The word “narcissism” has trickled down into our everyday vocabulary, and we hear the word all the time, but what does it really mean? Let’s dive in into the psychological definition of the word and discover what it means to us in the present information-fueled generation.
Psychologists have studied narcissism extensively, so if you think it’s just a personality type that you hear about in advice columns, then you would be wrong. It’s a serious problem that consists of specific traits that have been carefully studied and categorized by psychologists. Also, it is important remember that healthy self-esteem is completely different from unhealthy self-absorption.
Narcissism is generally understood as a state of mind that enables an individual into thinking that their existence is more valuable than other people. Narcissism manifests in two ways – grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism.
Types of Narcissism
Grandiose Narcissism has all the classic features that we associate with narcissism. These include extroversion, a desperate need to be the center of attention, and a tendency to dominate every relationship. A person suffering from grandiose narcissism is more likely to pursue avenues of power, such as being a celebrity or a politician. I’m not insinuating that all people who pursue these occupations are narcissistic. Most of them pursue these careers for positive reasons, such as achieving their full potential or helping the community. However, narcissists seek out these platforms simply to increase their own status and find validation through the approval of strangers.
Vulnerable Narcissism, on the other hand, is very different. Vulnerable narcissists are quiet and reserved, but have a very strong sense of entitlement. They feel easily slighted if someone challenges their perspective. Vulnerable narcissists have trouble holding on to any healthy relationship because they expect too much from their significant others.
Either way, narcissism has a negative impact on a person’s life. Grandiose narcissists tend to make riskier and more dangerous decisions, as they lack compassion for others. People with vulnerable narcissism usually become unfaithful in a relationship, as they feel that they deserve better.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Just to be clear, common everyday narcissism is different from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The latter proves detrimental not only to the people who have it, but also everyone around them. In other words, the next time a selfie-obsessed friend of yours praises his own photograph, please don’t label him with the scary psychological word ‘Disorder’. As a matter of fact, only 1-2% of the world’s population has this problem. It also affects adult men more than adult women.
The 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual describes the following traits of narcissistic personality disorder:
- Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a highly elevated sense of self. A narcissist has a strong belief in the idea that he is far more important than anyone else. He considers himself to be the smartest and most attractive individual in most situations.
- He lacks empathy for other people, as he does not recognize them as worthy of his time. He considers everyone beneath him and only seeks other high-status individuals.
- He is occupied with fantasies of unlimited power, beauty or ideal love.
- He requires excessive admiration from everyone around him.
- His sense of entitlement is intense. He automatically assumes that every one of his expectations will be fulfilled.
- He is often envious of others. He also believes that other people are equally as envious of him as he is of them.
Through studies of twins, certain genetic links have been established that explain the occurrence of narcissistic personality disorder. However, no genes have been isolated as a specific cause.
Genes may be the realm of “nature”, but “nurture” also seems to play an important part in causing this disorder. If parents put their child on a pedestal all of her life, she is more likely to develop grandiose narcissistic traits. Similarly, cold and unemotional treatment of a child can lead to vulnerable narcissism.
Culture creates as much of an impact as the family environment does. A culture that encourages individuality over group dynamics is more likely to have narcissistic individuals. For example, in America, the number of people suffering from narcissistic personality disorder has significantly increased since the 1970s. However, the America of the 1960s – the one that celebrated communal living – was far less burdened by narcissism.
Many psychological studies have tried to explore the link between the increase in social media and the increase in cases of narcissism. Despite a clear connection, it has not been proven that social media creates narcissism in the first place. It would be more appropriate to state that social media platforms offer narcissists a stage on which to perform, something that they had previously lacked.
Narcissism is like a disease that permeates a person’s life, and spreads outward, making other people suffer even more than the bearer of the disease. Fortunately, it can be treated through careful psychotherapy, but this tends to be difficult, considering narcissists’ predisposed hatred for self-criticism. Even so, that shouldn’t stop narcissists from trying to become a bit more compassionate and self-aware!