The Evolutionary Neurodevelopmental Perspective

Stop Narcissists from messing up your life

How to Deal With A Narcissist

Get Instant Access

By definition, perspectives offer only limited insight into any given phenomenon. Because personality refers to the matrix of the total person, a theory adequate to embrace personality must exist at a level of analysis equal to personality itself. Perspectives are only parts, not wholes, and cannot accomplish this goal.

According to the biopsychosocial-evolutionary theory (Millon, 1990; Millon & Davis, 1996), the narcissistic personality is passively self-oriented. Such individuals turn primarily to themselves for gratification and do not perceive a need to engage in the requisite give and take necessary to live in a community. The developmental pathway to this strategy is often relatively straightforward, as portrayed in the interpersonal tradition. Here, caretakers overvalue the self-worth of the future narcissist by providing noncontingent praise, attention, and tribute. Narcissists fail to develop the motivation and skills ordinarily necessary to elicit these rewards. Merely being who they are is sufficient; thus, narcissists come to value themselves regardless of their real attainments. Nothing should be required to elicit admiration or performance from others. Instead, narcissists feel nothing more is needed than to just be themselves.

Indeed, parental overvaluation through the stages of neuropsychological development may be seen as a core factor in the development of narcissistic patterns. Feelings of omnipotence begin shortly after birth but do not take hold in a meaningful fashion until the sensorimotor-autonomy stage. Every minor achievement of future narcissists is responded to with such favor as to give them a deluded sense of their own extraordinary self-worth. Extreme confidence in your child need not be a disservice if it is well earned. In the case of the future narcissist, however, a marked disparity exists between the child's actual competence and the impression he or she has of it.

Failures in parental guidance and control play an important role during the intracortical-initiative stage. The child is encouraged to imagine, explore, and act without discipline and regulation. Unrestrained by the imposition of parental limits, the child's thoughts and behaviors may stray far beyond accepted boundaries of social reality. Untutored by parental discipline as to the constraints of fear, guilt, and shame, the child may fail to develop those internal regulating mechanisms that result in self-control and social responsibility.

At other times, the developmental route to narcissism is circuitous. Both Kohut and Kernberg, for example, see the inflation of the self as a compensation for early deprivations. Contemporary psychoanalytic theorists recognize both possibilities. Stone (1993), for example, states:

Narcissistic traits can develop, curiously, when there are deviations from ideal rearing on either side: pampering or neglecting; expecting too much or too little. Excessive praise of a child. . . can give rise to . . .feelings of superiority, of being destined for greatness. . . . But compensatory feelings of a similar kind can arise where there has been parental indifference and neglect. (p. 260)

Ramsey, Watson, Biderman, and Reeves (1996) have given some research support to the idea that dual developmental pathways underlie pathological adult narcissism, noting that narcissistic subjects often report either highly permissive or highly authoritarian parents.

Table 10.2 presents a full cross-domain synopsis of the narcissistic personality. Contrast with Other Personalities

As with the personalities you have encountered in earlier chapters, the narcissist shares many traits with other personality patterns. As before, examining the evolutionary model for the functional significance of these shared traits within the total personality highlights important distinctions.

Both narcissists and histrionics can be charming, and both enjoy being the center of attention. The histrionic actively and constantly seeks the attention of others, often to repress a subtle but uncomfortable sense that the self is void or empty. Psychodynamic thinkers contend that the narcissist shares this self-impression, using a grandiose self to cover up a deep sense of inferiority. However, histrionics view themselves as attractive and sociable, whereas narcissists view themselves as talented and exceptional. They feel so exceptional, in fact, that they expect others to recognize and admire them without any effort. When this does not occur, they socialize with the singular goal of redirecting others back to where the attention must be focused; after this point, they may then return to being a passive receptacle of worship. Too much interpersonal involvement would convey dependence, and dependence is a weakness. Narcissists thus prefer to remain above the need for relationships. In contrast, histrionics may desperately desire relatedness and work to create a "fund of attachments" that can be exploited. Moreover, in the normal range, histrionics can be warmly expressive and involved in the conventions and fashions of life. Narcissists, however, are above convention: It is only others who must live by rules and subordinate themselves meekly to standards. The rules narcissists live by are those they incidentally accept or those they create for themselves.

