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Psychology of Narcissism

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English Matters - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 2/2020 vom 31.01.2020

Arrogance, a sense of specialness, inflated ego or maybe a hunger for appreciation, these are the common associations that people have on hearing the word narcissist. However, narcissism can wear many masks and is more complicated than it may seem. So, it’s time to take a closer look at this swashbuckling, all-me-all-the-time behaviour.

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psychology saɪˈkɒlədʒi | Psychologie narcissism ˈnɑːsɪsɪzəm | Narzissmus inflated | aufgeblasen, überhöht hunger for sth | Sucht nach etw. appreciation | Anerkennung swashbuckling ˈswɒʃbʌklɪŋ | draufgängerisch, großschnäuzig

What is Narcissism?

Who hasn’t met a ...

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... self-centred, bossy or arrogant person with an inflated opinion of themselves? That’s a rhetorical question, as we all possess some narcissistic qualities which run along a spectrum – some individuals are lower on the trait and others higher, with many landing in the middle. The word narcissism, defined as the pursuit of gratification from an egotistic admiration of an idealised selfimage, inordinate fascination with oneself or excessive self-love, has become quite popular nowadays. However, we should be aware of the fact that there’s a radical difference between having narcissistic qualities (e.g., being obnoxiously selfcentred) and being a full-fledged narcissist diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, something which according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders affects an estimated 1% of the general population, 50-75 % of whom are men (APA, 2010).

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

This is a type of personality disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention as well as admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others – they’re just not all that interested in feelings that aren’t their own. However, not everyone is aware of the fact that behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

Although it may seem that narcissists are self-confident and completely satisfied with their lives, the truth is that nothing can make them happy, unless they are given the special favours or admiration they believe they deserve. People suffering from NPD have problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs. Moreover, because of a limited or minimal ability to experience emotions, they may find their relationships unfulfilling, and others may not enjoy spending time with them.

What are the Traits of a Narcissist?

The most common symptoms of NPD include: an exaggerated sense of selfimportance, achievements and abilities. Diagnosed narcissists are preoccupied with outward appearance, beauty, fantasies about success and power, using a distortion and illusion known as magical thinking. They insist on having the best things, like cars, houses or offices. Furthermore, their lack of empathy leads them to take advantage of people without regretting it. Severe narcissists have a predatory, score-keeping approach to the social world, hence they become green with envy of others’ achievements and believe others envy them. Because of poor emotional regulation, they tend to be ultra-sensitive and thin-skinned, they may angrily lash out at any negative feedback as well as criticism, or become impatient or angry when they feel like they’re not getting special treatment. Although they can be described as vain, self-righteous and conceited, with a lack of remorse, compassion and empathy for others, in fact, a deep sense of insecurity, shame and vulnerability is hidden under all of these traits.

How Does a Person Become a Narcissist?

There is a constant question whether genetic or environmental factors have a bigger influence on an individual’s behaviour. Do inherited traits or experiences play a greater role in shaping our personality? The nature (which refers to genes and hereditary factors) versus nurture (which refers to environmental variables) debate is one of the oldest topics in psychology. How is it with NPD? Actually, the cause of narcissistic personality disorder is complex, but there is no one-size-fits-all answer to what causes this mental condition. However, it is probably a combination of inherited characteristics and the way the child was raised. Either excessive adoration and idolisation, or on the other hand constant reprimanding and criticism can have a great influence on a child’s future behaviour. Both ways of bringing up a child may cause the development of NPD. Both create a highly competitive atmosphere that can cause stress, and an obsession with being the absolute best. It is crucial for children to develop healthy, lasting levels of self-esteem to be able to protect and care for themselves, while caring about parents or siblings. When they do not develop empathy while growing up, it can cause a serious personality disorder as an adult, including the narcissistic type.

