If you're being treated for a narcissistic disorder, trust your therapist's recommendations more than mine. Please. If you would like to comment about your therapeutic work or offer self-help resources, you're welcome to do so. Disrespectful comments, especially from people who do not identify as narcissists, will be deleted at my discretion.
|The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel 1563
"Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm---but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves." ~T.S. Eliot
The Search for the Real Self
When the grass is greener on the other side of the fencePeople with narcissistic disorders try on lifestyles, build new identities, mirror personalities, tear imperfect identities down, add on, take off, build up, create, destroy, strive for the ideal, for perfection. If they get what they want and it isn't perfect (which of course it never will be), they throw away that person, that lifestyle, that job, and search for greener grass elsewhere. People with narcissistic personalities are perpetually chasing dreams that never fill the hollow of the lost self. They're restless. Their restlessness may inspire great achievements and rewards because narcissists can be indefatigably ambitious; but the search for the real self ultimately fails because the foundation to their quest is faulty.
This painting by Pieter Bruegel struck me as meaningful. I've interpreted it as the narcissistic desire to create an ideal self since good enough isn't. The ideal self is never in the present moment, in reality. The ideal self is a dream. A fantasy. An impossibility. In other words, the self isn't real because nothing short of ideal will suffice. Being ordinary isn't good enough. Good enough is devalued as inferior, which raises the bar another floor level and the building rises higher than all the others. "When the roof-line touches the clouds, will I be real then?" And being so self-absorbed, the narcissist is oblivious to the dangers his toppling structure poses to surrounding communities. The foundation on one side is solid; and the side that's closest to community is weak and crumbling.
Narcissism is a relational disorder of the self. That's the working definition for this essay. Giancarlo Dimaggio describes narcissism as,"a disturbed internalized representation of self and others," which is gobbledygook to most people's ears. James Masterson's description works well. He titled his book, The Search for the Real Self. His description fits my experiences with narcissistic people who are never sure who they are, but it's better than you and it's still not good enough.
I get emails. Could I help people with narcissistic personalities and do I think so-and-so has a narcissistic disorder? Without a clinical diagnosis it's impossible to know. Even with a clinical diagnosis, mistakes are made but happily not by me. I believe that the people with narcissistic personalities who are reading my blog and asking questions, are capable of healing. Malignant narcissists aren't inclined to change their scallawag-ish ways and besides, they'd be writing to Dr. Kernberg or Dr. Ronningstam, they wouldn't be writing to me. And besides too, malignant narcissists wouldn't make it through one of my articles. Let's call my long-windedness the malignancy filter. If you've made it this far, you aren't. Keep reading.
"Narcissism springs from an opposite relationship with the self: not self-involvement, but a disconnection with oneself...A diagnosis of narcissism is not a black-and-white matter; rather, it's a matter of degree." ~The Mirror Effect (Pinsky and Young)I like Drew Pinsky's depiction of narcissism as a disconnection from the self meaning it is a relational disorder with one's self (intra-personal). This internal disconnect leads to relational problems outside one's self (inter-personal) resulting in stormy, even mutually destructive relationships. Only when other people complain about the narcissist's one-sided self-preoccupied focus, do most narcissists question whether something might be amiss. Depending on the value narcissists place on those complaining relationships, they may want to change. Even when narcissists want to change their self-preoccupation, they must preoccupy themselves with themselves in order to do it. Some people have said to me, "I'm so sick of thinking about myself! When can I stop thinking about me?!" and it makes you feel bad because you don't have that problem because whole days pass by with other people and you've never thought ten seconds about yourself. The lack of genuine interest in, and empathy for others, is isolating. Narcissism disconnects us from our real self when perfection is the criteria for self-acceptance; and narcissism disconnects from imperfect others. People with narcissistic personalities profess a desire for love and intimacy but fear rejection and thus devalue intimacy and vulnerability as weaknesses. They tear love down.
Building Up. Tearing Down. Starting over. Building up. Tearing down. Starting over. If the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, put your neighbor down to build yourself back up again.
