How Narcissism Works

Poor ol' Narcissus made just as lovely a flower as he did a human person.
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There once was a very beautiful boy named Narcissus. In fact, he was so bewitchingly handsome, his parents were worried about him. Looks that good could get him into trouble, so they went to a prophet by the name of Tiresias and asked his advice. "Make sure the kid never sees himself," said the sage, "and he'll live a long life."

Accordingly Narcissus's parents got rid of any reflective surfaces and ordered friends and relatives to refrain from remarking on the boy's beauty. Unfortunately, the older he grew, the more comely he became until, one day, when out for a stroll in the woods, he walked into the sight line of a nymph called Echo. Echo fell fast-and-hard and followed Narcissus through the woods. But when she revealed herself to him and declared her love, he fled.


Poor Echo wandered hither and yon crying for her lost love until she pined away so completely all that was left was her voice in the hills.

Narcissus went on spurning all those who fell hopelessly in love with him until one of those rejected admirers prayed for revenge. Nemesis, the goddess in charge of such matters, heard that prayer and thought of a fiendish punishment for Narcissus's pride. She led him to a woodland pool that was so still its surface was a perfect mirror. There, thirsty, the boy bent to have a drink and encountered his reflection. It was all over. He fell head over heels in love with himself.

It was a horrible situation. An insoluble conundrum. A love that could never be requited. What Narcissus wanted most in the world, he already was, and therefore could never have. He knew he was doomed and could do nothing about it. He could never touch his reflection, but only stare at it. Lost in that deadly gaze, he diminished and died, transforming at the last into a beautiful Jonquil flower — a Narcissus.


From Myth to Condition

In 1939, psychiatrist Karen Horney developed types of narcissism, a trait she said equated to over-inflated self-esteem.

The Narcissus story has all the condensed poetic power of the best myths, but as for its utilitarian function, it served as little more than a cautionary tale of excessive vanity up until the 19th century. That's when the Victorians took it in hand.

The Victorians were fond of using myths to describe behavioral pathologies, and Narcissus was ripe for this treatment. In the late 1890s, the British doctor and sexologist Havelock Ellis (that's his real name) began referring to people who masturbated too much as being "Narcissus-like." Others took up the idea, and in 1911 the psychoanalyst Otto Rank published a paper in which he explored narcissism and moved the concept beyond purely sexual territory to describe a generalized type of self-admiration.


Three years later Sigmund Freud took up the reins and used narcissism to denote both a psycho-sexual development phase that everybody goes through, and a pathology that occurs when people fail to progress beyond self-love to love of others. But while Freud theorized extensively about narcissism, he talked about it as a process or a state of mind, without identifying a personality type prone to narcissism. That job was left to another psychoanalyst named Robert Wälder, who described a narcissistic individual as a person who was arrogant, self-obsessed, indifferent to others and fond of sex but not intimacy.

Wilhelm Reich (three Austrians in a row!), later controversial for his pseudoscientific theories about Orgone energy, weighed in with the observation that most narcissists were men, articulating a link between masculinity and the aggression that characterized much narcissistic behavior.

The stage was set for Karen Horney (finally, a woman, and yes, that's her real name, too) to begin divvying up the trait into different types, which included aggressive-expansive, perfectionist and arrogant-vindictive. Narcissism, she proposed in 1939, was self-esteem inflated to an unhealthy degree. A narcissist, she said, thinks he's amazing, but for no good reason. Interestingly, she didn't believe that narcissists loved themselves too much, but rather that they were incapable of loving anybody at all, even their true selves. Narcissism, in her view, was a form of self-defense against profound vulnerability.

In 1960, Annie Reich (Wilhelm's wife) built on this idea and pointed to early traumatic experiences as the source of this vulnerability. Narcissists, she argued, compensate for those difficult experiences by withdrawing emotionally and creating a fantasy self who is powerful and superior to others. Unable to handle ambiguity, they believe themselves to be either completely successful or abject failures.

A year later, John Nemiah coined the term "narcissistic character disorder," and in 1968 Heinz Kohut used the description "narcissistic personality disorder," which is the term currently used to talk about clinical narcissism [source: Levy et al.]. The condition wasn't added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM) until 1980, when it received its first diagnostic description.


The Disorder

Are you a narcissist if you marry someone who looks ... exactly like you?
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Current definitions of narcissistic personality disorder stick closely to those outlined in the 1960s. A person with the disorder, let's call him a "raging narcissist" to distinguish him from the garden-variety subclinical species that we all encounter every day, has a deluded sense of self-importance and a voracious appetite for praise. Deep down, of course, a raging narcissist is completely uncertain of his awesomeness and is, as a result, extremely edgy about criticism. An important addition to the definition is the lack of empathy that is now considered highly characteristic of the disorder [source: Mayo Clinic].

