Narcissism in a nutshell.

The word narcissist is often used synonymously with vain or selfish. While this usage normally tends to be casual, sometimes even facetious, the fact is that there are major differences between narcissism, vanity and selfishness. Narcissism can be a more serious mental condition that can have a significant negative impact on personal life and relationships. So much so, that many people choose to seek the help of a therapist or counsellor to mitigate the effects of narcissism on their life.

Narcissistic or selfish?

Selfishness is defined as the tendency to focus on one’s own profit or pleasure, with little regard for others. Selfishness as a trait is quite often viewed in a pejorative sense, as is vanity. But selfishness is a human trait, and the majority of us can be accused of being selfish at some point in our lives. Nevertheless, not many people will choose to seek the services of a therapist to ‘cure’ selfishness. Narcissism, however, is a more consistent form of selfishness, and perhaps also a more intense form of it.

Narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus. To narrate it briefly, Narcissus was a handsome but vain youth who rejected the love of the beautiful mountain nymph Echo and so was condemned to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water before withering away in frustration. Narcissism or excessive selfishness has been acknowledged and reflected upon throughout human history. A healthy degree of self love is part of normal human psychological development. However, after a certain degree it can turn into pathological narcissism that a therapist or counsellor needs to help with.

Unlike selfishness which could be purely attributed to one’s actions, narcissism has nuances of vanity, prestige and an exaggerated importance of self image. Narcissism itself is a very broad term and can be used to describe different things in different contexts: for instance a social or cultural trend, or simply a facet of someone’s personality. It can be present to a degree, in a majority of personalities. However, narcissism in a pathological form can turn into a disorder known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. NPD is an unhealthy obsession with one’s self, usually stemming from some disturbance in one’s self image.

While a therapist of counsellor working in this field can provide a much more in depth understanding of acute narcissism, some traits that could be present in someone with an overly narcissistic personality include: a constant craving for attention and admiration in all personal exchanges, problems in maintaining equal relationships, difficulty with expressing empathy, gratitude or remorse; being overly sensitive to criticism, real or imagined, obsequious tendencies towards admirers, manipulation, bragging and overestimating their abilities and achievements, and not having the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective.

How therapy can help

Narcissism, even intense and toxic narcissism, can be present not just in individuals, but in groups, even companies and corporations. It is a set of traits and behaviours that evolve from the sense of collective self, something that groups and corporations certainly have. While large corporations probably cannot benefit from seeking the help of a professional therapist, individuals certainly can.

NPD can take on different forms in different people. It can manifest itself in, or lead to other disorders, such as Body Dysmorphic Disorder or eating disorders. Self destructive patterns are also common with NPD sufferers. Therapy and counselling can help patients identify their own narcissistic tendencies, and could also help counter narcissistic behaviour by being able to identify it. By discussing things in a non judgemental but frank way, a therapist could also help identify where the narcissistic tendencies might stem from.

People with NPD often avoid taking therapy for the fear of exposure of inadequacy or the fear of being judged and criticised. But a therapist treating someone with NPD does not aim to shatter the ego, rather he or she respects the patients’ sense of self importance. Narcissism is about having a false self image of perfection and also about projecting this image to other people. Much of the anxiety and frustration associated with NPD rises from the inability to sustain this image and projection, and the counsellor or therapist takes this into account. A specific course of treatment and therapy for someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder will depend on the actual case. In general, treatment for NPD includes different types of individual psychotherapy, as well as group therapy.

Images on Creative Commons license courtesy of Cea, Virginsuicide Photography, Marco Raaphorst

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