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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: A Study on Narcissistic Behavior

Narcissistic Behavior
As weird as it may seem, 'falling in love with oneself' is the predominant characteristic trait of the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). However, there is more to this seemingly weird behavior of a narcissist than what meets the eye - their behavior is usually a cover-up for their deep-rooted insecurities and hypersensitive nature.
Abhijit Naik
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is typically characterized by a distorted self-image, intense emotions, intense love for self and an exaggerated sense of superiority. Self-esteem, self-focus, self-importance, etc., are a few terms which best define a narcissist. While there is no doubt about the fact that narcissists are high on self-esteem, one shouldn't confuse self-esteem for narcissism. An individual high on self-esteem can be humble, but the same cannot be said of a narcissist.
A Short Guide to Narcissistic Behavior
In his study published in the Journal of Personality Assessment (1984), Prof. R. A. Emmons identified four facets of narcissism: Exploitativeness/Entitlement, Leadership/Authority, Superiority/Arrogance and Self-absorption/Self-admiration. It is possible to categorize narcissists into various groups with respect to their behavior. Some narcissists are more interested in manipulating or exploiting people, while others enjoy authority. Similarly, some tend to overestimate their abilities, while a few others have high regards for their appearance or personality.
Narcissists are people who like being constantly admired, and they crave to be the center of attention. It isn't surprising that these people prefer being 'admired', rather than being 'liked' by others. As the American psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman puts it, "these are the people who are likely to get enraged when told they aren't beautiful or brilliant, but aren't affected much if told they are jerks." Such is their egotistical preoccupation, that these people associate negative remarks with a false sense of superiority.
These individuals often come across as exciting and entertaining, especially in the beginning, but beneath this garb of being happy-go-lucky, they are aggressive and highly manipulative in nature. They usually get a positive feedback from the people around them, which isn't surprising considering that the seductive charm of a narcissist is highly successful in blinding people - albeit, temporarily. In the long run, their true colors do surface, but then, it is usually too late for the person on the receiving end to change their initial attitude towards the narcissist. As for the narcissist, it usually means that it is time to find someone else who will continue to fuel his/her false ego.
Narcissists are always on the lookout for people who can help them maintain their high sense of self-image. They themselves feel that they are very special, and hence deserve to be treated in a special manner. At the same time, they conveniently avoid people who hold the mirror to them. Since narcissists are emotionally very shallow, they find it very easy to snap ties with people around them. Narcissists are nothing short of self-centered individuals, who don't give a hoot about how others feel - even when they themselves are hypersensitive. Such behavior is usually attributed to a lack of empathy, or their inability to put themselves in other people's shoes.
Narcissism is defined as an intense admiration or affection for self. The term has been derived from a Greek myth, wherein, a handsome young man named Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection when he sees it in a pool of water. This term was first used in the context of human mind and behavior by renowned Austrian psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud. The proposal of excluding Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-V (due to be published in 2013) raised quite a few eyebrows, which isn't surprising considering that it is impossible to dismiss NPD cases as one-off incidents.
Narcissists are hypersensitive to insults, defeats and criticism, and often tend to react aggressively when faced with such situations. When rejected, they often end up overreacting, even going to the extent of punishing those who refuse to acknowledge their sense of grandiosity. Being on the receiving end of a narcissist's ire is never healthy for anyone, because revenge is usually a mission for them. Moreover, they don't make it obvious when they are hurt, either because they are introverts or simply because they can't see other people getting an upper hand over them.
While it is easy to dismiss a person with a combination of these behavioral traits as being selfish or rude, one needs to understand that narcissistic behavior stems out of a deep sense of insecurity and low self-esteem. In other words, these behavioral traits are the person's tools of defense mechanism, which are meant to conceal his issues with life. Narcissists are highly boastful and often indulge in exaggerating their achievements. For them, bragging is the most convenient method of getting the recognition that they rightfully deserve; and therefore they create a world of illusion, instead of trying to compensate for their insecurities.
Even though narcissists are very bad at understanding human emotions, other people's needs and their feelings or viewpoints, it is not as if they can't do it. They do understand emotions like empathy and compassion, but in a shallow manner. And even when they do, they camouflage these emotions with rage, blame and disdain for others. If it was not for their ability to understand emotions, they wouldn't have had been hypersensitive. It is simply the fact that they cannot think beyond themselves, and thus only understand their own emotions. Yet, they will never show that they are capable of being emotional, for the fear of being 'used' by the other people. This is a fear which stems from their belief that 'emotional fools' around them are only meant for being 'used' and taken advantage of.
Narcissists appear very arrogant to people they interact with and they tend to sport an unnecessary attitude or ego, which they usually do to erect barriers around themselves. What's interesting is that it doesn't take much time for the ego to take a back seat, and a warm smile to replace that arrogance, which can only happen when they want to make other people act on their terms. When you are dealing with a skilled narcissist, you may not even notice that you are being 'exploited' - until it is too late. Trying to get back at a narcissist is as good as making yourself more vulnerable to their onslaught. For them, it's all about proving a point, and they can stoop to any level to do so.
