Updated: Apr 24
Because guess what, we’re *all* narcissists! Seriously.
“Are you a good narcissist, or a bad narcissist?” Creative Commons 2.0 image by Insomnia Cured Here on Flickr
Calling someone a narcissist is like accusing them of being a carbon-based life form. Duh.
I tend to roll my eyes when people talk about the ‘narcissist’ in their life or past, except for experts. I sometimes read Dr. Sherri Heller, a therapist who specializes in complex trauma and narcissism who writes extensively about genuine toxic narcissism. She’s an eminently more informed source for diagnosing it than the average layperson.
Everyone else? Not so much, unless they have something new to say (they mostly don’t), or describe what sounds like a genuine malignant narcissist, or to learn more about the psychology of people who think they’re narc detectors.
If you were to ask them if they themselves are narcissists, you’d almost certainly get a negative, if not outraged response.
If you can’t even recognize the narcissist you see every morning when you brush your teeth, how can anyone trust you to recognize narcissism in others?
Someone’s narcissism article caught my eye and it taught me something about narcissism I didn’t know — it’s not a character fault, it’s a spectrum, rather the way we now understand autism as a brain development condition with a wide variety of symptoms people experience universally, without regard to our identity labels. Some of us fall in the socially skilled range; they’re popular and well-liked, and others falling further down the spectrum are socially challenged and unable to function well with others in countless different iterations.
Narcissism, as it turns out, isn’t much different. The question isn’t are you a narcissist, but what kind of narcissist are you?
The article referenced an intriguing book: Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists by Dr. Craig Malkin. Snagged it!
Malkin says psychologists and psychiatrists have begun to look at narcissism as something that evolved in us as self-preservation, and it’s a healthy psychological trait in moderation. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 isn’t the best place to be. It’s the worst, maybe even worse (personally) than being a 10.
Who’s a 10? I don’t know, and Dr. Malkin doesn’t say, and everyone has an opinion. I expect Donald Trump springs to mind on the subject of the über-narcissist, with some pretty good cases made that he’s a malignant narcissistic psychopath with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (without evaluating him personally). It’s not a unanimous call, either. I’d call Trump the gold standard so far, along with Kim Jong Un and possibly Vladimir Putin. The way Hitler is our gold standard of ultimate evil, but someone one day might prove worse.
On the lower end of Malkin’s narcissism spectrum, echoist narcissists (also called introverted narcissists) are about a 1–4. They’re the ones without enough narcissism. They don’t like being the center of attention; they give too much but fear taking; they don’t feel special at all, but ironically, unappreciated. They’re happy to tell you how much they give, lacking the Trumpian bravado of I’ve done more for black people than any other President!
The high-ranking extroverted narcissists are at 7–10. These are the ones people read and write about the most. The narcissists for whom it’s all about me me me.
Public domain image from PxFuel
The kind of narcissist you want to be is in the middle, the communal narcissist, at around 4–6. Maybe 6.5.
Who’s at the lowest end of the spectrum? The 0–2s? Malkin’s descriptions reminded me of the very most miserable men about whom American psychiatrist and author Dr. James Gilligan called the ‘living dead’ he found in prison hospitals with inmates so bereft of self-regard, so completely and utterly shamed, that ‘living death’ was, “The most direct and literal, least distorted way to summarize what these men have told me when describing their subjective experience of themselves. Many murderers, both sane and insane, have told me that ‘they’ have died, that their personality has died, usually at some identifiable time in the past, so that they feel dead….They cannot feel anything…They feel like robots or zombies…one inmate feels like ‘food that is decomposing’.
Human beings, in other words, who had zero or near-zero narcissism. Men who wished for death because, as Gilligan notes, psychological pain can be far crueler torture than physical pain. You can heal a wound; not as easily a soul.
Other interesting factoids from Malkin’s book
Narcissists can change, but like other compulsive addicts (narcs are addicted to feeling special) they have to want to change.
How do you know who can change and who can’t? If they can’t display empathy, they may not be a ‘lost cause’, but Malkin points out it’s not your job to be their therapist.
