Narcissists have become a pop culture trope—villains whose delusions of grandeur damage other people’s lives—be it in politics or in your personal life. We look at the history and latest research on a greatly misunderstood psychological disorder.
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Researched by: Rachel John
A brief history of narcissism
The myth: The word is rooted in the Greek myth of Narcissus—an extremely beautiful young man who rejected a nymph named Echo—leaving her heart-broken. The goddess of revenge Nemesis punished him by luring Narcissus to a pool of water—where he saw his own reflection for the first time. We all know what happened next: he became entranced with his own reflection—and pined away to death due to this impossible love. Ever since, Narcissus has existed mostly as a cautionary tale of the dangers of self-love—and inspiration for great art—like the John Waterhouse painting that’s our lead image.
The actual disorder: was first diagnosed in 1898 by English theorist Havelock Ellis who deployed the Greek myth to describe an intense sexual preoccupation with one’s own body—self-love in the most literal sense. But narcissism was not always pathological. Influential psychiatrists like Sigmund Freud (see: ‘On Narcissism’) later characterised it as a necessary developmental stage for a child—i.e a baby that considers itself as the centre of the universe. Freud also laid out a spectrum that differentiated between normal and pathological versions of this psychological state.
The mask model: The next big shift came in the 1960s and 1970s when psychoanalysts Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg put forward with the ‘mask model’ of narcissism: “It postulated that grandiose traits such as arrogance and assertiveness conceal feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem.” This was the first to link narcissism to vulnerability. The theory: The child develops feelings of grandiosity in order to feel special—to defend itself against distant or unfeeling parents. A person suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) lacks the capacity for sadness, guilt and mourning—and is driven instead by shame, envy and aggression.
Who is a narcissist?
The word is so freely thrown about these days that almost every jerk can be defined as a narcissist. There is an entire genre of TikTok videos—NarcTok—that claim to help you identify and defeat these villains. The reality is that most of us don’t know what NPD is.
- An exaggerated sense of self-importance and desire for admiration
- An extreme focus on success, power, and beauty
- Being overly critical or belittling of others
- Not caring about others' feelings
- Feeling superior to friends and family and entitled to special treatment
- Jealousy toward others' successes
- Takes advantage of others to serve their own interests
Not all jerks: As Slate notes, there is a difference between being a selfish jerk and a narcissist:
People who put themselves first, even outright assholes—they are not all narcissists… As for the difference between someone with NPD and someone who is simply kind of selfish, intention is key, says [professor of psychology, Aaron] Pincus. Someone with NPD will showcase a lack of empathy, along with interpersonal entitlement, exploitativeness, arrogance, and envy—all of which is specifically driven by a desire to uphold their sense of self. Narcissism really has to do with the person’s intentions and how they view the world.
People with NPD are invested in maintaining their grandiose view of themselves—whatever the cost—either to themselves or others. OTOH, someone can be self-entitled for all sorts of reasons—none of which need be pathological. And like any other disease, NPD exists on a spectrum.
The ‘other’ kind of narcissist: Pop culture only focuses on one kind of narcissist—the grandiose version. Think Donald Trump or effed up tech founder of choice. But there are just as many ‘vulnerable’ narcissists. It is characterised by anxiety, hypersensitivity to the perceptions of others, insecurity and shyness. More specifically:
Grandiose narcissists are socially competent. They are likely to be dominant and charming. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, are less socially skilled. They are likely to be shy and anxious in social situations. What’s more, while grandiose narcissists are forthright and assertive in pursuing in their goals, seeking to maximise success, vulnerable narcissists are timid and defensive, seeking to minimise failure.
This version is also linked to self-harm and risk of suicide.
Complicating matters: The latest research emphasises the vulnerability of all narcissists—arguing that their grandiose behaviour is “better understood as a compensatory adaptation to overcome and cover up low self-worth. Narcissists are insecure, and they cope with these insecurities by flexing. This makes others like them less in the long run, thus further aggravating their insecurities, which then leads to a vicious cycle of flexing behaviours.” A number of experts say ‘grandiose’ and ‘vulnerable’ are different states experienced by all narcissists—some more than others.
