Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by an exceptional interest in and admiration for oneself. It was first identified as a mental disorder by Havelock Ellis. Narcissists – when their confidence is threatened – tend to exploit and take other people for granted. So what drives narcissists to be narcissistic? Can they improve on their negative traits? Here’s what W. Keith Campbell explains in one of the TED-Ed lessons – The Psychology Of Narcissism.

To start with, Campbell talks of the myth that the ancient Greeks and Romans once had about someone who is little too obsessed with his own image. He cites mythological Narcissus – a handsome egotistical guy who rejected a nymph named Echo and fell in love with his own reflection – to explain and says this myth captures the basic idea of narcissism.

So, it’s the guy who rejected a beautiful young woman just because of his elevated self-involvement. Does not this clearly mean that men are more narcissistic than women? Well, there is a study that supports this notion. The study suggests men are more likely to exploit others, feel entitled to certain privileges, and exhibit more assertiveness and desire for power compared to women.

Narcissism, actually, is a set of traits that has been classified and studied by psychologists. In psychology, narcissism is defined as an inflated and grandiose self-image marked by extreme selfishness and a craving for admiration.

Psychology And Causes Of Narcissism, Self-Love

As the video explains, narcissists view themselves as exceptional and think they are better looking and smarter. Also, they tend to look excessively to others just to boost their self-esteem and think that they are more important than others and that they deserve special treatment. Although, in fact, narcissists feel superior, have impaired empathy and personality traits of attention-seeking, they are never satisfied with themselves either.

Psychologists recognize two forms of narcissism. They are:

  1. Grandiose narcissism, and
  2. Vulnerable narcissism.

Grandiose narcissism is the most familiar kind of narcissism, which is characterized by extroversion, dominance and attention seeking. Pretty sure the narcissists we have often come across are grandiose narcissists.

“Grandiose narcissists pursue attention and power, sometimes as politicians, celebrities, or cultural leaders,” the video explains.

“Of course, not everyone who pursues these positions of power is narcissistic. Many do it for very positive reasons, like reaching their full potential, or helping make people’s lives better. But narcissistic individuals seek power for the status and attention that goes with it.”

Vulnerable narcissists, as the name speaks for itself, can be quiet and reserved. Although they have a strong sense of entitlement, they can be easily threatened and are often cold-shouldered. However, in both cases, the dark side of narcissism shows up over the long-term.

The video further goes on to explain that narcissistic leaders are likely to make risky and unethical decisions. Since narcissists tend to make self-promoting and self-aggrandizing statements, they become aggressive and resentful when their rosy view of themselves is challenged or they feel threatened by others.

“It’s like a disease where the sufferers feel pretty good, but the people around them suffer.”

Narcissism, in its extreme form, is classified as a psychological disorder known as narcissistic personality disorder. It is estimated that this condition affects one to two percent of the world, with rates greater for men.

In children, inflated grandiose feelings and self-centeredness, which are the signs of narcissism, are normally seen. Sigmund Freud claimed that narcissism is a normal stage in children’s self-development. However, it is considered a disorder when adults show such traits.

“It is also a diagnosis reserved for adults. Young people, especially children, can be very self-centered, but this might just be a normal part of development,” the video explains.

Several characteristics associated with narcissistic personality disorder, such as “a grandiose view of oneself, problems with empathy, a sense of entitlement, and a need for admiration or attention” have been described in the fifth edition of American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

“What makes these traits a true personality disorder is that they take over people’s lives and cause significant problems. Imagine that instead of caring for your spouse or children, you used them as a source of attention or admiration. Or imagine that instead of seeking constructive feedback about your performance, you instead told everyone who tried to help you that they were wrong.”

What Are The Causes Of Narcissism?

The actual causes of narcissistic personality disorder are not known, however psychologists think the disorder maybe linked to “genetics” and “faulty or inadequate parenting.” For example, the gap between the standards set by parents and the standards set by own self can lead to anxiety, and this in turn, can cause to become egocentric (as one of the individual’s ego defense mechanisms.)

“Twin studies show a strong genetic component, although we don’t know which genes are involved. But environment matters, too,” the video explains. “Parents who put their child on a pedestal can foster grandiose narcissism. And cold, controlling parents can contribute to vulnerable narcissism.”

In the United States, narcissism as a personality trait has been on rise since the 1970s. “Narcissism also seems to be higher in cultures that value individuality and self-promotion,” the video explains. “More recently, social media has multiplied the possibilities for self-promotion, though it’s worth noting that there’s no clear evidence that social media causes narcissism. Rather, it provides narcissists a means to seek social status and attention.”

Can Narcissists Improve On Those Negative Traits?

Yes, and psychotherapy can help. Anything that encourages honest reflection on their own self and practicing compassion towards other can be helpful. However, for people with narcissistic personality disorder, it can be challenging to keep working at self-betterment, and they are not likely to do so. Because for a narcissist, “self-reflection is hard from an unflattering angle.”