The hallmarks of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are grandiosity, a lack of empathy towards others and a constant need for admiration.
Poor Narcissus. The gods sentenced him to a life without human love. He fell in love with his own reflection in pool of water and died hungering for its response. Like Narcissus, narcissists only love themselves as reflected in the eyes of others.
It’s a common misconception that they love themselves. They actually dislike themselves immensely. Their inflated self-flattery, perfectionism, and arrogance are merely covers for the self-loathing they don’t admit–usually even to themselves. Instead, it’s projected outwards in their disdain for and criticism of others. They’re too afraid to look at themselves, because they believe that the truth would be devastating.
Actually, they don’t have much of a Self at all. Emotionally, they’re dead inside and they hunger to be filled and validated by others. Sadly, they’re unable to appreciate the love they do get and alienate those who give it.
All personality traits, including narcissism, range from mild to severe. Narcissism can be viewed on a continuum from mature to archaic. Mature individuals are able to idealize romantic partners, express their talents and skills, and accomplish their goals, while employing only neurotic defenses; a middle group has unstable boundaries and employ borderline defenses; and those highly sensitive to wounding, employ destructive, psychotic defenses and have unstable relationships (Solomon, 1989).
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), first categorized as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 1987, occurs in 1 to 6.2 percent of the population; males exceed females at a ratio of 3:2 (Dhawan, 2010; McClean, 2007). Although nonprofessionals often label people with NPD who show a few narcissistic traits, clinical NPD ranges in severity from those with only the minimum required five diagnostic traits to narcissists who strongly manifest all nine symptoms.
Here’s a summary of the Diagnostic Criteria in the DSM-5:
Someone with a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (sometimes only in fantasy), need for admiration from others, and lack of empathy, beginning in childhood, as indicated by five of these characteristics:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance and exaggerates achievements and talents
2. Dreams of unlimited power, success, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3. Believes he or she is special and unique, and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
4. Requires excessive admiration
5. Unreasonably expects special, favorable treatment or compliance with his or her wishes
6. Exploits and takes advantage of others to achieve personal ends
7. Lacks empathy for the feelings and needs of others
8. Envies others or believes they’re envious of him or her
9. Has arrogant behaviors or attitudes
In addition to the grandiose “Exhibitionist Narcissist” described above, James Masterson identifies a “Covert” or “Closet Narcissist”–someone with a deflated, inadequate self-perception, a sense of depression and inner emptiness. He or she may appear shy, humble or anxious, because his or her emotional investment is in the idealized other, which is indirectly gratifying (Masterson, 2004). “Malignant” narcissists are the most pernicious and hostile, enacting anti-social behavior. They can be cruel and vindictive when they feel threatened or don’t get what they want.
Cause of Narcissism
It’s hard to empathize with narcissists, but they didn’t choose to be that way. Their natural development was arrested due to faulty, early parenting, usually by a mother who didn’t provide sufficient nurturing and opportunity for idealization. Some believe the cause lies in extreme closeness with an indulgent mother, while others attribute it to parental harshness or criticalness.
This latter position stems from Otto Kernberg’s emphasis on parental anger, envy, and hate, or indifference that expresses veiled aggression. (Ellis, 2009; Russell, 1985)
The two views converge on the underlying psychodynamics. An idealizing, indulgent mother may be unable to experience her child as a separate individual and provide sufficient empathy, mirroring, or opportunity for idealization.
Although leniency can result in healthy narcissism, when psychological control is added, like guilt induction and withdrawal of love, a solid self doesn’t develop, because the child’s focus is to gain external approval. Rather than receiving support for an emerging autonomous self, the child learns that love and involvement is conditioned on conforming to parental needs and expectations. (Horton, Bleau, & Drwecki, 2006)