Rethinking Narcissism: How to Understand and Cope with Narcissists

Narcissism or NPD is a personality disorder that can be easily associated with a grandiose image of the self and seeking self-worth in being special. In his book, Rethinking Narcissism, Dr Craig Malkin of Harvard Medical School does not only provide advice on coping with narcissists, but also presents a different way of understanding narcissism.

Narcissus in love with his own reflection in the water
Narcissus in love with his own reflection in the water

The term narcissism itself was coined after the Greek myth of Narcissus – a man so beautiful and self-centred that he fell in love with his own reflection. Among countless adorators was Echo, a mountain nymph, who could only repeat Narcissus’ words. Rejected, her body withered away in the woods.





What Is Narcissism?

Calling somebody a “narcissist” has become a common insult, calling to one’s vanity and self-centredness. In simple words, a narcissist seeks fulfilment in feeling special and better than other people.

As clinicians describe it, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) “is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

Dr Craig Malkin had a new approach to old assumptions. He pointed out that all the common beliefs related to narcissism deem it, by definition, “wholly destructive.” According to the clinical psychologist, this is clearly wrong.


The Narcissism Spectrum

It’s true that narcissism may lead to plenty of problems, but it would be in the least ignorant to fail to recognize the way it may help one through its “drive to be special”.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Instead of “regarding narcissism in all or nothing terms, imagine a line stretching from zero to 10”. The desire to feel special grows according to the numbers on the spectrum.

Life on either of the extremes “isn’t a particularly healthy place to be”. At the left side of the spectrum (zero), people never enjoy being special. In many cultures, utter selflessness is held high in people’s minds as a virtue. However, an absolute lack of the desire to feel special creates a range of problems: the inability to accept sympathy or ask for support being some of them.

On the right extreme (10), people incessantly long for attention and support. Being addicted to the spotlight, they are capable of doing just about anything to get it. The constant assertion that others fail to acknowledge one’s importance drives people to the typical problems we associate with narcissism.

The closer we get to the middle of the narcissism spectrum, the more we see moderation: “intense ambition and occasional arrogance” without the compulsivity of complete egotism.

Dreaming of success without the relentless immersion in it leads to the intention to become better, and in a healthy way.


Can It Be Healthy?

Promoting healthy narcissism starts with upbringing, yet raising a confident and caring child isn’t the easiest of tasks. As Dr Malkin underlines in “Rethinking Narcissism,” “parenting has two major components: warmth and control.”

There are a few parenting styles, common yet failing to promote healthy narcissism, authoritarian being the first one. Having strict control over their kids – shaping and controlling them as “in a police state” – authoritarian parents rarely allow children to question them and express very little warmth.

Quite contrarily, permissive parents “provide comfort, but few rules.”Through such an indulgent approach, they “often let bad behaviour go or rationalise it – ‘boys will be boys’.”

Indifferent or neglectful parents more often than not expect children to take care of themselves and solve their problems on their own. Expressing little love and affection and pushing their children to be independent, they can’t really guide their children towards empathetic pursuit of dreams.

Respecting children’s opinions and encouraging them to express their feelings are paramount traits of authoritative parenting. Talking things over with one’s kids and including their preferences for future plans will set a fertile ground for healthy narcissism.

The key to promoting healthy narcissism through authoritative parenting is to practice firm empathy, model vulnerability, and set certain limits. Particular behaviours on the parents’ side will create proper hard-wirings in the child’s mentality. Through naming softer feelings and expressing appreciation, authoritative parents can take care of their kid’s confidence and empathy.

Social media, the modern medium of information, news, and community, can regretfully instil us in narcissism. Dr Craig Malkin shares a few tips on how to change SoMe (his abbreviation of social media) to SoWe. Surrounding yourself with real friends, finding a community with purpose, and following wisely will prevent you from overindulging your ego on social media.

The ultimate gift of healthy narcissism is a passionate life. For this reason alone, we should indeed rethink narcissism and promote its healthy kind. A life driven by ambition, with moderation between selflessness and ego-centrism, will not only make one satisfied and fulfilled, but also contribute to the immediate community, or maybe even humanity as a whole.


Fighting Unhealthy Narcissism

Though we ought to promote healthy narcissism and moderation, we shouldn’t forget to stay alert for narcissists on the extreme side of the spectrum. The inability to recognise other people’s needs and worth is just as dangerous as echoism – the unwillingness to accept sympathy and support.

On the lookout for unhealthy narcissism, there are a few warning signs you should keep in mind. Emotions are often an uncomfortable subject for extreme narcissists. Displaying emotion phobia and playing emotional hot potato – getting rid of emotions by denial and claiming they belong to someone else – are common amongst self-centered egotists.

When dealing with lovers, family, and friends, unhealthy narcissism is not something to sweep under the carpet. Fighting this condition is about change and recovery. Anything from insults, manipulation, and refusal to admit to problems is a red flag not to be ignored.

To push for moderation, one could prompt empathy through honest words of appreciation. That is the case in family or friendship relationships, yet it might seem totally different in professional situations. To protect yourself from a narcissistic colleague or boss, try documenting everything, remaining focused on the task, catching good behaviour, and becoming assertive.


Things to Remember

According to Dr Craig Malkin’s Rethinking Narcissism, contrary to common belief, narcissism shouldn’t be perceived as an all-or-nothing condition. Seeing it as a spectrum between echoism – an absolute lack of self-interest and the desire to feel special – and narcissism lets us understand it better.

Healthy narcissism has got a veneer of positive traits. By pushing one towards ambition and the desire to succeed combined with empathy, it’s favourable to promote healthy narcissism. This process may start as early as in childhood. With the help of Dr Malkin’s tips for authoritative parenting, it’s a viable challenge to raise one’s kids to be confident and caring.

Not all narcissists are the same, and narcissism oughtn’t to be considered their main personality trait. In family and friendly relations, you can take certain actions to push the narcissist (or, as a matter of a fact, the echoist) towards moderation.

The greatest reward of healthy narcissism is a passionate life that brings satisfaction and a sense of meaning. Instead of choosing between selflessness and egotism, it would be advisable to change our point of view on narcissism. Throwing narcissist as an insult won’t push the boundaries of the common opinion, yet through promoting caring confidence, healthy narcissism can in fact change our society for the better.

Photos: Shutterstock

Want to dive into another psychological topic? Head here:

The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

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