What underlies narcissism?
It is relatively easy to describe narcissistic behavior. We tend to look at the characteristics that we see in an attempt to understand the narcissist, and these are easy to see once we know what to look for. But these are the symptoms, not the causes.
Narcissistic symptoms display a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy that usually begins by early adulthood. This pattern of grandiosity can be seen in the narcissists' views of their own uniqueness and abilities. Narcissists are beyond being self-centered, viewing themselves very highly and expecting others to view them the same. Their preoccupation with themselves and requiring constant attention and admiration from others disturbs their interpersonal relationships especially with their lack of empathy.1
All narcissists view themselves very highly and expect others to view them the same.
A narcissist displays most, sometimes all, of the following traits:
- An obvious self-focus in interpersonal exchanges
- Problems in sustaining satisfying relationships
- A lack of psychological awareness
- Difficulty with empathy
- Problems distinguishing the self from others
- Hypersensitivity to any slights or imagined insults
- Vulnerability to shame rather than guilt
- Haughty body language
- Flatters people who admire and affirm him
- Detests those who do not admire him
- Uses other people without considering the cost of that for them
- Pretends to be more important than he is
- Brags (subtly but persistently) and exaggerates his achievements
- Claims to be an 'expert' about most things
- Cannot view the world from the perspective of another person
- Denies remorse and gratitude
The above narcissistic behaviors are created to display a false image to the world, but these are just the symptoms. Underlying this false image are constant feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and worthlessness. It is because of these feelings that the narcissist develops the false image using the associated behaviors described above, in a never ending attempt to raise his self-esteem and feel good. The subconscious desire to overcome these underlying feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and worthlessness result in the mental conditions of paranoia and envy, which characterize the narcissistic condition. Paranoia and envy underlie all narcissistic behaviors.
Paranoia and envy
The paranoia constantly felt by the narcissists means that he is suspicious of virtually everyone he meets. He fears being caught out, recognized for what he really is (or what he really thinks he is), that is the inadequate being that lies beneath the false image. Obsessive mistrust means that he can never accept people for what they are, so there can never being a true and meaningful relationship, even with his family members.
But possibly the most destructive trait common to all narcissists is envy. As a result of feeling inferior, the narcissist can become envious of a spouse, a colleague or a neighbour, particularly a better educated, more intellectual or more successful one. It's not jealousy, you can't be jealous of something you have never had, but envy; often pathological envy. Aristotle's quote exemplifies the difference.
"Jealousy is both reasonable and belongs to reasonable men, while envy is base and belongs to the base, for the one makes himself get good things by jealousy, while the other does not allow his neighbour to have them through envy." 2
The pathological envy often felt by narcissist is a negative emotional condition brought about by the narcissist's knowledge of the possessions, achievements, or qualities of someone near to him that he does not have. As Kate Barrows said, "Envy always involves a comparison - we envy that which we lack." 3
Envy involves the desire of the narcissist to have for himself something possessed by someone else. If he can't have it, he will try to destroy the possession, achievement, or quality in question, either literally or figuratively. For example, a narcissist will vehemently object to an application for planning permission by his neighbour if the result is to be that the neighbour's house will look better than his. A more figurative example may be when the narcissist envies a spouse's or a colleague's master's degree, when he doesn't have one of his own. He may describe someone he met at a recent party with a master's degree as being unintelligent and having no common sense, so by inference the spouse or colleague is not as intelligent as him, the narcissist, nor do they have common sense, as he has.
If you want to know more about what traits underlie narcissistic behaviour, read Narcissism: Behind the Mask.
1 Davison, G.C. and Neale, J.M. (2001), Abnormal psychology, eighth edition, Wiley, New York.
2 Aristotle's Rhetoric.
3 Barrows, K. (2002), Ideas in psychoanalysis: Envy, Icon Books, UK, p. 11.