What makes a narcissist? Nobody really knows. Maybe too much parental coddling, maybe too little. Maybe a fatal combination in which parents insist a child is special but withhold attention and subject him to excessive criticism? But behavioral pathologies are too complex to untangle at the root. Genetics and environment (i.e., nature and nurture) create such an intricate dance of causation that nobody even pretends to understand what it takes to mold a full-blown narcissist.


As for the causes of narcissism itself, research in the field of evolutionary psychology might hint at why many among us seem to really like ourselves. A 2004 study used computer modeling techniques to look at facial resemblances between mates. The researchers found that when we get together to make babies, it seems we're not just looking for our "soul mates." Theorists used to assume that mating was a random business and there was no accounting for taste. "The heart wants what it wants," to put it technically. But no, what we're really after are individuals who look like us. Researchers call this "assortative mating," which means "self seeking like." Apparently this behavior is quite common across species.

There are, it seems, good evolutionary reasons for this assortative mating strategy, chief among them being something called genetic stability. Luckily there are other forces at work to prevent too much similarity (i.e., inbreeding) with the result that we tend to mate with a goldilocks partner — one who looks like us, but not too much [source: Alvarez and Jaffe].

So it could be that narcissism is a useful inborn trait that guides our mate selection; however, it curdles into unpleasant behavior when we fail to develop the ability to look for our reflection in the faces of others, rather than a mirror.

Seeing ourselves in others is, of course, also a key to empathy, a trait notably lacking in many, if not most, narcissists. Scientists in Berlin used this key factor to look at the brain chemistry of people with narcissistic personality disorder. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed that the cerebral cortexes of their test subjects were significantly thinner than normal [source: Charité]. The cerebral cortex, which is the external nerve cell layer of the brain, is where we foster empathy.

So that's it, isn't it? Your brain is your brain, and if you've got a skinny cortex, there's nothing to be done but stare in the mirror and marvel at what you see, regardless of the consequences. Well, maybe not.


The Treatment

Talk therapy is likely the best treatment option for narcissists -- if they ever even make it to the therapist's office.
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On the one hand, being a narcissist doesn't sound so bad. You think you're hot stuff, and thanks to that lack of empathy, you don't have to waste time worrying what other people think. But then there's that pesky low self-esteem lurking deep in your gut, and your consequently brittle pride [source: Myers and Zeigler-Hill]. There's also the problem of being a jerk. While many people are initially drawn to your self-assured charisma, your touchy ego and unflagging arrogance can lead to difficulties in forming long-lasting and meaningful relationships.

Currently, there's no drug for narcissism. The treatment is old-fashioned talk therapy. Of course, if you think you're all that and a bag of chips, you're not likely to make an appointment with a shrink. Why should you? You're fantastic! Except that those deep insecurities are making you anxious, even depressed. In fact, anxiety and depression are the symptoms that usually lead narcissists to the proverbial couch. There, hopefully a therapist can unpack the real source of the problem and start to suggest coping mechanisms.


However, few narcissists end up actually seeking help. Those who do often abandon treatment early on because they don't like what they're hearing from therapists. Even in the rare cases of successful treatment, narcissists almost never change in fundamental ways [source: Kreger]. After all, they evolved their habits of narcissistic behavior in order to feel better about themselves. And if a habit feels good, it'll die hard.

In 2014, researchers conducted a study that could indicate a method for treating narcissism. For the purposes of their study, the British scientists looked at subjects they considered to be "subclinical" narcissists. Whereas people with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder tend to be volatile, subclinical narcissists are often well-adjusted and successful in addition to being selfish cads.

The study went as follows: The researchers hooked the narcissists up to heart monitors and showed them sad documentaries about people going through hard times. Previous studies have shown that when people feel empathy, their heart rate increases. The narcissists' heart rates were steady. They didn't care. At first. Then the researchers showed the documentary again. But this time they asked the test subjects to try to imagine what it would be like to be the person having a hard time. Bingo — the heart rates went up, and the narcissists reported feeling empathy [source: Society for Personality and Social Psychology].

Hard to believe it could be that simple, but it would seem that narcissism — the subclinical kind, anyway — might be the result not of an inability to feel compassion, just a habit of not bothering to. All that's needed is a prompt. Maybe empathy is a muscle that can be exercised. Maybe even narcissists can develop nice, fat cerebral cortexes if they just do some mental pushups.



