Narcissism is a self–centered personality style characterized as having an excessive preoccupation with oneself and one’s own needs, often at the expense of others.
Narcissism exists on a continuum that ranges from normal to abnormal personality expression. While many psychologists believe that a moderate degree of narcissism is normal and healthy in humans, there are also more extreme forms, observable particularly in people who are excessively self-absorbed, or who have a mental illness like narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), where the narcissistic tendency has become pathological, leading to functional impairment and psychosocial disability.
The term narcissism comes from the Roman poet Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, written in the year 8 AD. Book III of the poem tells the mythical story of a handsome young man, Narcissus, who spurns the advances of many potential lovers. When Narcissus rejects the nymph Echo, who was cursed to only echo the sounds that others made, the gods punish Narcissus making him fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. When Narcissus discovers that the object of his love cannot love him back, he slowly pines away and dies.
The concept of excessive selfishness has been recognized throughout history. In ancient Greece, the concept was understood as hubris. Some religious movements such as the Hussites attempted to rectify what they viewed as the shattering and narcissistic cultures of recent centuries.
It was not until the late 1800s that narcissism began to be defined in psychological terms. Since that time, the term has had a significant divergence in meaning in psychology. It has been used to describe:
- a sexual perversion,
- a normal developmental stage,
- a symptom in psychosis, and
- a characteristic in several of the object relations [subtypes].
In 1889, psychiatrists Paul Näcke and Havelock Ellis used the term “narcissism”, independently of each other, to describe a person who treats his own body in the same way in which the body of a sexual partner is ordinarily treated. Narcissism, in this context, was seen as a perversion that consumed a person’s entire sexual life. In 1911 Otto Rank published the first clinical paper about narcissism, linking it to vanity and self-admiration.
In an essay in 1913 called “The God-complex”, Ernest Jones considered extreme narcissism as a character trait. He described people with the God-complex as being aloof, self-important, overconfident, auto-erotic, inaccessible, self-admiring, and exhibitionistic, with fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience. He observed that these people had a high need for uniquene.
Sigmund Freud (1914) published his theory of narcissism in a lengthy essay titled “On Narcissism: An Introduction“. For Freud, narcissism refers to the individual’s direction of libidinal energy toward themselves rather than objects and others. He postulated a universal “primary narcissism”, that was a phase of sexual development in early infancy – a necessary intermediate stage between auto-eroticism and object-love, love for others. Portions of this ‘self-love’ or ego-libido are, at later stages of development, expressed outwardly, or “given off” toward others. Freud’s postulation of a “secondary narcissism” came as a result of his observation of the peculiar nature of the schizophrenic’s relation to themselves and the world. He observed that the two fundamental qualities of such patients were megalomania and withdrawal of interest from the real world of people and things: “the libido that has been withdrawn from the external world has been directed to the ego and thus gives rise to an attitude which may be called narcissism.” It is a secondary narcissism because it is not a new creation but a magnification of an already existing condition (primary narcissism).
In 1925, Robert Waelder conceptualized narcissism as a personality trait. His definition described individuals who are condescending, feel superior to others, are preoccupied with admiration, and exhibit a lack of empathy. Waelder’s work and his case study have been influential in the way narcissism and the clinical disorder narcissistic personality disorder are defined today. His patient was a successful scientist with an attitude of superiority, an obsession with fostering self-respect, and a lack of normal feelings of guilt. The patient was aloof and independent from others, had an inability to empathize with others, and was selfish sexually. Waelder’s patient was also overly logical and analytical and valued abstract intellectual thought over the practical application of scientific knowledge.
Karen Horney (1939) postulated that narcissism was on a spectrum that ranged from healthy self-esteem to a pathological state.
The term entered the broader social consciousness following the publication of The Culture of Narcissism Christopher Lasch in 1979. Since then, social media, bloggers, and self-help authors have indiscriminately applied “narcissism” as a label for the self-serving and for all domestic abusers.
Normal and healthy levels of narcissism
Some psychologists suggest that a moderate level of narcissism is supportive of good psychological health. Self-esteem works as a mediator between narcissism and psychological health. Therefore, because of their elevated self-esteem, deriving from self-perceptions of competence and likability, high narcissists are relatively free of worry and gloom.
Destructive levels of narcissism
While narcissism, in and of itself, can be considered a normal personality trait, high levels of narcissistic behavior can be harmful to both self and others. Destructive narcissism is the constant exhibition of a few of the intense characteristics usually associated with pathological Narcissistic Personality Disorder such as a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity“, which is characterized feelings of entitlement and superiority, arrogant or haughty behaviors, and a generalized lack of empathy and concern for others. On a spectrum, destructive narcissism is more extreme than healthy narcissism but not as extreme as the pathological condition.
