Narcissism — A World Lost To One’s True Self (2016) by James C. Tanner — In recent weeks and months there has been an up swell in social media references to narcissism and people with narcissistic behavioural patterns. In the throws of a U.S. Presidential race, loyal Democrats have actively been labelling Republican candidate Donald J. Trump as a narcissist, but is that a bad thing? Do we really understand what a narcissist is, or once again are we too quickly tossing around a label without understanding it’s proper use?
Narcissism can exist in two areas of our existence – the psychological and cultural realms.
Many narcissists are high functioning people in very professional roles such as teachers, college professors, scientists, CEO’s, executives, and entrepreneurs who achieve great things for society, but they require the abilities of non-narcissists to keep their achievements in balance.
On the individual level, narcissism describes a personality disorder, or disturbance, which is often characterized by the outwardly noticeable or inwardly subversive exaggerated investment in one’s public image at the expense of one’s true inner self. Narcissist’s focus on “how they appear”, because they walk through life having wilfully, or without realizing that they have turned off or numbed themselves to what they truly feel. Some would go as far as to say, a narcissist is the perfect actor or actress, acting without feeling yet very capable of appearing seductive or manipulative. At the core of their existence lies the inner quest for power and control.
Narcissist’s are pure egotists, although it may not be publicly noticeable as the manipulation of their own self-image can mask a great number of personal deficiencies. They are focused on their own self-interests, while at the same time lacking the true values of self namely, self-possession, self-expression, personal dignity, and often personal as well as relational integrity.
Narcissist’s lack a true sense of “self” which most others obtain through the normal expression of emotions and ability to feel life experience at a variety of levels. Having turned off, or having developed the ability to deny or control their feelings, narcissists can pretend to display empathy, but in reality cannot be genuine in their expression of it as they have disassociated themselves with their own emotions – we cannot feel for others what we do not feel ourselves. Having developed the ability to not allow any strong emotions to rise to the surface, they can treat their body as an object subject to their power and control. The flip side to this ability to deny emotions is an underlying fear of helplessness. Helplessness suggests lack of control, and narcissists strive to stay in control. While they appear to be able to deny their emotions, emotions are a natural part of life, and emotions cannot be stuffed away totally. Narcissists fear a release of emotion as they perceive emotions to be a state where one is out of control, and when their emotions do surface it often comes out in a form of unbalanced rage. The sad truth is that for many narcissists’ the only time you catch a real glimpse of honesty is found in what they say during those explosions of rage as emotions, like a volcano where pressure has built up, erupt.
Narcissists will appear to be very independent, a further evidence of the power and control cycle which is deeply embedded in their personality.
The tendency to lie without any sense of guilt is typical of narcissists. Behind closed doors when all lies and manipulations cease, without a true sense of “self”, narcissists are often left to live lives that are empty, lonely, and meaningless.
At the cultural level, narcissism can be seen as being deeply anchored in the way our society lives. Today, many middle aged people are experiencing a condition known as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). FOMO is an entitlement based attitude which feeds on a narcissistic societal mentality, and as a result people over spend on materialistic things, and take extravagant trips simply to “keep up with the Jones’”, or appear better off than they really are. It is a manipulation of reality to improve how others perceive a person.
In a narcissistic society there is a noted erosion of human values. Wealth is seen as more valuable than wisdom, notoriety is more sought after than personal dignity, and success pushes self-respect into the background. A narcissistic culture places a greater value on “image”.
The 5 Faces of Narcissism
There are five recognized faces, types or styles belonging to the world of narcissism, and they are:
- Phallic-Narcissistic Disorder
- Narcissistic Character
- Borderline Personality
- Psychopathic Personality
- Paranoid Personality
Known as the mildest form of narcissism. Wilhelm Reich introduced the term in 1926. “The typical phallic-narcissist character,” he states, “is self-confident, often arrogant, elastic, vigorous and often impressive.” This form of narcissism is most often noticed by a person’s inflated pre-occupation with their sexual image. For example, the jock who get’s the girls, the woman who spends hours in front of a mirror enhancing her looks because she knows she is attractive and has to look her best, etc.
Narcissistic characters aren’t just better than Phallic-Narcissist’s they are “THE BEST”, and if the words “THE BEST” could be put up in flashing neon lights, narcissistic characters would push to have it done. In many cases, this form of narcissist has a need to not just strive for perfection, but be perfect, and even more so be seen as perfect. Their driven personality often makes them great achievers, racking up countless years in post-secondary education, winning numerous professional achievements, and seeming to walk through life very successful for they have an inert ability to understand and thrive in a world of power and money…especially other people’s money. Their self-image is contradicted by the reality of who they are.
Narcissist’s who fall into the category of Borderline Personality are very different from Narcissistic Characters, or Phallic-Narcissists. Borderline personalities are “the sleepers” among narcissists, not always displaying outwardly the typical signs of other narcissist personalities. They can often project an image of success, professional competence, quickly taking command in the world, but when push comes to shove, and when emotional stress backs them into a corner, the façade they have built up collapses revealing the frightened child deep within them. In some cases of borderline personality, when there are few life evidences to support their greatness, egos and grandiose self-images of the borderline personality are buried behind the façades of vulnerability, a modest or low income upbringing, current humble lifestyle, and the desire to have a significant other to lean on in life.
