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The psychology of narcissism

And its dark side

By HEEMANI MUKHIAPublished 20 days ago 3 min read

From Myth to Modern Diagnosis: Understanding Narcissism

The ancient myth of Narcissus, a man obsessed with his reflection, perfectly captures the essence of narcissism: an inflated sense of self-importance. But narcissism isn't just a character flaw from folklore; it's a set of traits studied by psychologists.

Beyond Selfies: The Different Faces of Narcissism

Psychologists define narcissism as an exaggerated self-image. People with narcissistic traits believe they are superior to others in looks, intelligence, and importance, and deserve special treatment. There are two main types of narcissism:

Grandiose Narcissism: This is the classic extroverted narcissist, often seeking power and attention. They might become politicians, celebrities, or CEOs. It's important to note that not everyone in these positions is narcissistic; some genuinely strive to make a positive impact.

Vulnerable Narcissism: These individuals are more reserved but still hold a strong sense of entitlement. They are easily offended and threatened.

The Dark Side of Narcissism

In the long run, narcissism can be damaging. Narcissists tend to be selfish. Leaders with narcissistic tendencies might make risky decisions, and narcissistic partners may be dishonest or unfaithful. When their self-image is challenged, they can become aggressive and resentful. While narcissists themselves may feel good, those around them often suffer.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: A Clinical Condition

In extreme cases, narcissism becomes a full-blown personality disorder, affecting 1-2% of the population, more commonly men. Unlike normal childhood self-centeredness, narcissistic personality disorder significantly disrupts a person's life. Traits include:

Grandiose sense of self-importance

Lack of empathy for others

Entitlement mentality

Constant need for admiration

These traits cause problems in relationships and work. Imagine prioritizing getting compliments over caring for your family, or rejecting any feedback, even if it's constructive.

Causes of Narcissism

Research suggests both genetics and environment play a role in narcissism. Twin studies indicate a strong genetic link, but the specific genes are unknown. Upbringing also matters. Parents who excessively praise their children might contribute to grandiose narcissism, while cold or controlling parents might be a risk factor for vulnerable narcissism. Culture seems to play a part too. Societies that emphasize individualism and self-promotion appear to have higher rates of narcissism. For example, in the US, narcissism has been rising since the 1970s, possibly linked to the shift from a communal to a self-esteem-focused culture and the rise of materialism. Social media provides a platform for self-promotion, but it's not clear if it causes narcissism; it simply gives narcissists another avenue to seek attention.

Spotting a Narcissist: Key Signs

People with narcissistic personality disorder have a deep need for admiration and a sense of superiority. Here are some red flags:

Grandiose Self-Importance: They believe they're uniquely special and deserving of special treatment.

Fantasy World: They live in a world of self-imagined success and power.

Constant Admiration Need: They crave constant praise and feel threatened by anyone who seems successful.

Sense of Entitlement: They expect to get what they want, without question.

Exploits Others: They use people to achieve their goals without guilt.

Puts Others Down: They belittle and bully others to feel superior.

Different Types of Narcissism

Narcissism can show up in various ways:

Healthy Narcissism (Adaptive): This type focuses on positive traits like confidence and ambition.

Unhealthy Narcissism (Maladaptive): This is the classic toxic narcissist with a sense of entitlement and a willingness to exploit others. Here are some subtypes:

Overt/Grandiose: Extroverted, arrogant, and overbearing.

Covert/Vulnerable: Introverted, sensitive to criticism, and low self-esteem.

Communal: Presents as caring and selfless but motivated by a need for power and superiority.

Antagonistic: Highly competitive, aggressive, and hostile.

Malignant: Most destructive form, with aggression, paranoia, and sadistic tendencies.

Can Narcissists Change?

Yes! Therapy and practices that encourage self-reflection and compassion can help narcissists improve their behavior. However, it can be difficult for them to sustain change because self-reflection that reveals flaws can be challenging.


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