“Narcissism” is a term that gets thrown around too often, in my opinion. In popular culture, the term has come to be loosely equated with grandiosity, entitlement, self centeredness and a lack of consideration for others. This is not untrue.
However, this is an oversimplification of narcissism that leads to a lot of people mis-diagnosing friends, co-workers, bosses and mates.
First, let’s talk about the ways that the term narcissism can be used. Perhaps the world’s specialist in narcissism was Dr. Heinz Kohut. His contribution to the field is immeasurable; he described that every human being has a “narcissistic line of development,” and that we need to feel understood to develop a healthy, stable sense of self esteem.
In other words, narcissism is a healthy part of everyone that needs to be in proper balance; problems occur when one’s sense of self is simply unformed (psychotic or borderline personality), fragile (dependent personality or traumatized), shame-filled, and/or deformed (narcissistic personality or antisocial personality).
In infancy, we only conceive of ourselves. The narcissistic line of development describes the process by which we evolve from that self-centered (and grandiose) experience of the world into a mature person.
A mature adult is capable of recognizing others as people in their own right: with needs, perceptions and feelings that are inherently different than their own, and simultaneously worthy of respect.
We also come to recognize ourselves as decent, worthy of respect... but flawed and always unconscious of some of our own self --like everyone else. This kind of personality is flexible, resilient, and able to be close to others in healthy, sustainable ways.
Narcissistic disorders (including but not limited to Narcissistic Personality Disorder) occur when this development does not go well. It can become stunted, or seriously derailed (Malignant Narcissism).
One can become stunted at an early phase of this development. This might occur if you have parents that are not themselves fully developed. It takes a close relationship with someone who is further down the road of narcissistic development to complete this development. If you didn’t have this, you didn’t fully grow up in during your tenure in your parents’ home.
One can also become stunted in trauma that causes large amounts of shame that are not processed. This develops into a weakness in the sense of self that can take several paths, one of which is a Narcissistic personality or narcissistic tendencies.
You may be wondering, what does a “narcissistic disturbance” look like? (compared to the diagnosable personality disorder)
Consider Linda. Linda, when you meet her, is warm, engaging and empathic. She is “the life of the party”, but certainly not in a grandiose way you associate with narcissism. You like being around her, she likes being around you. You immediately feel that she has a lot of empathy and feels things deeply. She wants to know all about you, and obviously cares.
Doesn’t sound like narcissism, does it?
The disturbance becomes palpable if you try to have an intimate relationship with her. When disagreements or differences arise, her point of view is overwhelmingly self-oriented. Every conversation has a magnetic pull back to her. It feels slightly off, but you still like her.
If you have a different perception of something than she does, she cannot truly respect it. If she hurts you, the focus is on how horrible she feels about being a hurter rather than a genuine attempt at reconciliation. When they are differences or hurts, she attempts to override you, subtly criticizes you in hopes that you’ll “shapen up” and see it her way (obviously the right way).
At heart she lacks a true reflective capacity (the capacity to see things from multiple points of view). It’s hard to get or remain really close to her without feeling a lot of tension and strain. You may notice she complains about other people a lot.
If you get to know her really well, you will understand that she lives with profound, chronic and painful anxiety that points towards a hidden insecurity. She never feels quite at home in her body or her emotions. Unfortunately, she is mostly unaware of this and copes with it by staying busy, engaged, even caring about others.
Why did I take the time to explain this to you? Because her underlying anxiety, shame and insecurity are what are common to all disturbances on the narcissistic spectrum. When you understand narcissism from the inside, you are equipped to understand a variety of relational disturbances in a more nuanced and less “blamey, armchair diagnosis” kind of way.
The reason that narcissism is often misunderstood is that in popular culture we talk about it as it looks from the outside. To truly understand narcissism, you need to be able to see it from the inside. NPD (Narcisisstic Personality Disorder) is not an isolated “disease,” but rather an extreme version of something that is quite common.
Most people with narcissistic disturbances are great in the beginning stages of a relationship! They read others well, play to your needs, and draw you in with their warmth and charm. But not everyone who is warm and charming is a narcissist. Disagreements are where you can see true colors.
We’re going to assume here that you come to the disagreement without this pathology! (A big assumption, check yourself!)
If you are putting the pieces together, you now have a more nuanced and dimensional understanding of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and less severe forms of Narcissistic Disturbances.
If you identify with several or many of these items, you may very well be functioning with an injured sense of self.
(We all have disappointments, rejections, hurts and even traumas-- these are only “injuries to the self” if they leave you feeling disconnected, shame, insecurity in the pattern I described above).
An injured sense of self does not equate to NPD. However, it does indicate the need for professional help! Remember that an injured self tends to feel wary of the very help it needs to heal, integrate and find the love and connection it needs to feel whole again.
If you're in a relationship of any kind with someone who has a hard time negotiating conflict fairly and patiently, understand what you are dealing with so you can approach the situation wisely.
I hope that these delineations have helped you upgrade your discernment level in relationships.
If you are having difficulties with another person that feel toxic, stuck and repetitive, these guidelines should help you make an educated guess as to whether you are dealing with a true NPD, or a more mild disturbance in narcissistic development, or something else altogether.
Remember, you can only truly make this assessment from the inside, and you are not a mind reader. Hold your diagnosis aside, but use these guidelines to help you wisely choose who feels mature and safe enough to let into your inner circle.
I am a psychologist, psychoanalyst, author and teacher who helps clients get to the root of and heal their relational difficulties. Download my free eBook "How to Be an Extraordinary Partner" or enroll in the Emotional Manipulation and Abuse Course today!
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