The Story of Narcissism

ARCHETYPES: HUNTERS AND NYMPHS

First, I want to tell you a story about a man named Narcissus.

Narcissus was a beautiful Greek hunter. He was so beautiful that people constantly fell in love with him. Narcissus found pride in breaking the hearts of those who loved him. No one was worthy of his inherent superiority and transcendent beauty. One day, he discovered his reflection on the surface of a lake. He saw and loved what others saw and loved in him. He fell in love with his image. He stared at his reflection from there on, losing the desire for anything and everything else. That was Narcissus’ last action; undying admiration for his reflection until he died.

Now, let me tell you about Narcissus’ lesser-known counterpart, Echo.

Echo was a Greek mountain nymph. She used her words dishonestly to distort reality. For that, she was cursed. She lost the ability to speak for herself. She could then only repeat the words of others. One day, she came across Narcissus. She instantly fell in love with him, and silently followed him. Burdened by her inability to speak her truth, she could only reflect his words back to him. In a tragic confession of her love using his words, she was faced with a cruel rejection. However, this only intensified her love and longing for him.

As Narcissus perished, consumed by his love of his reflection, Echo withered away, consumed by her love for him.

MODERN CURSES: FROM 0 TO 10

Narcissus and Echo may not have been actual people, but they were and still are very much alive. They transcend time, space, culture, and gender. They are immortal maps of personalities, relationships, and patterns of behavior. The sad truth about them is that just like the ancient mythological characters were blind to their fatal flaws, both modern narcissists and “echoists” may be unaware of the underlying truth about themselves.

In his book, Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin steers away from the popular understanding of narcissism as mere vanity and obsession with literal appearance, to something more neutral. He describes narcissism as the need to feel special. Feeling special, he argues, as bad as it sounds can actually be a healthy thing. It can be a source of ambition, hope, creativity, and resiliency. To avoid the binary narcissism classification, he developed a more nuanced model to recognize and discuss the topic and trait of narcissism.

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Narcissism, in Dr. Malkin’s view, exists on a spectrum. He designed a test that scales narcissism from 0 to 10.  In this model, narcissism is trait that we all have to some extent. A radical amount of it or an absolute lack of it are both pathological. A moderate healthy amount of narcissism is then desirable to have a stable sense of identity, confidence, and self-worth.

ECHOISM: SELF-DENYING (0 TO 2)

Echoism, which lands on the far left end of  the narcissism spectrum, can manifest in a variety of unhealthy ways. People on the far left don’t tolerate “feeling special” under any circumstances. Our moral instincts may lead us to believe that being entirely selfless is a virtue. However, when closely examined, not having any self-interest at all seems unhealthy and destructive.

Life at 0 is self-abnegating. People near this end of the spectrum refuse any sympathy or help even under difficult conditions. They don’t enjoy birthday parties, receiving credit, or even gratitude. They want to forever live in the shadow of being ordinary. Their biggest fear is being a burden — justified or not. They avoid displaying any signs of self-affirmation or confidence for the fear of being seen as narcissistic. They put other people’s needs before their own.

They often suffer from low self-esteem. In relationships, they tend to subjugate themselves to their partner’s wishes and needs. They constantly feel undeserving. They are pessimistic, and they tend to be anxious, depressed, and emotionally fragile.

HEALTHY NARCISSISM: SELF-AFFIRMING (4 TO 6)

This is the range of moderate narcissism. People in the center are self-affirming, confident, and driven. They might occasionally be arrogant, but feeling special is not a compulsive need for them. They enjoy having big dreams of success, but they don’t obsess over it or cause that to undermine their values and intimate relationships. They are able to include others in the spotlight.

People in the center can realize when their narcissism spikes and their grandiosity gets the better of them. They are able to empathize, love, and connect with people. They realize and apologize when their ambition makes them too self-involved. They strive to exceed ordinary standards, but they don’t act superior or make people feel like they’re beneath them. Not only that, but people seem to be better for being around them. People living in the middle of the spectrum seem to lift others with them as they rise.

They are often calm, optimistic, and cheery. They possess high self-esteem. They excel at giving and receiving emotional support. They feel deserving but not overentitled. They don’t brag, but they don’t bash themselves either.

EXTREME NARCISSISM: SELF-SERVING (8 TO 10)

Being on the far right of the spectrum is just as pathological as the far left. People near this end are addicted to attention. They feel like they don’t exist without the acknowledgment of their specialness.

People at 10 lack empathy.  They are fueled by their grandiose fantasies of success and domination. They would only want to associate with people they deem as worthy as them or who would serve them in meeting their needs. They are typically very concerned with their appearance and those associated with them. They think they are above normal rules and expectations. What’s even worse than their lack of empathy, is their lack of emotional awareness to even realize it.

Another marker of extreme narcissism is poor emotional regulation. They are prone to anger tantrums whenever things don’t go their way. They tend to be very hypersensitive to criticism because they can’t tolerate being seen in a negative light. Their craving for attention can be a loud obvious overt need or a secret covert desire. They jump from one relationship to the next looking for a new source of validation after the old supply runs out.

They have a fluctuating self-esteem. They struggle to give and receive emotional support. They tend to be entitled, manipulative, and approval seeking. They see themselves as better than their partner and everyone else. They are argumentative, uncooperative, and selfish. They are often unemotional.

BREAKING THE CURSE?

It’s interesting to note that the majority of people’s narcissism fluctuates throughout their life. For example, narcissism seems to spike through the adolescent development and then dip as people mature into adulthood. Our need for people’s attention can also vary during everyday life.  For example, when we are sick, we may feel we want to be taken care of. Major life events can also increase or decrease our sense of entitlement.

Mobility along the narcissism spectrum with a few points through life is natural. However, because extreme narcissists are more damaging than echoists, we shouldn’t be too hopeful. We should be more careful when we suspect having them in our life. They are a destructive force, and people shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking they can change or “fix” them. The research suggests that even though you can teach extreme narcissist how to “appear” empathic and improve their interpersonal skills, you can’t instill in them the empathy and compassion that comes naturally to most people. They tend to cause havoc and chaos in the lives of those around them, especially their partner or spouse. Unless your proximity to the narcissist is unavoidable; run.

THE NARCISSIST IN YOUR LIFE

Just because the full-blown manifestations of both personalities are pathological, doesn’t mean that they are on equal moral grounds. Narcissists inflict damage on almost everyone around them, and echoists hurt mostly themselves. Chances are that you’ll encounter more narcissists in your life than echoists. This is why Dr. Malkin spends the second half of his book talking about ways and techniques to recognize the toxic narcissistic behavior, and how to cope with it in the case that avoiding it entirely is not possible.

A subset of those narcissists may be easy to recognize, but some will be subtle and hiding behind a meticulously constructed facade of sainthood and benevolence. Those are the narcissists you’d want to recognize, and if possible, stay away from. They can be extroverted or introverted. They can be a parent, a sibling, a spouse, romantic partner, coworker, and they are likely to be a destructive force in your life.

In the case that avoiding them is not an option, there are many resources that could guide you through strategies and techniques to both work on yourself and your interactions with the narcissist in your life. Some of these techniques include adjusting and managing your expectations once you’ve identified the narcissist and the toxic behaviors. Others include communication techniques you can employ to help you deal with them without sacrificing your dignity, sanity, and self-esteem. You can find such a guide in Dr. Malkin’s book, Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. Many other resources can be found online. In cases of serious physical or emotional abuse, call someone! Also, seeing a mental health professional can be very beneficial.

THE NARCISSISM TEST

Dr. Malkin’s narcissism scale is not meant for medical diagnoses. It’s also not a perfect model. Some people may not perfectly fit within his designed parameters, however, it can provide a more nuanced understanding of the innate human desire to feel special than the black and white understanding of narcissism. If you are curious about how you would score on the narcissism test, you can take it here.

References:

Malkin, C. (2016). Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial.

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