Disdain for shared standards of social living often leads to confusion between the narcissistic and antisocial personalities. Both exploit others to their own advantage. Narcissists, however, are passive in so doing and largely unaware of the relevance of manipulating others. Theirs is not the scheming, promise-breaking exploits of the antisocial. Instead, their self-centered convictions of entitlement lead them to believe that others simply owe them, whereas the antisocial is deliberately deceptive and ruthless. Moreover, the two disorders differ markedly in their daily worldview. The narcissist manifests an attitude of insouciant calm, being above the stresses of everyday life. In contrast, the antisocial sees the world as an intrinsically hostile place where everyone is a potential aggressor and impulsive anger serves a functional purpose: The best

TABLE 10.2 The Narcissistic Personality: Functional and Structural Domains

Functional Domains

Structural Domains



Expressive Behavior

Acts in an arrogant, supercilious, pompous, and disdainful manner, flouting conventional rules of shared social living, viewing them as naive or inapplicable to self; reveals a careless disregard for personal integrity and a self-important indifference to the rights of others.


Believes self to be meritorious, special, if not unique, deserving of great admiration, and acting in a grandiose or self-assured manner, often without commensurate achievements; has a sense of high self-worth, despite being seen by others as egotistic, inconsiderate, and arrogant.



Interpersonal Conduct

Feels entitled, is unempathic, and expects special favors without assuming reciprocal responsibilities; shamelessly takes others for granted and uses them to enhance self and indulge desires.


Internalized representations are composed far more than usual of illusory and changing memories of past relationships; unacceptable drives and conflicts are readily refashioned as the need arises, as are others often simulated pretentious.



Cognitive Style

Has an undisciplined imagination and exhibits a preoccupation with immature and self-glorifying fantasies of success, beauty, or love; is minimally constrained by objective reality, takes liberties with facts, and often lies to redeem self-illusions.

Morphologic Organization

Morphologic structures underlying coping and defensive strategies tend to be flimsy and transparent, appear more substantial and dynamically orchestrated than they are in fact, regulating impulses only marginally, channeling needs with minimal restraint, and creating an inner world in which conflicts are dismissed, failures are quickly redeemed, and self-pride is effortlessly reasserted.



Regulatory Mechanism

Is self-deceptive and facile in devising plausible reasons to justify self-centered and socially inconsiderate behaviors; offers alibis to place self in the best possible light, despite evident shortcomings or failures.

Mood/ Temperament

Manifests a general air of nonchalance, imperturbability, and feigned tranquility, appears coolly unimpressionable or buoyantly optimistic, except when narcissistic confidence is shaken, at which time either rage, shame, or emptiness is briefly displayed.

Note: Shaded domains are the most salient for this personality prototype.

Note: Shaded domains are the most salient for this personality prototype.

defense is a good offense. Thus, narcissists call others to worship and seek respect through the fact of their superior existence; the antisocial often draws territorial boundaries and obtains respect through fear.

Despite their differences, the two disorders can occur together (see sections titled "The Unprincipled Narcissist" earlier in this chapter and "The Covetous Antisocial" in Chapter 5 for two characterizations of these variants). The result catalyzes the worst qualities of both, with particularly vicious consequences for society. When the egocen-tricity, lack of empathy, and sense of superiority of the narcissist cross-fertilize with the impulsivity, deceitfulness, and criminal tendencies of the antisocial, the result is a psychopath, an individual who seeks the gratification of selfish impulses through any

Focus on Sexuality

Who Will Cheat? What Personality Traits May Influence Fidelity?

Does personality influence who is likely to be unfaithful and who is not? Apparently so. D. M. Buss and Shackelford (1997) studied the relationship between a variety of personality traits and infidelity in recently married couples. After completing self-report personality inventories at home, subjects were asked to come into the lab and rate the probability that both they and their partners would engage in each of six levels of extramarital interest: flirting, passionate kissing, a romantic date, a one-night stand, a brief affair, or a serious affair. As part of the assessment, they also reported on their own narcissism, as well as that of their mates.

Not surprisingly, a strong correlation was found between conscientiousness and extramarital interest. This finding is perhaps expectable, as conscientiousness can be considered a tendency to do the right thing, to inhibit impulses, and to have social standards foremost in mind. Subjects low in conscientiousness rated themselves as more likely to engage in extramarital behaviors. Moreover, the partners of those low in conscientiousness also rated them as being more likely to engage in extramarital behaviors.

Also associated with extramarital interest was narcissism for both men and women. Because narcissism can be viewed as a focus on the interests of self, this result was not unexpected. The surprising finding, however, was that narcissism in women was more strongly correlated to extramarital interest than was narcissism in men across all of the six levels of behavior, with an emphasis on flirting, dating, and a brief affair. Perhaps even more interesting, husbands' ratings of their wives confirm their wives' opinion. Husbands were able to predict, to some extent, that their wives might cheat based on the wife's personality.

