I picked up Craig Malkin’s Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad – and Surprising Good – about Feeling Special (2015) primarily because of the emerging research about on-line behavior, specifically the phenomenon of selfies. My bias as I began the book was clearly negative but Malkin’s research, practice as a clinician, and writing offered a much more balanced view.
Essentially, narcissism is a way of making oneself feel special – it’s that simple. Seeking to be ‘special’ is a necessary coping system in a world where we are all seeking a sense of identify and self-worth. Healthy narcissism can lead to being happier, more fulfilled, and more productive in life.
The term narcissism comes from the ancient Greek fable of Echo and Narcissus. In the story, Narcissus is a handsome young man who grows obsessed with his own reflection in the water, so obsessed that he ignores the adoration of others. To punish him, Nemesis condemns Narcissus to a life of unrequited friendship and love. Narcissus was extreme in rebuffing others and this is the kind of narcissism that Malkin identifies as problematic – obsession with oneself to the degree that there is no ability to empathize with others, no understanding of how one’s behavior impacts others, no ability to feel remorse, and a general penchant for manipulation.
Although gregarious narcissists can appear very self-assured and dominant, they are most often covering for the fear that lurks inside. Their bravado is a shield to keep them on their pedestal, on top of the world and feeling special.
Narcissists can pop up among lovers, children, work colleagues, acquaintances and elsewhere. One of the groups that is currently criticized for being narcissistic is Millennials, a characterization that Malkin rejects citing research that they are most often respectful of parents and elders, value marriage and family, self-confident, expressive and open to change – all traits that are very different from the typical narcissist. There is, however, a natural tendency for people under 25 to be more narcissistic, primarily due to youthful ambition and optimism. This temporary narcissism declines naturally with age. Frightening for us all is that a number of psychiatrists are now going public that front-runner Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, suffers from classic narcissism personality disorder.
Malkin’s book has many helpful insights. There is a self-assessment to determine where you are on the scale from echoists, to healthy narcissist, and to extreme, abusive and manipulative narcissist. The book also has chapters related to family, children, co-workers and others, each of which contains tips for spotting narcissists and figuring out what to do to respond to them. Because narcissists often suffer from insecure love and doubts about their own competence, they take out their bad feelings on others through bullying, cruelty, and dismissive gestures. The root of these behaviors is generally an extreme sense of entitlement. Malkin’s advice is to not overreact to narcissists negative behavior but, instead, recognize and nurture behaviors that reflect growing empathy, understanding, and care for others. In the workplace, focusing on the benefits of collaboration and understanding can be a path to discovering a new way of interacting with others. It’s basically a process of nudging the extreme narcissist toward more healthy narcissism that openly acknowledges fears, sadness, loneliness and other softer feelings.
Malkin explains that “anything that takes us further away from authentic relationships is more likely to feed narcissistic addiction. “ Specifically related to social media, spending lots of time viewing others’ profiles and posts can actually damage our own healthy narcissism. As we view how others want us to see them (which generally is all the good and none of the bad stuff), we end up feeling that our life is either average or inadequate, which drives us to post often, change our profile picture, and do other things that are centered on us. Malkin suggests that the best way to control our own and other’s potentially narcissistic urges is to “move from SoMe to SoWe,” meaning that we should seek genuine relationships and seek to find, and be ourselves, the kind of people who share not for purposes of shaping an image but for simply sharing the journey of life. In addition, sharing and pursuing passions that include a focus on caring and concern for others is key, resulting in narcissism that combines passion and compassion.
"At the heart of healthy narcissism is the capacity to love and be loved on a grand scale. People who live in the center of the spectrum don’t always take to the stage, but when they do, they often lift others up with them.”