Few individuals in real life exist as the incarnation of an abstract psychological ideal. Instead, most persons combine aspects of two or more personality styles, though some combinations are more common than others. Whereas the previous section sharpened the contrast between various prototypes for explanatory purposes, in this section we portray narcissistic variants that are found as the disorder begins to shade toward other personalities (see Figure 10.2 for a summary). Actual cases may or may not fall into one of these combinations.
Unprincipled narcissists combine the self-confidence of the narcissist with the recurrent aberrant behavior of antisocial personality patterns. Many of these individuals achieve success in society by exploiting legal boundaries to the verge of unlawfulness. Others may inhabit drug rehabilitation programs, centers for youth offenders, and jails and prisons. Still others are opportunists and con men, who take advantage of others for personal gain. Most people who demonstrate a pattern combining these styles are vindictive and contemptuous of their victims. Whereas many narcissists have normal superego development, unprincipled narcissists are skilled in the ways of social influence but have few internalized moral prohibitions. They are experienced by others as unscrupulous, amoral, and deceptive. More than merely disloyal and exploitive, these narcissists show a flagrant indifference to the welfare of others, a willingness to risk harm, and fearlessness in the face of threats and punitive action. Vengeful gratification is often obtained by humiliating and dominating others. Joy is obtained by gaining the trust of others and then outwitting or swindling them. Their attitude is that those who can be taken advantage of deserve it.
Because they are focused on their own self-interest, unprincipled narcissists are indifferent to the truth. If confronted, they are likely to display an attitude of justified innocence, denying their behavior through a veneer of politeness and civility. If obviously guilty, they are likely to display an attitude of nonchalance or cool strength, as if the victim were to blame for not having caught on sooner. To them, achievement deficits and social irresponsibility are justified by expansive fantasies and frank lies. Those who display more antisocial traits may put up a tough, arrogant, and fearless front, acting out their malicious tendencies and producing frequent family difficulties and occasional legal entanglements. Relationships survive only as long as the narcissist has something
to gain. So strong is their basic self-centeredness and desire to exploit others that people may be dropped from their lives with complete indifference to the anguish they might experience or how their lives will be affected. In many ways, the unprincipled narcissist is similar to the disingenuous histrionic (a combination of histrionic and antisocial patterns; see Chapter 9). The unprincipled narcissist preys on the weak and vulnerable, enjoying their dismay and anger. In contrast, the disingenuous histrionic seeks to hold the respect and affection of those they dismiss in their pursuit of love and admiration.
The compensatory variant essentially captures the psychoanalytic understanding of the narcissistic personality (discussed in a later section of this chapter). The early experiences of compensating narcissists are not too dissimilar to those of the avoidant and negativistic personalities. All have suffered "wounds" early in life. Rather than collapse under the weight of inferiority and retreat from public view, like the avoidant, or vacillate between loyalty and anger, like the negativist, however, the compensating narcissist develops an illusion of superiority. Life thus becomes a search to fulfill aspirations of status, recognition, and prestige. Every small certificate and plaque the individual has ever received may be displayed on the office wall, for example. At other times, they may bore others while they present a complete biography of their most minuscule successes and achievements.
Like avoidant personalities, compensating narcissists are exceedingly sensitive to the reactions of others, noting every critical judgment and feeling slighted by every sign of disapproval. Unlike avoidants, however, they seek to conceal their deep sense of deficiency from others and from themselves by creating a façade of superiority. Though they often have a degree of insight into their functioning, they nevertheless indulge themselves in grandiose fantasies of personal glory and achievement. Some procrastinate in doing anything effective in the real world for fear of evaluation. Instead of living their own lives, they often pursue the leading role in a false and imaginary theater unrelated to the real world. When threatened with reality, they may defend themselves by becoming more and more arrogant and dismissive until the offending stimulus withdraws. If reality overturns their illusion completely, compensating narcissists may retreat more and more into an imaginary world of others who recognize their supposed accomplishments.
