The phrase “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” is a famous line from the fairy tale “Snow White.” This line from the fairy tale is often used as a symbolic representation of the concept of narcissism. It showcases the narcissistic traits of excessive self-focus, a need for validation, competitiveness, insecurity, and a lack of empathy. It serves as a cautionary tale about the negative consequences of extreme narcissism, as seen in the character of the Evil Queen.
A certain amount of narcissism is normal and necessary for a healthy personality. It helps us with adequate self-esteem to thrive in the things that give us meaning in every day and pursue our interests and ambitions in life such as work and relationships. “Too little can leave us feeling inadequate, unworthy and unlovable. Too much and we can turn into grandiose exhibitionists with little regard for anyone else” (Masterson, 2004).
Over the last decade, society has found a growing rise of cultural entitlement, materialism and antisocial behaviour (Campbell & Miller, 2011). Some believe we are facing a societal epidemic of narcissism (Twenge & Campbell, 2009). Narcissism can be described as the libidinal investment in the self (Masterson, 2004). In essence, this means placing a lot of emotional and mental energy into yourself. It’s being overly focused on your own desires, feelings, and needs, often at the expense of considering or valuing others. Originally, it was not necessarily pathological and rather a child’s response to developmental issues. For example – young children are naturally focused on their own needs and desires, and they are still learning to understand the perspectives and feelings of others.
Problems may arise if psychological defences become fixed and rigid. Psychological defences, are like mental strategies or tricks that our minds use to protect us from feeling emotional pain, discomfort, or anxiety. These strategies are often automatic and can help us cope with challenging situations or feelings. They work a bit like shields for our emotions. Narcissism can be more destructive and pathological when it becomes self-centred, self-involved and lacking in empathy. In the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), defences such as identification or idealisation provide the individual with a sense of specialness and uniqueness to ward of feelings of humiliation, shame and fragmentation. NPD is currently described as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts (Campbell & Miller, 2011). Individuals who are characterised as narcissistic usually are deeply infatuated with themselves. The people around them serve one purpose, to echo that self- admiration. Just like an audience that is being told to applaud, their role is to applaud continuously, and to function as the mirror reflecting the magnificence of the narcissistic individual. The consequence is dire if they are unable to adequately meet these expectations.
We now know that narcissism can present very differently for individuals. The loud and overt form of narcissism can be described as the grandiose or exhibitionist narcissistic disorder. Or the more subtle, hidden and covert type being defined as the closet narcissist.
The Grandiose or Exhibitionist Narcissist
We are all familiar with this particular presentation. Charming, funny, controlling and critical can be words to describe individuals with this particular personality structures. The nature of this particular type of narcissism is consistent with the pleasure principle. Individuals with this personality structure will have more rewards in terms of success, fame and money such as celebrities and sports stars. As many of these individuals appear successful and functional, they are unlikely to seek therapy. These individuals constantly pursue admiration, perfectionistic, display extreme sense of entitlement and grow enraged when criticised. These individuals often look pretty good from the outside and it is only when we get glimpses of the underlying feelings of intense envy, rage, worthlessness and rejection we can see beneath the façade and fragility. These individuals use others as objects for enhancing themselves. As soon as others can no longer fulfil that function their value becomes zero, and they are devalued and discarded.
The Closet Narcissist
An individual with this particular personality type can be deceiving. These individuals may appear even anxious, humble or shy. These individuals are more prone to experiencing envy, low self- esteem, and depression. The major emotional investment of the individual with this personality type is in the omnipotent other rather than in the self. For these individuals they enhance their self- esteem by placing others in the spotlight or pedestal. Goal setting is based on gaining approval from others or setting unrelating standards in order to see oneself as exceptional. An exhibitionist may say ‘I need to be perfect to feel okay’ whereas the closet may say ‘others enjoy riches, beauty, power and fame; the more of those I have, the better I will feel’ (Lingiardi, & McWilliams, 2017).