Pathological levels of narcissism
Extremely high levels of narcissistic behavior are considered pathological. The pathological condition of narcissism is a magnified, extreme manifestation of healthy narcissism. It manifests itself in the inability to love others, lack of empathy, emptiness, boredom, and an unremitting need to search for power, while making the person unavailable to others. The clinical theorists Kernberg, Kohut, and Theodore Millon all saw pathological narcissism as a possible outcome in response to unempathic and inconsistent early childhood interactions. They suggested that narcissists try to compensate in adult relationships. German psychoanalyst Karen Horney (1885–1952) also saw the narcissistic personality as a temperament trait molded a certain kind of early environment.
Heritability studies using twins have shown that narcissistic traits, as measured standardized tests, are often inherited. Narcissism was found to have a high heritability score (0.64) indicating that the concordance of this trait in the identical twins was significantly influenced genetics as compared to an environmental causation. It has also been shown that there is a continuum or spectrum of narcissistic traits ranging from normal to a pathological personality. Furthermore, evidence suggests that individual elements of narcissism have their own heritability score. For example, intrapersonal grandiosity has a score of 0.23, and interpersonal entitlement has a score of 0.35. While the genetic impact on narcissism levels is significant, it is not the only factor at play.
Expressions of narcissism
Two primary expressions of narcissism have been identified: grandiose (“thick-skinned”) and vulnerable (“thin-skinned”). Recent accounts posit that the core of narcissism is self-centred antagonism (or “entitled self-importance”), namely selfishness, entitlement, lack of empathy, and devaluation of others. Grandiosity and vulnerability are seen as different expressions of this antagonistic core, arising from individual differences in the strength of the approach and avoidance motivational systems.
Narcissistic grandiosity is thought to arise from a combination of the antagonistic core with temperamental boldness—defined positive emotionality, social dominance, reward-seeking and risk-taking. Grandiosity is defined—in addition to antagonism—a confident, exhibitionistic and manipulative self-regulatory style.
- High self-esteem and a clear sense of uniqueness and superiority, with fantasies of success and power, and lofty ambitions
- Social potency, marked exhibitionistic, authoritative, charismatic and self-promoting interpersonal behaviours
- Exploitative, self-serving relational dynamics; short-term relationship transactions defined manipulation and privileging of personal gain over other benefits of socialisation
Narcissistic vulnerability is thought to arise from a combination of the antagonistic core with temperamental reactivity—defined negative emotionality, social avoidance, passivity and marked proneness to rage. Vulnerability is defined—in addition to antagonism—a shy, vindictive and needy self-regulatory style.
- Low and contingent self-esteem, unstable and unclear sense of self, and resentment of others’ success
- Social withdrawal, resulting from shame, distrust of others’ intentions, and concerns over being accepted
- Needy, obsessive relational dynamics; long-term relationship transactions defined an excessive need for admiration, approval and support, and vengefulness when needs are unmet
Sexual narcissism has been described as an egocentric pattern of sexual behavior that involves an inflated sense of sexual ability or sexual entitlement, sometimes in the form of extramarital affairs. This can be overcompensation for low self-esteem or an inability to sustain true intimacy.
While this behavioral pattern is believed to be more common in men than in women, it occurs in both males and females who compensate for feelings of sexual inadequacy becoming overly proud or obsessed with their masculinity or femininity.
The controversial condition referred to as “sexual addiction” is believed some experts to be sexual narcissism or sexual compulsivity, rather than an addictive behavior.
Narcissistic parents often see their children as extensions of themselves, and encourage the children to act in ways that support the parents’ emotional and self-esteem needs. Due to their vulnerability, children may be significantly affected this behavior. To meet the parents’ needs, the child may sacrifice their own wants and feelings. A child subjected to this type of parenting may struggle in adulthood with their intimate relationships.
In extreme situations, this parenting style can result in estranged relationships with the children, coupled with feelings of resentment, and in some cases, self-destructive tendencies.
Origins of narcissism in children can often come from the social learning theory. The social learning theory proposes that social behavior is learned observing and imitating others behavior. This suggests that children are anticipated to grow up to be narcissistic when their parents overvalue them.
