By Carol S. Pearson
Narcissism has been making the news lately. People are concerned that some politicians and CEOs may be narcissists. To understand what is going on in the world today and to recognize how you and I can be happy, successful, and positive influences, it is helpful to view narcissism on a continuum, and to live out its positive sides and avoid the negative, within oneself or in others whose behaviors affect your life.
This psychological narcissist continuum got its name from the cautionary Greek myth of Narcissus. When the extraordinarily handsome hunter Narcissus was 16 years old, the nymph Echo fell in love with him. But her love was not returned, and she disappeared from woods and mountains, fading slowly away until she was just a voice repeating what was said (turning into a reflection of others in sound). Later in the story, Narcissus, having come to a pool to quench his thirst, saw his reflection in its smooth surface and fell in love with it. And since he could not obtain the object of his love, he died of sorrow (or, some say, starvation, as he did not leave this image even to be nurtured and fed) by the same pool.
Now, you also need to know that the Greeks continually warned against hubris or arrogance, in Narcissus’s case coming from vanity. They also consistently urged against the longing for perfection, advocating instead “the middle way.” So, in this case, the middle between what and what?
Narcissism in Adolescence: It is no accident that Narcissus is about 16 years old, an age when it is normal for adolescents to be self-involved and sometimes also selfish. It is also the time when the Seeker archetype emerges with the desire to find one’s own identity and connect with others. The sought-after girl- or boyfriend or friendship groups often are either what serves your status or that share the same interests and can understand you like no one else.
Healthy Adult Narcissism: Healthy narcissism involves developing self-esteem, which, in part, requires taking the time to find yourself—how you like to do things, what you are good at, the narratives that call you to action, and the interests that release your energy for action. This often requires having mentors or guides, examples, and sometimes self-help books and workshops as well as increasing life experience. While this process tends to be “all about me,” it can lead to success in school and entry level work.
Psychological health, however, also requires an integration of the Seeker with the Lover archetype, which motivates a growing desire to respect, appreciate, care for, and love others. Most of the moral codes of our world stress the ability to love—your partner, children, family, neighbors, etc.—as what makes us caring and responsible. Together, the healthy Seeker/Lover motivates people to want to contribute to others (family, workplace, community, etc.) and be productive members of society.
Overall, developing and balancing the Seeker and Lover archetypes can help you to get good at something and to be good, as in moral. Because it motivates you to trust yourself and identify your strengths, interests, and values, it can lead to your being happy, fulfilled, and successful, living a life and doing work that fits for you.
Such a developmental journey can be sabotaged by any number of forces that undercut a person’s fundamental sense of personal worth.
The Origin: This can come from family influences if your mistakes are portrayed as signs of unworthiness. It can result from mean girls or boys claiming there is something wrong with you, rendering you an outsider. It can come from teachers who treat you as lacking intelligence or talents, or coaches who shame you for being weak or unskilled. The same pattern can continue in the work world, with bosses or coworkers who demean you. Messages in the larger culture also can make you conclude that you are a loser, ugly, bad, or useless (and so on and on). To counter these, remember that such undermining messages are about them, not you. It is easier to see this in people’s racism, sexism, homophobia, or fat shaming, but is equally true when what is going on with the person who puts you down is still a mystery. Why did that grade school teacher shame you for coloring the oceans different shades of blue? Whatever it was, she was out of line!
The Wound: Healthy narcissism can be wounded if your sense of your place in the world has diminished. To heal this wound you can, first, work to realize that those negative messages were not about you; they were about those who sent them. Second, you can take your Seeker and Lover journeys while working to accept yourself as you are.
Destructive Temptation: It is helpful to seek to learn from others, but you can be trapped if you find a savior who requires you to abandon your own journey to be what he or she tells you that you must be to have any worth. Sometimes those who present themselves as just the guides you need to follow are themselves unhealthy narcissists. Avoid the temptation to give away your power to them, lest, like the nymph, you begin simply echoing back someone else’s desires and values, until you slowly fade away as yourself.
Entrapping Entrancement: In developing the self-awareness necessary for self-realization, it also is wise to avoid the temptation to, Narcissus-like, become entranced with the watery shimmer of your inner life for so long that you starve your relationships with others and the world, or actually just fall into the water of the unconscious and lose contact with the shore of ordinary life.
Developing healthy narcissism can cure its wounded forms and also vaccinate you against its negative forms, or at least help you recognize their symptoms and pull yourself back from the abyss. So, let’s turn to the more negative forms of narcissism and how they might be avoided.
