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Michael Bader: Narcissism and the empty self

According to the ancient Greek myth, Narcissus was a handsome and proud young man who, upon seeing his reflection on the water for the first time, became so enamored that he could not stop gazing at his own image. He was so transfixed that he eventually wasted to death.

Today, when we call someone a narcissist, we usually mean that that person is arrogant and self-centered, with an inflated view of him or herself and a desperate need for praise and admiration. During the 1990s and early 2000s, something known as a “narcissistic personality disorder” was a popular diagnosis for people whose grandiosity and lack of empathy was extreme, although current manuals of psychiatric diagnosis no longer include this specific label. Narcissism isn’t always a bad thing, however. Children are narcissistic by nature and some would argue that if we define narcissism as positive self-regard, there is a healthy narcissism in most of us. Some argue that charisma in a public figure depends on an especially potent dose of narcissism.

However, pathological narcissism in adults does regularly raise its head in ways that harm both the narcissist and his or her loved ones. A narcissist’s colleagues, children, partner, friends, or loved ones tend to feel used and treated like a thing, not a person. Being seduced or coerced into providing admiration and praise is very different from generously offering it.

While narcissists appear full of themselves, the source of their grandiosity lies in an internal world filled with psychological pain. The narcissist feels grandiose in order to not feel small and worthless. An exaggerated view of one’s specialness is perfectly suited to defend against and deny other feelings of being basically invisible, weak and humiliated. Thus, even when surrounded by admirers, the narcissist is lonely and has to discard people who no longer serve this reinforcing function.

People plagued with extreme forms of narcissism can often be quite successful in the outside world. They tend to attach themselves to and flatter others they admire and devalue those they consider to be inferior (often referred to as “kissing up and kicking down”). Or they take their power and status to be an accurate reflection of their worth. Narcissism is so frequently seen among celebrities and politicians that one might say that it is a requirement for holding public office (or, at least, for becoming presidential candidates).

Men are more often afflicted with pathological narcissism than women. The traditional masculine role emphasizes the value of competitive success and a corresponding fear of vulnerability and displays of weakness. These social expectations and definitions provide an especially hospitable soil in which narcissism can grow.

Some people are drawn to narcissists because the narcissist has a unique ability to focus with great intensity and energy on a particular person and make him or her feel singled out and special. Or they may be drawn to narcissists because the narcissist appears to be strong and confident and becoming such a person’s partner or “fan” promises a vicarious experience of these qualities. However, the partner or fan usually becomes disenchanted as she or he learns that the narcissist’s confidence and strength are really quite brittle and that the narcissist is incapable of empathy for those in his or her orbit. As long as the narcissist is getting what he or she needs from a given relationship, all is well. But if the partner, friend, or child reflects poorly on the narcissist or has his or her own needs, the relationship quickly crumbles. Such relationships often end disastrously.

Narcissists are generally incapable of being self-reflective and taking responsibility for the harm done to others. Since the narcissist’s self-inflation is intended to ward off terrible feelings of inferiority and helplessness, becoming self-aware and surrendering one’s grandiosity to the demands of reality is simply too threatening. A narcissist might seek psychotherapy during a crisis, but once he or she feels the high of being adored in a new relationship, therapy becomes unnecessary. This is why psychotherapists generally find such individuals difficult to treat.

Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at michaelbaderdmh@gmail.com. Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at michaelbaderdmh@gmail.com.

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