There is a compulsion of some professionals to constantly assert their competence, even when they are wrong. Professional narcissism can lead otherwise capable, and even exceptional, professionals to fall into narcissistic traps. “Most professionals work on cultivating a self that exudes authority, control, knowledge, competence and respectability. It’s the narcissist in us all—we dread appearing stupid or incompetent.”
Executives are often provided with potential narcissistic triggers. Inanimate triggers include status symbols like company cars, company-issued smartphone, or prestigious offices with window views; animate triggers include flattery and attention from colleagues and subordinates.
Narcissism has been linked to a range of potential leadership problems ranging from poor motivational skills to risky decision making, and in extreme cases, white-collar crime. High-profile corporate leaders that place an extreme emphasis on profits may yield positive short-term benefits for their organizations, but ultimately it drags down individual employees as well as entire companies.
Subordinates may find everyday offers of support swiftly turn them into enabling sources, unless they are very careful to maintain proper boundaries.
Studies examining the role of personality in the rise to leadership have shown that individuals who rise to leadership positions can be described as inter-personally dominant, extroverted, and socially skilled. When examining the correlation of narcissism in the rise to leadership positions, narcissists who are often inter-personally dominant, extroverted, and socially skilled, were also likely to rise to leadership but were more likely to emerge as leaders in situations where they were not known, such as in outside hires (versus internal promotions). Paradoxically, narcissism can present as characteristics that facilitate an individual’s rise to leadership, and ultimately lead that person to underachieve or even to fail.
Narcissism can also create problems in the general workforce. For example, individuals high in narcissism inventories are more likely to engage in counterproductive behavior that harms organizations or other people in the workplace. Aggressive (and counterproductive) behaviors tend to surface when self-esteem is threatened. Individuals high in narcissism have fragile self-esteem and are easily threatened. One study found that employees who are high in narcissism are more likely to perceive the behaviors of others in the workplace as abusive and threatening than individuals who are low in narcissism.
Celebrity narcissism (sometimes referred to as acquired situational narcissism) is a form of narcissism that develops in late adolescence or adulthood, brought on wealth, fame and the other trappings of celebrity. Celebrity narcissism develops after childhood, and is triggered and supported the celebrity-obsessed society. Fans, assistants and tabloid media all play into the idea that the person really is vastly more important than other people, triggering a narcissistic problem that might have been only a tendency, or latent, and helping it to become a full-blown personality disorder. “Robert Millman says that what happens to celebrities is that they get so used to people looking at them that they stop looking back at other people.” In its most extreme presentation and symptoms, it is indistinguishable from narcissistic personality disorder, differing only in its late onset and its environmental support large numbers of fans. “The lack of social norms, controls, and of people centering them makes these people believe they’re invulnerable,” so that the person may suffer from unstable relationships, substance abuse or erratic behaviors.
Collective narcissism is a type of narcissism where an individual has an inflated self-love of their own group. While the classic definition of narcissism focuses on the individual, collective narcissism asserts that one can have a similar excessively high opinion of a group, and that a group can function as a narcissistic entity. Collective narcissism is related to ethnocentrism; however, ethnocentrism primarily focuses on self-centeredness at an ethnic or cultural level, while collective narcissism is extended to any type of ingroup beyond just cultures and ethnicities.
Normalization of narcissistic behaviors
Some commentators contend that the American populace has become increasingly narcissistic since the end of World War II. According to sociologist Charles Derber, people pursue and compete for attention on an unprecedented scale. The profusion of popular literature about “listening” and “managing those who talk constantly about themselves” suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life. The growth of media phenomena such as “reality TV” programs and social media are generating a “new era of public narcissism”.
Also supporting the contention that American culture has become more narcissistic is an analysis of US popular song lyrics between 1987 and 2007. This found a growth in the use of first-person singular pronouns, reflecting a greater focus on the self, and also of references to antisocial behavior; during the same period, there was a diminution of words reflecting a focus on others, positive emotions, and social interactions. References to narcissism and self-esteem in American popular print media have experienced vast inflation since the late 1980s. Between 1987 and 2007 direct mentions of self-esteem in leading US newspapers and magazines increased 4,540 per cent while narcissism, which had been almost non-existent in the press during the 1970s, was referred to over 5,000 times between 2002 and 2007.
Individualistic vs collectivist national cultures
Similar patterns of change in cultural production are observable in other Western states. For example, a linguistic analysis of the largest circulation Norwegian newspaper found that the use of self-focused and individualistic terms increased in frequency 69 per cent between 1984 and 2005 while collectivist terms declined 32 per cent.
