Narcissism is a contentious and much-discussed topic in this current age. A google search on narcissistic personality disorder provides the following symptoms:
- An excessive need for admiration.
- Disregard for others’ feelings.
- An inability to handle any criticism.
- A sense of entitlement.
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner.
- A lack of empathy.
- A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
Before a person can be diagnosed as having the disorder, they need to see a professional and fulfil the DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. Unofficially, many of us deal with obnoxious people around us and conclude with relative confidence that a person does indeed have NDP.
This black and white way of thinking, however, can blind us to those people who lie in the middle — people who have the capacity for narcissistic behaviour but also show humility and morality. Such people can throw us off balance, making us wonder: “Are they or are they not narcissists? Do they have NPD or not?”
When we dig deeper, we can find the answers we need. As we focus and look closer, we also need to change our paradigms. Firstly, we need to stop seeing narcissism and NPD as a black and white, either/or classification. We need to move our focus to the continuum.
Narcissistic personality disorder on a continuum
Some people are constantly arrogant and self-absorbed, whereas others act that way as a reaction to external circumstances. We all have an ego, and therefore we are all capable of being selfish. In order to progress through life, we often need to look after number one. Prioritising our self-interest can also boost our self-esteem and give the people in our life reprieve from having to look after us. In short, selfishness can be productive. Everyone has to take responsibility for themselves.
When we have our needs met, we feel more inclined to help others and be cooperative. This is a natural human trait. When things are going well in our lives, and we feel secure and a have sense of belonging, we become more open to others, and so our shame, humanity and moral compass function well. When others are treating us well and with respect, our sense of Self can flourish.
On the other hand, misfortune can force us into a dark hole and bring our selfishness to life. For example, immediately after the break-up of a relationship or loss of job, our sense of identity takes a hit. Foundations in our life which used to cater to our needs have fallen apart. As a result, the Self is aggravated, and the ego descends into chaos.
When wounded, the ego narrows down its reality and becomes more alert — and selfish. Our thinking becomes black and white. We scapegoat others and pin our hopes on those who can help us. It is almost an infant-like state of mind. The ego does this so it can restore equilibrium and make us feel secure again. In times of threat, we need solutions, and being nice and considerate will not help us. This state of mind is transient for most people, depending on their life situation, and permanent in others, depending on their upbringing.
The loss of trust
When children are growing up, they are in a surrendered state. They have no personal power, meaning that they are incapable of catering for their own needs and finding solutions to their problems. They hand over their power to their guardians. This requires an enormous level of trust.
Being in a state of perpetual powerlessness, the child not only looks up to their guardians, but also their siblings and extended family. When people of higher power come through for the child, their trust in others is strengthened, and they establish a sense of community.
On the other hand, if their guardians and the people in their circle abuse their position of power, the child loses trust in those above them. Abuse can come in many forms; neglect, dismissal, emotional manipulation, physical and sexual abuse, ridicule, and oppression. When the child is screamed at, laughed at, told what to do, controlled, objectified and has their boundaries repeatedly breached, they dissociate from their world. They turn inward, where their developing mind becomes threatened and terrified, arousing their ego in unhealthy ways. They decide that they cannot trust others to treat them fairly and meet their needs, and they put their faith instead in their thinking mind, which has the cunning to find solutions and manipulate its environment.
In order to have a sense of well-being in their community, the child must engage their feelings. This includes empathy, guilt and shame. If the people around them play fair and respect the child’s boundaries and rights, the child can remain within the realm of human bonding. The child, with a sense of well-being, tolerates their human limitations. Being ordinary and connected feels good because people in the child’s world are fair and supportive.
The abused child, on the other hand, reaches a point where playing fair is not getting them any closer to a sense of well-being. Quite the contrary. They disconnect swiftly from their emotions and identify solely with their thinking mind, i.e. their ego. Shame, empathy, guilt and all positive emotions are shut off in the process. A high price is paid, but at least balance is restored. The child can now pursue their needs without being held back by their emotions. Without their shame to remind them to play fair, they set off on a destructive path up the continuum. They become more focused on their needs, and less focused on the well-being of others.
Narcissistic personality disorder as shamelessness
The longer a child lives in a threatening and abusive environment, the deeper they go into their ego, the more they disconnect from their emotions, and the higher they travel up the continuum. From the fragility of their childhood, they internalise a paranoid state of mind and develop a grandiose false self. They never forget the pain that came from being their genuine Self. They played fair, but the people above them did not. Within their ego, they develop an alternate, ‘superior’ self from which they primarily function. To the outside world, they become a false personality, playing whatever role is required to get their needs met. The absence of shame and emotion allows this false self to flourish. To be shameless is to be powerful. To embrace shame is to revert to a state where others can influence and hurt you. The choice becomes a simple one.
For us, when deciding if a person really does have a personality disorder, it helps to be aware of the factors which breed narcissistic behaviour. Above all, it helps to understand the states of mind which abusive upbringings produce. Furthermore, it helps to understand that during stressful times in people’s lives, they may feel a need to withdraw from empathic human connection and take inventory of their life situation. They may need to be selfish.
Regardless of the selfish person’s origins, our job is not to judge them, but rather to continuously fortify our boundaries and be wise in who we engage and how far we allow that engagement to go. Narcissistic personality disorder is a label which exists for a good reason. It’s also just one small group of people who remain on the extreme side of the continuum for their entire lives. The rest of us, on the other hand, must admit and accept that we may shift up and down the continuum during different stages of our lives. And that’s not always a bad thing.
Behind the NPD label is a destructive process which is hard to see. To better understand the dynamics behind narcissism and recover from narcissistic abuse, check out the following books: