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The Surprising New Finding About Narcissists

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It's been standard medical practice to think of narcissists as overcompensating and hyperinflated braggarts working very hard to cover up a sinking sense of self, desperately and secretly sad attention-seekers with sagging self-esteem.

But that may not be true.

According to new research, the medical axioms may be far out of touch with reality and the Average Joe's street sense more on the line. A braggart really does think he's all that and more.

In recent years, the media have made a culture of it: narcissists now are not only shamelessly narcissistic, they will tell you that they are. They are the fundamental reality in reality shows.

But, they are not without self-awareness, as the old psychology would have us believe. They strut their pathology as if it were a float in their own parade. Their lack of empathy? No problem for them. Their lack of interest in you? Likewise, not an issue.

Erika Carlson and her colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis conducted several unusual studies to see whether narcissists have insight into their personality and their reputation.

The researchers initially administered a number of clinical measures of narcissism to college students. Is there a psychology department that hasn't done that since the 1960s? But then they did something different and decidedly interesting: they looked at how those who scored high on the narcissism scale were seen by others, how they saw themselves and how they believed they were seen by others. They considered numerous variables, running their analyses across social contexts and interviewing new acquaintances as well as friends and family. The studies produced strikingly similar results.

What they found was that narcissists were impressed with themselves and that their personal "puffery" was not hiding a depressed sense of self. They truly thought themselves to be utterly grand!

Those scoring high in narcissism tended to rate themselves as more intelligent, physically attractive, likable and funny than others. They also saw themselves more accurately than anticipated and rated themselves as having higher levels of negative aspects of narcissism, such as being power-oriented, impulsive, arrogant and prone to exaggerate their abilities! The understanding the researchers took away? Narcissists know they're narcissistic. And they like it.

There was more: Narcissists are not private, and their self-aggrandizement is not in the closet. There was also a strong positive correlation between clinical narcissism and having a reputation for narcissism. Their friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances knew them for who they were and saw them as narcissists.

The sad caveat: The observers (regardless of intimacy level) didn't seem to perceive the narcissist in the same grand terms that the narcissist did. They may have known them to be grandstanders, but they did not see them as being quite as attractive, personable or fascinating as the narcissists themselves did.

And the wistful irony? The narcissists knew this, too. Who would have imagined?

When the narcissistic students were asked how they thought others perceived them (did their friends think they were as fabulous as they did?) they were uncannily more perceptive in their answers than anyone expected. They knew their reputation, they were more self-aware than anyone had thought they would be, and while they thought they were the best thing since sliced bread, they knew those around them had other ideas.

The researchers raise the inevitable but even more perplexing question: How do narcissists maintain such distorted self-images knowing how they are perceived by others?

Some possibilities:

  1. Narcissists, as they are wont to do, blame their friends and family for failing to see their gifts accurately and assessing their true worth. The world is too shallow a place to fathom the depths of their extraordinary... a) creativity, b) suffering of indignities, or c) importance. Your choice.
  2. Clearly those failing to "appreciate" them properly are just motivated by envy. According to the researchers, this may explain why narcissists are so arrogant. Rather than bragging as an act of compensatory posturing, it is a pouting demand for the recognition and appreciation they feel they deserve. Narcissists are entitled. (It didn't take research to tell us that.) In columns published before, we've talked about just how that sense of entitlement manifests and destroys relationships. The researchers call this "self-verification theory." They write, "Narcissists believe that they are exceptional people and may behave in arrogant ways because they are attempting to bridge the gap between their self perceptions and their meta-perceptions."
  3. They maintain their position extraordinaire by consciously and unconsciously manipulating the definition of narcissism. It's good to be the way they are -- driven, self-indulgent, demanding. After all, don't they get what they want that way? For example, calling a narcissist "arrogant" to his or her face would only be taken as validating their self-perception as "confident" or "praiseworthy" (even if they have to give it to themselves). As the researchers note, "Narcissists seem to choose honest arrogance when describing themselves and their reputation."
  4. Narcissists care more about power and image than they do about love. These and other studies have documented the "agentic" concerns of narcissists: they'd rather be seen as superior than likable; as dominant rather than community-minded or cooperative; and as competent and important rather than honest and trustworthy. How they appear to the camera is far more central to their sensibilities than how they relate to another person. For them, admiration is far more necessary than intimacy. What other people refer to as the negative aspects of narcissism, they see as not only true but desirable.
  5. The most obvious possibility is that they simply don't care. They know what narcissism means, they know it impacts others in ways that are painful or harmful, and they know that arrogance isn't "good" by most standards. It's all irrelevant to them -- so long as they get their way. Part of entitlement is a Machiavellian view of the world and others. Their needs are paramount. Period.