One study looked at differences in advertising between an individualistic culture, United States, and a collectivist culture, South Korea and found that in the US there was a greater tendency to stress the distinctiveness and uniqueness of the person; where as advertising in South Korean stressed the importance of social conformity and harmony. These cultural differences were greater than the effects of individual differences within national cultures.
There has been an increased interest in narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) in the last 10 years. There are areas of substantial debate that surround the subject including:
- clearly defining the difference between normal and pathological narcissism
- understanding the role of self-esteem in narcissism
- reaching a consensus on the classifications and definitions of sub-types such as “grandiose” and “vulnerable dimensions” or variants of these,
- understanding what are the central versus peripheral, primary versus secondary features/characteristics of narcissism,
- determining if there is consensual description,
- agreeing on the etiological factors,
- deciding what field or discipline narcissism should be studied
- agreeing on how it should be assessed and measured,and
- agreeing on its representation in textbooks and classification manuals.
This extent of the controversy was on public display in 2010–2013 when the committee on personality disorders for the 5th Edition (2013) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recommended the removal of Narcissistic Personality from the manual. A contentious three-year debate unfolded in the clinical community with one of the sharpest critics being professor John Gunderson, MD, the person who led the DSM personality disorders committee for the 4th edition of the manual.
Healthy narcissism is a positive sense of self that is in alignment with the greater good.
The concept of healthy narcissism was first coined Paul Federn and gained prominence in the 1970s through the research of Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg. It developed slowly out of the psychoanalytic tradition, and became popular in the late twentieth century.
The concept of healthy narcissism is used in clinical psychology and popular psychology as an aid to self-assertion and success. It has indeed been suggested that it is useful to think of a continuum of narcissism, ranging from deficient to healthy to pathological, with stable narcissism and destructive narcissism as stopping-points in between.
Sigmund Freud on normal narcissism
Freud considered narcissism a natural part of the human makeup that, taken to extremes, prevents people from having meaningful relationships. He distinguished narcissism as “the libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation”. This self-preservation or desire and energy that drives one’s instinct to survive he referred to as a healthy trait termed primary narcissism.
Paul Federn, an Austrian physician and psychoanalyst, and acolyte of Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of healthy narcissism in the 1930s. In 1928, he published “Narcissism in the Structure of the Ego,” and in 1929 “The Ego as Subject and Object in Narcissism” (Das Ich als Subjekt und Objekt im Narzissmus). It was in these works that Federn introduced the concept of healthy narcissism to describe an adequate sense of self-love.
Heinz Kohut on healthy narcissism
Healthy narcissism was first conceptualized Heinz Kohut, who used the descriptor “normal narcissism” and “normal narcissistic entitlement” to describe children’s psychological development. Kohut’s research showed that if early narcissistic needs could be adequately met, the individual would move on to what he called a “mature form of positive self-esteem; self-confidence” or healthy narcissism.
In Kohut’s tradition, the features of healthy narcissism are:
Empathy for others and recognition of their needs.
Self-respect and self-love.
Courage to abide criticism from others while maintaining positive self-regard.
Confidence to set and pursue goals and realize one’s hopes and dreams.
Healthy pride in self and one’s accomplishments.
The ability to admire and be admired.
Neville Symington challenged Kohut’s belief in positive narcissism, arguing that “we do not get positive narcissism without self-hatred or negative narcissism.” Symington held that “it is meaningless to talk about healthy self-centredness” – that being the core of narcissism.
In his 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, anthropologist Ernest Becker held that “a working level of narcissism is inseparable from self-esteem, from a basic sense of self-worth”.
According to Becker:
The child who is well nourished and loved develops, as we said, a sense of magical omnipotence, a sense of his own indestructibility, a feeling of proven power, and secure support. He can imagine himself, deep down, to be eternal. We might say that his repression of the idea of his own death is made easy for him because he is fortified against it in his very narcissistic vitality.”
Furthermore, he described healthy narcissism
All too absorbing and relentless to be an aberration; it expresses the heart of the creature: the desire to stand out, to be the one in creation. When you combine natural narcissism with the basic need for self-esteem, you create a creature who has to feel himself an object of primary value: first in the universe, representing in himself all of life.
Ronnie Solan uses the metaphor of narcissism as an emotional-immune system for safeguarding the familiarity and the well-being of the individual against invasion foreign sensations (1998) and small differences (Freud 1929–1930).
The innate immunization vacillates between well-being, in the presence of the familiar, and alertness as well as vulnerability, facing the stranger. In childhood, the familiar is tempting and the strangeness is intolerable from within (illness) or from outside (otherness). Hence, narcissistic immunization might be compared to the activity of the biological immunological system that identifies the familiar protein of the cell and rejects the foreign protein (bacteria, virus).
