Narcissism is a psychological condition defined as an obsession with the self. While not all forms of self-love or self-interest are destructive, extreme cases can be very damaging and may be diagnosed as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). In these instances, the disorder is characterized by a lack of empathy for others, sadistic or destructive tendencies, and a compulsion to satisfy personal needs above all other goals. People suffering from NPD tend to have difficulty establishing or maintaining friendships, close family relationships, and even careers. About 1% of people have this condition, and up to 3/4 of those diagnosed with it are men.
The signs of narcissism often revolve around a person's perception of himself in comparison to other people. Those with severe cases often believe they are naturally superior to others or that they possess extraordinary capabilities. They may have extreme difficulty acknowledging personal weaknesses, yet also have fragile self-esteem. Narcissistic people also frequently believe that they are not truly appreciated, and can be prone to outbursts of anger, jealousy, and self-loathing when they do not get what they feel they deserve.
Narcissistic people also tend to follow certain behavioral patterns. They may have a habit of monopolizing discussions, becoming impatient with situations that focus on other people, or exaggerating personal exploits for attention. In relationships, the condition often emerges as jealousy and an inability to see different points of view. A person with NPD may have difficulty understanding why other people cannot simply exist according to his rules; when life does not coincide with his plan, feelings of rage and depression can quickly follow.
According to some psychoanalysts, almost all people begin life with some degree of self-obsession. Since babies are born helpless, their physical and emotional needs must be addressed by the people surrounding them. In the infant's mind, this translates to a deeply held belief that he is the center of the world, known as primary narcissism. This belief is usually left behind as children grow older and become more independent.
When a child first experiences a situation that causes feelings of disappointment and rejection, he or she may fall back into primary narcissism as a means of managing these emotions. Older children may temporarily resort to baby talk, bed wetting, or other infant behaviors, since these represent a time and place where the child felt safe. As emotional maturation continues, most children grow beyond this self-obsession, finding more effective ways to cope with disappointment. In some cases, however, an inability to adapt these feelings as an adult may lead to secondary narcissism, which can evolve into NPD.
The exact causes behind NPD are not fully understood. Some psychologists believe a lifetime of rejection and abandonment issues can create a pattern of self-obsessed behavior that develops into a personality disorder. In some cases, doctors can link a pattern of extreme narcissism to a traumatic event in early life, such as the death of a parent or physical or sexual abuse. Other doctors believe that genetics may play an important role in the development of this condition; some research suggests that certain people may simply be hard-wired for this type of personality disorder.
Effects of Narcissism
People with mild symptoms may actually benefit from their self-interested tendencies. According to some studies, mild narcissists tend to experience less stress, self-doubt, and remorse than non-narcissists. Their feeling of self-importance and invulnerability makes them less prone to depression, and makes them more likely to pursue their dreams and goals. Some of these benefits may come from self-delusion; since they don't consider other people's problems or concerns, they may be unaware of the unpleasant things surrounding them, or simply think that they aren't important.
Those with clinical NCD, however, can have difficult and frustrating lives. In extreme cases, they may be simply unable to understand why the world does not work according to their beliefs. Despite a desire for strong personal relationships, they may be unable to maintain them because of their self-obsession. In rare cases, the ability to justify any behavior for personal gain may be so strong that a narcissist may find himself engaging in manipulative, criminal, or violent acts.
Psychotherapy is often recommended as the first line of treatment for this condition. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on identifying and altering unhealthy behavioral patterns, can also be very helpful in constructing a healthier lifestyle. Marriage or family therapy is frequently suggested when self-obsession is disrupting personal relationships. How effective these treatments are usually depends on how severe the condition is. While fully defeating narcissistic urges may not always be possible, psychotherapy creates an open forum to discuss related issues and manage the problems caused by this condition.