Narcissists are always envious of other people, and at the same time think that others are envious of them. They continue to live with these negative traits, treating them as though they are positive and helpful, even after knowing what others think about them. At times, they even go to the extent of concluding that the people around them are either jealous or simply not smart enough. Narcissists go by the belief that ego, arrogance, self-righteousness, etc., are positive traits. This is true to an extent, but only in their case, because these are the traits which help them build protective barriers around them.
Though it is difficult to figure out the exact causes of narcissistic personality disorder, experts are of the opinion that childhood trauma is one of the main factors contributing to the same. Even Freud believed that narcissistic behavior stemmed from a combination of indiscriminate parental praise and coldness/rejection. By the onset of early adulthood, the trauma experienced in childhood engulfs the mind of the individual. Excessive pampering, parents pressurizing the child to do something in order to enhance their own self-esteem, neglect by the parents or abuse by elders are possible factors which can trigger this personality disorder.
Narcissists are preoccupied with fantasies related to power, wealth, success and love. They set unrealistic goals for themselves, and don't hesitate in taking extreme measures to attain these goals. Being self-centered, they consider themselves superior to others and go by the belief that the people around them are only meant to be used. These beliefs, along with their seductive charm, help them excel in certain fields like politics and showbiz, but their personal life is often centered around a web of deceit. This can be summed by a quote from Peter Jonason, a psychologist at the University of South Alabama - "A narcissist monk would not be good, but to be Kanye West and a narcissist is fantastic."
A relationship with a narcissist can never be smooth sailing, and all those who are/have been in such a relationship would agree with that. At times, people, especially women, continue their relationship with a narcissist, because they believe that they will be successful in changing that person - which seldom happens. Other than the self-patronizing attitude, narcissism also comes with some negative add-ons. For instance, narcissists are more likely to cheat when they are in a committed relationship, as they believe that they can easily get away with it. Dependence on a narcissist is the perfect recipe for disaster, because it directly makes you vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.
Men tend to be more narcissistic than women. This was revealed in a study conducted by psychologist Frederick Stinson and his colleagues, involving face-to-face interviews with 34,653 adults. The concept of short-term flings or open-relationships is always appealing for narcissists, both men and women, as their relationships are more susceptible to eventual decline. There is no questioning the fact that being in relationship with a narcissist can be quite frustrating. But men are less likely to be bothered by narcissistic women, as they themselves are more keen on such flings and open relationships.
Manipulative as they are, they don't hesitate in playing the victim card when they realize that their assertiveness is not having the desired effect. In normal circumstances, when we know that the person with whom we are interacting has been a 'victim' (of anything, for that matter), we tend to go into a sympathetic mode, trying to console them. This, in turn, makes us more vulnerable to exploitation by narcissists who are well-acquainted with the tricks of playing the victim. Their ability to shift roles from tormentor to victim and back, is quite amazing. If you know that you are dealing with a narcissist, you are bound to be on guard - in that case, you are of no use to that person, and hence you are more likely to be dumped.
Narcissism can be of two types - healthy narcissism and extreme narcissism. When we talk about narcissism, we often tend to focus on those behavioral traits associated with NPD. One needs to understand that narcissism in moderation, what is referred to as healthy narcissism, can help in personality development by making the person confident and self-sufficient. While healthy narcissism is not really an issue, extreme narcissism is, and hence has to be properly dealt with. Extreme narcissists will keep you close as long as you are useful for them, but when they realize that you have started figuring out what their motives are, they will quietly put you aside. A person suffering from NPD is more likely to take to drug abuse and alcoholism as a means of coping with their difficulties. More importantly, this disorder hampers the development of healthy relationships between the person and other members of his family/society.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Psychiatrists use specially designed assessment tools and interviews to ascertain whether the person is suffering from this personality disorder. The medical history and physical tests of the patient are taken into consideration during the diagnosis. What is disheartening is the fact that a narcissist doesn't look at this disorder as a problem, which makes it difficult to convince him to opt for treatment. While there is no medicine to cure this disorder, psychotherapy is considered as one of the best methods of NPD treatment; and is thus used:
  • To provide the individual with greater self-awareness and insight into his problems.
  • To develop better self-esteem and a realistic self-image.
  • To inculcate a more realistic approach towards the society.
It is believed that psychotherapy or counseling can help a person come out of the trauma that triggers narcissistic personality disorder. At the same time, prescription drugs are helpful when it comes to treating the symptoms of distress that follow with this disorder.
Some psychologists are of the opinion that narcissism exists in every individual to some extent, and only when it crosses a certain limit does it amount to a disorder. According to Freud, healthy narcissism is a must for normal development of an individual, as it forms a constant and realistic self-interest, and helps in setting mature goals and inculcating great values. In excess though, it can be a disabling condition which can hamper the person's ability to develop healthy relationships.