Thus, from infancy to adulthood, getting hurt emotionally is inevitable because the other, even if he or she is a familiar person and dear to us, is still a separate individual that asserts his otherness. The healthy narcissist succeeds in updating narcissistic data (such as acquaintance with the unfamiliar) and in enabling the recovery of self-familiarity from injury and psychic pains. Healthy narcissism activates immunologic process of restoring the stabilization of cohesiveness, integrity and vigorousness of the self and the restoration of the relationship with the other, despite its otherness.
Impaired functioning of narcissism fails to activate these narcissistic processes and arouses destructive reactions. Thus, the individual steadfastly maintains his anger toward the other that offended him, and might sever contact with him, even to the extent of exacting violent revenge, although this other might be dear to him, possibly leading through impaired narcissism to fragility and vulnerability of the self, to immature individuation, narcissistic disorders and pathological phenomena.
The healthy narcissism contributes to improving emotional intelligence as part of the process of adapting to changes; to intensifying curiosity and investigating the environment; to relating to otherness, and for enhancing joie de vivre.
Craig Malkin, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School, wrote about healthy narcissism in his book ‘Rethinking Narcissism’. According to Malkin,
There is, in fact, such a thing as healthy narcissism. Over a quarter century of research shows cross-culturally that the vast majority of people around the world feel a little bit special. They see themselves through slightly rose colored glasses. To quote one researcher, “they feel exceptional or unique”. When we look at the research, we’re asked how we compare to others in terms of what’s intelligence, things like that, we tend to think that we are more attractive, more compassionate. We even think we are more human than the average person. When people feel that way, they feel more resilient, according to research, they feel more optimistic, they feel more able in our research to give and receive in relationships than people who don’t have those rose colored glasses. That’s healthy narcissism.
Narcissism exists on a spectrum and unhealthy narcissism occurs when there is a deficiency of narcissism, also known as Echoism, or when people become addicted to feeling special as in narcissistic personality disorder.
In clinical psychologist Michael Kinsey’s model, narcissism exists on a continuum as with other personality traits. The essence of healthy narcissism is the ability to invest love in oneself and other people. Thus it is devoid of the drive to exploit and cause harm to others as seen in narcissistic personality disorder, in which love is self-directed only.
He distinguishes trait narcissism as separate from pathological narcissism. He explains that subclinical narcissism does not manifest uniformly:
We’re not all narcissistic in the same way, or to the same degree, but we do all have narcissistic tendencies. Not only is self-absorption universal, it’s also a vital aspect of health.
Kinsey identifies the main attributes of healthy narcissism as:
Being able to admire others and accept admiration.
Believe in the importance of your contributions.
Feel gratitude and appreciation not guilt.
Empathize with others but prioritize self.
Embody self-efficacy, persistence and resilience.
Respect the self in health habits and boundaries.
Be confident in being seen.
Tolerate other’s disapproval.
Create goals and pursue them with desire.
Be attentive to the external world.
Be aware of emotions.
Impact of healthy v. destructive narcissistic managers
Main article: Narcissistic leadership
Lubit compared healthily narcissistic managers versus destructively narcissistic managers for their long-term impact on organizations.
In a separate but related distinction, American psychoanalyst and anthropologist Michael Maccomakes the case for “productive narcissists.” Maccoposits that productive narcissists are ideal leaders in moments of socio-economic upheaval. He credits them with an innate skill set he calls “strategic intelligence,” which includes foresight, systems thinking, visioning, motivating, and partnering. Maccois clear that that narcissistic leadership doesn’t necessarily lead to success, as narcissists who lack strategic intelligence ultimately fail.
|Characteristic||Healthy Narcissism||Destructive Narcissism|
|Self-confidence||High outward self-confidence in line with reality||Grandiose|
|Desire for power, wealth and admiration||May enjoy power||Pursues power at all costs, lacks normal inhibitions in its pursuit|
|Relationships||Real concern for others and their ideas; does not exploit or devalue others||Concerns limited to expressing socially appropriate response when convenient; devalues and exploits others without remorse|
|Ability to follow a consistent path||Has values; follows through on plans||Lacks values; easily bored; often changes course|
|Foundation||Healthy childhood with support for self-esteem and appropriate limits on behaviour towards others||Traumatic childhood undercutting true sense of self-esteem and/or learning that they don’t need to be considerate of others|