Narcissism may be defined as excessive love of self. Socio-biologists maintain that love of self is natural for both individuals and groups because it is an instinctive, natural-selection trait. That is why all children are narcissists. As individuals mature into adulthood, however, they become less narcissistic because their insecurity tends to diminish as a result of concrete achievements and successes. A certain degree of healthy self-love nevertheless continues into adulthood. It is when love of self in adults becomes excessive that psychologists consider it to be a sign of immaturity or worse, a pathology—that of the narcissistic personality disorder.
Although the phenomenon of narcissism is as old as humanity, the formal diagnosis of NPD was made by the APA only as recently as 1990. The following list of traits comes from the APA’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV:
“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by 5 or more of the following:
* Has a grandiose sense of self-importance.
* Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
* Believes that he or she is “special” & unique & can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions.
* Requires excessive admiration.
* Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with her expectations.
* Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his/her own ends.
* Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings & needs of others.
* Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him/her.
* Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”
In addition to the above, I’ve compiled the following attributes, after having read, assimilated, and synthesized a great deal of the literature on this subject. Instead of the typical approach taken by the psychological literature on NPD—which describes the disorder as a syndrome of various attributes—what I attempt to do here is to uncover the central logic that accounts for the syndrome.
In the following description of the NPD syndrome, I use the pronoun “she” to refer to the narcissist, for the sake of avoiding the cumbersome “he/she” and “ his/her.” The psychological literature, however, claims that male NPDs outnumber females. The literature also claims that the incidence of NPD is relatively rare, afflicting an estimated 1% of the population. Both of these claims, however, are not verified by my own personal experiences. The problem, as the psychological literature itself admits, is that the very nature of NPD prevents narcissists from admitting they have a problem and to seek professional help. As psychiatrist M. Scott Peck explains, “To receive treatment one must want it, at least on some level. And to want it one must consider oneself to be in need of it. One must, at least on some level, acknowledge his or her imperfection.”(1) And imperfection is something to which the narcissist, by the very nature of the NPD disorder, will not and cannot admit.
The few narcissists who do seek therapy, do so when their narcissism has led to a major life crisis—such as divorce, drug addiction, unemployment, and imprisonment—a crisis that threatens to shatter their grandiose self-conception. Even when narcissists seek help, however, they typically do not complete the course of psychotherapy. Instead, when the therapist confronts them with their pathological narcissism, the individual would simply abandon treatment and flee. This is because therapy requires the patient to undertake self-scrutiny and self-examination, followed by change. But to change oneself is painful. More than that, it is a form of death because it requires the surrendering—the shedding—of the sick and dysfunctional aspects of oneself. For the pathological narcissist, whose very self is a constructed lie, to change would mean the total annihiliation—the death—of her self. This is why the narcissist will sacrifice anything and anyone instead of confronting and admitting the truth.
Given the above, I have every reason to conclude that the statistics claimed in the literature—that NPDs comprise but 1% of the total population—are suspect. The simple truth, I submit, is that the psychological profession does not really know how many NPDs there are in the population, nor do they really know that male NPDs outnumber females.
The NPD Syndrome
At the core of the NPD syndrome is the construction of a false self as a way to cope with the external world so as to compensate for the individual’s feelings of insecurity and uncertain self-identity. Like its namesake, the mythic Narcissus who is in love with his reflection in water, the self that the narcissist loves is not her real self, but a false self that is grandiose, perfect, and superior. The particular basis of the grandiosity is what the narcissist loves herself for. That varies according to the individual, and may be physical beauty, intellect, talent, power, etc.
Three types of narcissists: As a consequence, psychologists divide narcissists into two types: the somatic and the cerebral. The former are those whose narcissism is focused on their bodies; the latter are those who have a grandiose conviction that they have a superior intellect. I would add a third type: the spiritual narcissist. These are those who ooze with false piety and self-righteousness, having a false conception of themselves as supremely virtuous and God’s chosen. We need to remember that those who are truly good are also truly humble: They are the last people to claim that they have God’s special favor. The key to identifying a narcissist, whether she be spiritual, somatic, or cerebral is this: Does she present herself as always right and never wrong?