1 bossy | rechthaberisch, herrisch pursuit pəˈsjuːt | Streben, Jagd gratification | Befriedigung, Belohnung inordinate | übertrieben, übermäßig excessive | übermäßig, übertrieben nowadays | heutzutage to be aware of sth | sich etw. bewusst sein obnoxiously əbˈnɒkʃəsli | unausstehlich full-fledged | vollentwickelt, vollwertig narcissistic personality disorder | narzisstische Persönlichkeitsstörung troubled | gestört, schwierig lack of sth | Mangel an etw.
2 confidence | Selbstvertrauen fragile ˈfrædʒaɪl | zerbrechlich, brüchig, schwach self-esteem | Selbstachtung, Selbstwertgefühl vulnerable ˈvʌlnərəbl | verwundbar, anfällig slight | leicht, gering self-confident | selbstbewusst unless | außer, es sei denn ability əˈbɪləti | Fähigkeit to include sth | etw. enthalten, einschließen exaggerated | übertrieben, übermäßig achievement | Leistung, Erfolg outward | äußerlich appearance | Aussehen, Erscheinung distortion | Verzerrung to insist on sth | auf etw. beharren/bestehen to take advantage of sb | jdn. übervorteilen/ ausnutzen to regret sth | etw. bereuen, bedauern severe | ernst, stark, massiv predatory | rücksichtslos, räuberisch score-keeping | zielgerichtet, aufs Ergebnis konzentriert approach to sth | Einstellung zu etw., Herangehensweise an etw.
3 to envy | beneiden thin-skinned | dünnhäutig to lash out at sb | auf jdn. losgehen vain | eitel, eingebildet self-righteous ˌself ˈraɪtʃəs | selbstgerecht conceited kənˈsiːtɪd | arrogant, eingebildet remorse | Reue, Gewissensbisse vulnerability | Verletzlichkeit environmental | Umweltinherited | vererbt, geerbt hereditary həˈredɪtri | erblich, angeboren, vererbt versus | gegen, versus nurture ˈnɜːtʃə(r) | Erziehung variable | Variable, Größe actually | wirklich, eigentlich complex | kompliziert, komplex raised | aufgezogen on the other hand | auf der anderen Seite, andererseits

How is Narcissism Diagnosed and Treated?

Prevention is better than cure. Therefore, providing a healthy environment with loving parents but without being exclusively and possessively close to a child would definitely have a positive influence on their future behaviour. However, if we suspect that someone may suffer from NPD, we should be careful. Because of its complex nature there is no simple solution to cure the disorder. One thing is certain – a person should never self-diagnose and resist diagnosing others. There are no medications specifically used to treat narcissistic personality disorder. However, taking part in psychotherapy can be helpful. Thanks to it, a patient not only learns to relate better with others, but also understands the causes of their own emotions. Therefore, their relationships become more enjoyable, rewarding and intimate.

A Relationship with a Narcissist

Taking all this into consideration, living with a narcissist is a hard nut to crack. At home, narcissists can behave totally differently than in their public life. They may privately denigrate the person they were just entertaining. Because of their perfectionist nature, they never appreciate the efforts of the people they live with. Moreover, narcissists are not fond of the word “no” and often expect others to know their needs without having to ask. They are great manipulators, too, by using their charm, persuasion, or coercion to pressure people into giving them what they want. Certain narcissists are even deliberately uncooperative, because from their toxic and distorted point of view, it is better to be a pain in the neck than to be a nobody.

In a Nutshell

Most of us want to be loved, liked or admired. We constantly seek acceptance from our colleagues or friends and don’t want to become the shunned black sheep. We all have lower or higher self-esteem which is not a bad thing, we need to remember though that narcissism is a mental condition that can manifest itself in a pathological form as narcissistic personality disorder. Even though most narcissists feel superior, deep down they may feel like an ugly duckling, even if they don’t want to admit it. Therefore, for those who live or work with narcissists, perceptive awareness and assertive communication are essential to establish healthy and mutually respectful relationships.

4 bringing up | Erziehung, Kinderstube competitive | konkurrierend, kompetitiv siblings | Geschwister adult | Erwachsener including sth | einschließlich/eingeschlossen etw. prevention is better than cure | Vorbeugen ist besser als Heilen definitely | bestimmt, absolut, definitiv to cure sth | etw. heilen rewarding | bereichernd, lohnend hard nut to crack | eine harte Nuss to denigrate sb | jdn. verunglimpfen, schlechtmachen to entertain sb | jdn. unterhalten to be fond of sth | etw. mögen, gern haben charm tʃɑːm | Charme, Reiz coercion | Zwang
5 deliberately | absichtlich, bewusst distorted | verzerrt pain in the neck | Nervensäge in a nutshell | in aller Kürze to seek sth | etw. suchen shunned | gemieden
6 superior | überlegen, besser ugly duckling | hässliches Entlein, missachtete Person to admit sth | etw. zugeben mutually | gegenseitig, für beide Seiten


The word narcissist originates from Greek mythology. One day a handsome, young hunter Narkissos stopped to drink cool water from a completely still, silver pond and fell in love with his own reflection. As he couldn’t stop looking at his own beauty, he disregarded eating and drinking. Eventually, he died and was turned into the beautiful flower the narcissus, or daisy, that now bears his name.

to originate from sth | von etw. stammen still | unbewegt to fall in love with sth | sich in etw. verlieben to disregard sth | etw. vernachlässigen eventually | letztendlich, schließlich