“Narcissist” has become the insult of choice for many of us caught on the wrong side of arrogance, self-absorption or monotonous bragging. But is someone a narcissist just because they’re conceited and we don’t much like them?
Officially, narcissists are those excessively preoccupied with themselves. They are unable to respond to the needs of others, and do not understand the effects of their behaviour on other people.
Narcissistic personality disorder is the most extreme version of the condition, but people may also display narcissistic traits.
Sadly, it is the partners of narcissists who bear the brunt: an initially overwhelmingly charming “life of the party” character turns out to need romantic relationships mainly to reflect back their grandiosity and self-obsession. A deeper connection is elusive, and where children are involved, effective co-parenting proves just about impossible.
The first Narcissist
Narcissus was the handsome sixteen-year-old star of Greek mythology, who rejected the nymph Echo. As a punishment for his cruelty, Narcissus was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.
Unable to consummate his love, he pined away and changed into the flower that bears his name to this day. These days, I suppose we can assume with a strong degree of certainty that he’d be happily locked up in his bedroom on Instagram.
In psychology, a difference is made between primary and secondary narcissism. Primary narcissism is seen as a natural and necessary stage of a child’s development: when the baby learns a clear sense of their own identity, to love themselves, before learning to love anyone else.
Secondary narcissism, however, is the self love which prevents meaningful relationships with others.In the seventies, post-Freudian psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut identified a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) to describe patients with grandiose self-importance, who fly into fits of rage at every knock to their self-esteem. Other traits include:
Pre-occupation with fantasies or unlimited success, power or brilliance.
The belief that they are special and can only be understood or appreciated by other high-status people.
Envy of others or a belief that others are envious.
Lack of empathy and unwillingness or inability to consider other people’s feelings.
A sense of entitlement
The need for admiration
It is generally estimated, though, that only about one percent of the population experience full-blown NPD. These are the people who will need extensive therapeutic support to build happy, functional lives.
How to help someone with narcissistic traits
If you are worried that you or your partner have NPD, you are likely to need the support of an experienced therapist.
For many of us, though, it feels like more of a grey area. Where does a positive self-image end and narcissism begin? If we’re being truly honest, isn’t there just a hint of the diva in all of us?
Psychologists have tried to wrestle with this problem, and talk of ‘healthy narcissism’ to distinguish proper self-respect from over-valuing yourself. We probably walk this tightrope on a daily basis.
In my opinion, the problem arises when being conceited is married with low self-esteem. These people are often very successful but underplay their achievements, because in their words, ‘it was all too easy’.
The perfect recipe for misery is discounting your triumphs and beating yourself up for what is yet to be achieved.
What should you do if this sounds familiar? Find someone whose judgement you trust to talk over the past and discover a better sense of proportion. Next look again at your goals and:
Concentrate on the ones which are truly important.
Set out a realistic path with small, manageable steps, starting with where you are today. Write everything down.
In the future if self-doubt returns, there will be concrete evidence of how far you’ve travelled.
Narcissim and modern dating
There is nowhere that narcissism comes more to the fore than modern dating. Narcissists take good care of themselves, are outgoing and, at least on the surface, really believe in themselves.
They are likely to have serial relationships, and to love the passion and chemistry of the early stages of a relationship, so they are almost certainly over-represented on all the popular apps and dating programmes you’ll find.
They are easy to fall for, but in the longer term, narcissists make terrible partners, because ultimately they can only love themselves. If you’ve found yourself falling for a whole string of these men or women, it is tempting to place all the blame on them.
However, take a look at your motives too. Subconsciously, we choose dates who have qualities we are lacking: almost as if we hope some of their confidence will rub off on us. The irony is, of course, that they do just the opposite.
If you’re repeatedly drawn to the drama, the aura of success and the superficial extreme enjoyment of life that narcissists can project, it is important to ask whether you might be missing some of these qualities in your own life.
You’ll be a long way ahead if you can work on finding meaning and fulfilment for yourself, rather than allowing yourself to be enmeshed again in the unproductive drama of the narcissist.
In other news, I’ve been working hard over summer recording new podcast episodes. My interview with Georgina Scull, author of Regrets of the Dying, has been a big hit.
You’ll probably not be surprised to find that when it comes down to it, it is NOT career goals, the perfect body or a bigger house that people wish they’d spent more time chasing. You can catch the interview here or take a look at the book here.
As always, if it feels like the right time to start marital therapy, send an email to Tricia (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a virtual or in-person appointment with one of my team of therapists in London, or with me here in Berlin.
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