Friday, October 7, 2011

Narcissism: Characteristics and Development of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

What is narcissism?

Narcissists have these common characteristics:

  • Exaggerates their abilities or personal value 
  • Are unable to empathize with others’ needs and concerns 
  • Tend to use others to meet their own emotional and physical needs 
  • Are unable to accept failure 
  • Fear intimacy because they are afraid to be found out or exposed as a fraud or failure 
  • Deny personal responsibility and shift blame to others 
  • Keep others at arm’s length to prevent from being known 
  • Are controlling and need things to go their way 
  • Tend to devalue and/or abandon others when they feel out of control 
  • See people as “good” or “bad” or in other words, tend to idealize some people while demonizing others 
  • Determine a person’s goodness or badness by this individual’s ability to please them 
  • Treat others as objects or tools 
  • Struggle to recognize that other people have their own individual needs and concerns 
  • And when they are parents, they tend to use their children as a reflection of their personal success. These children are expected to perform well. When the child is successful, the narcissistic parent tends to take credit for the child’s accomplishments. 
(You Might Be a Narcissist If. . . How to Identify Narcissism in Ourselves and Others and What We Can Do About It, Paul Meier, PhD, Lisa Charlebois, L.C.S.W., Cynthia Munz, L.M.F. T., Langdon Street Press, 2009)

It is important to remember that most of us present with a few narcissistic traits from time to time. Also, the severity of each narcissistic characteristic may range from mild to severe. A person is only considered to have a Narcissistic Personality Disorder when these traits occur in their extreme form.

So, how does narcissism develop?

Some theorists think every child is born with the hardwiring to become a narcissist. We understand, however, that there are developmental stages during which increased narcissism is appropriate. For example, toddlers tire us with their demands to do every thing themselves. They tantrum when life doesn’t go their way. Adolescence is another time when narcissism is apparent. Teenagers often take risks without thinking of the consequences to themselves or others.

Individuals during such developmental periods are expected to be more narcissistic. This excessive focus on self is a necessary part of the “separation-individuation” process. During this stage each of us learns where our separate “self” ends and another person begins. We also are exploring our capabilities and forming our identity. We come to understand our innate goodness, but also our capacity to be bad. We work to contain our impulses, to process our strong emotions, and to regulate our needs. Narcissism is a very normal part of this process.

Pathological narcissism occurs when this process goes wrong. Most psychologists think environmental factors play a large factor in the development of narcissism. There are several thoughts about how this happens. It is believed that either excessive attention and love, or emotional neglect can result in narcissistic tendencies.

When excessive parental focus and love occurs, the child begins to feel extra special and different from others. He (or she) starts to see himself as outside normal constraints. It isn’t necessary to follow the rules as others do. This child fails to learn that everyone has weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and imperfections.  Instead he learns to think others exist to admire his greatness and to meet his needs. He doesn’t know how to delay the gratifications of his desires and impulses. He only sees himself and what he wants. He doesn’t understand he lives with other people who also have needs. In his world, only he exists.

When emotional neglect during toddlerhood happens, the child's sense of self can be negatively affected. During this psychological stage there are two critical needs: to feel loved, safe and special to the parent, and to be emotionally understood. No parent can perfectly address these needs, but consistent, repetitive emotional errors can result in the child developing a fragile self-esteem. When this occurs the emotionally injured person will go to excessive lengths to protect himself against interpersonal rejection. He is extra sensitive to feelings of personal inadequacy and failure. Any situation or relationship which stirs up feelings of embarrassment or shame will cause him to react defensively.

How does one know if he or she is a narcissist?

In the next article we will use Paul Meier’s wonderful questionnaire to identify typical narcissistic behaviors.


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