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?

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

The narcissists did it. Some commentators are fingering them as the culprits of the financial meltdown. A Bloomberg columnist blamed the conceited for our financial troubles in a piece titled "Harvard Narcissists With MBAs Killed Wall Street." A Wall Street Journal op-ed on California's economy suggested that Gov. Schwarzenegger's desire for voter's love ("It's classic narcissism") helped cause the state's budget debacle. A forthcoming book, The Narcissism Epidemic, says we went on a national binge of I-deserve-it consumption that's now resulting in our economic purging.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

This is the cultural moment of the narcissist. In a New Yorker cartoon, Roz Chast suggests a line of narcissist greeting cards ("Wow! Your Birthday's Really Close to Mine!"). John Edwards outed himself as one when forced to confess an adulterous affair. (Given his comical vanity, the deceitful way he used his marriage for his advancement, and his self-elevation as an embodiment of the common man while living in a house the size of an arena, it sounds like a pretty good diagnosis.) New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley wrote of journalists who Twitter, "it's beginning to look more like yet another gateway drug to full-blown media narcissism." And what other malady could explain the simultaneous phenomena of Blago and the Octomom?

Watch Emily Yoffe's appearance on The Colbert Report.

These days, "narcissist" gets tossed around as an all-purpose insult, a description of self-aggrandizing, obnoxious behavior. Unfortunately, the same word is used to describe a quality that comes in three gradations: a characteristic that in the right amount is a normal component of healthy ego; a troublesome trait when there is too much; and a pathological state when it overwhelms a personality. Narcissism fuels drive and ambition, a desire to be recognized for one's accomplishments, a sense that one's life has meaning and importance. The problem occurs when narcissism becomes the primary principle of someone's personality. Its most extreme form is narcissistic personality disorder, a psychological condition that impairs a person's ability to form normal relationships and wreaks havoc on those who have close encounters with it.

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A recent study titled "Leader Emergence: The Case of the Narcissistic Leader" describes how narcissists have skills and qualities—confidence, extraversion, a desire for power—that propel them into leadership roles but that when true narcissists are in charge, other aspects of their makeup—a feeling the rules don't apply to them, a need for constant stroking—can have "disastrous consequences." Yes, we're talking about you, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. After Blagojevich was caught on tape trying to sell a Senate seat, he reveled in the opportunity to appear on talk shows, making the case that he himself was a victim—self-pity being a favorite narcissist refuge.

A line from a New York Times profile of him is as trenchant a description of narcissism as is found in most psychology textbooks: "[He] is unapologetically late to almost everything, and can treat employees with disdain, cursing and erupting in fury for failings as mundane as neglecting to have at hand at all times his preferred black Paul Mitchell hairbrush." There it all is: the sense that other people don't matter, the belief others are instruments for the narcissist's use, the self-admiration.

Narcissistic personality disorder is not simply about taking normal egoism to extremes. NPD is one of fewer than a dozen personality disorders described by the American Psychiatric Association. These differ from the major mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and manic-depression, which are believed to have a biological origin. Personality disorders are seen as a failure of character development. Others include anti-social personality disorder (these people are also commonly called "sociopaths" or "Bernie Madoff") and borderline personality disorder (think of Livia Soprano). NPD has been officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association only since 1980, but descriptions of this syndrome go back to ancient times. The name for it, after all, comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, the beautiful boy who was unable to love until he saw his own reflection in the water and died pining away at his image.

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