Narcissus, from Greek mythology, fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and eventually died of a longing that his image could never satisfy. It is from this legend that the word Narcissism came about, which relates to narcissistic personality disorder.
The term “narcissistic” refers to people whose self-esteem relies on admiration and affirmation from others and need to feel superior. Often they fear fragmentation of their inner self, which can lead to them focusing on their outer self in order to protect themselves. Narcissistic people rely on their pride, which is either enhanced by the approval of others or injured by disapproval. It’s with this self-concern that they can become excessively preoccupied with how they appear to others, leading to an inner sense of insufficiency, shame, weakness or inferiority. While they are so preoccupied with making sure other people perceive them with high regard, they can actually end up feeling fraudulent and loveless on the inside. Their need for others is deep but their love for them is shallow.
Shame, envy and perfectionism
People with narcissistic personalities battle an internal conflict of shame and envy as their two main emotions. They can experience shame as a sense of being seen as wrong or bad if they perceive others to be seeing them negatively. They are very vulnerable to feeling envy towards others, as they believe they are lacking in some way that another is not. As a result of their own shame and envy, people with narcissistic personalities may try to bring other people down through ridiculing or pointing out their flaws. This is so that their own flaws appear lessened.
One defining characteristic of narcissism is perfectionism. This means that narcissistic people tend to hold themselves up against unrealistic standards or ideals. They either convince themselves that they have attained them or else feel worthless when these standards are not met. Sometimes they use a person, be it a lover or a celebrity, who they perceive as ‘perfect’ and agonise over comparing themselves to this person. However, since no one is perfect, this strategy is doomed to fail as soon as they find a flaw in the person that they look up to.
Narcissism can lead to great success
Narcissistic people are prone to using idealisation and devaluation as a defensive strategy to improve their own self-worth. This means that when a narcissistic person feels inadequate, they may try to devalue (bring down) others in an effort to idealise (build up) themselves, and vice versa. They tend to lack empathy, which means that in society, narcissistic people can become some of the most successful people politically, monetarily or socially, commanding a lot of admiration and respect. However, it is how they get to this position that can be problematic. Often narcissistic people don’t have as much regard for other people’s wellbeing, and their success can come at the expense of others. But to someone with a narcissistic personality, this can be considered a necessary side effect of their success following the notion that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”.
There are a number of ways that narcissistic personality disorder can be treated. Therapy aims to help the individual to examine their own behaviours that can negatively impact their life and relationships. It also aims to explore early experiences that could have contributed to narcissistic defenses and learning to understand their emotions and what causes them. Psychodynamic psychotherapy approaches such as Transference Focused Psychotherapy have been very successful in helping patients with narcissistic personality disorder. Transference is when we direct feelings relating to a significant person in our life, such as a parent, onto another person, such as a therapist. For example, someone could feel overprotective of a friend because hey remind them of a younger sibling. Therapists can use transference as an opportunity to recognise an underlying problem that the patient might not be aware of and can help them to overcome it.
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Gerlach, A., & Elzer, M. (Eds.). (2014). Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy: A Handbook (1st ed.). Routledge https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429478994