De-mystifying narcissism – part one

As told in ancient mythology, Narcissus was a beautiful but arrogant young man. He had many admirers, but he rejected them all. The goddess Nemesis punished him by drawing him to a pool of water, where he fell in love with his own reflection. The myth’s ending varies; some versions say he drowned whilst gazing at his own image, some claim he died of sorrow, and others say he killed himself outright; distraught that he would never be able to obtain the object of his desire. Either way, Narcissus’ pride and excessive self-love were his undoing.

The word narcissism is thrown around a lot in modern life, but unfortunately, this can lead to misunderstanding and misuse. As this five-minute animated TED talk clarifies, narcissism can be more than just a personality flaw – higher levels of narcissism may indicate Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But even without a diagnosis, narcissism is more than just occasional selfish behaviour or conceit; a real narcissist truly believes they deserve special treatment above all others.

This is most often characterised by the boastful, attention-seeking, power-loving extrovert – known as the grandiose narcissist. Typically indulged as a child and unable to empathise with others, this person develops an inflated sense-of-self and seeks out people and situations to reinforce this.  They are often risk-takers; however their arrogance prevents them from ever really learning from their mistakes.

Unsurprisingly, this quintessential narcissist eclipses everyone, even those lesser-known narcissists; the high-functioning narcissist and the fragile or vulnerable narcissist.

According to Dutch psychologist Alexander Burgemeester, the high-functioning narcissist is difficult to spot, mostly because they can adapt to different situations much better than the other two subtypes. They also possess a charisma that the other two lack. This may temper their exaggerated sense of self-importance and entitlement, but it can also make it easy for them to gaslight and shift blame onto others. Their energetic and articulate demeanour can give way to over-reaction, though the high-functioning narcissist is capable of ‘normal’ behaviour, at least outwardly. Perhaps this normalcy is why the high-functioning subtype is rarely discussed – even amongst psychologists. You may have noted that the TED talk provided earlier doesn’t reference this type at all.

To my mind however, the fragile narcissist is the most interesting; mainly due to personal experience. While even the grandiose narcissist struggles to cope with criticism, fragile narcissists use grandiose behaviour to mask a genuine sense of inferiority that is missing in the other two types.

They can possess some typically narcissistic traits; such as a large sense of entitlement, difficulty empathising with others and a need for control. But they are also envious, anxious and bitter – possibly stemming from insecure attachments in childhood. Instead of being indulged like their grandiose counterparts, the fragile narcissist did not feel consistently loved or accepted. And because love was conditional, the threat of abandonment is very real. Unfortunately though, they will rarely allow themselves to be vulnerable in healthy ways, and so love becomes something they feel the need to coerce from or demand of others.

This helps to explain why they often engage in passive-aggressive behaviour; exaggerate their misfortunes and play the victim. Like their high-functioning counterparts, the fragile narcissist will shame or gaslight others. By claiming they are the disenfranchised party, the narcissist can elicit both sympathy and compliance, thereby satisfying their need for control and emotional validation in one interaction. Ironically, this is the behaviour that usually leads to them being abandoned, which only reinforces their belief that they must be unworthy of genuine and lasting connection.

The fragile narcissist’s behaviour can swing dramatically between hostile and contrite; first they punish, then they are sorry for a time before the cycle starts again. The aim here is twofold; to keep the other party confused by erratic behaviour (and therefore in the one-down position) and to keep narcissistic supply flowing freely.

Narcissistic supply is anything that reinforces the narcissist’s belief that they are special in ways others are not. Bearing in mind our three different types of narcissist, this can be in the form of adulation, the knowledge that they have influence over others, or sympathy. When the supply dwindles, the narcissist may just move onto their next target, but some will try and demand it through provocation, because even conflict can provide the narcissist with a much-needed attention fix.

While the majority of the world’s citizens are not narcissists, it’s important to acknowledge how societal values (especially Western ones) can impact an individual’s propensity to adopt narcissistic traits. For example, shame resilience researcher Brené Brown writes:

“I see the cultural messaging everywhere that says an ordinary life is a meaningless life. . . . I know the yearning to believe that what I’m doing matters and how easy it is to confuse that with the drive to be extraordinary. I know how seductive it is to use the celebrity culture yardstick to measure the smallness of our lives. And I also understand how grandiosity, entitlement, and admiration-seeking feel like just the right balm to soothe the ache of being too ordinary and inadequate.”

Dr Brown’s words provide an insight into what may lie behind some narcissistic behaviour, whilst highlighting the emptiness that such behaviour brings. The good news is that connecting and empathising with others as equals, self-acceptance and self-compassion are the antidotes.

Part two
of this article focuses on the specific personality type that the narcissist is drawn to and methods for self-care and survival.


Photo credit: Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse, 1903


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Melita Caulfield

Melita believes in living mindfully and authentically which is reflected in her writing and artistic expression.

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