Given all this, just who do narcissists associate with? The study did not investigate this question per se; it's just a common-sense curiosity.

My answer: whoever views them positively.

Interestingly, the researchers found that new acquaintances had more positive perspectives on the narcissistic subjects than people who were better acquainted with them. In their cases, familiarity did breed contempt.

But once again, the narcissists didn't care. They knew that their flash had a limited lifespan and that their positive impressions deteriorated over time. Is it any wonder that they are known for being unable to form long-term relationships? Is it any wonder that they flit from flower to flower, happy to linger so long as the nectar is available? Never truly understood, always too good for those around them, hardly ever truly appreciated (at least for very long), they collect people the way kids used to collect baseball cards: ready to trade up as soon as the next, best one comes along.

The researchers add, "It is possible that narcissists discontinue relationships early on because they cannot bridge the gap between their positive self-perceptions and relatively negative meta-perceptions."

So, if I'm having a good day, am I narcissistic?

No. Fear not. You can go ahead and enjoy a pat on the back or feel good about an uncommonly excellent achievement. If you asked the question, undoubtedly you are not. Most people love a little praise, a little encouragement, some well-earned acknowledgment, but they don't confuse it with who they are. And they don't believe it comes free.

As the research has shown, narcissists know who they are. And they'd never ask anyone that question.

Narcissism is not the same thing as believing in your work, committing yourself to a mission or enjoying the attention and affection of others.

Even if narcissists don't see it that way, narcissism is still a pathological personality style. The fact that they don't want to change doesn't mean they shouldn't. (As you can see, I'm not a fan of humanistic relativity. Lousy is lousy. Good is good. We all know the difference.) It's just that change is not something easy to come by these days. The medical world is no longer set up for it, and for the most part, the insurance companies don't even acknowledge personality disorders (what we call Axis II diagnoses).

It wasn't always like that. When I started out as a clinical social worker, I worked with substance abusers in intensive outpatient and residential treatment. We had a wide range of clients, a lot of them mandated, a lot of them hardcore. A good percentage were either narcissistic or sociopathic (the latter being more extreme). With those clients, the treatment protocol was very clear and just as hardcore. Their delusional egos had to be broken down (similar to what happens in the military) and reconstructed. Did it always work? Obviously not. But did it work at all? I believe it did and that many of those people moved on to more productive lives. Some of them still (25 years later) call to say hello and let me know how they are. The treatment just required a massive commitment of time, resources and energy -- things the new system has made nearly impossible.

But there may be a simpler way of working with narcissists. What this research points out that is so astute and intriguing is that the narcissist is not only infatuated with himself, he's pleased as punch about it. It used to be taken as truth that a narcissist would change if he really knew how others felt about him. Not so. Carlson has so splendidly made clear what so many ordinary people have felt all along: that narcissists just don't care how others feel. She suggests that the more helpful treatment would be a kind of psychotherapeutic aikido, to "emphasize the interpersonal and intrapsychic costs of being seen as narcissistic" (emphasis mine). If they want to know what's in it for them, the research says, well, tell 'em.

I'm all for that.

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