The Essence of Narcissism

A short article describing the central problem with a narcissistic personality: 390 words.

If you can imagine that within you is a pool representing your self-esteem. Keeping this pool adequately full will maintain enough self-confidence to function in your life. If your pool is empty you will be racked with insecurity, and not even know who you really are.

Your pool is topped up every so often through accomplishments, but it may also be drained by events which reflect badly on you. Generally though, the level of your pool is pretty stable.

Now imagine if your pool had a leaky bottom, steadily draining self-esteem all the while. To keep hydrated you’d have to constantly keep taking in more liquid, but realistically we can’t expect one success after another. This is the predicament facing the narcissist.

Without constant additions to their pool of self-esteem the narcissist would shrivel. They must employ all methods at their disposal to keep the self-esteem flowing in, like a desperate addict looking to score. Putting others down in order to feel comparatively good about themselves is an option, no doubt one reason why narcissism has such a bad reputation. Maintaining a façade of confidence and accomplishment is another. Being in a position of power would be a handy way to regularly feel important, and perhaps a narcissist must ultimately achieve this to live sustainably. Experiences damaging a narcissist’s self-esteem are felt particularly hard, and perceived as an attack, so they will commonly respond with aggression. Perhaps unsurprisingly with such a constant self-focus, the narcissist often fails to empathise with others.

As a clinician I encounter narcissistic individuals at their low point, and so it is this I know best. The client usually still lacks insight into their condition, believing a hostile world to be the cause of their distress, when in fact the world may not have treated them particularly harshly; they just have a leaky bottom (so to speak). The client often still clings to their narcissistic façade portraying achievement and confidence, despite the clear discrepancy with the observable reality. But occasionally they will find a way to lower this façade, revealing the vulnerable human underneath, and this can be a very satisfying moment for a clinician. Narcissism has a bad reputation for a reason – it is frequently unpleasant for all concerned. But we mustn’t forget there is a human like us beneath this syndrome.

An Unstable Sense of Self

A short analogy on the experience of having an unstable sense of self: 340 words.

Most people take for granted a stable sense of the self. We know roughly our main character traits, our strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which we relate to other people. We also can expect that these attributes will remain largely stable over time, and are not highly dependent on outside events or influences.

But not everybody feels this way. For some, their sense of self, and indeed their value as human beings is very much dependent on the outside world, particularly other people. In order to feel valuable and secure they require unambiguous and constant confirmations that others adore or admire them. Without these they begin to crumble. It is as though they must always be in the sun to keep warm, unable to generate body heat from within. And if a comparison to cold blooded reptiles seems unkind, it nevertheless represents the harsh way in which society judges such people. We interpret their psychological sunbathing as being needy, selfish or arrogant, and find their unpredictability and emotionality troublesome at best, destructive at worst. Related diagnoses such as Borderline and Narcissistic personality disorders carry a stigma, although for some the recognition of their experience as a ‘thing’ can be a relief.

Of course the majority of people who are psychologically ‘warm blooded’ still benefit from a little time in the sun – occasional compliments, hearing “I love you” from our family, a promotion at work – but cannot easily understand what life would be like if our whole identity depended on a constant supply of these events. We’d be always searching for that patch of sunlight in which to bask, and forever vigilant and defensive over threats to our self. There’d be no respite, and so it is not surprising that such experiences can lead people to make suicide attempts.

Overcoming an unstable sense of the self should be considered a long term project, and just realising what is going on is a good start. Then find a qualified clinician to help you or your loved one to take the next steps.

Pay Attention! The role of attention in maintaining anxiety.

The role of attention processes in maintaining excess anxiety: 510 words.

A few years ago I bought a car so I could commute to a new job. I showed my new car to my dad, and he took it for a spin. In the coming weeks my dad saw this model everywhere, and was soon convinced this must be one of the highest selling cars in Australia. I know some people in the automotive industry, and he wanted me to call my contacts and confirm his suspicions. But a quick look on the internet was enough to confirm that it wasn’t even in the top 10. What happened here is relevant to understanding anxiety disorders and trauma.

Our attention is drawn to things of importance and relevance to us. Consider the so called ‘cocktail party effect, where you can happily ignore the background noise of a party until someone mentions your name, which suddenly captures your attention. When under threat our attention is drawn to potential signs of danger, which makes sense if we are to keep ourselves safe. Nevertheless, we need only believe a situation to be dangerous to kick-start these processes, and upon entering those situations, our attention is drawn to any possible signs of danger. We become hypervigilant, and as the saying goes, the more we look, the more we see.

You can imagine a person who is afraid of public speaking (which is very common) standing in front of their audience and noticing every yawn, every distracted look and ambiguous facial expression that could represent dissatisfaction with their performance. As they see more potential threat, their anxiety rises, adding to the adrenalin fuelled fight and flight response – beating heart, faster breathing, tingling, shaking and dizziness; just what they needed in the middle of a speech. Even if nothing objectively goes wrong, someone in this state of mind will probably interpret the experience as a near miss, confirming and strengthening their expectations of threat for next time, and so the anxiety continues.

For my father, his son’s new car was of minor importance to him, but his attention was nevertheless directed towards similar cars on the road. For the anxiety sufferer, potential sources of threat are clearly significant, and so their hypervigilance can become a major way in which they sustain the impression that danger is all around. For our attention processes to be useful they generally need to be fast, so they are often automatic and hence out of awareness. And when they go unchecked they can become part of an anxiety disorder in the making.

So becoming consciously aware of these processes is the first step in learning to overcome them. It will take time, but when we feel anxious, we can take notice of what we are noticing, and then consciously develop a more balanced view of our circumstances. If successful, we will learn there is less to fear than we originally thought, and so not be so hypervigilant the next time. In this way we can slowly dissuade our mind from selectively seeking out signs of danger, and begin to take a more relaxed perspective on the world.