For anyone seeking to sort out the cheaters from the noncheaters in advance on the basis of personality characteristics, a combination of low conscientiousness and high narcissism is especially predictive of extramarital interest. Such individuals are more likely to focus on their own desires to the exclusion of social standards and then to act on their impulses.

means, without empathy or remorse. When the superiority of the narcissist is also especially prominent, such persons validate their feelings of omnipotence by exploiting the average person, who is contemptible simply by virtue of being ordinary.

Narcissists also share numerous traits with the paranoid personality. Whereas narcissists pull others toward them, paranoids separate from others to defend their autonomy. Whereas narcissists are preoccupied with unlimited success or brilliance, paranoids are preoccupied with maintaining their own firm boundaries, often in an effort to remain compensated, to resist further psychotic deterioration. Whereas narcissists evoke loyalty and admiration, paranoids are mistrustful and inspire mistrust in return. Finally, whereas narcissists are typically calm and aloof, paranoids are often irascible and confrontational, drawing all data into support of their persecutory ideas.

The last personality with which the narcissist shares some resemblance is the sadistic. The passive exploitation of the narcissist is often mistaken for the active exploitation of the sadist. In the narcissist, however, exploitation is incidental to egocentricity. In contrast, the sadist dominates others self-consciously and deliberately constructs scenarios that demean others to force their inferior status to consciousness. The narcissist wants your worship; the sadist wants to inflict impotence on others. Further, whereas the sadistic personality is characteristically destructive and cruel and enjoys watching others suffer, narcissists become rageful only when their sense of specialness is compromised. Otherwise, narcissists are content to go forth with benign insouciance, surveying their dominion and soaking up tributes and comforts "owed" to them by lesser others. If Leonardo returns to Spain, he will do so with just this mentality.

Pathways to Symptom Expression

In a review of more than 100 studies on the comorbidity of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder with major mental illness, Ronningstam (1996) found that narcissism is not linked systematically to any specific Axis I disorder. Instead, it would appear that a narcissistic personality only colors the expression of any Axis I disorder that develops. Although the energy, dominant control, and love of hearing themselves talk suggest some fundamentally biological relationship between the narcissistic personality and bipolar disorder, Stormberg, Ronningstam, Gunderson, and Tohen (1998) found that bipolar patients exhibit most of the criteria of pathological narcissism only while in the manic phase. When not manic, their levels of pathological narcissism are no higher than other general psychiatric patients. Some reports suggest that narcissistic personality disorder may exacerbate the severity of posttraumatic stress disorder (B. Johnson, 1995), perhaps because the omnipotent narcissist is confronted repeatedly with evidence of mortality (see box titled "Focus on Pathology: Narcissism and Posttraumatic Stress"). As you read the following paragraphs, try to identify the connection between personality and symptom.

Anxiety Disorders

Given narcissists' image of strength, ability, and self-confidence, the reported rate of anxiety disorders among narcissists is probably lower than that of other personalities. Nevertheless, narcissists do experience anxiety disorders related to underlying feelings of inferiority or shame, but they are unlikely to seek help in resolving these symptoms. As with the compulsive personality, a major pathway to an obsessive-compulsive disorder is exaggerated concerns with perfection. However, narcissists become obsessed out of fear that the perfection of the self has been tainted. The obsessions of compulsives, in contrast, are often related to fear of condemnation or a fear that they may transgress self-imposed restrictions, whereas narcissists are not inclined to restrict themselves at all. Obsessions may also reflect a need to be all-knowing and allcontrolling (Glickhauf-Hughes & Wells, 1995). Social phobia may result from experiences of shame, in which the impotence or shortcomings of the narcissist somehow become available for public consumption.

Mood Disorders

Overall, the defensive self-inflation of the narcissistic personality pattern offers surprising resilience against depressive disorders. After all, narcissists excel at minimizing

Focus on Pathology

Narcissism and Posttraumatic Stress Feelings of Superiority and Vulnerability

Imagine that you and your family lived in a small village downriver from a large dam. Now imagine that the dam broke; half the village survived and the others drowned or were crushed by the debris of collapsing structures. Imagine that you watched your mother swept away by the current.

