Most of us know the myth of Narcissus and Echo: An improbably gorgeous dude ignores a sweet girl who has fallen in love with him. Instead of accepting her love, he prefers to spend all his time staring at his own reflection in a pool of water. She pines away until only her voice remains (hence the term "echo") and the gods, ever critical of human hubris, turn the jerk into a plant.
A couple of millennia later, the term "narcissist" is still used — often incorrectly — to define someone who is unusually self-absorbed, conceited, or vain. While these traits can be irritating, they are not pathologies, and they usually only hurt the people who over-indulge in them.
Actual narcissism is different. It falls into a subset of ailments called Cluster B Personality Disorders. People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (or NPD) have an overblown perception of their own worth — their intelligence, their attractiveness, their abilities and their achievements — that defies reality and can often cause them to behave in ways inconsistent with normal social function.
We all probably know a narcissist or two. I became interested in learning more about the disorder when someone I knew — a perfectly amiable person whose tendency to boast and bring every conversation and experience around to himself was made tolerable by his very real intelligence, charm, and sense of humor — went nine kinds of nasty on another member of our community in a very public setting. He verbally attacked and insulted his hapless victim beyond the pale of reason with no apparent provocation.
After that experience, I asked myself: Why would someone do that? It's easy to just dismiss someone as hateful and toxic and vow to avoid him, but absolute avoidance isn't always possible. I remembered a maxim I learned in graduate school: Hurt people hurt. Like a wounded dog who will snap at a hand that is extended to help, sometimes people who have been psychologically injured lash out at others in response to their own trauma.
In the course of researching Cluster B Personality Disorders, this is what I learned:
- It's not about overconfidence. Narcissism is a compensatory survival mechanism. People with NPD actually suffer from crushing insecurity, often (but not always) caused by damaging early experiences like abuse, neglect, or severe illness or injury — anything that might make a child feel he or she is less than worthy.
- Crippled by a lack of self-esteem, the narcissist compensates by re-writing his or her personal narrative to a fantastical degree. I'm not damaged. I'm actually good. I'm great! Wait — no. I'm perfect. I'm the best that ever was. No one else could possibly be as perfect as I am.
- People with NPD need to believe their own press. When someone or something threatens their perception of themselves as "the best," the narcissist runs the risk of encountering the devastating feelings of worthlessness and shame that bubble under their conflated surface. When this happens, they will fight back with every tool in their box, including fury, insult, and even violence.
The narcissist's desperate need to believe they are powerful and admired, coupled with a lack of empathy for others, makes for difficult and often conflicted relationships. And yet, a lot of narcissists end up in positions of leadership. Their need for admiration makes them experts at manipulation; the narcissist is quite good at reading his or her audience and telling them what they want to hear. And their own air of confidence can inspire confidence in others. Everyone wants to hang out with a winner!
Narcissists aren't necessarily bad people. They're just damaged ones. But they can still be dangerous; there is a reason, after all, that The Economist's Global Forecasting Service lists a certain narcissist American presidential candidate as one of the top threats to global security.
How can we best mitigate the damage narcissists can do? Exercise cautious compassion. Allow your understanding of the person with NPD to inform your interactions with him or her. Know that he or she literally cannot help bragging and dominating conversations. Remind yourself you are lucky not to be in his or her shoes, and don't be afraid to stroke his or her ego if you honestly can. (You are such a great cook, Stephan. I wish I had your skill at the grill.)
For all of that, don't leave yourself vulnerable to potentially harmful attacks. If you're a great tennis player, don't accept a game of friendly doubles with a narcissist. Avoid situations where your presence might detract from the narcissist's need for attention from others, especially if those others have something the narcissist craves and wants for him or herself, like influence, money, or celebrity.
And if the worst happens, and you end up in the line of a narcissist's fire, take a page from journalist Megyn Kelly's book: Just walk away.