Suggestion #1: Recognize patterns of idealization and devaluation
The perception of a perceived criticism leads to devaluation (tearing down) even if that someone had been idealized (building up). Devaluation and Idealization happen on the outside, with jobs, with possessions, with people. Once someone or something has been thoroughly devalued, discarding is likely to follow. And it hurts so much when narcissists discard people that caretakers organize message boards to help people cope with the trauma. By the time a narcissist Devalues and Discards someone (called the 'D&D' for short), the best thing is to get people back on their feet while narcissists continue their search for the ideal.
The emotional and psychological costs to other people when they are discarded by narcissists is enormous and should never be justified. Human beings are not stepping stones to another person's search for authenticity.
It's ugly when narcissists discard people who have loved them, but its also worth noting that what's happening on the outside of every narcissist, is happening on the inside of every narcissist. Narcissists construct a hyper-valuation of self that is sharply contrasted with a harsh self-derogation. (Dimaggio, 2012) The Inner Critic, the bully relationship everyone can relate to to some degree, is similar to the self-derogation narcissists experience only not as severe because we have a real self to buoy us. Creating a stable self that's good enough without aspiring for perfection, diminishes the tyranny of the hyper-valued ideal self.
Awareness of this destructive narcissistic pattern (Brown, 1998) idealizing-and-devaluing other people and the self, might be enough to stop the 'devalue and discard.' If you have a history of devaluing others and yourself, make a serious effort to break this unconscious pattern because it will destroy your relationships with perfectly good enough people who care about your perfectly good enough self.
Suggestion #2: Know the warning signs and stumbling blocks to healthy recovery
Pay attention when you're idealizing (I'm so special) and devaluing yourself (I'm a piece of dog poop!). When you see yourself going down, down, down, ask for help help help. New literature about narcissism suggests that the emptiness people with narcissistic personalities experience may lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The rumor most of us believed (it's written over and over in online advice) is that narcissists would never commit suicide because they loved themselves too much. That has not been my personal experience. New research substantiates my opinion, "With regard to NPD, there is clinical agreement that narcissistic patients are prone to suicidal behavior...as many as 23.3% of young males who committed suicide had a diagnosis of NPD." (Ronningstam, pg. 159)
Men are more frequently diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder and women with a borderline disorder. The overlap is high. If you combine statistics for both, suicide is a serious threat and should not be dismissed as an improbability. We've drawn some erroneous conclusions that aren't bearing up to research, including the intractability of narcissistic disorders.
Admitting you need help may be excruciating. Accepting help may be even more painful because people who place high value on autonomy, resist dependency. Let's just say reliance on other people is not a core strength for people with narcissistic personalities. They need to work on that. ;-) The fact is, human beings need each other so there's no point denying our attachment needs.
Suggestion #3: Shift towards Communal Traits and Values
"Normal narcissism is vital for satisfaction and survival. All the capacities of the real self come under the heading of normal narcissism, which in effect is the capacity to identify what you want and need, get yourself together, and go after it, while also taking into account the welfare of others. This is the healthy way to feel good about yourself. This important distinction between healthy and pathological narcissism has been blurred by the tendency to see all narcissism as pathological." ~James F. MastersonWe live in a narcissistic society idealizing individualistic (agentic) values and devaluing communal domains. Traditional social structures (communal) are breaking down as people become increasingly individualistic. Individualism isn't necessarily a bad thing; focusing on the self encourages personal growth towards self-actualization which will, as the theory goes, deepen our relationships with others. So is identifying what we want and going after it a bad thing? Not if we're also taking other people's welfare into consideration. Unfortunately, "narcissists focus on what benefits them personally, with less regard for how their actions may benefit (or harm) others." (Campbell and Foster)
Recent studies by social psychologists reinforce Masterson's advice about "taking into account the welfare of others". Balancing other people's needs and wants along with individual needs and wants, is vital to harmonious and fulfilling relationships. If your needs are primary, even over your children's, you might wanna take stock of your narcissism. If getting what you want hurts or exploits people, you might wanna take stock of your narcissism. No measure of success in the external world can compensate for deficits in the internal world. Warm and supportive relationships fill deficits, giving meaning and joy to our lives. Unfortunately, "the narcissistic self is not particularly oriented toward warm interpersonal relationships." (Campbell and Foster) People with narcissistic disorders tend to seek fulfillment in ephemeral agentic rewards without long-lasting sustenance and meaning of communal connections.