If you survived, you would have experienced a traumatic event far outside the range of normal human experience. Memories of lost loved ones would intrude into your daily thoughts, turn your dreams into nightmares, and set your heart racing. You would reex-perience the event again and again and be helpless to stop it. Veterans of war, victims of rape, and even individuals who observe someone else suffer serious threat of physical harm are often diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nevertheless, of those who experience the same traumatic event, only some develop PTSD. Whatever the event, clinicians now know that its effects must be interpreted within the context of the total personality.

Among the characteristics that increase vulnerability to PTSD is a narcissistic style (B. Johnson, 1995). But why would narcissists be vulnerable? Recall that narcissists use grandiosity and omnipotence as a defense against a fragile self-concept, an empty sense of self-worth. Moreover, their superiority makes them believe that they could not possibly suffer the bad luck of others or be caught up with inferiors in some swirl of uncontrollable events.

Traumatic events shatter these assumptions. Among outpatient veterans who develop PTSD, for example, narcissistic traits are some of the most common (Crosby & Hall, 1992). Far from being invulnerable and immortal, the individual is instead just like everybody else, a speck in a vast cosmos, with random potential for disaster and death. No one is excepted, solid proof that narcissists are not the special persons they believed themselves to be. Among military veterans, Karen (1994) suggests that those with PTSD have fallen far short of the warrior ideal they sought to become. Because narcissists are notorious for idealizing themselves as unusually bright, successful, and admired, we might suppose that traumatic events generally puncture the bubble of these narcissistic fantasies. The individual is brought down to earth in a way that is particularly crushing given the needs of this personality. The persistent question many victims ask, "Why me?" can precipitate feelings of anger and rage in those with a narcissistic style, who feel entitled to better treatment from the universe.

shortcomings and exaggerating real achievements. Given their skill at manipulating those who cater to their needs, narcissists must have multiple layers of defenses broken down before feeling helpless or hopeless. It may not be surprising that low-grade depressive symptoms are probably more common than major depressive episodes.

Compensating narcissists may have a modicum of hidden knowledge of the protective role their grandiosity plays, but other narcissists are likely to meet with recurrent disappointments, all the while failing to grasp this insight. Although many narcissists do possess real talents and intelligence, some never achieve a measure of success but instead limp forward with an air of specialness and entitlement. Afraid to test their own adequacy, they present only the illusion of competence and slip increasingly behind others in actual achievements. As the discrepancy between presentation and reality becomes more pronounced over time, their shortcomings become ever more obvious, making their superiority, the bedrock of their identity, ever more questionable. Eventually, the strain of maintaining the false self converts a pretense of ability or brilliance into deep feelings of fraudulence and emptiness. Even more entitled narcissists, who expect the world on a platter, may eventually realize that others are moving ahead through hard work and thus become unable to suppress their envy and anger. Eventually, the illusion wears thin, confidence gives way to uncertainty, and superiority to nagging feelings of self-deception. Gerald could easily follow this path. He has already moved from company to company, and he is experiencing problems yet again. At some point, the balloon will pop.

Depressive feelings may be expressed dramatically, associated with irritability, or used instrumentally as an excuse to justify current shortcomings. Because narcissists control others and expect to be babied by them, they may complain that their caretakers are insufficiently supportive or should have rescued them from their own deficiencies. Witnesses to their shame and humiliation may be scorned simply for observing their helplessness and inefficacy. If their losses are enduring, they may eventually devalue areas in which their abilities were previously expressed. Kernberg (1975) described one such example in a major political figure, who:

. . . became depressed and developed deep feelings of defeat and humiliation accompanied by fantasies in which his political opponents were gloating with satisfaction over his defeat. . . He went into retirement, but gradually devaluated the areas of political science in which he had been an expert. . . a narcissistic depreciation of that in which he was no longer triumphant, which brought about a general loss of interest in professional, cultural and intellectual matters. (p. 311)

Major depression may occur after such public and irreparable blows to self-esteem.

For narcissists, then, grandiosity and depression are two sides of the same coin. If they can convince themselves that perfection and omnipotence can be realized, their grandiose defenses hold firm. If not, they begin to feel "intrinsically flawed rather than forgivably human" (McWilliams, 1994, p. 174). Threats to esteem are perhaps more threatening in the second half of life, with the disappearance of youth, beauty, and energy associated with advancing age. Facing Erikson's (1959) stage of integrity versus despair, some conclude that their entire life has been an inauthentic sham, lived out through the falsity of a self-generated illusion. Many feel overcome by shame and experience thoughts of suicide. Some of these people make impulsive attempts, and a number of them succeed.

