Life Health Features

Sunday 18 August 2019

Are we all narcissists?

While the last few years were all about us diagnosing the psychopaths in our lives, now it's all about categorising people as narcissists. So what actually is narcissism, and are we really suddenly surrounded by it? Emily Hourican says being a narcissist isn't actually much fun, and watch out, you may even be a bit of a narcissist yourself

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Stock image
Mark Zuckerberg
Elon Musk
Kanye West
Mariah Carey
Donald Trump

Emily Hourican

I suppose 'peak narcissist' came, for me, when my 15-year-old recently said it about someone he knows. Casually, without ire; an accepted fact, indelible as eye colour, just as unremarkable. "Oh, he's a narcissist."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

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"Selfish and full of himself."

That seems to be, roughly, the popular definition (add burning ambition and a willingness to tread on anyone to get where they're going, and you pretty much have it) at a time when every second person seems to be described as a narcissist.

Trump; Boris; Elon Musk; Zuckerberg; the CEOs of most successful companies; TV presenters; Love Island hopefuls; that ex who broke your heart and never apologised; the other ex who wouldn't let you go even though he/she clearly didn't love you; the guy on Tinder who ghosted you... The way we're telling it at the moment, there seem to be more narcissists around than ever before, dipping in and out of our lives and wreaking havoc.

When we look to dole out blame - for the state of the world, the environment, our own lives - it is always easiest to fix on an Other, a particular person who is responsible. Easier again if that person can be made over as sinister, predatory, exploitative and ruthless. What hope would any of us have against such a person? Who, when you tot up the general apprehensions about them, is really hardly a person; more a sort of person-mimicking alien, without the kind of self-doubt and care for others that holds the rest of us back. In other words: a narcissist.

Kanye West

I have, recently, via several different magazines, been encouraged to look out for 'the narcissist in my life', As if we all have one, and it's only a question of unmasking or recognising them.

Meantime and concurrently, most of history's more famous villains have been done-over as narcissists: Stalin; Hitler; Henry VIII; Joan Crawford… And there are plenty of contemporary diagnosed-from-a-distance narcissists too; in fact, it's currently a favourite pastime. Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, and Mariah Carey are all frequently accused of narcissism.

So is it just me, or is there a moment of 'peak narcissist' happening? And what does it even mean?

"I think the term is being used much more,' says Paul Gilligan, CEO of St Patrick's Mental Health Services. "And there are a number of reasons why that's concerning. Because there is a confusion between 'narcissism', which is a description of a personality type that we all have elements of; and 'narcissistic personality disorder.' There is, at the moment, a rise in awareness of mental-health difficulties, and that's good. But, there is also a trend to use mental-health labels to explain behaviour that we don't like, and that's not good."

Mariah Carey

And that is what's happening with all this bandying about of the word 'narcissist.' In conflating the two, we are using what is an actual label, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM; basically, the dictionary/bible of mental disorders) simply as a handy way to explain bad behaviour. "It's great that people are talking about emotional and psychological difficulties," Gilligan continues, "but there is a huge need for that to be informed."

And, let's face it - calling someone a narcissist isn't, for most of us, a way to better understand the discreet and subtle difficulties of their personality. It's a diss; a snappy put-down.

When we say someone is a narcissist, what we mean, essentially, is not: oh, this poor person seems to be suffering from a personality disorder. We mean the person is a bad friend; a bad partner; a bad colleague; a bad parent; a bad example. They are self-serving; demanding; lacking empathy or interest in others; solipsistic; often childish. A me fein-er and glory hunter; possibly also personally vain. They behave in ways that may get them ahead within a corporate world, but definitely do not endear them to others.

Could it be the friend who constantly cancels because she's found something better to do? The father who ignores your misfortunes, but insists you respond to his? The colleague who regularly takes credit for work you've done and shows zero solidarity in the war against The Man? Yes.