The logic of the NPD syndrome: Regardless of the particular basis of grandiosity, the narcissist strives to maintain and protect that false self at all costs. In effect, the grandiose false self acts like the center of a wheel, to which are affixed the spokes. The latter are the syndromatic attributes of NPD, the function of each is to protect and maintain the grandiose false self. The constellation of attributes is not accidental because there is a functional reason for the various attributes. This is the underlying logic that accounts for the syndrome.
Malignant narcissism: Together with the APA’s DSM IV criteria, the following collection of “spokes” constitute a particularly malignant form of narcissism. The malignant narcissist goes beyond excessive love-of-self to hurting other people. The hurt inflicted on others can be psychological, physical, or financial. Malignant narcissism has the following attributes:
· Using people—even supposed loved ones—as tools of self-aggrandisement to affirm and maintain the false self. The narcissist is hollow inside and derives her sense-of-self from seeing her reflection in the eyes of others. The psychological literature calls this “mirroring”: the narcissist mainly uses other people as a mirror to reflect her grandiose false self-conception. Like a vampire who must feed on others’ blood in order to live, the narcissist feeds on other people’s admiration, approval, love, and compliments. Once the source is sucked dry, however, the narcissist no longer has use of that person and will abruptly and mercilessly cast him or her aside.
· To lure people into her web, the skillful narcissist puts on an attractive social mask. In effect, the narcissist not just has a false self, she literally has a false faÇade of physical appearance or demeanor. She can be charming, gracious, socially adept, even obsequious. She must also be a consummate actor, skilled at simulating the whole range of human emotions, especially those of love, compassion, and kindness. The more successful she is at simulation, the greater her circle of friends and acquaintances who serve as her primary and secondary feeding sources. I’ve learnt from experience to be wary of charming people because charm is a form of manipulation, albeit very subtle. To quote Lord Voldemort of the Harry Potter book and movie series: “I’ve always been able to charm the people I needed.”(2)
· More than to lure people into her web, the narcissist’s charming social mask also conceals the false self from scrutiny. Concealment requires secrecy, evasion, dishonesty, and deception. In effect, the narcissist is a consummate pathological liar--she habitually lies, even about seemingly trivial inconsequential matters.
· Using other people as her “blood bank” requires that the narcissist be a human emotional radar. The successful narcissist is interpersonnally astute and shrewd so that she can “size up” everyone she encounters for their potential to be her blood-donor.
· Cynically using other people also requires that the narcissist be lacking in empathy. Do not be fooled by her simulations at empathy. A good experiment is for you to withhold your approval and compliments. You will discover that, overnight, the narcissist has lost her “kindness” and even simple civility.
· The maintenance and protection of the false self also requires the narcissist to be constantly vigilant against being “attacked” by others. Toward any perceived criticism, the narcissist is either cooly indifferent or overreacts with rage and humiliation to even minor or trivial reproach. She simply will not listen to or countenance criticism.
· As the saying goes, “the best defense is offense.” More than reacting with rage, the narcissist attacks the critic. How better to deflect criticism from oneself than to attack the critic? This is called scapegoating—projecting one’s own faults (what Carl G. Jung called our “shadow”) onto another person, and blaming the other for one’s inadequacies. The narcissist is very skilled at this.
· The false self must be impervious, which requires the narcissist to resist self-examination and introspection. Doing so would open the narcissist to reality-based assessment and reflection—a dangerous undertaking because the false self is, by definition, unreal. As a consequence, instead of the insecurities of normal human beings, the narcissist displays an impassive and uncritical acceptance of herself. She is curiously disinterested in reading or learning more about herself; she will avoid and resist psychological probing, counseling, and therapy.