Delusional Disorder

When narcissists are faced with recurrent failures or adversities too severe to deny, they naturally attribute such events to the operation of forces external to the self, which is the foundation of paranoid and delusional disorder. Already prone to grandiose fantasies and unwilling to accept the verdict of reality, narcissists sometimes isolate themselves from the corrective effects of shared thinking. Running scared through their private, fictional world, they may lose touch with reality and begin thinking along peculiar and deviant lines. Because narcissists see themselves as both brilliant and superior, obviously their success could be blocked only by some entity equally gifted but malevolent. They may find hidden and hostile meanings in the incidental behavior of others and become convinced that innocent behaviors hide malicious motives and intricate schemes. Such persecutory delusions represent the last-ditch effort to protect the grandiose self from total collapse and establish continuity between pathological narcissism and paranoid and delusional disorders.

Indeed, in some cases, the paranoid presents as a narcissist whose inflated sense of self-esteem has been repeatedly or profoundly flattened, perhaps through ordinary encounters with reality or perhaps by colleagues who have secretly decided among themselves to undo an insufferable supervisor or coworker. Here, paranoid symptoms represent a defensive adaptation to a hostile environment that threatens the narcissist at a fundamental level. The paranoid quality may be expressed through a belief that others are conspiring to deprive these individuals of their sense of specialness or somehow cheat them out of a momentous accomplishment, a testament to their brilliance. For example, the individual may assert that coworkers have stolen the seeds of an invention that would provide the world with a clean source of unlimited energy. The difference between believing that others are envious of you and believing that others are actively trying to undo you sometimes becomes rather thin as stressors mount. We can imagine this happening to Gerald, who already believes that the staff is jealous of him and wants to get him fired.

Substance Abuse

Narcissistic traits are frequently associated with abuse of alcohol, opiates (Calsyn, Fleming, Wells, & Saxon, 1996), cocaine and stimulants (Marlowe, Husband, Lamb, & Kirby, 1995; McMahon & Richards, 1996), and other substances. Although the motives underlying substance abuse are often complex, two possibilities seem likely. First, abuse of alcohol and other substances often provides relief from painful feelings. By numbing their awareness, narcissists whose self-regard is under siege can temporarily put aside painful feelings of inferiority and self-doubt. In fact, by turning reality aside, some may actually reinstate their cherished illusions of superiority and competence for a time. Numbing negatives and reinstating positives thus make substance abuse doubly reinforcing. However, the substance abuse is likely to depend on availability, peer group influences, and personality factors. The sense of power and self-confidence associated with cocaine or its derivatives are notorious, but alcohol is legal, less expensive, and more readily acquired. Even where narcissistic traits occur secondary to an antisocial personality disorder, research suggests that substance abuse may be made more severe (McMahon, Malow, & Penedo, 1998).

With Chase, we see an example of narcissistic personality disorder where substance abuse figures prominently. Like other narcissists, Chase is grandiose and entitled. The way he sees it, his novel will be an unmitigated, overwhelming success. Consequently, he feels justified spending all his time working on it and no time with his wife. Regardless, she is expected to cater to his every need, to the point of being his "sex slave." If Chase seems less pathological than Leonardo or Gerald, it is because his insecurities are closer to conscious awareness, tempering his grandiosity. Moreover, Gerald's mother simply set a high standard, and Gerald is struggling to justify her faith in him. Chase's parents, at least his father, apparently were both exalting and condemning at the same time. As a result, Chase's personality has a dual aspect. A superficial grandiosity keeps him floating along, but underneath, he can't make up his mind whether he's the boy wonder or the boy blunder. The internalized voice of his condemning, alcoholic father keeps intruding and deflating him. Chase drinks excessively because a part of him believes his father. He desperately wants to escape the version of reality his father's voice keeps thrusting on him—a reality in which Chase is inferior, inadequate, and probably a failure, despite his "usually" superior performance. As a result, his drinking often has the paradoxical effect of liberating his own self-condemnation, which he then displaces onto his wife, subjecting her to tirades similar to those he must have endured as a child.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
100 Flirting Tips

100 Flirting Tips

Flirting is playful in nature, which is practiced by a person in order to express his or her interest in another individual, either romantically or sexually. There are ways to flirt subtlety and there are also ways of flirting that can be obvious at times. You can flirt with the use of your eyes, body language, touch, tone of your voice, or a combination of the mentioned behaviors.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment