What is narcissism?
It takes but a cursory search on Youtube to come up with dozens of videos discussing narcissism, “Are you a narcissist” or “Is your partner a narcissist?” among some of the titles. You’re probably reading this because you suspect that someone in your life, perhaps a family member, a romantic partner, or a friend, may be a narcissist. The popular idea of a narcissist is someone who is self-centered, grandiose, selfish, who uses people for personal gains, does not empathize with other’s feelings, in general, someone who could carry the designation “does not play well with others.” While this is an accurate description of a particular kind of narcissist (a grandiose narcissist), this is not however, the entire picture. We will take a closer look at some other “types” of narcissists. Despite the different kinds of narcissists there are nonetheless universal signs that you may be dealing with one. Some of the signs that you’re dealing with a narcissist may be that they leave you feeling drained, exhausted, feeling guilty and confused. The reason for this is that the narcissist, despite appearances, has a weak sense of self-esteem, and self-worth, which he/she defends against via a compensatory mechanism. Ok, that may have been too technical so let me illustrate. Let us say that a narcissist displays a critical and belittling behavior towards his/her co-workers. Constantly pointing out other’s minor faults while minimizing their own, presenting their own achievements as greater than they are, etc. Their behavior is an attempt to compensate for a deeply, often times unconscious, feeling of personal inadequacy, lack, and insufficiency. The primary emotions driving these dynamics are shame and guilt which the narcissist feels deeply. The experience of dealing with a narcissist is that of feeling engulfed by them, leaving us depleted and at times confused. Let us take a closer look at the history and different types of narcissism. The concept of “narcissism” was first introduced by Freud in an essay titled “On Narcissism: An introduction” (1914). The term “narcissism” is one that Freud borrowed from mythology in the story of Narcissus. There are different tellings of the story but they all have the common theme of Narcissus rejecting romantic advances and being punished by the gods by making him fall in love with his own reflection (an unattainable goal). Freud defined Narcissism as a neurosis (a mental illness that is not caused by organic problems) that results from a reversion of libidinal impulses back to the ego. Ok, now in plain English, narcissism results when early on, the person’s attempts to connect emotionally with a care-giver, are frustrated either by neglect, abandonment, abuse, or simply emotional unavailability from the care-giver. The child’s attempts to bond with the care-giver fail and it is at that moment that those emotional energies that were seeking a home in another person, return to the ego, the self. The child then pours these emotions unto the ego and instead of bonding with the care-giver, an act that lays the foundation for all other future emotional connections with others. The mind then invests its emotional resources back into itself, setting the foundation for lifelong emotional and interpersonal difficulties.
We Were All Narcissists...Once
Psychoanalytic psychologists distinguish between two types of Narcissism, Primary and Secondary. All humans go through a primary narcissism phase as part of their normal development. From the beginning of the formation of the mind, the starting point is the mind itself. The point of reference for all things is the ego which is populated by undifferentiated sense impressions, and later by objects which are formed from sense data and emotional material. As the child develops and is confronted with reality his/her inner world is split to accommodate this increasingly complex reality. It is through the process of splitting that the ego makes room for the other through an I-other distinction. This is normal. Secondary Narcissism results when this natural and healthy progression is interrupted by failed attempts to integrate the other person into the psychological world of the child. This results in lifelong attempts to bond with another, only that this time the attempts are pathological. Since the Narcissist never developed strong ego-boundaries, that is, he/she never developed a healthy sense of self and a sense of the other, the other is treated as an extension of the self, and the relationship with the other, whether it is romantic, friendship, or familial, is never reciprocal, but only aims at attaining deeply felt ego needs. The narcissist never attained the developmental resources that allow him/her to accommodate the other into their inner world.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th revised edition (DSM-5-TR) Narcissistic Personality Disorder consists in a personality arrangement characterized by impairments in personality at the personal and interpersonal levels, constant reliance on others for self-reference and self-esteem regulation, impaired ability to feel empathy, poor intimacy (i.e. inability to meet the needs of the other), grandiosity, and attention seeking. These criteria have to have been stable throughout life. However, this DSM-5-TR description only fits one type of narcissist, the grandiose type. Many other disorders have underlying narcissistic processes, however the diagnostic manual is silent on these. When we think of a narcissist we tend to think of the stereotypical grandiose narcissist. However, there is another type which goes unsuspected often times, that is the deflated narcissist. Often times this type has a depressive presentation. They may complain, express a great deal of self-pity, and may belittle your attempts at helping them feel better, while simultaneously conveying the message that it is your responsibility to help them. The deflated narcissist has a completely different presentation than that conveyed in the DSM-5-TR criteria, however the inner dynamics are always the same: a need to have their ego bolstered from the outside, interpersonal relations characterized by either idealization of persons that reflect good light on them by association, and devaluation of others. A relationship with a narcissist will elicit feeling of inadequacy, shame and anger, while leaving you emotionally drained and exhausted. The narcissist does not fare much better either. Guilt and shame are the primary emotional drivers of the narcissist; their behavior aims to mend a failed attempt to connect with another human early on in their lives. The narcissist longs for, but is never able to grasp, what in the final analysis we all desire: to matter to another person and be with a person that matters to us. Addressing narcissism requires the help of an expert, and years of patience and hard work. Help consists in assisting the narcissist repair old, failed attempts at bonding with the other and developing ego-strengths. This requires a deep level of commitment from the therapist who must lend his/her own ego-strength to support the patient through the arduous therapeutic work, which though difficult will be nonetheless rewarding.
Dr. Henri Coizeau, Psy.D., M.S., LMHC