What is narcissistic personality disorder, and why does everyone seem to have it?

The state of the universe.
March 18 2009 7:05 AM

But Enough About You …

What is narcissistic personality disorder, and why does everyone seem to have it?

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Fortunately, not everyone with this kind of parenting ends up with NPD, which indicates there is a genetic susceptibility as well. Harvard's Ronningstam, in her book Identifying and Understanding the Narcissistic Personality, cites evidence that hypersensitive babies with a low tolerance for frustration and a strong aggressive drive may be particularly vulnerable.

Because the caregiver lacks an empathetic understanding of the baby, the baby's ability to become an empathetic person is impaired. Empathy, the ability to instinctively understand how another person is feeling, is a crucial human attribute, part of what makes us a social species. A chilling lack of empathy is a hallmark of NPD. Shame, that painful sense one has acted in an unacceptable way, is another necessary emotion that is also largely missing from the person with NPD. Since shame feels so terrible, it sounds liberating not to feel it. But psychologist Schore points out a feeling of shame signals that we need to reassess our behavior. "Shame is a moral emotion," he says. "It's without feeling shame that the most horrendous acts occur."

Those involved with someone with NPD frequently say they feel as if they are interacting with a kindergartener. In some way they are. According to a study in the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatments, narcissists are stuck with the emotional development of 5-year-olds. It's about at age 5 that children start realizing their feelings are not just the result of other people or events but occur within themselves, and that they have control over them. But this understanding does not take place for the narcissist, who continues to see all internal states as having an external cause. Because of narcissists' inability to control their own emotions, they unconsciously experience the world as constantly threatening—thus the tendency toward inexplicable rages, the wild overreactions to the slightest perception of criticism.

Management consultant Michael Maccoby studied narcissistic bosses for his book, The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership. He makes a distinction between leaders with narcissistic traits and those who have full-blown NPD. He says narcissists can be charismatic forces for change—because of their drive, vision, risk-taking, and even ruthlessness, many corporations turn to narcissists for salvation. But such people can become dangerous because their success fuels their already ample grandiosity and feeds the sense they got there by disdaining the normal rules. Maccoby says those working for or doing business with a narcissist have to be careful not be drawn into crossing legal and ethical lines. A good example is Blagojevich, who seemed to have a rare ability to taint almost anyone who took his phone calls. Twenge and Campbell cite studies which show that narcissistic bosses produce volatile results. Their boldness can lead to big short-term success but long-term disaster.

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If the observers who say that part of our economic troubles result from a mass case of narcissism, from consumers who thought they should have the house of their dreams financed on bad debt to bankers who thought they deserved eight-figure bonuses for packaging that bad debt, then perhaps we are about to be cured. Twenge and Campbell point out that the 1920s was a narcissistic era whose economic collapse led to the Great Depression and the greatest generation. Perhaps it's time to dig out those Depression-era recipes for humble pie.

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