Sitting down to try and write about Narcissism, I have found myself restarting several times, not quite managing to craft something I felt connected to. Having come from a creative as opposed to academic background, writing in a structured way always proves a challenge. Like many things, it is a skill to be developed I guess and so far I’m managing to push on towards getting his piece to feel closer to being right. Through the experience of writing posts for the blog and essays, I have found an approach of personal reflection is much less painful. Perhaps this resistance to writing is in line with the process I have been through; reading more into the subject of Narcissism. It has been, as with most of my explorations of theoretical ideas, hard going and full of overidentification, seeing myself and those I care about in the theory to some degree and churning over the experience. In this article, I will give a brief explanation of narcissistic traits as I understand them and how they are organised into categories. In addition, I will consider the problems of labelling, creating scapegoats and projection of our own “narcissistic” parts onto fantasy monsters we may create. I hope to offer an insight into how we may see the person suffering behind the label.
A Growing Awareness.
Up until beginning the diploma at the Centre for Counselling and Psychotherapy Education, narcissism to me was a term that was associated with a caricature of someone overly invested in their physical appearance. My understanding has broadened somewhat, having now reflected and read more on the recognised traits of Narcissism.
The initial port of call for information was the ever handy Youtube. There are a wealth of informative videos up there, which range from arguably more reputable or organised sources, such as TED and The School Of Life, to a plethora of independent vloggers, seemingly all responding to or debating with one another on various topics. From the videos I watched concerned with Narcissism, I attained a sense of general orientation towards what it is. A fair dose of discernment however, seemed to be required to identify a core of reliable information. Many of the videos presented a mix of pop psychology and information taken loosely from clinical definitions. Having this starting point, I was able to explore further through some focused and specific reading.
From this preliminary researching of videos on Youtube, one thing stuck with me, making me feel a bit uncomfortable; the rash of inflammatory titles – “The Narcissism Epidemic,” “How to take revenge upon a Narcissist,” and “How to Manipulate a Narcissist.”
experiences and awareness of narcissism could become a driving force behind the creation of some kind of split off “Other” or outsider character
“Clickbait” is a useful term to be aware of here; many youtube channel owners and content producers will use attention grabbing headlines, much in the way a tabloid newspaper may, to maximise the chance of someone being drawn to their video. Happily, in most cases, the actual content of the videos seem to have some balance to them and are not wholly diatribes about how to hunt down and destroy so called “Narcissists.” Some however, came across as less balanced than others in their stories. Tales of abuse at the hands of narcissistic partners, friends or parents, accounts of experiences which evidently brought forth a lot of anger and sadness.
I was developing a picture that experiences and awareness of narcissism could become a driving force behind the creation of some kind of split off “Other” or outsider character. A scapegoat, at whom to hurl terrible accusations of unhuman behaviour and cruelty. The thing is, when we break down narcissistic traits and examine the potential reasons for them arising, we may find that we begin to spot elements of these traits in ourselves.
Developing a way of considering Narcissism.
I have found it helpful to consider “Narcissism” as a spectrum of collected traits, from a person displaying some narcissistic tendencies but otherwise managing to navigate life without too much hindrance, through to being overwhelmed by the need to defend against a very fragile sense of self esteem, employing extreme defences and behaviours to navigate their lives, which in fact are maladaptive and result in causing harm to other people and themselves. At the extreme or pathological end of the spectrum, clinically a person may be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD,) which finds itself in a similar space as Borderline / Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (BPD/EUPD) and Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD.) There could be said to be much crossover in how these traits are presented in a person and perhaps a diagnosis would be better seen as a starting point, or helpful way to give a person something to begin to hang their understanding upon, regarding the way they are in the world.
I get a sense that a monster is being created, upon which we may be able to project our own repressed or disowned narcissistic traits.
Returning to youtube, most of the videos I have seen, seem to describe the more extreme end of the spectrum and use “Narcissist” as quite a damning label.
This is understandable, as many of the videos report of people falling victim to manipulation and abuse from a narcissistic partner, parent or colleague, focusing on how the traumatised person may extract themselves from and prevent themselves from falling back into abusive relationships, so that they can begin to recover and heal. On the other side of it however, there is seemingly not as much content discussing why people employ narcissistic traits and why these may have developed or become so prominent, causing a person to act in such a damaging way (however this may be more reflective of my own search parameters than representative of actual available content ). As I said above, I get a sense that a monster is being created, upon which we may be able to project our own repressed or disowned narcissistic traits.
Here is a brief outline of some narcissistic traits and how a narcissistic person may be categorised from a clinical standpoint:
Overt Narcissism may be what we would identify as a classical picture of a Narcissist. Traits displayed include an over inflated sense of self importance, entitlement and may show little empathy towards others. A person of this type may rely greatly on the praise and regard of others and are preoccupied with obtaining it. This may be expressed through focus on physical appearance, demonstrations of intellect or possibly even pantomimed spiritual ascendance. These people could be found to be big players in business, seen as ruthless, with an unquenchable thirst for success. Or perhaps high end academics, who derive their sense of self worth from the recognition of their intellectual prowess. Perhaps as spiritual leaders and gurus who employ cult like tactics to recruit and exploit vulnerable followers. In each case, there is something charismatic and immediately attractive about these people to observers. These examples would very much fall on the extreme end of the spectrum. We fall into a trap possibly of becoming suspicious of any person who is successful or commands authority. The point of discernment may be around how these people treat and value the wellbeing of others.