Is the prevalence of selfies evidence of a larger cultural issue with narcissism? Or are old folks just irritated with whippersnappers?
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Narcissism is a complex phenomenon, and there are all sorts of manifestations. For one thing, some experts argue that it's more accurate to think of the traits as a spectrum of behavior. This spectrum can range from low self-esteem (sometimes called echoism, after Narcissus's ill-fated admirer) to a mid-range of "healthy narcissism" all the way to the deep end of narcissistic personality disorder. There's even an online test you can take to determine where you fall on the spectrum.

While data that correlates narcissism with certain occupations is thin on the ground, some research shows that in the work environment, narcissists tend to show up either at the top or the bottom of the food chain, depending on how effectively they deploy their entitled behavior to benefit or hinder others [source: Useem].


According to a 2008 study, the disorder occurs at a rate of 7.7 percent for men in the U.S. and 4.8 percent for women (Reich was right!). Among men the condition often shows up in tandem with alcohol and drug addictions, obsessive compulsive disorder and an excessive attention-seeking behavior called "histrionic personality disorder." For women, however, narcissism tends to be associated with bipolar II disorder, general anxiety and certain phobias. The average across genders is 6.2 percent [source: Stinson et al.]. So, for all the fuss being made about narcissism these days, it's hardly an epidemic. Or is it?

For some time now, narcissism has been about much more than individual behavior. Some cultural critics have seized on it as a way of making sense of contemporary society. There are those who even go so far as to call it the pathology of our time, replacing Oedipus with Narcissus as the Greek myth of the moment [source: Tyler]. Modern media and information technology are seemingly behind the trend.

Posting non-stop selfies to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or your social media outlet of choice is just reinforcing and rewarding narcissistic behavior. Reality TV shows in which competitors announce they're showing up to win, not make friends, are emblematic of an epidemic of narcissism. To make matters worse, questionnaires issued annually to college students tell a frightening story, with roughly 70 percent of those polled reporting lower empathy and higher narcissism than did their peers 30 years ago [source: Gray].

Some argue that social media has a particularly deleterious effect on young people who must necessarily go through a narcissistic stage as they seek to create individual identities for themselves. The fear is that the infinitely self-reflexive nature of social media could arrest them in that stage and prevent the development of empathy that comes with maturity [source: Fishwick].

But when it comes to behavioral pathologies, there are always arguments over how to assess them. And even if you agree on the assessment criteria, how do you read the data? Are young people, for instance, self-reporting their behavior more openly than they did in previous generations? The arguments continue, but, college surveys aside, most experts maintain that the rate of narcissistic personality disorder remains relatively constant as a rare pathology and can't be said to amount to an epidemic [source: Remes]. It's possible that we're becoming more narcissistic as a population, but the rates of clinical disorder aren't changing much.

It's also possible that all the fear of a narcissism "epidemic" is just another example of crotchety elders anxious about young people, as we always are. Since at least the 1970s, researchers have been worrying about increasing levels of "self-admiration." That's when the first so-called "me generation" is said to have surfaced [source: Levy]. And before that? Back before we got scientificky about our intergenerational anxieties, we used to just say, "Young people these days ... no respect!" Which is another way of saying, "No empathy." Which is yet another way of saying, "They're all narcissists!"

Then again, maybe those fears aren't entirely ill-founded. If we grow increasingly self-involved as a culture, could our resulting isolation put the most vulnerable of us at risk? Take Japan, for instance, where traditional social cohesion and respect for elders once safeguarded the livelihood of retirees. In today's highly industrialized, more individualistic context, some Japanese pensioners are so impoverished and isolated from their family support network that they've resorted to breaking the law. At least in prison they know they'll get three square meals a day and adequate medical attention [source: McCurry]. Are these senior jail birds the canaries in the narcissistic coal mine? Maybe. Or maybe it's just a question of crunching the numbers and realizing it's cheaper to top up pensions rather than rely on jails to deal with the crisis.

In an influential essay, Imogen Tyler argues that the cultural preoccupation with narcissism has to do with the rise of identity politics. Complaining about a culture-wide epidemic of narcissism, she says, is really a way of stigmatizing those groups associated with that rise. If you're already in a position of privilege, it's easy enough to look around and see nothing but a sea of people proclaiming their importance. Call them narcissists if you wish, but for previously marginalized people, a little narcissism could be a good thing.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Narcissism Works

I, of course, took the online test, being arrogant enough to think I would get a perfect score. This seems to have backfired. My score for unhealthy narcissism was in the red. That said, my score for echoism was average and my healthy narcissism rating was excellent. Naturally, I retook the test. This time, I thought, I'll beat this here test. The result: I'm completely average on all counts. My self-esteem doesn't know quite what to do with this. I'm thinking of taking the test again.

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More Great Links

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