We Need to Talk About Narcissism
Nowadays narcissism is a term familiar to all of us, with numerous articles and blog posts tossing around the term, and many people claiming they have been victims of narcissistic abuse.
The easiness with which the term is used may sometimes reflect a degree of ignorance, which is why it is important to set things straight about what narcissism actually is.
The focus of today’s blog post is shedding light on what narcissism is, as well as the different types of narcissism.
What is narcissism?
The term got its name from Narcissus, an Ancient Greek mythology figure. Narcissus was a very handsome and charming young guy who had a very high esteem of himself. Others would often be entranced by his beauty and fall in love with him.
Myth has it that Narcissus would cause great pain to the ones adoring him, or even had made them commit suicide to prove their devotion to him.
The gods finally decided to punish his vanity and lack of compassion, so they caused him to fall in love with his own reflection in a lake, and eventually kill himself, as he could never truly possess the object of his desire.
The well-known yellow flower was the only thing that was left behind, after his body disappeared into the water.
Narcissus thus gave the name to the set of personality traits that reflect:
an excessive fixation with oneself
a grandiosity and sense of entitlement about oneself
an increased self-admiration to the degree of self-absorption
and the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s idealized self-image and attributes.
Therefore, narcissism is a set of personality traits or a personality type.
Personality traits exist on a spectrum. With regards to narcissism, on one side of the spectrum exists healthy self-confidence and self-esteem, while on the far end of the spectrum exists narcissistic personality disorder.
What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the essential features of a personality disorder are both impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) and the presence of pathological personality traits.
For NPD, the following criteria must apply:
A. Significant impairment in personality functioning
1. Impairments in self functioning (a and/or b)
Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation
Exaggerated self-appraisal may vacillate between extremes
Emotional regulation is mirrored by fluctuations in self-esteem
Goals are based on gaining approval from others
Personal standards are unreasonably high in order for the Self to be perceived as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement (“I am better than everyone else anyway”)
2. Significant impairment in interpersonal functioning (a and/or b)
Impaired ability to recognize the feelings and needs of others
though they are excessively attuned to the reactions of others if perceived relevant to themselves
they may under- or overestimate the effect they have on others
Superficial relationships existing to serve self-esteem regulation
Mutuality in relationships constrained by little genuine interest in others’ experiences
The need for personal gain is predominant in relationships
B. Pathological personality traits:
1. Antagonism characterized by:
-feelings of entitlement
-strongly believing they are better than others, and may be condescending towards others
-excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of attention of others
-need for admiration
Enough with the psych-jargon for now! I just wanted to give you a thorough insight into textbook NPD.
Even with all of this said, since personality disorders exist on a continuum, we are bound to have different degrees and types of narcissism.
The literature is abundant with all sorts of different classifications, but today we will focus on a few, more prominent of those.
Prosocial and Antisocial Narcissism
If you look at the criteria above, you may realize that the combinations of those do not necessarily result in an evil narcissist that only aims to harm others (which is the popular belief of what a narcissist is).
Although the common ground is the view of the Self as better and superior to others, the degree of interpersonal functioning determines whether a narcissistic person is “good” for others, or “bad”.
This may come as a surprise to some, but prosocial narcissism does exist!
Prosocial narcissists get their gratification from appearing great to others and exhibiting their positive accomplishments. This feeds their idealized self-image, grandiosity, and need for attention and admiration. These people do want to be the good guys. For instance, think of charity, community service and great deeds for minority groups, the great givers and saviors of our world, or great thinkers and doers that want to promote good and help to others, and be recognized for it.
The motivation may still be intrinsic, but prosocial narcissists do not inflict harm on others. Their relationships may be shallow, but they need to appear as good and exquisite human beings that others look up to admire.
They need this to feel validated and appreciated, and this need is fed by the appraisals others have of them. Not only do they want to do good, but they want to be seen and recognized for it. They want to earn credit for adding value to other people’s lives, so they are prone to show off.
Antisocial narcissists, on the other hand, have all the textbook characteristics of narcissism but also want to impose on others and exert power and control in any way possible. They are “takers”, exploitative and manipulative with often sinister motives. The significant factor between prosocial and antisocial narcissism is a lower interpersonal functioning, manifesting with low empathy and ability to develop intimacy.
Three main subtypes of Narcissism
Aside from prosocial and antisocial narcissism, three main subtypes are further distinguished:
1. Exhibitionist/ Grandiose/ Overt Narcissism
There are many names to describe this classical category of narcissism. Exhibitionist narcissism is what really comes to mind, when the term “narcissism” is mentioned.
Maybe you have such people in your life, and they are not necessarily evil and mean- though they are likely annoying after a certain point, when you realize how incredibly self-absorbed they really are.
Your average exhibitionist narcissist is hungry for attention and validation, craves to be admired by others, and is often openly arrogant. They think they are always right, and have a very black-and-white way of thinking about others and the world, often unable to accept any different opinion or view than the one they hold.
They want to be admired, and often appear as charming and pompous. They want to be the center of attention, dominate conversations or make sure to make them “all about them”.
They may enjoy appearing as the hero, brag about their accomplishments, and often have great stories to share, that they like to present in such a way, to ensure the flow of attention and admiration from others remains constant.
They have a high sense of entitlement for special treatment from others, and want to appear great, perfect, unique and highly appreciated at all times.
Since they gain validation and approval from the outside all the time, narcissists actually have a fragile sense of Self. If someone challenges them or criticizes them, they can get very defensive and even devaluing, in order to protect their ego.
They may be critical and devaluing of others in “underground” ways, not so directly visible from the outside. However this devaluing of anyone that dares to challenge them or criticize them is just a reflection of how fragile they are on the inside.
The pompous, charming, arrogant and highly confident appearance of them is just a façade that can be damaged quite easily.
Yet they are not necessarily toxic and abusive to others, at least not in direct ways. They are manipulative and can be contemptuous of others, if they consider them a threat to their self-image.
2. Toxic / Malignant Narcissism
The toxic or malignant narcissist is essentially an exhibitionist narcissist that fulfils all of the above characteristics, but they are also mean, and intend to cause harm to others.
The lack of empathy and impairment in intimacy is much more prominent for toxic narcissists. It is theorized that this subtype of narcissist may also fulfil criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder.
When you hear narcissistic abuse, then most of the times a toxic narcissist is the perpetrator.
Toxic narcissists are not content with just being the center of attention; they want to dominate, control and for others to submit to them, at all costs- often by instilling fear to others.
A defining aspect of toxic narcissism is hostility, anger and aggression. They intend to ridicule, belittle, bully, humiliate and criticize others as a mean to exert and maintain their sense of control and superiority to others. There is no empathy and often no remorse or guilt, once they’ve hurt someone.
This is especially so if they feel challenged and criticized by somebody else. Even if you were their friend till that moment, you crossed a boundary and deserve to be punished for it. They will not hesitate to employ any way possible to make you feel guilty and regret ever daring to doubt them. For a malignant narcissist, the end always justifies the means, and it may be impossible to get an apology, if they have hurt you.
Toxic narcissists may be unable to form intimate relationships with others, and may respond poorly to therapy too. If you think you may be or have been in a toxic relationship, it is likely this was with a malignant narcissist.
If you think you have a malignant narcissist in your life, you’re really better off by keeping a safe distance, or really run to the hills. And never look back.
3. Vulnerable / Covert Narcissism
Covert narcissists may be hard to recognize, because they are quiet and introverted. That’s why they are also called “closet” narcissists.
In contrast to overt narcissism, that is loud, extroverted, and exhibitionist, the covert types keep to themselves quite a lot, and don’t shout out their beliefs of how supreme they feel they are. But they still hold those beliefs.
They also have an exaggerated self-image and believe they are superior to others; they just keep quiet about it. They may often appear as chronically victimized or martyrs that do a lot for others, and may act much more passive-aggressively than the outward assertive or aggressive way of the other types mentioned above.
Deep inside, they are also very vulnerable to criticism and others’ approval and appraisals. They believe they are always entitled to more attention than they ever get from others. In case of failure, they have an external locus of control, reflected by the core belief “No-one really understands and can appreciate my excellence and uniqueness. I am too great for this world, which fails to recognize my brilliance”.
Therefore, when they fail at something, they protect their ego by not being accountable and thus placing responsibility outside of them. "It's always the others' fault, not me".
They are emotionally sensitive and more vulnerable and fragile than the other types, but not necessarily empathic. They may hold very contemptuous and condescending attitudes towards others, and behave critically too, when challenged.
Narcissism is a set of personality traits, that appear on a spectrum.
Therefore it makes sense that different types of narcissism do exist.
Today we discussed prosocial and antisocial narcissism as two broad categories depending on whether harm is inflicted to others.
We also discussed the three main subtypes of narcissism: Exhibitionist, Toxic and Vulnerable.
The scope of this blog post is purely informative. It aims to educate and inform on different types of narcissism, and give you food for thought.
If you see yourself or a loved one reflected on one of those types, it may be a good idea to seek therapy and process it further.