· The inability or unwillingness to be introspective, together with the narcissist’s unreal inner world, in turn, result in cognitive dissonance, cognitive gaps, and non sequiturs. Trying to engage a narcissist in serious dialogue—especially about herself or her beliefs and values—can be a disconcerting experience because nothing she says makes sense.
· Since the false self is superior and grandiose, it needs no one. The narcissist dreads becoming dependent on others—dependence being regarded as a weakness—but instead asserts and clings to an exaggerated independence. Since her love of self is all-consuming, she is incapable of love and emotional commitments to other people. This is why the narcissist reacts to sincere declarations of love, verbal or behavioral, by emotionally distancing herself and, in some cases, outright abandonment, because she is unable to reciprocate that commitment.
· In effect, the narcissist’s grandiose self-conception makes her a god unto herself. Gods are not subject to the morality that governs lesser beings—“rules don’t apply to me.” The narcissist refuses to subscribe to society’s moral rules and ethical standards. Instead, morality is subjective: “Nobody can judge me.” One NPD I knew, a woman in her sixties (and therefore should know better), exhibited this trait when she blithely received the Holy Eucharist, believed by Catholics to be the actual body of Christ—although she is not Catholic! When told by her Catholic friend that she must be a Catholic and in a state of grace to receive the Blessed Sacrament, the NPD declared that “No one can tell me whether I can or cannot receive Jesus.” Another NPD, a former student of mine, responded with rage to my critique of his essay-exam, which garnered a respectable “B” grade, insisting that he was not subject to the grammatical rules of the English language.
· Lacking an abstract universal system of moral rules—and being cognitively impaired—the narcissist lives in a world of feelings and sensations: “What’s good is that which makes me feel good.” Narcissists tend to wallow in cheap “feel good” sentiments. One narcissist I know proclaims she is a humanitarian and an animal lover. But her “love” for humanity and animals is confined to feelings, instead of actual behavior. Not only does she abhor the homeless, she eats meat, sets poison out for mice, and had cement poured into a squirrel hole.
· Since the false self is grandiose and perfect, relationship problems are never the fault of the narcissist. She blames everyone, but herself.
· This also means that narcissists do not ever apologize or admit that they are wrong or at fault. Instead, they will always subtly, if not blatantly, turn things around to blame you.
· All of this means that narcissists do not, as a rule, seek therapy. In the few cases who do, it is because their problems have become so serious that they cannot be ignored (e.g., divorce, drug abuse, job loss, imprisonment). Even then, the narcissist resists therapy and is likely to blame the therapist (scapegoating!) and flee from treatment.
Why Pathological Narcissism is a Spiritual Disorder
A fifth-century theologian who called himself Dionysius the Aereopagite once wrote in The Divine Names that, “The denial of the true Self is a declension from Truth.”(3) In the last analysis, in constructing and clinging to their false selves, the entire persona of the NPD is a big lie. That being so, I have come to believe that NPD is not a psychological disorder at all, but a moral and spiritual disorder. Allow me to explain.
An intrinsic attribute of the NPD syndrome is deception—of oneself and of others—in the service of maintaining the grandiose false self. Philosopher René Descartes wrote that “willful deception evinces maliciousness and weakness.”(4) A person does not deceive without thinking about and willing it. One does not lie unless one intends to hide the truth, which means that one knows that one is being deceptive. Nor can the NPD put together and maintain the elaborate and intricate NPD syndrome of attributes (e.g., using others for self-aggrandizement, attractive social mask, secrecy, evasion, lying, scapegoating, etc.) without conscious effort. Psychologists say that, in their quiet moments, NPDs know that they are not really as grandiose as they pretend. (5) When NPDs cynically use others to “feed” their false self, they know it. When they overreact to perceived criticisms, they know what the truth is. When they lie to conceal their inadequacies, they have chosen to deceive. When they scapegoat others, they do so with deliberation. And when they refuse to apologize, they know they are in the wrong. All of which means that free will is fully engaged in this so-called “disorder.”