The search for the real self is dependent on healthy relationships with people, embracing and living by communal ideals, increasing empathy for others. Self-focus, the agentic orientation without equal balance in others, is not a fulfilling experience. The problem people with narcissistic personalities face, as Jeanne Twenge explains, is that "self-focus is ultimately an empty experience. Just as a life lived without others is but a shadow of a deep, meaningful existence, a society without empathy is a shallow and troubled one."
Twenge's statement sums up why I've written so much about the importance of relationships and how people with narcissistic personalities might avoid ruining relationships with the D&D. The first step is always awareness---becoming conscious of one's strategies and behaviors such as: the overvaluation of agency and undervaluation of communion. Now that you are aware, you can do something about the imbalance. I jotted a quick list of traits while reading literature on social dominance versus social connection because I wasn't sure what social psychologists meant by agentic and communal orientations.
Agentic and Communal
Agentic traits and values (egoistic bias): dominance, power, admiration, Machiavellianism, competitiveness, low need for intimacy, disagreeableness, self-serving, self-sufficiency, risk-taking, intellectual skills, openness, extroversion, superiority
Communal traits and values (moralistic bias): empathy, morality, caring, acceptance, agreeableness, conscientiousness, intimacy, openness, inter-dependency, mutual reciprocity, trust, altruism, friendliness, helpfulness, niceness, kindness, considerate, forgiving, prosocial
People tend to have more traits in either communal or agentic orientations. That doesn't mean someone like myself (high value on trust and caring) lacks agentic traits. If I didn't have agentic traits and values, I wouldn't risk writing this article. We are a mix of both. The key to being mentally and psychologically healthy is a matter of balance, a solid foundation with both feet planted in "me" and "thee".
People with narcissistic personalities pride themselves in being independent, competitive, self-reliant; they don't see themselves as caring folks or kind people, and it doesn't bother them that they aren't. Other people see narcissists the same way too, and that's why we have reality television. Narcissistic people are endlessly entertaining to viewers who would never be so self-absorbed and ruthless. (Not so entertaining if you're the one voted off the island.)
Research by social psychologists makes clear the low value narcissists have for communal concerns. What would be ego-dystonic for me, is ego-syntonic for people with narcissistic personalities. In other words, people with a communal orientation feel terrible when someone says we're selfish or stuck up. When you tell narcissists they're selfish and stuck up, or even call 'em rat bazturds, they don't mind so much. It might even make an overt narcissist proud of his distinction. That's because “Narcissists limit their overly positive self-views to agentic domains; individuals with high self-esteem have positive self-views in both the agentic and the communal domains.” (Campbell, Brunell, and Finkel)
Mental and psychological health requires a balancing of agency and communion. Once again, Masterson's words are worth repeating: "All the capacities of the real self come under the heading of normal narcissism, which in effect is the capacity to identify what you want and need, get yourself together, and go after it, while also taking into account the welfare of others. This is the healthy way to feel good about yourself. "
In narcissistic societies, people are attracted to agentic traits. Even narcissists are attracted to people with high agentic traits---in the beginning, that is. In the long term, communal traits like trust, forgiveness and caring, stabilize relationships, "improving the relational functioning of narcissists". (Campbell, Brunell, and Finkel) Relationships give meaning and purpose to our lives. Intimate relationships sustain us. It's fair to say that it's not where we end up that matters; it's who's with us when our ends are up that counts. *grin*
Suggestion #4: Practice, Practice, Practice
"Narcissists can learn to be more caring about others, and narcissism can be reduced when these individuals are included in social groups. Psychotherapy may be useful in getting the individual with narcissistic personality disorder to relate to others in a less maladaptive manner." ~Psychology TodayExcessive admiration for agentic traits is ruinous to individuals, families, and society. Dominating the household, defending one's turf, refusing to compromise, having the most, viewing one's self as superior---these individualistic behaviors are admired in narcissistic societies. People high in agentic traits are promoted as winners. But they lose. They lose because their search for the real self, the self that lives in connection with others, has been circumvented by society's admiration for outlaws, rebels, iconoclastic personalities. This disconnect from the true self inhibits the development of communal traits and the seduction of admiration prolongs the search.
Admiration never satisfies, never fills the hollow of the lost self searching for love.
We are inter-reliant creatures, we humans. We need loving connections for our mental health and well-being. Disconnection and alienation resulting from the grandiose perception of one's self as superior to others and therefore entitled to exploit others to meet one's needs; or, disconnection and alienation resulting from one's inferiority to others, and therefore unworthiness of inclusion and love, are two sides of the same coin: narcissism.
"Narcissism is part and parcel of our life-denying culture which places accomplishment over pleasure, status over love, appearance over reality. It is the endemic result of our culture's material perfectionism. It bridles a very significant proportion of our people and cripples some of our most gifted and giving individuals. Yet while the culture reinforces it, its breeding ground is the family." ~Steven M. Johnson, Humanizing the Narcissistic StyleHow do we reduce the narcissism disconnecting us from other people and ourselves? We shift from agentic values towards the communal. It won't be easy to do for any of us because we live in an individualistic society where Machiavellianism is promoted as strength and communal values demeaned as weakness. You get voted off the island if you're honest and kind, so don't trust anyone, and put yourself first 'cuz that's how to win the game. This attitude is quickly becoming a belief, thus normalized. It's a problem because whether we can bear this truth or not, the real self is a loving self.
The search for real self requires self-control, deliberate and persistent efforts changing patterns and habits that have been reinforced, sometimes for decades, resulting in a narcissistic disorder. But the very good and uplifting news is that "constant repetition of deliberate habits of self-control can correct "mischances of character." (Cukrowics and Joiner).
Healthy behaviors consistently practiced, change unhealthy behaviors
"An empathic nature does not suddenly evolve. Rather, empathy develops over time, reinforced constantly by positive experiences of emotional attunement with others."~The Mirror EffectRobert Firestone writes in Fear of Intimacy, "Learning to give and receive love is central to an individual's sense of well-being; it is a fundamental aspect of being human." We each learn to give and receive love and if we didn't learn this as children, we can learn it as adults. A useful way to change narcissistic (unloving) behavior when you don't like what you're doing and the other person really doesn't like what you're doing either, is to say to yourself: "Self, if you don't wanna be that, don't do that". If you don't want to devalue people and harm them, stop. Think about what you're doing. Know why. Then change course. The more integrated your communal traits become, the more stable and balanced you'll be. The little things we do each day add up to big things overtime.
We can change our destination at any point and at any moment by simply shifting course one or two degrees. Consciously and intentionally adding communal values to existing agentic traits will improve the lives of everyone in your life. Which means your life will be better, too. It may seem small and it may appear to be pointless, but tiny changes make a difference even when behavior is forced. Kinda like when your mom says "Smile anyway!" and you do and you feel better and pretty soon smiling is your default setting. It can happen.
Our Narcissistic Society
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Campbell, W. Keith, Amy B. Brunell, and Eli J. Finkel. Narcissism, Interpersonal self-regulation, and Romantic relationships: An Agency Model Approach
Campbell, W. Keith and Joshua D. Foster. The Narcissistic Self: Background, an Extended Agency Model, and Ongoing Controversies
Campbell, W. Keith, Adam S. Goodie and Joshua D. Foster. Narcissism, Confidence, and Risk Attitude. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making (2004)
Campbell, W. Keith, Eric A. Rudich, Constantine Sedikides. Narcissism, Self-Esteem, and the Positivity of Self-views: Two Portraits of Self-Love. The Society for Personality and social Psychology, Inc. (2002)
Cukrowicz , Kelly C. and Thomas E. Joiner Jr. Treating the "Mischances of Character," Simply and Effectively. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer 2005.
Dimaggio, Giancarlo. Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Rethinking What We Know
Firestone, Robert and Joyce Catlett. (1999) Fear of Intimacy. American Psychological Association.
Pinsky, Drew and Mark S. Young. (2009) The Mirror Effect. Harper Collins Press
Ronningstam, Elsa F. (2005) Identifying and Understanding the Narcissistic Personality. Oxford University Press.
Walsh, Christopher. The Practical Application of Mindfulness in Individual Cognitive Therapy. Presented at the 28th National conference for the Australian Association for Cognitive and Behavior Therapy. (2005)
Wink, Paul, Michele Dillon, and Kristen Fay. Spiritual Seeking, Narcissism, and Psychotherapy: How Are They Related? Journal for the Scientific Study of religion. (2005)