In our everyday life we quite innocently use the term “narcissist” for those we think happen to appear full of themselves. Just because we have learnt the word, it really does not mean that it can be used across the board. By nature, earthlings are self-centered in that they are essentially concerned more about what they want. They consider themselves the pivot around which the world should revolve as if they are the sun of the solar system of their personal wishes. It requires conscious efforts and a strong social system to move from self, to other than oneself and which has been successfully accomplished since the time humans began living in clusters, better known as families, then tribes and as of now, villages and cities. Their untamed desires are bridled in rules and regulations accompanied with penance in case of violation and thus emerged caring human beings, whose thoughts stretch out to people and things beyond their own horizons.
Despite evolving thus, one does find many self-absorbed, egocentric and miserly persons in our society. They are generally referred to as selfish. Contrary to them, those who give preference to others before themselves are called selfless. They may not have everything they long for but they are definitely blessed with a large heart and are well-respected, loved and cherished. They reach out to extend a helping hand without expecting anything in return. They go hungry but feed the needy. They suppress their yearnings to accommodate another, they find more strapped. In the broadest sense, majority of the inhabitants of this world is selfless.
Strangely, the selfish ones deplore being referred to as narcissist as they find it offensive even though in their hearts of heart they may be aware about their negative attribute. Take the example of a film celebrity. The moment she gives a cold shoulder, to say, a journalist, the very next day’s headline brands her a narcissist even though she may actually be otherwise but wants to maintain a distance to protect her privacy. Similarly, a demanding supervisor could also be termed as such by his subordinates, especially if he also uses harsh language to get work done. What is in this word that is so insulting by which people do not like to be known?
The word “narcissism” has originated from different versions of a story in Greek mythology that all end up in more or less the same way. According to one, Narcissus was a handsome Greek youth who fell in love with himself when he saw his reflection in a pool of water and continued to stare at it. This one-way unredeemable relationship left him in utter despair until he finally died of starvation. This concept of extreme selfishness was known to Greeks as hubris. It is believed that Narcissus’ corpse was granted immortality by being turned into flowers bearing his name.
In the light of this story, it can be discerned that narcissism is more than just a trait. It is a mental sickness explained by Mark Ettonson, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Unmasking Narcissism in the following words: “As a personality trait, narcissism exists on a spectrum from healthy functioning to severely disordered. Some level of narcissism is normal and even healthy and adaptive. It’s only when your narcissistic tendencies become a life-disrupting constant that you veer into the territory of bona-fide mental health condition known as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).”
Such people display signs of an overblown self-image that constantly seeks compliments and unfortunately, they also lack empathy. Since they live in an illusion that they are part of an elite group, hence they expect the best of everything which includes, being treated in a special manner, made the centre of attention in gatherings, have the best possible things in life to synchronize with their idealized version of themselves. Studies have revealed that compared to women, men are more prone to fall victim to this affliction.
NPD is an ailment that is not apparent in a person in the very first encounter so in order to identify patients W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of The New Science of Narcissism provides certain indications, which are, “Grandiose narcissists are most closely aligned with the stereotypical narcissist: They’re often charmers with off-the-charts high self-esteem driven by a relentless need for more attention and a higher status. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, suffer from dangerously low self-esteem and can be more quiet, reserved, and resentful, like the undiscovered ‘genius’ who refuses to get a job that’s ‘below’ him.”
A serious twist to this discussion is on account of the negative attitude of some persons suffering from undiagnosed NPD with respect to their behavior with fellow beings. They are capable of manipulating, sabotaging and even publically humiliating another. Where the disease is more profound there can be witnessed acts of aggression or violence if their shaky and inflated egos are threatened. They are also quite susceptible to criminal convictions. Those who are reserved could, however, hurt themselves which by itself is a dangerous tendency.
NPD can play a devastating role in legal disputes especially when they pertain to married couples. This can be especially witnessed in divorce proceedings and where custody of children is in question. The blame game and accusations hurled at one another are sometimes evidence of clash of narcissistic personalities and where the volleys are one-sided, the victim is obviously identifiable.
In our society we place great emphasis on physical infirmity but fail to recognize or even admit any mental disorder which, like other diseases can be managed if attended to in due time. This maybe a long drawn process requiring a high level of patience and unlike treatment of somatic illness, progress is not necessarily visible. Similarly, escaping from or abandoning a mentally disturbed person is not a solution either. A good psychologist will not just treat NPD patients in isolation but would also give instructions to their near and dear ones in methods to deal with them although the biggest stumbling block in the way of successful therapy is the patients’ own narcissism that prevent them from seeing the problem within. Some drastic life changing experiences could turn-around their perceptions evoking humility and ability to accept distortions in their personality thus enabling restoration of normalcy, but that is wishful thinking.
Where cure is intended, NPD patients need to be handled delicately, preferably by trained psychiatrists/psychologists because only they have the capability to diagnose and treat them. As for the affected relatives, prudence requires that they refrain from labelling them as narcissist, avoid arguments especially where they seem irrational postponing discussion until they come to their senses and in case things are beyond control, like in a matrimonial relationship, the best is to walk away so as to protect oneself from possible harm.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)