Interactions with these people can be exasperating, perplexing and ultimately depressing.
They use you to get what they want. They consider their interests and opinions to be better than yours. They’re unable to handle your criticism. They blame, belittle and betray you.
It’s tiresome and often destructive to be around this behaviour. To cope, we distance ourselves, discarding whoever exhibits it from our lives like something faulty; something beyond repair. It’s their fault they’re like that, after all.
But could we be viewing their actions through a different lens?
For various psychologists and canvassers, intemperate narcissism is more than a developmental phase or character weakness. It’s actually a serious, misunderstood mental health issue.
Such people associate this kind of self-centred behaviour with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD); a psychological condition proposing narcissism and ego are far more complex than we commonly see them.
NPD is one of several types of personality disorders in which someone’s behavioural inclinations cause them to think and act differently, severely limiting their ability to function within typical societal parameters. Often, the pervasive behaviours of those badly afflicted can’t be helped without professional support.
Personality disorders are not explicable by age (ie. toddlers and teenagers) or socio-cultural status (ie. successful celebrities), and differ from mental illness as they are often deeply engrained and are largely unaffected by circumstance or chemical imbalance. They’re difficult to treat, but if they’re picked up on, therapy can be of enormous assistance.
“A person with NPD [is constantly] preoccupied with their own power, brilliance or beauty, believing in their own superiority, requiring excessive praise and admiration, and envious of others,” explains Psychology Australia’s Dr Genevieve Milnes. “They develop a sense of entitlement about the level of favourable treatment they require, lack sensitivity and empathy towards others, exploit those close to them, and become snobbish, haughty and patronising.”
Danu Morrigan*, author of self-help book You’re Not Crazy – It’s Your Mother, is one of those who believes the public could be looking at narcissism differently.
Growing up the daughter of a highly narcissistic mother, Morrigan was for a long time devoid of joy; trapped in a “vicious cycle of rage [and] lies”. Completely unconscious to the cause of her mother’s recurrent, upsetting actions, it was only after stumbling across NPD she was able to begin healing herself. She now regularly receives heartfelt messages from readers with thanks for her “life changing”, informative book, published in 2013
According to Morrigan, fewer people will attempt to treat narcissistic behaviour if they do not consider it a disorder. Misdiagnoses and a lack of recognition are continued sources of plague, and thus, too many go through life unaware narcissism is perhaps where their problems actually stem.
“Narcissism is often misdiagnosed as bi-polar, because narcissists can have quick and wide mood swings“. But while [those with] bi-polar can have quick swings, they’re rarely as quick as those of a narcissist,” she says.
“The thing about narcissistic abuse is that it can be small and subtle- death by a thousand cuts. NPD is little known- most people have never heard of it. This means that victims of narcissists can be living a nightmare without ever realising what’s going on. It can be completely invisible to everyone, including the perpetrator, who literally cannot see what they’re doing.”
While we know the mind of a narcissist rarely strays far from their own needs, what most of us mightn’t realise is they’re not always happy doing so. Commonly their self-regarding, destructive conduct is no more than a facade or coping mechanism, deployed to counteract other deep-seated issues.
“The interesting thing [is] narcissists often describe feeling very lonely or incapable of maintaining good relationships,” explains Queensland based psychologist Joey Tai. “They often present in therapy for reasons such as anxiety, depression or relationship difficulties. [These] people have a great desire to be admired. This might result in them constantly trumpeting their own qualities; and putting others down, to make themselves appear more important and special.”
With only minor psychological concern into ego and narcissism, there is little research being conducted into what causes it. At this point in time, mostly theories exist. The one cause common with most professionals submits it arises from negligent parental care early in someone’s life; an idea running parallel with Morrigan’s own experiences.
“Growing up with a narcissistic parent is very debilitating,” she agrees. “It leaves the [child] with very low self-esteem. It leaves them unable to trust their own perceptions and reality, as the [parent] will most likely have gaslighted them all their life. They then become an under-achiever, or an over-achiever with the high price that exacts. Abuse is all they know, and the cycle continues.”
But what little fresh study has been undertaken holds some interesting results, as in recent times, biological factors have been suggested to be involved in the construction of conceit and NPD.
The New York Presbyterian Hospital has shown evidence suggesting genetics to be of relevance, while in 2012 the US National Library of Medicine found links between cortisol (a stress response hormone) and male narcissism. But until there is a wider shift in mindset, it is likely tangible answers will continue to elude us.
Issues stemming from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are becoming more treatable as we increase the range of angles we view them from, so it would not be implausible to suggest something similar could transpire applying the same sentiment to personality disorders and narcissism.
However it should be noted while an attitude transferal may get us to think more seriously about egotism, by no means does it entail completely absolving people of the liability of their actions. Sympathy is one thing, but blind tolerance is another, unhealthy one altogether.
What it might do though, is help narcissists all over the world into treatment. It might offer people like Morrigan vital insights into the confusing, damaging behaviour of those close to them. It might help the people afflicted in our own lives live a little easier.
It’ll be tough to do, but it’ll be even tougher the way things are now. Because after all in any case, accessing help and information is much easier when you have a wider perspective of you’re dealing with.
For more information about narcissism, NPD and other personality disorders, you can contact The Australian Department of Health on 1800 020 103 or visit their website at http://www.health.gov.au/.