—despite on the surface being very together—wasn’t quite all there.
My guess is, this woman couldn’t stand the idea of actually reading something like a free writing exercise aloud—which might not be perfect—so she read the finished piece instead. Any disrespect of the instructor or her classmates was secondary to the need to present herself as superior. The woman eventually cancelled out of the class. The instructor said she mentioned home issues as the reason she couldn’t come anymore. I don’t doubt her home life was complicated.
I think everyone would like some recognition for the work they do, but can you imagine needing to be perceived as perfect in every instance? What kind of personality would result from that? Quite often an extremely successful one! Narcissists in our society are people who excel at much of what they do. (If they didn’t, they wouldn’t do it.) They’re often CEOs, politicians, entertainment moguls, world leaders; in short, people who run things. Their decisions can affect large swathes of the public, and their motivations are always about getting and maintaining control of the perception of themselves.
Which is why understanding the difference between narcissism as a bad moment and a clinical disorder is so important. If the people who are making decisions in our society are motivated largely by the unfillable cup of their own self-worth, what does that mean about the soundness of their decisions? What if a politician is thinking only about remaining popular as opposed to doing right by his constituents? What if an academic quotes a trendy philosopher not because of the soundness of the philosopher’s ideas but because he’s obsessed with looking hip? What if a military leader recommends we attack a country not because of the threat that country poses but because he needs to “appear tough”? These decisions are often vital to those affected. It can be the difference between life and death, and all to try and appease someone who can’t be appeased.
In 2010, in a move that surprised many in the field of psychology, narcissistic personality disorder was slated to be removed from the next edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard manual of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States. (In 2011, NPD was re-slated for inclusion with changes to its definition.) The reasons cited for this potential removal seem reasonable. Still, I can’t help but find something sinister in it. If people in power aren’t comfortable with being labeled as suffering from an emotional disorder, what quicker path to sanity than simply removing the designation? After all, if you’re suffering with NPD, if no one knows you have a problem, you don’t have one.
About the Review
ART EDWARDS’s third novel, Badge (2014), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Literary Contest. His second novel, Ghost Notes won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, has been made into a feature film. His writing has or will appear in The Writer, Salon, The Los Angeles Review, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, Bartleby Snopes, Pear Noir!, The Rumpus, The Weeklings and The Nervous Breakdown.