This is the narcissistic style where a person actually walks through life believing they are superior to other people, filled with arrogance, and often despising other human beings for being less than what the psychopathic personality is. These people often “act out” lying, cheating, stealing, and even killing without any sign of real remorse. This impulsive form of behaviour bares witness to the psychopathic personality’s inability to care for the feelings of others, to the point where their “acting out” is often destructive to their own inner self. There are many highly successful people who are psychopathic personalities, as these people are often brilliant, high achievers, commanding, remorseless decision makers when handed critical information, aggressive in their intentions to get ahead, all while incapable of giving love, feeling empathy for hurting people, or experiencing a genuine sense of personal guilt.
For all you paranoid personality types… we know who you are, and are constantly watching you!
In the world of narcissism, the furthest away from being healthy is the paranoid personality. Paranoid personalities not only believe people are looking at them, talking about them, or conspiring against them, but are doing so because the paranoid personality believes they are a very special person.
Everyone experiences a little paranoia in the course of their life when a company down sizes, or a romantic relationship turns sour, but paranoid personalities take things to a whole new level believing that everyone is out to take advantage of them.
Narcissism In Relationships – What Do Those Relationships Look Like?
It’s often been said, we can choose our friends, but we can’t choose our family, and each and every family is a kaleidoscope of personalities, opinions, cultural backgrounds, dysfunctions, and relational skill sets. As we age, the time comes to find a life partner, and we all hope to find THE ONE with whom we can grow old with, but so few of us are taught what to look for in a partner. Historically, up and until the Victorian and Edwardian eras, marriages were often thought of as a business deal, a merging of financial portfolios, but those days ended more than a century ago. Instead of looking at the business end, today many of us are hoping to find someone who compliments our life, makes us a better person by just being there, and someone we can truly be both intimate and vulnerable with knowing they can be trusted. The problem for many is that we as a society do not teach our pre-dating youth about things such as personality styles, attachment styles, and personality/psychological disorders, or what to look for in a potential mate.
In the family unit, when narcissists are elderly parents it can be really tough for the adult children of that parent to cope with and understand why a person behaves the way they do. Narcissists, while totally out of touch with their own reality based self, live a life that’s focused on the non-reality based self image they wish to been seen as by others. In private, a narcissist can be a nightmare to live with and for one main reason – they have turned off and denied their feelings. They can pretend to have feelings, but this is usually all part of a manipulative ploy. If a person cannot embrace and experience their own true feelings, then it’s impossible for them to think of, or consider anyone else’s feelings, consequently a narcissist often emotionally wounds and abuses a family member without remorse or sense of guilt. They can deeply hurt a person’s feelings and think it’s totally stupid that the other person is offended or hurt by the narcissist’s actions. Narcissistic family members often “act out” by lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping (which can be a form of stealing another person’s reputation especially if it makes the narcissist look better) and if they are narcissistic psychopaths they can even kill without any sign of real remorse.
In the dating world, narcissist’s will blind side you. They are master manipulators, and narcissists will seduce you through their manipulations, all while having no real genuine interest in your feelings or you at all. A narcissist is only focused on being number one.
Narcissists will deceive a person into marrying them through their manipulations and well developed gifting in the area of deception and dishonesty. In a relationship, a narcissist will be highly competitive with their dating partner, and appear to jokingly keep score in many areas of the relationship.
Narcissistic personalities will expect their dating or marriage partner to pay the majority of the way, rarely shouldering their fair share of the finances, as narcissists are ego based and some will go as far as to think of themselves as “God’s gift to mankind”.
Narcissistic people can often be seen “using” those around them, sometimes burning out their life partners, friends and family, forcing the narcissist to continually bring new people into their lives to use and manipulate.
In a sexual relationship, narcissists will be totally out of touch with, and not care about the feelings of their partner. The narcissist will have little time or interest in things such as foreplay with their partner, or flirting with their partner to make their partner’s sexual experience exciting – a narcissist is only interested in themselves, and their own sexual satisfaction…nothing more.
With feelings denied and turned off, a narcissist will struggle in the area of relational intimacy, and this will be seen in many relationships including those with pets where the manipulative mind sees those relationships as “disposable”. In other words, once the manipulative narcissist get’s everything they think they can get from a person or pet, the narcissist comes up with a manufactured reason to end the association.
In a serious dating relationship, a narcissist will cause significant relational pain over time to their partner. In a marriage, a narcissist who is not in therapy can cause irreversible emotional and sometimes physical damage to their partner. Narcissistic romantic partners, once they have manipulated their partner into hanging around long-term will often “act out” by lying, cheating, emotionally abusing, stealing, and even killing without any sign of guilt or real remorse.
As single adults, narcissists will typically seek out casual dating arrangements where they can be satisfied sexually then dispose of their dating partner, or keep that partner on a string for sexual gratification only where there is no need for emotional attachment.
Few marriages last for narcissist’s as those marriages are often plagued with affairs, abuse, and other difficulties. If confronted, a narcissist will typically declare that there’s nothing wrong with them, and it’s the other party who needs therapy.
Treating a narcissist in therapy is not an easy or quick thing to do. A narcissist has over years, built an imaginary image as to who they are, and for therapy to be successful, feelings must be set free from the prison they have been contained in, reality must be arrived at and accepted, all of which is no easy feat for a narcissist who has built a life based on one lie heaped upon another.
Narcissism is a treatable condition, and the evidences can be diminished with therapy.
Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissim: An Introduction”, (1914) in The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 4 ed. Earnest Jones (The Hogarth Press 1953)
Wilhelm Reich, “Character Analysis”, (Orgone Institute Press 1959)
James F. Masterson, “The Narcissistic and Borderline Disorders”, (New York: Brunner/Mazel 1981)
Hervey Cleckley, “The Mask of Sanity”, (St. Louis: C.V. Mosby 1953)