A lot of people are talking about narcissism these days. But what are they talking about? What is narcissism, really? What does it mean?
Narcissism in lay psychology terms is a way of thinking, relating, and being in the world that is trapped in selfishness, self-centeredness, and self-absorption. It is a form of arrested development. Narcissists are chronically immature. They never grew up inside. A certain part of their brain never developed the capacity to relate to others as whole people, to see others as worthy and complex in their own right (beyond superficiality), to really love others in reciprocal, mutual, and personality enhancing ways. Narcissists are born and made, with nature and nurture influences that allow the emergence of a creature arrested in self-love.
That being said, what’s the buzz about narcissism? Mostly, we run into the problem of narcissism in the attempt to develop satisfying, long-term, meaningful relationships with them. A true narcissist lives in a self-sustaining universe. A narcissist can feed off the admiration of other people or even create crowds of admirers in his or her own imagination. This is all the love that is necessary; it is self-created, self-sustaining, and self-fulfilling. People who actually want to be in relationship with other people have trouble with narcissists. “People who need people” may be the luckiest people in the world, but they’re very unlucky if someone they love, need, or desire is narcissistic.
So, again, we get back to the question: what is narcissism? It’s been called pathological self-love and selfishness in volumes of clinical descriptions that tell the story of unraveled health, hearts and homes, resulting from being in the dance of intimacy with a narcissist. But what does a narcissist look like? Often better than the rest of us, so it might help to look more at the way they approach and live in the world.
Ways of Thinking
Some brave behavioral scientists have tried to describe and intervene, even treat or cure narcissism. Here are some “big chunk ideas” from their findings, which can help us straightforward, relational folks get more of an idea of what we’re talking about. About the ways a narcissist thinks: two main descriptors– grandiosity and entitlement:
- Grandiosity is the tendency for the narcissist to think more highly of themselves than they have deserved, earned, or merited. The way a narcissist thinks of themselves is like a hot air balloon. It can get very big, awe-inspiring, and colorful. Because narcissists think this way, they can often get other people to believe in their grandiose schemes. Like P. T. Barnum, Cleopatra, Donald Trump, Madonna, and Napoleon, ordinary people with extraordinary attributes, ambition, and drive can pump up their lives into stories of true magnitude and scope. But for most narcissists, their grandiosity doesn’t match their accomplishments. Like the characters in the Wizard of Oz, we often feel cheated and betrayed when we’ve been taken in by the narcissist’s show, illusions and ideals.
- Entitlement is the feeling that one has been born with a silver spoon in their mouth, that they deserve or are entitled– that is, they own the title– to whatever they believe that they deserve. The term entitlement comes from nobility, where if you have a title, you have not only the name that elevates you above the masses, but also the deeds to the land, which makes you special and gives you power. Entitled thinking is just like this: “I am special. I deserve special treatment, attention, privileges, and favors. I am superior to others. There is something about me that should be respected and inspire deference.” We have all encountered entitled people, whether at an airport counter, driving on the freeway, or just sharing living space with someone who thinks they deserve the biggest room, the best service, the first place in line. Let it be known this is the way a narcissist thinks.
Any of us can act in grandiose or entitled ways in specific moments and situations. Sometimes, our entitlement and grandiosity matches reality. For the narcissist, though, their way of thinking is just this: “I am more important than you.” It is VERY hard to challenge this way of thinking. It is even more difficult to live with it.
Ways of Relating
Narcissism is a way of relating in the world. Two of the most difficult attributes of a narcissist in their interpersonal schema is lack of empathy and an inability to see their part in interpersonal conflicts.
- Lack of empathy, for a true narcissist, means that they really don’t have empathy. They lack appropriate feeling for other people, or sometimes any feeling at all for the feelings of others. This is a really freaky thing to experience in an intimate relationship. Feelings are the currency of love relationships, accompanied by warmth, listening, reflecting, sympathy, and understanding. Narcissists can be very emotionally winsome and persuasive people. But the only person they really feel for is themselves. They are missing the nerve endings that react to the feelings and needs of others in a resonate way. Narcissists often can appear more empathetic than truly empathic people. This is why you can feel you’re in a sci-fi movie like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” when you realize the person you committed your life to only feels for themselves and doesn’t feel for you at all.
- Narcissists have an inability to own their part in interpersonal conflict. A narcissist cannot be at fault. They are unable to own or take responsibility for creating interpersonal tension, anger, and pain. This is pronounced when they have been the major catalyst, provoker, and wrong-doer. For example, a narcissist will drive into another car’s lane and then blame the other person for the collision. This is related to their thinking because the narcissist doesn’t seem themselves as having made the driving error. This type of brain truly believes that everyone else is to blame. It’s part of the defensive structure. As you can imagine, people like this are difficult to live with and there is no working through or resolving arguments in a mutually satisfying way because “it’s always your fault.”
Ways of Being in the World
Narcissists have a way of being in the world that primarily takes care of themselves. They see the world as an opportunity to get things for themselves– money, status, love, possessions– or as an obstacle to getting these things for themselves. The narcissist’s way of being in the world is self-centered. It is all about me. Like a five-year-old child, the narcissist feels they are the king or queen of all they can grasp or survey. Other people are either subjects, servants, courtesans or external threats.
These are qualities that most of us have identified in one person or another. I believe we all can be narcissistic at times, but hopefully, we can be flexible and respond in different ways with correction, awareness, and the desire to grow and change. The narcissist is trapped in these ways of thinking, relating, and being in the world. They don’t usually see it or know a better way. Personally, I believe all people were made for growth. That it is embedded in our DNA and inherent in our living. Maybe we can see narcissists as more stuck on themselves and in themselves than the average bear and develop some empathy and compassion for their plight.