People slide up and down the narcissism scale; it’s not a fixed born trait. One person can be an introverted, at other times extroverted or communal narcissist.
Often people in narcissistic relationships blame themselves because it’s easier than admitting s/he’s never going to change. If you do admit that, then what? Do you leave them? Do you strike out into an unknown world alone? What if they’re right and you’re nothing without them? Separating is painful. Blaming one’s self becomes a good excuse to stay. The problem isn’t him/her, it’s me. Malkin describes self-blame as a powerful fear that you’ll lose love if you ask for what you want.
Here’s a thought-provoking nugget on the lure of the ‘bad boy’ for women and, for men, the ‘bad girl’, often described as ‘crazy’. “Why are all the crazy girls so sexy?” one male patient asks, which reminds me of what women often say about bad boys. The bad babes may be high-spectrum narcissists, and part of their appeal may be the high drama and unpredictable excitement that only wears thin after awhile. Something to think about with the guy who complains all his exes being ‘crazy’. He might be an abusive asshole who blames women for his inability to sustain relationships, or he might be attracted or addicted to ‘crazy’ narcissistic women just like some women dig narcissistic ‘bad boys’ they know aren’t good for them. Hmmm…women who complain all their exes are crazy…
Photo by Flood G on Flickr
Melody Wilding, an executive coach and Human Behavior professor, notes that one can exhibit narcissistic traits without being a genuine narcissist. In an article in Business Insider on alleged workplace narcissists, she points out how much complainers of ‘narcissist’ bosses and coworkers often fail to recognize how their own self-absorption may contribute to workplace stresses.
She argues against ‘pathologizing’ people with an uninformed psychological disorder label, that it stigmatizes people with genuine mental disorders, and trivializes Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is a very serious diagnosis that applies to less than 5% of the population.
Where are you on the Narcissism Spectrum?
“Where am I? Where am I? Where am I???”
Exactly my narcissistic thought as I worked through the book. I wasn’t more than thirty pages in when I stopped and Googled Narcissism Spectrum tests to figure out where I was. I found short tests and longer ones and I tried to be as honest as possible. I scored myself in the communal range, which is exactly what you’d expect a supreme narcissist to do, right? Isn’t that where your off-the-charts ex would score himself?
I took one of the shorter tests, but I also took a longer, more comprehensive one and came up with the same. I want to go back and do it again, and pay close attention to my answers, because it’s too easy to let your ego tell you what you believe about yourself, which may be different from how you actually rock and roll.
It did force me to recognize the times in my life when I was lower on the spectrum, and higher. Lower? High school. Higher? In the ’90s, when I was writing for an alternative community newspaper and ‘putting people in their place’ when I thought they needed it, namely Republicans and Christian evangelicals.
I cringe to remember some of the articles I wrote back then. It wasn’t what I said, but how I said it.
All right, my fellow narcissists! Here are some good narcissism self-tests from respectable sources:
Open-Source Psychometrics Narcissism Personality Inventory (Source cited in a number of journals)
You can Google for others, and your mileage may vary. Are any of them truly reliable? Judge for yourself.
If you search on your own, include the word ‘spectrum’ or ‘scale’ to find the ones that measure not whether you’re a narcissist, but what kind.
Something to think about as you take inventory: Are you where you want to be? If not, how will you get there? Be honest. It’s hard. It’s why I want to set aside an hour to take the 40-question one again and make sure my narcissistic ego isn’t protecting me from the truth by telling me, Oh no, you almost never do that! Maybe once or twice. Under stress. Or something.
People genuinely committed to being the right kind of narcissist will be more inclined to police themselves than others and make an effort to recognize when they’re veering off into the danger zone — which is likely acting a little narcissist occasionally rather than sliding up the scale.
And, we can take a cue from Melody Wilding and ask ourselves how our own self-absorption contributes to narcissist drama.
How many narcissists does it take to change a light bulb? “Me? Change a light bulb? Why? The illuminating light of my supreme everlasting being and intellect is more than enough to push back the darkness, you plebeian.” Public domain image from Pxfuel
This first appeared on Medium in July 2021.