In effect, NPD is more than a mental sickness. To quote Theodore Millon, personality disorders are “not diseases.” They are not some “infectious agents” or “some ‘foreign’ entity or lesion that intrudes insidiously within the person to undermine his or her so-called normal functions.”(6) In the case of malignant narcissists, such individuals are in full possession of their reason. As an example, one somatic NPD I know takes extremely good care of her health by doing all the right things, for example, carefully watching her weight to maintain her figure, and eating the right foods to acquire the requisite nutrients. In so doing, she demonstrates that she is fully rational—“rational” being defined as choosing the most efficacious path toward the achievement of some end. Pathological narcissism is not some noxious virus or bacteria that overtakes a person. Whatever the early childhood experiences, free will is still operative here.
Instead of the standard diagnosis of a “personality disorder,” NPD is a moral disorder, because it is immoral to lie and to use, exploit, hurt, and scapegoat others. More than immoral, NPD is, at its foundation, a spiritual blight. Since the false self of the narcissist is extremely grandiose, she excludes herself from the moral norms that govern “lesser” beings: “rules don’t apply to me.” That makes pathological narcissists in effect their own gods. In so doing, they are in denial of the fundamentally flawed nature of all human beings.
The malignant narcissist is more than immoral, she is evil. In his book, People of the Lie, Peck proposes to the psychological profession a new diagnostic category of the “evil personality disorder” (EPD) as a sub-type of NPD. As he puts it, “The evil are ‘the people of the lie,’ deceiving others as they also build layer upon layer of self-deception.” When the narcissist intentionally hurts another, she has crossed the line from being an NPD to being an EPD. In Peck’s words, “evil individuals will flee self-examination and guilt by blaming and attempting to destroy whatever or whoever highlights their deficiencies.”(7)
Except for atheists (who must be very grandiose because they claim to know a categorical negative—that God does not exist),(8) all of us—the religious as well as the agnostics—believe in the existence of some supreme moral being or force in the universe. Recognizing that, most of us harken to these words of Descartes: “I have been so constituted as to be some kind of middle ground between God and nothing . . . . [A]s I am not the supreme being, I lack quite a few things.”(9) Dionysius the Areopagite concluded that being self-centered is “inherently wrong” because we have “no right to be the centre of things” as only God is the rightful center of all things.(10)
Not only is vanity and pride the first of the Seven Deadly Sins, I believe that narcissism is the root of all evil. Peck wrote that the most basic sin is pride “because all sins are reparable except the sin of believing one is without sin.” (11) More than that, narcissism was not only the original sin of Adam and Eve, it was also the First Sin--that of the fallen angel Lucifer--which introduced evil into the universe. It is for this reason that I propose calling malignant narcissism the “Lucifer syndrome.”
Decrying the ills that he saw rampant in modern society, in particular the relativization of all moral norms, post-communist Czechoslovakia’s first president VaÇlav Havel observed that “Given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity will have to go through many more Rwandas and Chernobyls before it understands how unbelievably short-sighted a human being can be who has forgotten that he is not God.” It is the misdiagnosis of pathological narcissism as a “personality disorder” instead of a moral-spiritual condition which accounts for psychiatrists’ characterization of NPD as “one of the most . . . difficult-to-treat conditions in the lexicon of mental illness.”
How to Deal With a Narcissist
Dr. Peck wrote that “I have learned nothing in twenty years that would suggest that evil people can be rapidly influenced by any means other than raw power. They do not respond, at least in the short run, to either gentle kindness or any form of spiritual persuasion with which I am familiar.” With that in mind, I suggest the following:
· The first rule is: Give up on your fantasy that you have an authentic relationship with the narcissist. Sadly, the person you think you love/like never existed.
· The second rule is: Don’t be a bloodbank for the narcissist.
· The third rule is: Be emotionally detached.
