The myth of Narcissus is a cautionary tale of an arrogant young man cursed by the Goddess Nemesis to fall in love with his own reflection and stare at it until he died. This tale went on to inspire many writers, poets, artists and musicians during the Renaissance period and has also found its way to today’s world.
Presently, the word “narcissist” is used to describe a person who is self-centered and over-confident.
The overuse of this word has stripped it of the weight it carries in defining a serious personality disorder.
According to the International Classification of Disease, personality disorders comprise deeply ingrained and enduring behaviour patterns, manifested as inflexible responses to a wide range of social and personal situations.
As per the above criteria, someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) would exhibit the following behaviours:
- An exaggerated self-image in terms of personal skills and abilities
- A sense of entitlement and a need for admiration
- Obsessed with fantasies of success, power, beauty or intelligence
- A belief that they are special or unique
- Unrealistic expectations of favourable treatment
- Exploitative and manipulative in personal relationships
- Lack of empathy, and unwillingness to recognise the needs and feelings of others
- Envy towards others or a belief that others envy them
- Arrogant or haughty behaviour
Keeping the above criteria in mind, some personality traits such as high self-confidence, extroversion, focus on personal aesthetics or high self-esteem can be mistaken for narcissism. In fact, a certain amount of narcissism is beneficial and there is such a thing as healthy narcissism.
NPD, like all other mental disorders, falls on a continuum that encompasses all cases from mild to extreme. To be diagnosed, an individual must experience moderate to severe impairment regularly and show five or more of the behaviours listed above.
The most challenging part of living with a personality disorder, aside from the subjective distress, is the difficulty with social functioning and interaction. Research suggests that narcissistic people often experience higher rates of separation or divorce, unemployment and inefficiency, and poor quality of life.
The maladaptive aspects of narcissism are harder to manage, especially the negative impact it has on interpersonal skills and relationships.
My client’s mother exhibits signs and symptoms of a narcissistic personality. My client often expresses that she feels engulfed and interlocked in this relationship.
On the one hand, she believes her mother needs her support, and on the other, she feels worthless through her mother’s constant verbal abuse where she calls my client “useless” or “good for nothing”. These traits have negatively impacted their relationship.
While attempting to cope in this relationship, my client has developed maladaptive habits such as binge eating; the discomfort has also manifested in physical pains and aches in her body. This distress has led to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety that stem from a lack of self-esteem and self-efficacy.
When my client attempted to separate herself from this toxic relationship, her mother increased her verbal attacks in the hope that it would debilitate and prevent her from moving on.
My client longs for permission to leave this relationship without any guilt and is unable to escape the cycle of abuse and indulgence of her maladaptive coping mechanisms.
This is a prime example of how a narcissistic personality is detrimental to the caregiver’s personal growth. This case also highlights how this disorder blinds a person to the negative impact they have on their loved ones.
Narcissistic behaviour is common among most adolescents and is considered a normal part of development. Theoretically, adolescents display this type of behaviour during the developmental stage when they are attempting to create their own identity and exercising their autonomy.
When individuals continue to express these behaviours into early adulthood, it becomes a cause for concern. This is because well-functioning adults have to be able to recognise and adjust to the needs of others. Awareness of the consequences of one’s actions and a recognition of the needs of others is a large part of living in any community, and therefore, essential for any person to co-exist.
Treatment for this disorder is typically a combination of therapy and medication, but the combination can vary from person to person. This type of disorder requires a holistic approach that will encompass all aspects of life, from physical to psychological.
If you or a loved one is coping with a personality disorder, click here to find a mental health professional in your area, who will be best able to advise you on a course of action.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)