There is also a description of Covert Narcissism; someone who is ostensibly shy, retiring, maybe even showing great humility and apparent empathy for others. However at the core there is a frustrated sense of grandiosity, a belief that if they could only have the right chance, they may really be something, but lack the self esteem or self belief to commit to anything and fear of failure keeps them stuck.
Expressions of both Overt and Covert Narcissism show manipulation of others as a prevalent behaviour, using relationships to get what they need in terms of self esteem and bolstering their emotional state, aiming to attain status, attention or praise. From both positions, a person may be highly vulnerable to criticism, reacting with active or passive aggression. In terms of the origin of these traits, they can be viewed as defences against very low self esteem, resulting perhaps from a lack of early life parental regard, love and care, or in extremes, neglect and abuse.
The third category outlined is that of the Inverted Narcissist, someone who gravitates to other high profile and potentially narcissistic people, living vicariously through their grandiose persona, drawing a sense of importance via association. (Chessick, 2015)
In healing, the person must be given the space and structure to find a way to drop the defences within an authentic relationship, so that they may begin to discover their true nature
Taking a Transpersonal view, Almaas (2012) states “Narcissism develops when the soul loses touch with it’s wholeness, especially as it loses touch with its true nature. The soul loses awareness of its wholeness through the loss of the immediacy of experience, which results from experiencing itself through past impressions.”
The way I understand this is that, narcissistic traits develop as infantile defences arise to guard the child’s emerging ego where sufficient parental care is lacking. The soul nature of the infant is veiled by this developing adapted persona driven by defences, meaning the person’s everyday life and orientation to the world is governed by the pain of past experiences, in that they continue to employ maladaptive defences and associated persona, which in turn form the barrier to accessing their soul/true nature. In healing, the person must be given the space and structure to find a way to drop the defences within an authentic relationship, so that they may begin to discover their true nature, developing a more healthy ego structure through a deepening relationship with themselves and others.
These descriptions are just a general overview of what I feel I have pieced together about classifications of narcissism. I would like to assert the point that here we are dealing with theoretical labels and not real people. Oversimplification helps us to find our footing and understand what is going on, but really what may be needed is to look beyond these labels and find compassion for the person who is suffering, despite their outwardly challenging behaviours.
Identifying and integrating one’s own narcissistic traits
Reading about the covert narcissist traits, I winced several times thinking “I used to do that,” or “Sometimes I think about things in that way.” I’ve always struggled with self esteem and how I looked to others to validate myself in a social context. Happily with age, I am becoming more secure in myself, but I certainly recognise the grandiose defence mechanisms, the background of assuming intellectual superiority, viewing myself at times to have a quiet sense of specialness, yet being vulnerable to criticism and envious of the success of others. My insistence on writing this piece as a personal reflection perhaps is part of my narcissistic defence, considering my own perspective as of more importance, desiring praise for my own creation? Additionally resenting authority and resisting hierarchy, never being comfortable with feeling subordinate to another, or lesser within an organisational structure.
Perhaps this is an unkind view towards myself and it is just that I find it easier to connect with something if I can draw from my own lived experience and feel more at ease among people who I feel care for and wish to help me nurture my abilities?
These are defences to help us keep it together and get through life and manage our sense of vulnerability
The practical question that presents itself is, how greatly do any of these traits or behaviours help or hinder in life, are they damaging to self or others? Some are fairly common ways of navigating life perhaps? Certainly, being manipulative or considering one’s own needs above another person’s are morally ugly concepts, however, there are times when within reason we rely on such attitudes or ways of managing a situation to take care of ourselves. These are defences to help us keep it together and get through life and manage our sense of vulnerability. We are after all human and at times, under stress we revert to ways of being we would not like to admit to. Life is challenging and more so for some people than others, so we employ more archaic and maladaptive type defences relative to the levels of stress we are under. We should however, be forgiving towards ourselves for our humanity. Time and experience could be said to be healers of a great many wounds and from lived experience, hopefully we derive wisdom and different, more mutually beneficent ways to be in the world.
Without the struggle of life, we would not experience the problems that cause us to begin to explore ourselves and our understanding of our existence, these struggles could be viewed as the seed of change being sown.
I keep coming back to this idea of creating a monster – The Social Vampire, something so powerful and terrible, but really, in the light of reason vanishes, crumbling to dust
What action can we take?
The challenge surrounding narcissistic traits seems to be that the person employing them is in need of love and empathy, but what they feel they have to do to achieve the distorted vision of these, is destructive towards the relationships they seek, resulting in draining or depleting the other. I keep coming back to this idea of creating a monster – The Social Vampire, something so powerful and terrible, but really, in the light of reason vanishes, crumbling to dust. This light may be that of compassion, shining into the darkness of fear and shadow. Reintegrating these split off parts of ourselves may mean we no longer need to create monsters to hold our shadow elements for us and we can in turn see the people behind the monstrous projections.
How as therapists, can we meet clients who employ such destructive, unconscious defences and protect ourselves sufficiently to offer the level of support they need? It sounds so very difficult. The clients I’ve worked with in my placements who show some of these traits, are certainly very difficult to be with, but I find ways to be with them through seeing something of their true essence behind these challenging aspects. Perhaps through coming to recognise and have compassion towards my own “narcissistic” traits, I can deepen my capacity to empathise towards those who lack empathy for others.