As with anything, there are varying degrees of narcissism.
There is a spectrum from healthy (with a balanced dose of self-love and esteem) to pathological, all-encompassing narcissistic tendencies.
Narcissism is troublesome for society as a whole, as well as for each individual narcissist who is plagued by incessant and rampant internal negativity, obsession with self-image and dangerously exaggerated feelings of self-importance.
It is neither as simplistic, nor as innocent, as the commonly invoked myth of a beautiful man or woman gazing at his or her own reflection in the surface of the pond, fixated on its beauty and perfection.
Narcissism is primarily a sexual perversion, according to Freudian theory. In Sigmund Freud’s seminal 1914 essay, On Narcissism: An Introduction, he writes:
“A narcissist is a person who treats his own body in the same way in which the body of a sexual object is ordinarily treated—who looks at it, that is to say, strokes and fondles it till he obtains complete satisfaction through these activities. Developed to this degree, narcissism has the significance of a perversion that has absorbed the whole of the subject’s sexual life.”
Freud goes on to define megalomania as a “magnification and plainer manifestation” of narcissism.
In contrast, post-Freudian psychologists in the early to mid-20th century, such as Karen Horney, saw the narcissistic personality as a trait molded by a dysfunctional early environment, as opposed to viewing narcissistic needs and tendencies as inherent in human nature.
The latest research indicates that narcissism is on the rise in modern culture due to the rise of reality television, social media, and the ever-increasing focus on achievement—even in preschool and elementary school, which is coupled with the general reduction of children’s freedom to play with their peers in an unstructured way.
Simply stated, narcissism is an inflated view of the self, combined with relative indifference to others. There are two distinct categories of pathological narcissism: exhibitionist and closet. Both stem from an inability to adequately develop an age-appropriate self due to problems with the quality of nurturing provided during their childhood by the primary caregiver, typically the mother.
The closet narcissist is more likely to have a deflated, inadequate self-perception and also a palpable awareness of the emptiness within. The exhibitionist type, on the other hand, maintains an inflated, grandiose self-perception that is out of touch with reality. Without investigation or reflection, the exhibitionist type assumes that others are just like him. The closet narcissist desires constant approval from others, while the exhibitionist constantly seeks admiration and ego-stroking.
The seven deadly sins of narcissism:
- Shamelessness: inability to process shame.
- Magical thinking: seeing oneself as perfect.
- Arrogance: diminishing and degrading others with self-importance.
- Envy: coveting others’ images, possessions, or achievements.
- Entitlement (a.k.a. privilege): feeling and acting extra special and better than everyone else.
- Exploitation: using others without regard for their feelings or interests.
- Lack of boundaries: no boundary between self and other.
The narcissistic mother idealizes her son and puts him up on a pedestal. By the time he is a teen, she resents her son for not pleasing her as he used to, which in turn creates resentment in him. His defense mechanism is to keep building up his ego as a facade that covers deep insecurity and angst. Yet, all the blame cannot go solely to the mother. Narcissistic fathers, too, are more likely to foster narcissistic children.
At the community level, we need to work to reverse the alarming trend of narcissism in society by promoting altruism in children and teens. This can be accomplished by incorporating the explicit teaching of emotional intelligence and mindfulness through both traditional learning institutions and home schooling.