The pushback: Not everyone buys the ‘every grandiose narcissist hurts sometimes' line—and argue that delusions of grandeur are just that:
Although grandiose people may sometimes feel vulnerable, that vulnerability isn't necessarily linked to insecurities, [psychologist Joe] Miller argues. “I think they feel really angry because what they cherish more than anything is a sense of superiority and status—and when that's called into question, they're going to lash back,” he adds. Psychologist Donald Lynam of Purdue University agrees: “I think people can be jerks for lots of reasons—they could simply think they're better than others or be asserting status or dominance—it's an entirely different motivation, and I think that motivation has been neglected.”
The veritable wolf? In some popular versions—like this Guardian column—the vulnerable narcissist is becomes instead a wolf in sheep’s clothing:
With covert narcissists, their focus on meeting their own needs is masked by more subtle manipulation and control techniques. They can come across as sweet and innocent, even shy and introverted, and can also seem very caring and helpful. They can be the shoulder to cry on, but will use what you share with them against you further down the road, and ultimately, with the aim of manipulating you to feel indebted and grateful. Thus providing them with admiration and gratitude—narcissistic supply.
Of course, these theories are exactly the kind to make you see narcissists everywhere.
A society of narcissists
Since the 1970s, prominent theorists have built entire careers claiming that the US/the West is more narcissistic—or becoming more narcissistic with each passing decade/generation. Some of this is the usual hand-wringing over the ‘selfishness’ of each new generation—which we see in India, as well. But at least some of this is based in fact.
The culture effect: A recent study looked at levels of narcissism among former East and West Germans—and the effects of being raised in a socialist vs capitalist society. It found that West Germans scored higher on grandiose narcissism than their eastern counterparts who—most interestingly—scored higher on genuine self-esteem. FYI:
Narcissism and high self-esteem both include positive self-evaluations, but the entitlement, exploitation, sense of superiority, and negative evaluation of others that are associated with narcissism are not necessarily observed in individuals with high self-esteem.
It makes sense that a society that emphasises individualism is more likely to foster narcissism than one based on collectivism. And that these levels change as cultures become more or less individualistic. For example, recent research shows an increasing use of narcissistic phrases such as “I am the greatest” in the US between 1960 and 2008. Also: the greater use of ‘I’ and ‘me’ than ‘we’ and ‘us’ in books. In India, OTOH, we might trace the change in SRK’s evolution from singing ‘Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani’ to ‘Main Hoon Don’ lol!
The social media effect: As with all other societal ills, social media is most often blamed for increasing levels of narcissism. A more interesting iteration of this argument is that these platforms give greater power and visibility to people who are already narcissists:
Social media is the narcissist’s playground. Through likes and shares, it re-engineers their social feedback loop towards the superficiality they thrive on, fuelling a sense of superiority and rewarding manipulative tendencies. Perhaps it is little wonder that narcissists are more likely to become addicted to social media.
These narcissists are equally likely to be left- or rightwing—but their narcissism manifests differently. The rightwing kind suffer from entitlement while those on the left crave validation. Some link narcissism to cancel culture—and virtue signalling:
Social media narcissists pull left-leaning movements towards the latter model of hating on people perceived to think the wrong way, which is destructive to social change but much more thrilling than the boring, old-fashioned work of building alliances across divides. Victory is people being shamed and bullied for minor or nonexistent transgressions, rather than winning hearts and minds. No matter if the punishment far exceeds the crime: a narcissist’s moral certainty dehumanises those who fall foul of their creed.
The bottomline: There will always be narcissists in this world. The real question is how much power they are allowed to wield—either in our personal lives or in our society.
The Scientific American is best on parsing the latest research on narcissism—and the vulnerability debate. The Conversation has more on the same while Big Think has a good piece on the cultural effect of individualism. The Guardian offers two strongly opinionated columns—one on ‘covert’ narcissism and the other on narcissism on social media. Slate is excellent on the gross misuse of the word ‘narcissism’ in pop culture. Psychology Today looks at how parents can turn their kids into narcissists. New Yorker argues that the greatly beloved Jerry Maguire was a raging narcissist.