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The Plight of the Aging Narcissist

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A narcissist's desire to be the center of attention and praise can create challenges in adjusting to the passing years. Society's association between youth and beauty can lead people preoccupied with their appearance feeling vulnerable. The question is whether, and how, they meet this challenge.

People with narcissistic personality disorder see themselves as the center of attention, and crave the approval and admiration of others. Short of having a diagnosable personality disorder, however, there are many other people who have narcissistic tendencies that lead them to see themselves in a favorable light. These self-enhancing qualities can become a problem when such individuals must confront the passing of the years after their supposed prime of young adulthood. Because our society associates youth with beauty, getting older can mean loss of social standing. The aging narcissist looks in the mirror and sees a reflection of someone whose status is heading downhill.

In general, people with personality disorders experience significant deleterious effects on their psychological functioning and relationships with other according to work by Colorado Springs psychologist Daniel Segal and colleagues (2006). On the positive side, however, as Segal has also shown, as people get older, some of their symptoms moderate as they mature and they become better able to handle the problems created by certain personality disorders.

Do narcissists find a way to reconcile their desire to be seen as beautiful with the reality of the fact that their appearance is moving away from social ideals? Segal's work would suggest that through maturation, at least some narcissists become less preoccupied with their image and don't mind receding into the background. They may come to redefine their standards for being accepted away from outer appearance and toward less superficial forms of recognition by others. Perhaps they seek to draw attention from their children and grandchildren or younger associates. They brag about the accomplishments of the families they've raised or the supervisees they've mentored. "See what I've done?" they seem to be saying, clamoring for approval through the reflected glory of their offspring.

It's also possible that people with narcissistic tendencies approach the advent of midlife and beyond by using the all-purpose defense mechanism of denial. In research I've conducted with my Queens College co-author Joel Sneed (2002), we've found that many midlife and older individuals maintain high levels of self-esteem despite the age-related changes they experience on a day-to-day basis. Through what we call "identity assimilation," they preserve their sense of self as competent and attractive. They simply don't allow society's negative views of aging to penetrate their identities.

For narcissists who rely on denial to get them through tough times, then, aging may represent less of a threat because they refuse to think of themselves as getting older. They wear the same type of clothing styles they've always worn, or frequent stores designed for teens and 20-somethings. Browsing the makeup aisles, they're constantly on the prowl for products that will keep their skin glowing and wrinkle-free. At every turn, they seek to defy the calendar.

The problems for narcissists who try to battle the aging process start when they take things too far, subjecting themselves to plastic surgeries that rid them of those hated sags and bags under their eyes or around their middles. Putting themselves under the knife for surgery after surgery can put them at risk for other complications.

In relationships, the midlife or older narcissist may fall prey to the vain desire to be seen as attractive to younger romantic partners. This could lead to their exploitation if these younger partners see them as targets for financial gain. Even without such dire consequences there may still be hurt feelings that result from such encounters as behind their backs, others ridicule them for not "acting their age."

Psychologically, the constant quest for a youthful image can become not only counterproductive but detrimental. The fact is that the clock is ticking, and they are getting older whether they like it or not. They'll have to attend to their maturing bodies and adapt their self-concept to incorporate these age-related changes in their appearance and physical functioning.

Fortunately, there are ways to handle the turning of the years for people with more than a touch of narcissistic personality tendencies. Learn to accept yourself, turn to others for advice and support, and take heart in the role models of people who are handling their aging with grace and even joy. Although she rambled on a bit, Golden Globe winner Jacqueline Bisset at 69 years old didn't mind showing her untouched wrinkles. Embrace your aging self, as it's testimony to your ability to survive the challenges that life has thrown your way.

References:
Segal, D. L., F. L. Coolidge, et al. (2006). Personality disorders and older adults: Diagnosis, assessment, and treatment. Hoboken, NJ US, John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Whitbourne, S. K. and J. R. Sneed (2002). The paradox of well-being, identity processes, and stereotype threat: Ageism and its potential relationships to the self in later life. Ageism: Stereotyping and prejudice against older persons. T. D. Nelson, The MIT Press: 247-273.