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There’s the Groom who wouldn't let his fiancée's overweight friend be a bridesmaid because he didn't want her near him in the wedding pictures. The entrepreneur who launched a meeting for new employees by explaining that nobody ever gets anywhere working for someone else. The woman who had such confidence in her great taste, she routinely redecorated her daughter's home without asking. The guy who found himself so handsome, he took a self-portrait with a Polaroid every night before bed to preserve the moment.
As Ted Turner put it: "If I only had a little humility, I'd be perfect."
But narcissism isn't just a combination of monumental self-esteem and rudeness. As a personality type, it ranges from a tendency to a serious clinical disorder, encompassing unexpected, even counterintuitive behavior. The Greek myth of Narcissus ends with the beautiful young man lost to the world, content to forever gaze at his own reflection in a pool of water. Real-life narcissists, however, desperately need other people to validate their own worth. "It's not so much being liked. It's much more important to be admired. Studies have shown narcissists are willing to sacrifice being liked if they think it's necessary to be admired," says Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
The deep desire to be at the center of things is served by extreme self-confidence, a combination that makes narcissists attractive and even charming. Buoyed by a coterie of admiring friends and associates--protected by the armor of positive self-regard--someone with a mild-to-moderate case of narcissism can float through life feeling pretty good about himself. Since they feel entitled to special treatment, they are easily offended, and readily harbor grudges. Yet narcissists are often very popular--at least in the short term.
The beauty of being a narcissist is that even when disaster stares you in the face, you feel neither doubt nor remorse. In a recent study, for example, researchers asked a pair of participants to undertake a task that was rigged to fail. Most people tend to protect their partner, sharing either the credit or the blame. "But the narcissists would say, 'It's totally the other person's fault.' They're completely willing to step on someone," says narcissism researcher Keith Campbell, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Georgia.
Intensely narcissistic people often live tumultuous lives, as few people can tolerate them for long. But having a milder version of the personality type comes with many side benefits. Subclinical narcissists are happy. They are less likely to be depressed, sad or anxious, and rate their subjective well-being more highly. They're less reactive to stress, and recover more rapidly from it.
Mild narcissism also seems to help people recover from accidents or other trauma--it gives them an unrealistic sense of their own invulnerability, and they believe that they will be able to handle whatever else life throws at them. As one researcher put it, being somewhat narcissistic is like driving a huge SUV: You're having a great time, even while you hog the road, suck up extra resources and put other drivers at higher risk.
A narcissist can be hard to identify, in part because he is likely to be much more fascinating than you would expect for someone so self-absorbed, and in part because you wouldn't think someone with such self-regard could be so defensive and needy.
The Narcissist in the Conference Room
The downside? Temper tantrums, unreasonable expectations, shocking selfishness and a complete inability to engage in teamwork. "Every once in a while, someone would be in the bathroom in tears after one of her outbursts" Charlotte Tomic says of her former boss's behavior. Tomic, a media relations professional in New York City, says her narcissistic boss subjected her to endless discussions of her wardrobe and travel plans, and managed in total ignorance of either group effort or recognition. Unfortunately, short of quitting, Tomic could do little about it. You can't always escape the egomaniac in the cubicle next door, but a few techniques may help you endure the experience.
The Narcissist in Love
Lynn found out that her boyfriend was what Campbell, author of When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself, calls a "game-playing" lover. Campbell found that narcissists' need for power and autonomy leads them to shun commitment--and to cheat. Romantic relationships become just another way for them to pump up their own self-image. Narcissists look for mates with very high social status (for example, looks or success) which complements an inflated sense of self.
Lynn's narcissistic boyfriend was a poker player, and she says now that the relationship was just like a sport to him. "He would figure out the landscape, and he was never willing to gamble more than he was willing to lose," Lynn says. "He told me I had qualities he was looking for, but also that he needed to see other women."
After nine months, they broke up, also typical for narcissists, whose relationships don't last long. In Campbell's studies, "relationships with narcissists were more satisfying initially, and then dramatically less satisfying at the end," he says. The extreme example might be Scott Peterson, who was charismatic enough to attract a beautiful wife--and coldhearted enough to murder her when he wanted to move on.
Obviously, most narcissists aren't killers, but they do tend to be very unsatisfying mates. If he's had a string of relationships, if he can't stop talking about how much people admire him, if he gets easily riled when he doesn't get what he wants--he may not be just another commitment-phobic man. He's a narcissist.
Unfortunately, anyone can be seduced by a narcissist. One misconception is that only those with low self-esteem date some one who's so self-centered, but people with normal self-respect can also end up involved with a narcissist. They have decisive, take charge personalities in a society that shuns wishy-washiness. And after all, they're experts at making people admire them. Best-case scenario: when narcissists date each other. That way, both can have a self-confident, am, impressive and shallow mate--and leave the rest of us in peace.
The Care and Feeding of a Narcissist
Some researchers believe more men are narcissistic than women, while others counter that since many key traits--being self-centered, competitive, disinterested in intimacy--are more socially acceptable in men, women may be equally narcissistic but less visible as such. Female narcissists might install themselves at the center of a circle of friends, for example, rather than seize the stage at work. Similarly, some studies show that Westerners are more narcissistic than people from Asian cultures. Others posit that people "self-enhance" in every society--it's just that in a more collectivist culture, such as Japan's, narcissists are subtler, since self-aggrandizing behavior isn't rewarded or respected.
It stands to reason that if narcissism can be fostered, it can be treated as well. For years, personality disorders were thought to be essentially incurable. That thinking is changing, but narcissists may be among the hardest cases to crack. An unhappy narcissist generally believes that his main problem is that other people don't treat him as well as he deserves. When you think you're the greatest--and when other people mostly defer to you--why would you want to change?
"Narcissists are either dragged in by someone who is having trouble with them--a spouse or relative--or they show up because of feelings of emptiness" says Rhodewalt. "Why, they wonder, if they're so accomplished and wonderful, does life seem so empty?" When you've built a life on falsehoods, it's hard to grapple with questions that everyone faces, like the meaning of life. The needle's stuck on "I'm wonderful," and your personality doesn't allow you to grow--to change your behavior or attitudes in response to life's challenges.
Reflection Exercise #7
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