Amorous narcissists, who represent a blend of the core narcissistic temperament with traits of the histrionic, are often defined by the game of erotic seduction they play with objects of their affection. Their skill lies in enticing and tempting the emotionally needy and naïve, while fulfilling their own hedonistic desires and sexual appetites as they deem necessary. Although their game plan usually implies the possibility of an exclusive relationship, they are not inclined toward genuine intimacy, instead choosing to romance a number of potential conquests simultaneously. Some are sexual athletes whose designs call simply for sexual exploitation. They may seem to desire the warm affection of a genuine relationship, but when they find it, they usually feel restless and unsatisfied. Repeated demonstrations of sexual prowess often become an obsession, with "victory" only reinforcing their sense of narcissistic power. Having won others over, they quickly devalue their lovers and feel the need to continue their game elsewhere.
For the most part, their partners simply provide a warm body that they can temporarily exploit before boredom overtakes them. As such, amorous narcissists leave behind them a trail of sexual excesses and intricate lies as they maneuver their way from one pathological relationship to another. Confrontation, criticism, and punishment are unlikely to make them change their ways. Narcissists quickly dismiss such carping as the product of jealous inferiors. More than most, the amorous variety is likely to exhibit substantial body narcissism, attending scrupulously to physical appearance, clothes, and other external attributes.
The elitist narcissist is somewhat reminiscent of Wilhelm Reich's (1933) "phallic-narcissist character." Such individuals are self-assured, arrogant, energetic, "impressive in . . . bearing" and "ill-suited to subordinate positions among the rank and file" (W. Reich, 1949, pp. 217-218). Like the compensating variant, these individuals construct a false façade, but one that amplifies an already superior self-image, not one that compensates for deep feelings of inferiority. Theirs is a fear, not of being inadequate, but of being ordinary.
Reich's phallic-narcissists, he asserted, were to be found among military men, pilots, and athletes. Real-world historical figures Napoleon and Mussolini serve as examples of the classic character. In today's Western society, we might add to this list many modern-day lawyers, surgeons, entrepreneurs, and other professions that naturally resonate with a swollen, aggressive courage Reich regarded as the cardinal trait of the phallic-narcissist. When carried to the logical extreme, such individuals fancy themselves as demigods who stand as a race apart from ordinary human beings, competing against one another for victory on the world stage with only a handful of worthy competitors. Many hold the common person in such contempt that they may be said to possess traits of the sadistic personality as well. However, the concept of the elitist narcissist is somewhat broader than Reich's phallic-narcissist. Whereas elitist narcissists revel in displays of power, the exhibitionism of raw self-assertion may also be focused on intellectual ability or the privilege of accumulated wealth; there are many ways to be swollen with aggressive confidence. Such individuals attend the most prestigious schools and academies, join exclusive fraternities, and associate only with members of their own social class.
Moreover, elitists are known to flaunt symbols of their status and achievement. Most idolize recognition and engage heavily in self-promotion. In whatever domain of activity interests them, they advertise themselves, brag about their achievements (whether substantive or fraudulent), and make everything they have done appear wonderful and impressive. Unrivaled in the pursuit of becoming "Number 1," many elitists actively create comparisons between themselves and others, turning personal relationships into public competitions and contests. By making excessive claims about themselves, elitist narcissists expose a great divide between their actual selves and their self-presentation. Many other narcissistic personalities recognize such disparities in themselves, but elitists are absolute in their belief of their grandeur. Rather than backing off, withdrawing, or feeling shamed when responded to with indifference, elitists accelerate their efforts all the more, acting increasingly and somewhat erratically to exhibit deeds and awards worthy of high esteem. They may present grandiose illusions about their powers and future status, amplify their limited accomplishments, and compete foolishly against others who have already eclipsed them in reality. Through such self-protective behaviors, elitists frequently alienate those around them, depriving themselves of the admiration and recognition they so desperately require, thus contributing further to their own troubles.