Individuals with either type of narcissistic disorder can be a result of interruptions to the separation- individuation process Margaret Mahler coined as a critical phase of a child’s development. In simple, terms the maternal capacity to support the emerging self. In ideal conditions, when everything goes well during a baby’s and toddler’s early development, their mental and emotional development takes a particular shape. This happens when their emotional needs, like feeling close to their caregivers and learning how to handle their emotions, are met properly. This early bonding and emotional support are vital for their healthy growth and emotional balance (Shore, 2003).
Narcissism develops as a result of parental rejection, devaluation and an emotionally invalidating environment (Campbell & Miller, 2011). Parents may be cold, dismissive or may interact with their children to satisfy their own needs such as projecting expectations and standards to satisfy feelings of unworthiness.
Grandiose/ Exhibitionist: When parents use their child to boost their own ego and make themselves feel better, it can have a significant impact on the child. The parents have high expectations and demands for the child, treating them as if they are perfect and special. The child may feel like they are adored and admired by their parents, which can feel good.
However, there’s a catch. In this situation, the child’s true self, their real feelings, thoughts, and needs, often get pushed aside. The child ends up only showing a version of themselves that their parents want to see – this might be a confident, successful version. Any time the child tries to be themselves, especially if it’s different from what their parents expect, they are met with criticism, embarrassment, shame, or disapproval.
So, even though the child might feel loved on the surface, in reality, they are being used by their parents to make the parents feel good about themselves. It’s like the child becomes a reflection of their parents’ desires and needs, rather than being accepted and loved for who they truly are.
Closet: In comparison to the exhibitionist type, these children often face either subtle or very clear criticism and embarrassment when they show their true selves. They might remember times when they were treated badly, made to feel unimportant, or spoken to in a hurtful way when they were kids. As a result, these children learn to downplay themselves. They become overly modest and
avoid drawing attention to their own abilities or qualities. They do this to connect with their parents and avoid facing more criticism. In some cases, the parent may tell the child that if they look up to and admire the parent, they will be loved and cherished. This leads the child to think they need to make their parent seem perfect and amazing, even if it’s not true. They end up putting their own needs and feelings aside to focus on making their parent look good.
In short, these children often feel like they have to hide their true selves because they’ve been made to feel ashamed or unimportant. They might even feel like they have to make their parents look perfect to be loved, even if it’s not what they truly feel.
Overall – narcissism can show in different ways.
Grandiose/ Exhibitionist: This is when someone seems very self-assured, thick-skinned, and acts like they’re better than others. They can come across as arrogant, entitled, and not easily embarrassed. They don’t easily feel shame and can seem quite self-centred.
Closet Narcissist: On the other hand, some people with narcissistic traits are more sensitive and thin-skinned. They might be overly watchful, often feel ashamed, and struggle with low self-esteem. They might feel empty, get angry easily, and even avoid social situations. In severe cases, they might have thoughts of harming themselves.
Both types of narcissism can be expressed openly (overtly) through behaviours and attitudes that others can see. However, some parts of narcissism can also be hidden (covert) and kept private, like secret thoughts or fantasies. It’s important to understand that these two types of narcissism can exist on a spectrum, and people may show a mix of these traits. This idea that narcissism can be both open and hidden is in line with traditional psychoanalytic thinking.
Psychoanalytic or psychodynamic treatment creates a supportive and safe space in therapy, often called a “holding environment.” This safe space helps a person feel comfortable enough to be their true selves. It’s like a protective bubble where they can explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences without fear of judgment or criticism. This allows their real, authentic self to come forward and be understood and accepted in therapy. Therapy is one of the only avenues that supports self-exploration that may lead to personality change as aging is the ultimate narcissistic wound. It is also important to note people with NPD are unlikely to seek therapy due resistance to acknowledging issues and a sense of superiority. You can express your concern and offer support, but you cannot force them into therapy. It may take time and multiple conversations before they consider seeking help, so be patient and continue to be supportive. Additionally, consider seeking support for yourself from a therapist if you are dealing with the challenges of interacting with someone with NPD.
Written by Michiel Gonzales Registered Psychologist
Campbell, W. K., & Miller, J. D. (2011). The handbook of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Jacoby, M. (2016). Individuation and narcissism: The psychology of self in Jung and Kohut. Taylor & Francis.