· The fourth rule is: If you must interact with her, challenge the narcissist’s false conception of herself by insisting on reality-based assessment. Doing so, however, is guaranteed to alienate you from the narcissist--which is a good thing because the narcissist is incapable of genuine friendship and love. In the last analysis, you are better off without her. (If, unfortunately, you must have her in your life because your survival depends on her, as in the case of a child needing the narcissistic mother’s care, the way to get along with her is to feed her fantasies by lavishing compliments on her, i.e., by letting yourself be her bloodbank.)
· The fifth rule is humility: Human beings are inherently disposed to be partial to ourselves. Just because you know a narcissist, this does not mean that you are a better person. Remember Christ’s injunction in Matthew 7:1-5: “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” In effect, self-righteousness is a barrier to righteousness. Be very careful in accusing others. Always remember that “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
To those who have been victimized by pathological narcissists, I suggest the following:
· Don't let yourself be a victim again! You must love yourself enough to be convinced that you have inherent dignity and worth. You should give no one the right or power to hurt and abuse you.
· At the same time, you must avoid wallowing in your victimhood by holding on to your anger and rage. Wallowing is a form of self-indulgence and, as such, can become narcissistic--the narcissism of victimhood. Notice how many self-designated victims, such as radical feminists, racial/ethnic minorities, and gays, absolutely refuse to tolerate any criticism. Try not to generalize from your abuser to larger groups & forces in society, especially those with authority--the so-called Establishment. That is the danger and trap that many victims fall into. Take a look at Tammy Bruce's book, The Death Of Right And Wrong. Remember that hate is an acid that corrodes: if you hold onto it, it will consume you.
· Finally, when you can bring yourself to that place, forgive those who have hurt you. By forgiveness is meant wishing good for the other. More than forgive, pray for them, for they desperately need God's grace for their redemption.
Thank you for reading my essay. I invite you to e-mail me with your thoughts, suggestions, and personal experiences. I also welcome you freely to use my essay. All I ask is that you cite and credit the source. Doing otherwise is plagiarism, which is a form of deception. Surely, we do not want to be “people of the lie,” do we? :-)
Copyright® 2002. Last updated: May 26, 2008.
1. M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil (New York, Touchstone, 1998), p. 63. Peck further writes in p. 77 that “the evil are the last people who would ever come to psychotherapy. The evil hate the light--the light of goodness that shows them up, the light of scrutiny that exposes them, the light of truth that penetrates their deception. Psychotherapy is a light-shedding process par excellence.”
2. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Scholastic Inc., 1999), p. 310.
3. J. Sparrow-Simpson and W. K. Lowther Clarke, eds., Dionysius The Areopagite (The Trustees of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920).
4. René Descartes, Meditations On First Philosophy, translated by Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1979), p. 35.
5. This was said to me by my colleague, Dr. Allen Fruzetti, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno, on December 10, 2003.
6. Theodore Millon, with Roger D. Davis, Disorders of Personality: DSM-IV and Beyond, 2nd edition (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996), pp. 7, 9.
7. Peck, People of the Lie, pp. 66, 226.
8. Logically, one cannot prove a categorical negative—that something does not exist. Imagine what it would take to know that something does not exist! One would have to know everything in the universe, in order to know for certain that something does not exist. This, in my judgment, is the most egregious mistake of atheists. To believe as they do requires that they have perfect and complete knowledge of the universe, so that they can confidently know that God does not exist. Atheists must have an exalted and grandiose conception of their intellect.
9. Descartes, Meditations On First Philosophy, p. 35.
10. Sparrow-Simpson and Clarke, Dionysius The Areopagite, p. 29.11.
11. Peck, People of the Lie, p. 72.
12. “Beneath Narcissism Lie Fear and Self-Loathing,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 20, 2002, p. E9.
13. Peck, People of the Lie, p. 68.
· For an online personality disorder test, go to: http://www.med.nyu.edu/Psych/screens/pds.html
· For more information, as well as links to many more websites on NPD, go to: http://groups.msn.com/NARCISSISTICPERSONALITYDISORDER/links3.msnw