What is narcissism?

I thought it would be useful to share with you some of what I have learned about narcissism while researching my next novel, which happens to feature a deeply narcissistic protagonist (a scientist, not a politician). I am not going to assert any conclusion or opinion about Donald Trump’s personality or mental health. Instead, I simply ask you, based on reports of his behavior that you find credible, to consider whether the concept of narcissism helps to explain his past behavior and to predict how he might behave if elected.  

First, we need to distinguish between personality traits and personality disorders. We all, thank goodness, have widely differing personalities, and many of us are characterized by behaviors and attitudes that are unusual or eccentric.  Many politicians, for example, have an inflated sense of self-esteem and behave in an unusually self-aggrandizing and obnoxious manner. This may make them jerks, but it doesn’t mean they suffer from a personality disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, a personality trait crosses over to become a personality disorder when it is deeply ingrained, particularly inflexible, and causes distress or impaired functioning.

So what is the mental disorder known as “narcissistic personality disorder”? The Mayo Clinic describes it as follows:

"Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism."

Behind this rather dry definition lies a long and rich literature that fills out the picture of a typical narcissist, and explores the consequences of being in a personal relationship with one, or giving the narcissist power. The profile of the typical narcissist that follows is drawn from my review of that literature over the past three years.

The most distinctive characteristic of the narcissist is a dangerously inflated ego, revealed by arrogant grandiosity. The narcissist fears most of all being ordinary. Whether or not the narcissist has any actual achievements, he insists on a self-created narrative in which the hero is a kind of avatar self, whose distinctiveness is illustrated by exaggerated or invented episodes and accomplishments.   

Part of the narcissist’s narrative often involves having a special destiny. Closely associated with this conviction that he is “special” is a tendency toward magical thinking (that is, a conviction that a falsehood must be true because it fits that narrative or otherwise advances the narcissist's desires).  In almost all cases, it leads to a belief that the narcissist deserves to be surrounded by other special or high status people.  He is an inveterate name-dropper, and in his personal life seeks out “trophy partners” who make him look good. Another manifestation of the conviction that he is “special” is the belief that he should be exempted from ordinary rules of behavior and law. This conviction also makes the narcissist comfortable with subterfuge and deception; any means is justified by the higher goal of preserving the illusion of the narcissist’s heroic narrative, or satisfying the narcissist’s desires. Thus the narcissist almost always is a comfortable and accomplished liar.

The narcissist’s lack of empathy colors everything about him. In some extreme cases he lacks the ordinary understanding of what it is like to be someone else, but in all cases he simply does not care. He has no real interest in other people and fails to see that they have any intrinsic value. Instead, their only value is as a means to fulfillment of the narcissist’s own needs and desires. He often treats people as objects to be manipulated. He is quite talented in finding and exploiting weakness in others. His ability to manipulate those closest to him is enhanced by surrounding himself with people who crave his approval and are otherwise dependent. The narcissist is often quite charming, but it is a false charm, always deployed tactically to get what he wants.  

The narcissist’s life is generally characterized by shallow and unsuccessful relationships, most marked by splashy exaggerated starts and disastrous finishes. The marriage partner of a narcissist generally experiences exploitation instead of caring; and any commitment to the relationship is conditional on the marriage continuing to benefit the narcissist. He is usually incapable of true love.

The narcissist is marked by an extreme sense of entitlement. He believes he deserves all he wants, and thus genuinely feels he is being cheated or treated unfairly if he does not get what he wants. The narcissist has unusually low tolerance for interference or denial, and generally manifests extreme frustration when he is denied something he wants. Interestingly, the narcissist generally desires money, status, and power not so much as ends in themselves, but to boost his image and how others perceive him.

The narcissist has a pathological need for attention. He is keenly envious of others who distract from a focus on him, and is often willing to sabotage others most cruelly, and to take actions that appear to be against his interest, to achieve the all-important return of the spotlight to him.

The narcissist is constantly seeking approval. He revels in kudos, accolades, and praise, and is often a braggart. The narcissist can almost never accept blame or responsibility, or feel shame; he is superbly talented at shifting blame to others. He views all criticism as either attack or betrayal. Thus, upon receiving the slightest criticism or perceived slight, he flips into a hyper defensive mode and feels justified in attacking his critic.

The narcissist seeks to dominate conversations. He frequently interrupts others, and his speech is marked by the frequent use of the words “I,” “me” and “my.” He often refers to himself in the third person. On the other hand, the narcissist does not like to be asked about, or to talk about, his inner life.

In most cases, the narcissist’s personality is formed early and remains static over the course of his life. Some say that the narcissistic personality is fundamentally immature, or even infantile, characterized as it is by the desire to create and control a world with him at its center. Another mark of immaturity is the tendency to ignore his problems instead of confronting them.  Many believe that the narcissist is, fundamentally, deeply insecure.  Appearance is important to the narcissist, and primping and fastidiousness in appearance are common.  

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So there it is. The portrait of a narcissist. Sound like anyone you know?