Narcissism is one of the primary conditions of our time and has even been labelled an epidemic. Individual narcissism is being fed by our narcissistic culture with its emphasis on self-promotion and hyper-individualism exemplified in selfies, talent shows, cosmetic surgery and the ‘me’ in social media.

What are the symptoms of narcissism?

Narcissism ranges from moderate traits to a full-blown personality disorder (see personality disorders page) so the symptoms also vary in degree. Some of the most frequent are:

  • A hunger for recognition and admiration
  • A haughty, grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Self-admiration and self-absorption
  • A sense of superiority and an expectation that this will be recognized, perhaps without commensurate achievements
  • A sense of being special and possibly of being understandable only by a few
  • A sense of entitlement – ie expecting preferential treatment or automatic compliance from others
  • A need for an audience
  • Fantasies about power, success, brilliance, fame, beauty or the perfect partner
  • An inflated view of oneself sometimes alternating with feelings of inferiority and insecurity
  • A lack of empathy with others and difficulty in achieving emotional intimacy
  • Devaluing others
  • Using, controlling, bullying, manipulating or exploiting others who may only be perceived as extensions of oneself and who may be dropped when they have served their purpose
  • Feelings of envy and a desire to counteract them by arousing envy in others – eg by some special talent, physical attribute or possession
  • A fear of dependency on others
  • A heightened sensitivity to criticism and shame

How do I know if I suffer from narcissism?

There are all kinds of online tests for narcissism, some based on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory – widely used in social psychological research. You need to bear in mind, however, that attempts to diagnose yourself – or indeed others – can be problematic. It may be more helpful to talk to a specialist. Your doctor can be a good starting point. But if you recognize quite a few of the symptoms in the list and if they are causing difficulties, it may be that narcissistic tendencies are at work to some extent or other.

What are the causes of narcissism?

As I’ve mentioned, narcissism can range from fairly modest characteristics to its more serious manifestation in narcissistic personality disorder. The latter may cause problems in many areas of life including work, relationships, education and finance. There’s also the category of malignant narcissism where narcissistic personality disorder is mixed with anti-social features, very high levels of aggression, sadism and paranoid traits. Underlying all these, however, there seem to be some common experiences deriving from childhood. As always, they will vary in severity. Otto Kernberg has done major work on the causes of narcissism and I’ve made use of it in what follows.

Coldness and aggression

Often the child’s home environment is superficially well-organized with apparently good parenting. But beneath the surface the parents may actually be cold and covertly aggressive, although the aggression may not be expressed in words. The child may experience callousness, indifference and spitefulness.

Unsurprisingly, the overall effect will be for a child to feel that they are unloved or unlovable. A sense of hunger for love, plus rage, emptiness and worthlessness may follow. It’s not surprising that envy of those who have had more authentic experiences of love can also develop, along with the compulsion to create compensatory envy and admiration in other people. Some of these feelings may be beyond conscious awareness.

‘Trophy’ children

It’s not uncommon for such children to be ‘trophies’ – that is, valued not for who they are but for what they do (for instance, their musical or sporting achievements) and for what function they have for their parents. The children are being used just as they may later use others. The message that one is highly valued but largely for an accomplishment or role is confusing. And it may drive a child’s real feelings (particularly hostile or selfish ones) underground for fear of them being censured in the family.

When a child is criticized every time they fail to bring reflected glory to their parents, the shaming message may be conveyed that they’re somehow not good enough. Similarly, over-indulgent parents who applaud their children indiscriminately may instil in them not only an awareness of permanently being judged but also a deep intuition that the lavish praise is false and that they are somehow fraudulent.

What can be done about narcissism?

Analytic psychotherapy is often used to treat narcissism. Because it endeavours to tackle the condition at a deep level, it’s long-term work. As always with therapy, a successful outcome can’t be promised but the aim is for lasting change.

It’s important to note that the level of severity of a person’s symptoms would determine whether or not I took them into therapy.

If you know someone who you think might have narcissistic tendencies and could potentially benefit from psychotherapy, it’s helpful to be aware that the person themselves would need to contact me. This can be difficult because people suffering from narcissism often don’t think that there’s anything wrong. Sometimes it’s only as a result of feeling depressed through recent experiences of criticism, rejection or failed relationships that they contact a therapist. That’s not uncommon in later life when difficulty coping with the ageing process may be an additional factor.

What I have said above applies, of course, if you yourself feel you may have narcissistic characteristics. They can be hard to recognize in oneself and the possibility of them can be hard to acknowledge.

Other pages which may be of interest

For more information about Individual Psychotherapy
For more information on Depression Counselling and Therapy