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The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Narcissist

By       Message Elizabeth Mika       (Page 1 of 4 pages)     Permalink

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With Frederick "Skip" Burkle

Narcissism in America is all the rage these days--even more so than usual, and that really says something--not in the least because of the popular GOP presidential candidate who is the center of media's attention, a subject of dinner talks, friendly chats at the post office, local KKK meetings, neo-Nazi blogs, and your cat Fluffy's worst nightmares (it may be the hair--imagine a hairball it would make).

But the said candidate is not the only one whose tremendous self-regard has recently mesmerized the public (as it always does). There is Pharma Bro whose loudly self-proclaimed humanitarianism stands in stark contrast with his decidedly non-humanitarian actions, and an award-winning musician who thinks he is more influential than God. And why not! Go big or go home, as any narcissist would tell you.

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Ridiculing the cases of such grotesquely overinflated self-regard can be entertaining, but there is a dark side to it, of the kind that real nightmares, and not just Fluffy's, are made of. This is what this paper is about.

Yes, It is a Pathology

Narcissism is a pathological condition with far-reaching consequences in a person's life. It influences every aspect of his (or her; although most narcissists are male) functioning in profound ways, often making it difficult to understand and relate to him on a personal level.

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We do not know exactly how one becomes a narcissist--the causes of this disorder are complex, involving nature and nurture in varying proportions. Our culture, with its competitiveness, preoccupation with status and image, and the cult of high self-esteem and positive thinking, helps foster narcissism in our private and public lives to everyone's detriment, not in the least because we tend to reward some very unsavory narcissistic characters with the power and adulation they believe they deserve.

There are varieties of narcissistic disturbance and they have individual flavors that depend on the specifics of a person's character and life; but they share overall patterns of thinking, emotionality, motivations, behavior, and interactions with the world that help us recognize its kind and level. Those general patterns apply to all people affected with the particular type of the disorder in varying degrees.

In its extreme form, which is what we'll talk about here, narcissism acquires antisocial (psychopathic) features. This is because one of the most important aspects affected by narcissism is a conscience, that inner organ of right and wrong. The main components of one's conscience are empathy, guilt, shame, critical self-reflection, and awareness of higher values (love, compassion, care, altruism, honesty, beauty, truth, justice). We must focus on the narcissist's defective conscience, as this is the facet of narcissism that's most problematic, for him but even more so for others.

Narcissism as a Deficit of Conscience

While normally our conscience may not always work as we might wish, when one's conscience suffers a severe deficit or complete absence, the consequences are devastating, even though the one so affected will likely not see it this way. Without a functioning conscience, a person's experiences are dramatically different from those whose conscience is normally and functionally endowed, which is most of us. That lack of a conscience affects not only one's emotional, moral, and social-functioning capacity, but also one's ability to think properly and acquire knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses (what is referred to as "cognition"), distorting it and limiting its depth and scope, even if he has a high intelligence.

Our conscience grows from empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another), based primarily on our attachments with others and what we learn from those relationships. The capacity for empathy is low to non-existent in narcissists, for reasons we don't fully understand.

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Without empathy, an individual cannot relate emotionally to other people. This excludes the possibility of forming deep, meaningful bonds with them. Unable to understand and appreciate that other people are sovereign individuals with rich and complex inner lives, a narcissist sees them essentially as objects that can be used for his need- and wish-fulfillment, without any consideration given to their needs, wishes, humanity, or dignity.

His empathy deficit, combined with his grandiosity, also makes him blind to how his behavior affects others. He has no idea what people think of him, nor any wish to find out. Why, he is great and everyone knows it, and there is no need to question that; although confirming it, loudly and often, is desired and expected. It is the least that others can and should do.

Narcissists sometimes understand, intellectually at least, what makes people tick; but that understanding does not translate into empathy. And anyway, they do not care about other people's experiences, only their own. These are frequently tied to multiple lies and fabrications about their education, pedigree, accomplishments, war duty, business exploits, name-dropping and the influence they claim they have with important people, and the love and respect everyone has for them, all designed to bolster their own ego in the eyes of others. They may use the language of higher values, especially when it serves their needs; but a closer examination reveals that their understanding of values is severely truncated and shallow.

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Born in Poland and trained as a clinical psychologist, I currently live in the US, working as an educational consultant. I specialize in giftedness, psychopathology, and human development.

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