In my own life, I think I have only known two genuine narcissists - both women, surprisingly, given the statistical bias towards men. One was an alternative therapist, the other a writer. Both were, on a good day, amusing, capable of thoughtful gestures - little gifts, kind enquiries after health, and so on. So what makes me think they are narcissists? Ultimately, I realised that every single interaction, even the apparently kindly ones, was about them. They did what they did only and ever for their own ends. In every situation, their first thought and instinct was for themselves.

I'm not sure they ever understood, either of them, that I was actually a real person. Me or anyone else. It was, after a while, a deeply chilly experience being involved with them. And that, ultimately, is my 'narcissist test' - am I left feeling somehow inadequate; invisible? If so, it's time to think about why.

There is, in the cultural ether right now, an idea that modern life is creating more of these narcissists. Perhaps it's social media, we say vaguely. Too many selfies? Or a lack of empathy brought about by a world in which interactions are more often online than in person?

In fact, actual NPD is, Gilligan says, "very difficult to diagnose, and very uncommon". Those defined as having narcissistic personality disorder (described as "a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterised by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy" by the DSM) are less than 1pc of the population, pretty evenly distributed between age groups (ie the millennial generation are not more narcissistic than Gen Xers or the baby boomers). They are more often male than female (50pc to 70pc are men) and, crucially, these figures have not changed in recent times, despite all the chatter. The definition was first included in the DSM in the late 1960s, and, by that definition, there are no more narcissists diagnosed today than there were 20 years ago.

"We are seeing growth in anxiety and depression," says Gilligan, "but not NPD." In fact, those with pronounced narcissistic tendencies are actually less susceptible to social-media anxiety than the rest of us. "The impact of social media builds anxiety. A narcissist, at some level, will be immune to all of that," says Gilligan, because, believing, as they do that, 'I'm special and different', they are less prone to painful comparisons with others.

Like so many things, narcissism is actually a continuum, starting somewhere fairly normal, even healthy, and ending up pathological. "If you look at the components of NPD, we all go through phases where we think like that," says Gilligan. "Everybody has elements of narcissism in their personality. Some will have a stronger narcissistic personality than others. We need these components. Where it becomes a problem is when this thinking starts to dominate someone's life. Where it interrupts their ability to live a full and fulfilling life, that's when it becomes a personality disorder."

This is where narcissism gets complicated. Because there is a point, a place, where those traits most associated with it, are actually beneficial - or certainly the outcomes of those traits are - and therein lies a major paradox.

Dr Kostas A Papageorgiou, lecturer in developmental psychopathology at Queen's University and director of the InteRRaCt Lab (Interdisciplinary Research in Resilience and Cognition Laboratory) makes the distinction between clinical and subclinical narcissism: "The personality trait of subclinical or normal narcissism includes facets retained from the clinical syndrome - namely, grandiosity, entitlement, dominance, and superiority." However, he says, "Individuals who score high on subclinical narcissism do not necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria for NPD, and hence they do not face the difficulties that people with NPD face in their daily life."

The 'good' narcissist

This version also gets called 'everyday narcissism', and it's the place where entitlement and expectation thrive, but without actually tipping over into a full-blown personality disorder. It is, by the sounds of it, an awful lot of investment bankers, surgeons, CEOs and tech bros.

In fact, this subclinical narcissism includes two main dimensions - grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. What they have in common is "interpersonal antagonism" (hostility around people, basically) however, the motives are very different: the antagonism of vulnerable narcissists may stem from something called hostile attribution bias (ie they interpret others' behaviour as hostile) whereas the antagonism of grandiose narcissists may derive from a desire for status and superiority, and the need for self-enhancement.

And, more strikingly, according to Papageorgiou: "Grandiose narcissism appears to correlate positively with healthy self-esteem and extraversion."

"Our research has shown that grandiose narcissism is linked with higher mental toughness and, in particular, with the dimension of confidence. We have shown that the path model - from grandiose narcissism to higher mental toughness - predicts lower scores on adult symptoms of depression, perceived stress and psychopathy, as well as higher school grades in adolescents."

Dr Papageorgiou's fundamental point is that, "It is nonsensical to perceive aspects of human nature, such as personality traits, as either bad or good, prosocial or toxic… Narcissism, just like other personality traits, has adaptive and maladaptive aspects."