Those referred to as narcissists tend to have an investment in maintaining a positive self-image and persona/brand image, while avidly seeking the kind of success that looks good to others. How to avoid this:
Find Yourself: The focus on one’s image instead of identity can lead to a drive for status, power, celebrity, and riches, or other achievements that win praise, and sometimes to achieving these goals in ways that take you away from what will truly bring you fulfillment. The antidote can be found in returning to your Seeker quest to discover your purpose, calling, and strengths. Then fame and fortune, if they occur, will be the icing on the cake.
Experience Love: It can also turn “love” into its instrumental mimic (I love those who do what I want or simply are a benefit to me and make me look good). This can result in your ending up alone, as others often take off when the egotist stops benefitting them. However, suddenly falling in love with a partner or your newborn child—or being brought to your knees through loss or failure and experiencing healing love and care from others—may well cure this.
Commit to Learning: When encountering remorse or becoming aware of wrongdoing, a dangerous tendency is to seek others to blame rather than learning from the experience, and likely then to start feeling victimized even if you actually disadvantaged someone else. The antidote: choose to learn from misdeeds, failures, losses, and mistakes or your part in them.
Some have developed an unearned sense of superiority over others acquired through the life they were born into or that they later experience.
Unearned Confidence: Norm groups in any society (in my own culture, being White, male, heterosexual, affluent, etc.) often have greater confidence than others and simply see certain privileges as their due, generally being unconscious of the related cost to those who are different. Such confidence also can lead to greater personal success, but often also to what is known as the Peter Principle: they eventually overreach and achieve positions where they are over their heads and incompetent. The temptation for them is to blame others, but the antidote is to gain a more realistic self-image and either work very hard to learn needed competencies or step back into roles that are a better fit.
The Slippery Slope: People who have become very successful and have been shielded from feedback may become unbalanced and begin to see themselves as able to do whatever they want, including harassing and abusing people over whom they have power, sexually or in other ways. Feeling that normal rules do not apply to them, they may break the law or shock others with improprieties. Many can even enjoy conning and manipulating others. For most of us, growing narcissism can be subtler, resulting in our feeling more advanced and wiser than others and therefore no longer fully listening to them. Antidotes? To protect against this, be sure you have people close to you who will give you honest feedback, including warnings that you seem puffed up and obliviousness to your impact on others. Also, stay alert to the first signs that you feel above others, are gleeful when you successfully get them to do what you want, or find yourself avoiding responsibility by blaming others for your own mistakes or misdeeds.
The Victim Excuse: As a result of trauma or just hard luck, a similar sense of entitlement can, paradoxically, result from feelings of acute victimization that may become an excuse for negative actions, including bullying and physical abuse of others or, in an everyday way, simply chronic negativity and complaining. The antidote for this is to get help addressing these difficult experiences, coming to terms with them, and working again on developing one’s healthy narcissism by exploring what calls for you now.
The Supremacy Trap: A trap for those with low self-esteem can be a dangled “cure” in the form of convincing them of their innate superiority because they are, say, White (or any privileged group); male; from a wealthy (aristocratic) family; or any other claim to being inherently better than others. Often this leads to a willingness to discriminate or abuse others they regard as inferior. Discovering one’s genuine strengths and gifts and utilizing them to contribute to the good of others can foster healthy self-esteem that is not dependent on feeling that you are better than other people, even when you achieve mastery in some area and have every reason to feel good about what you are now able to do.
Narcissism as a Character Disorder
The one percent of people who have a narcissistic personality disorder have a distorted sense of self. Psychologists are not sure about the cause of this or of its cure, but those with it avoid self-awareness at all cost.
Inner Emptiness: Whether by nature or by a lack of attention to developing a self that is connected to others, the pathological narcissist escapes from the emptiness within, avoids self-examination, and strives to be the center of attention in order to feed an intense need to be mirrored as powerful and important. Such individuals often seek out roles that allow them to control others and gain nonstop flattery from them, a set of behaviors that frequently are seen in the world’s most abusive dictators or would-be tyrants in the home, in the office, or on the street.
Abusiveness and Distortion: A sense of superiority often is used by narcissists to justify abusing others. When they are crossed or their inflated self-image is undermined, they may even become enraged and seek vengeance. Narcissism can even distance people from truths they do not want to face—in the world or about themselves—while the constant intensity required to keep reinforcing a sense of exaggerated self-worth leads to short-term thinking.
Since cures for this character disorder are uncertain, the most we can do is recognize people with this rather sad plight and protect ourselves by not getting pulled into their area of control or escaping from it once we see what is going on. Moreover, the only way they will even seek help is to experience serious enough consequences for their actions that their usual defenses abandon them.