Richard A. Grossman PhD

Understanding Narcissism

Many people spend a lifetime aggressively trying to protect an injured or vulnerable “self.”  Traditionally, psychologists have termed such people “narcissists,” but this is a misnomer. To the outside world it appears that these people love themselves. Yet, at their core they don’t love themselves–in fact their self barely exists, and what part does exist is deemed worthless. All energy is devoted to inflating the self, like a persistent child trying to blow up a balloon with a hole. 

Because they need continuous proof of the significance of their voice, narcissists must find people, particularly important people, to hear and value them. If they are not heard, their childhood wound opens, and they quickly begin to melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West.  This terrifies them.   Narcissists use everyone around them to keep themselves inflated.  Often they find flaws in others and criticize them fiercely, for this further distinguishes them from those who are defective.  Children are ready targets:  narcissists consider children flawed and lacking, and therefore most in need of severe “teaching” and correction.  This negative picture of children is a sad projection of how the narcissist truly feels about his or her inner self before the self-inflation began.  But the narcissist never recognizes this: they consider their harsh, controlling parenting magnanimous and in the child’s best interest.  Spouses receive similar treatment–they exist to admire the narcissist and to remain in the background as an adornment.  Frequently, spouses are subject to the same barrage of criticism.  This can never be effectively countered, because any assertive defense is a threat to the narcissist’s wounded “self.”   Not surprisingly, narcissists cannot hear others: spouse, lover, or friends, and especially not children.  They are interested in listening only to the extent that it allows them the opportunity to give advice or share a similar incident (either better or worse, depending upon which has more impact). Many engage in “sham” listening, appearing to be very attentive because they want to look good.  Usually they are unaware of their deafness–in fact they believe they hear better than anyone else (this belief, of course, is another attempt at self-inflation).   Because of their underlying need for voice and the resultant bluster, narcissists often work their way to the center of their “circle,” or the top of their organization.  Indeed, they may be the mentor or guru for others. The second they are snubbed, however, they rage at their “enemy.” 

What makes it difficult to help this type of narcissist is their self-deception. The processes used to protect themselves are ingrained very early in their lives. As a result, they are absolutely unaware of their constant efforts to maintain a viable “self.” If they are meeting with success, they are satisfied with life regardless of whether the people around them are happy. Two circumstances bring this type of person to a therapist’s office. Sometimes a partner who feels chronically unheard and unseen drags them in. Or, they have met with some failure (often in their career) so that the strategies they previously used to maintain self-esteem suddenly no longer work. In the latter situation, their depression is profound–like cotton candy, their robust false self dissolves, and one is able to see an accurate picture of their inner sense of worthlessness. 

Can such people be helped?  Very rarely. The critical factor is whether they ultimately acknowledge their core problem: that as a child they felt neither seen nor heard (and/or their self was fragile as a result of trauma, genetic predisposition, etc.), and they unconsciously employed self-building strategies to survive. Acknowledging this truth takes much courage, for they must face their underlying lack of self-esteem, their exceptional vulnerability, and significantly, the damage they have caused others. Then comes the long and painstaking work of building (or resurrecting) a genuine, non-defensive self in the context of an empathic and caring therapy relationship.

A Note About Narcissism and Genetics

Genetics significantly influences personality.  In fact, genetic factors account for 50% of the variation in many personality traits.  Where the other 50% comes from is uncertain, and at this moment, contentiously debated.  (You may be familiar with the controversial book by Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, that suggests that parents matter little except in providing the right peer group and helping kids fit into this group.)  The only study I am aware of that examined genetics and narcissism suggested that 64% of the variation was accounted for by genetics (Livesley WJ, Jang KL, Jackson DN and Vernon PA, Am J Psychiatry 1993 150(12):1826-1831). Of course, studies using other measures of narcissism are necessary in order to confirm or modify this figure.   Nevertheless, narcissism and narcissistic responses to stress and trauma likely have significant genetic bases. Does this mean all people with a particular genetic makeup are doomed to be narcissistic?   The likely answer is no.  Something else is at play—otherwise 100% of the trait variation would be accounted for by genetics.   Perhaps, a predisposition towards narcissism is in place from birth, but a trigger or particular kind of environment is needed to set the disorder in motion. Alternatively, a positive environment may lessen the chances of narcissism taking hold in those who are predisposed.