Right: so it either 'works', or it doesn't. And sometimes, clearly, it does. But, when it doesn't, the fall-out, for the person involved, let alone the rest of us, is considerable, and painful.

The popular characterisation of narcissists as being through-and-through selfish and conceited doesn't stack up, either. "The theory behind narcissism is that it hides a very fragile ego and self-esteem. Those who have it will often suffer from depression, alcoholism and shame," says Paul Gilligan.

So a narcissist is not necessarily someone ruthless, who gets what they want. It's someone who believes they are entitled - but often in ways that are not consistent with their life circumstances.

So what causes it? "We still don't know an awful lot about this," says Gilligan. "We believe it is caused by a combination of the traits you're born with, and experiences in childhood, as well as ongoing life experiences. It is a compensatory disorder; a way of trying to make up for not being loved and valued for who you are."

Interestingly, where narcissists look for help with their mental health, they do not present as such. No one turns up saying, 'I'm a narcissist, help me out'. Instead, they seek help with depression; relationship difficulties; addiction issues; general unhappiness. It is only through engagement with therapy that narcissism emerges as the underlying issue.

Therapy, for someone with NPD, "Is long-term talk therapy, such as psychotherapy. The causes go right back to early experiences, and they have to engage at that level," Gilligan says, but he is careful to point out, "They can live normal, fulfilling lives during the time in which they are in therapy. The success of any therapeutic intervention is if they engage with the treatment. If they do, there is a great chance of a fruitful, fulfilling, recovery-based life."

There may be no rise in diagnosis of NPD, but perhaps it's not just chance, or fashion, that has us all bandying the word about. There is definitely a sense in which society, while demanding we fixate on material success, then penalises those who are demanding and high-achieving enough to get it, by pathologising the traits that get them there.

It's society's fault

"Over the past several decades," says Papageorgiou, "societies across the globe have immortalised the value of individual achievement, and the concept of the self-made successful individual. I think it is fair to say that cultures are becoming more individualistic, and personal success that is translated to professional status or wealth or fame has become the number-one priority, at least in western societies. At the same time, we perceive personality traits that promote self-interest and lack of altruistic behaviour as the impersonation of pure evil."

So, he continues, "There is pressure to be successful. Success in a highly individualistic society is based on promotion of self-interest, yet, if you are self-promoting, you are a narcissist…" It is, he points out, "hypocritical at best, but it also indicates a lack of understanding of concepts, structures and processes," because ultimately, "It is easier to be annoyed by a few successful individuals in your circle than to understand the forces [historical, cultural, political, economic] that created individualistic societies, which in turn favour adaptive narcissistic behaviours, that some individuals just express more naturally and effectively than others."

No, we're not all narcissists now. But give us time, and a society that continues to favour the kind of success that is self-interested and material, and we may well be headed in that direction. The narcissist 'in our lives'? Maybe it'll be us.

Clinical Narcissism

This is a long-term pattern of behaviour that includes an inflated sense of personal importance, even without the achievements to match; a deep need for attention and admiration; difficult personal relationships; a lack of empathy. Underneath that exterior of exaggerated confidence is fragile self-esteem vulnerable to any criticism.

A narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs. People with narcissistic personality disorder may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they're not given the special favours or admiration they believe they deserve. They may find their relationships unfulfilling, and others may not enjoy being around them.

Subclinical Narcissism

Otherwise known as 'everyday' narcissism, and far more common that NPD. It has all the facets of clinical narcissism, but it's a question of degree; everyday narcissists are far less extreme than their clinical variants. In fact, we probably do all have a least one of these in our lives. He or she may get along fine, most of the time. But ultimately, the everyday narcissist exposes him or herself through constantly entitled, arrogant behaviour and lack of interest in others, along with grandiosity ("I will be the greatest financier ever seen...") and a fragile amour propre - ie an inability to take any kind of slagging. They do not make for rewarding friends or partners. They will often leave you feeling bad about yourself, until you figure out where the problem actually lies...

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