An example of two of the variations is the case of Leonardo (see Case 10.2), who might best be described as a mixture of the elitist and amorous subtypes. Leonardo describes himself as narcissistic, but asserts that he falls within the normal range. Moreover, he alleges that his self-confidence must be considered an example of the narcissistic style because someone disordered would not possess such considerable insight. Unfortunately, Leonardo is more correct than incorrect. Paradoxically, by preempting the therapist to create a rationale that seeks to discredit the possibility that the extremes in his personality style are problematic for him, Leonardo only exposes a need to protect an inflated and empty self-esteem. His lack of insight is expected given the defensive purpose of his assertion and only supports the diagnosis.
Other aspects of Leonardo's presentation are strongly consistent with the narcissistic personality disorder, particularly the elitist and amorous variations. Although it is conceivable that his family is indeed "one of the richest in Spain" and that his father has "greatly influenced the history of that nation," odds are that he is greatly exaggerating,
Leonardo is a second-year resident in the Department of Psychiatry. He is handsome, fair-skinned, with piercing blue eyes and blonde hair. His family owns several banks scattered throughout Spain. Both parents are noted for their service on the boards of charitable organizations. "My family is one of the richest in Spain," he says. "My father greatly influenced the history of that nation, as will I, and my sons after me."1
Leonardo has been asked to speak with a therapist because he believes psychotherapy training to be ridiculous. Apparently as a defensive maneuver, he attempts to head off a possible diagnosis by stating frankly, "I am, without doubt, a narcissistic personality. Everyone has a personality, and the narcissistic is the most adaptive. Were I in the disordered range, I would not be capable of such insight." When asked how he had arrived at this conclusion, Leonardo explains, "I am unique in many ways. I am well aware of my good looks. I've been successful with every woman I ever really wanted." Adjusting his tie, he immediately assumes the posture of a superior individual, with the therapist as his captive audience. "Medical school was easy," he continues. "I believe in destiny, and I believe that I am destined to be successful in everything I do. Furthermore, I have a very high IQ, and I doubt that there is anything of which I am not capable."
Apparently because the therapist was male, Leonardo began to use the session to discuss something of which he was truly proud, his many "conquests." Glowing with pride, he bragged about the women he had "bedded," offering details of their performance, giving each one a rating from 1 to 10 based on their looks and performance. He remarks that after sex, he makes them sleep on the couch, asserting, "I require the whole bed, or almost certainly wil not awaken feeling refreshed."
Over the course of many sessions of therapy, Leonardo showed virtually no understanding of how his "narcissistic style" might lead to interpersonal problems, instead maintaining that "reality contact requires that I acknowledge my superiority. Anything else would be delusional." Moreover, he shows no insight into the pain those he had seduced and exploited might feel, even though he made them undying promises of love. When the point is pressed, he becomes angry, apparently believing that his looks and charm entitle him to such liaisons. "You wish only that you were like Leonardo," he charges, leaving the session in a huff.
1 Numbers mark aspects of the case most consistent with DSM criteria, and do not necessarily indicate that the case "meets" diagnostic criteria in this respect.
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
(3) believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or highstatus people (or institutions)
(4) requires excessive admiration
(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Reproduced with permission from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Copyright 1994 American Psychiatric Association.
thus creating the aura of an impressive background that might somehow justify his arrogance and sense of entitlement. Although he does not have the swollen aggressive courage typical of the phallic-narcissist, an interpersonal quality, he is nevertheless interpersonally overbearing through his insistence on his own superiority, particularly his good looks and self-proclaimed high IQ, and his belief that he is destined for success in everything he does. Like other elitist narcissists, his beliefs are absolute.
Leonardo also has qualities of the amorous subtype. Evidently, his success at seduction forms the foundation of a hypersexualized masculine self-image. He creates the illusion of genuine affection, though it is obvious that his goal is really sex. Typically, he quickly loses interest in his current conquest, becomes restless, and seeks out a new female body to entertain him. His bragging to the therapist and his rating of the women are further evidence of a lack of empathy and a willingness to exploit those around him. In all likelihood, Leonardo believes that his impressive heritage and superior abilities entitle him to casual sexual access to most women and that his likely exaggerated autobiography of sexual triumphs only provides further evidence of his superiority.
Was this article helpful?