The so called ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ is a complex and often misunderstood disorder. The cardinal feature of the narcissistic personality is the grandiose sense of self importance, but paradoxically underneath this grandiosity the narcissist suffers from a chronically fragile low self esteem. The grandiosity of the narcissist, however, is often so pervasive that we tend to dehumanize him or her. The narcissist conjures in us images of the mythological character Narcissus who could only love himself, rebuffing anyone who attempted to touch him. Nevertheless, it is the underlying sense of inferiority which is the real problem of the narcissist, the grandiosity is just a facade used to cover the deep feelings of inadequacy.
The Makeup of the Narcissistic Personality
The narcissist’s grandiose behavior is designed to reaffirm his or her sense of adequacy. Since the narcissist is incapable of asserting his or her own sense of adequacy,the narcissist seeks to be admired by others. However, the narcissist’s extremely fragile sense of self worth does not allow him or her to risk any criticism. Therefore, meaningful emotional interactions with others are avoided. By simultaneously seeking the admiration of others and keeping them at a distance the narcissist is usually able to maintain the illusion of grandiosity no matter how people respond. Thus, when people praise the narcissist his or her grandiosity will increase, but when criticized the grandiosity will usually remain unaffected because the narcissist will devalue the criticizing person.
Akhtar (1989) [as cited in Carson & Butcher, 1992; P. 271] discusses six areas of pathological functioning which characterize the narcissist.
In particular, four of these narcissistic character traits best illustrate the pattern discussed above.
(1) a narcissistic individual has a basic sense of inferiority, which underlies a preoccupation with fantasies of outstanding achievement;
(2) a narcissistic individual is unable to trust and rely on others and thus develops numerous, shallow relationships to extract tributes from others;
(3) a narcissistic individual has a shifting morality-always ready to shift values to gain favor; and
(4) a narcissistic person is unable to remain in love, showing an impaired capacity for a committed relationship.
Levels of Narcissism
The most extreme form of narcissism involves the perception that no separation exists between the self and the object. The object is viewed as an extension of the self, in the sense that the narcissist considers others to be a merged part of him or her. Usually, the objects which the narcissist chooses to merge with represent that aspect of the narcissist’s personality about which feelings of inferiority are perceived. For instance if a narcissist feels unattractive he or she will seek to merge with someone who is perceived by the narcissist to be attractive. At a slightly higher level exists the narcissist who acknowledges the separateness of the object, however, the narcissist views the object as similar to himself or herself in the sense that they share a similar psychological makeup. In effect the narcissist perceives the object as ‘just like me’. The most evolved narcissistic personality perceives the object to be both separate and psychologically different, but is unable to appreciate the object as a unique and separate person. The object is thus perceived as useful only to the extent of its ability to aggrandize the false self (Manfield, 1992).
Types of narcissism
Pending the perceived needs of the environment a narcissist can develop in one of two directions. The individual whose environment supports his or her grandiosity, and demands that he or she be more than possible will develop to be an exhibitionistic narcissist. Such an individual is told ‘you are superior to others’, but at the same time his or her personal feelings are ignored. Thus, to restore his or her feelings of adequacy the growing individual will attempt to coerce the environment into supporting his or her grandiose claims of superiority and perfection. On the other hand, if the environment feels threatened by the individual’s grandiosity it will attempt to suppress the individual from expressing this grandiosity. Such an individual learns to keep the grandiosity hidden from others, and will develop to be a closet narcissist. The closet narcissist will thus only reveal his or her feelings of grandiosity when he or she is convinced that such revelations will be safe (Manfield, 1992)
Narcissistic Defense Mechanisms
Narcissistic defenses are present to some degree in all people, but are especially pervasive in narcissists. These defenses are used to protect the narcissist from experiencing the feelings of the narcissistic injury. The most pervasive defense mechanism is the grandiose defense. Its function is to restore the narcissist’s inflated perception of himself or herself. Typically the defense is utilized when someone punctures the narcissist’s grandiosity by saying something which interferes with the narcissist’s inflated view of himself or herself. The narcissist will then experience a narcissistic injury similar to that experienced in childhood and will respond by expanding his or her grandiosity, thus restoring his or her wounded self concept. Devaluation is another common defense which is used in similar situations. When injured or disappointed the narcissist can respond by devaluing the ‘offending’ person. Devaluation thus restores the wounded ego by providing the narcissist with a feeling of superiority over the offender. There are two other defense mechanisms which the narcissist uses. The self-sufficiency defense is used to keep the narcissist emotionally isolated from others. By keeping himself or herself emotionally isolated the narcissist’s grandiosity can continue to exist unchallenged. Finally, the manic defense is utilized when feelings of worthlessness begin to surface. To avoid experiencing these feelings the narcissist will attempt to occupy himself or herself with various activities, so that he or she has no time left to feel the feelings (Manfield, 1992).
The Therapeutic Essence of Treating Narcissism
The narcissist who enters therapy does not think that there is something wrong with him or her. Typically, the narcissist seeks therapy because he or she is unable to maintain the grandiosity which protects him or her from the feelings of despair. The narcissist views his or her situation arising not as a result of a personal maladjustment; rather it is some factor in the environment which is beyond the narcissist’s control which has caused his or her present situation. Therefore, the narcissist expects the therapist not to ‘cure’ him or her from a problem which he or she does not perceive to exist, rather the narcissist expects the therapist to restore the protective feeling of grandiosity. It is therefore essential for the therapist to be alert to the narcissists attempts to steer therapy towards healing the injured grandiose part, rather than exploring the underlying feelings of inferiority and despair.