What is Narcissism?

Most of us know that describing ourselves as ‘narcissistic’ isn’t a good thing to put on a job application, and definitely isn’t a selling point on MeetYourEverlastingLove.com. But what does the term actually mean, and how does it manifest (in it’s most extreme flavours) as a psychiatric disorder?

Narcissus is a character from Greek mythology. He was the son of a God and Goddess and were he around today would no doubt be described by Beliebers and the like as as ‘totes buff’. But Narcissus was only too well aware of his own buffness and rejected numerous come-ons from lots of water nymphs and other mythological characters. Why? Because none of the boys, girls or hermaphrodites (this is Ancient Greece after all) who fancied him were deemed by Narcissus to be anywhere near good enough for him.

To cut a long story short, Narcissus caught sight of himself in a pool and fell in love with his own reflection. Which wouldn’t have been too bad if he hadn’t become so obsessed with his gorgeousness that he couldn’t prise himself away from his own image long enough to get a bite of whatever they ate in Ancient Greece, and eventually died of starvation.

You’re probably thinking of more modern analogues of this mythical tale, but we don’t need celebrities to recognise the clinical reality of being smitten by one’s own self-esteem. A person diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) might be thought of as pathologically self-obsessed, vain and arrogant to the point that they really are very difficult people to warm to. They are, like their namesake, so ‘in love’ with themselves they reject the attentions of others as being little more than an irrelevance. But they may just tolerate people who can a) achieve objectives for themselves such as the confirmation of their wonderfulness, or b) are of such high status that they are actually seen as almost being good enough to be in the same room, and c) may provide the narcissist with material resources and family associations to confirm their exalted sense of self-worth.

This is often a person who, to anyone else but themselves, is actually a rather strange, unlikeable person who tells very tall tales to confirm their own inflated opinion of themselves – in fact, some of us sometimes refer to NPD as ‘Walter Mitty Syndrome’.

I once worked with a colleague who would tell anyone that would listen (a rapidly diminishing number, surprise surprise) about his previous exploits of derring-do as a member of the SAS. Now anyone who knew this chap would immediately know that this and his many other stories were patently ludicrous, but he not only told these obvious lies with great and even entertaining conviction but even seemed to actually believe them himself. This is very typically narcissistic. The last time I saw him he (a mental health nurse) was being arrested at work for a serious assault on his wife, and much to the relief of his former colleagues was never seen again.

In extreme circumstances, NPD erupts in crime or extreme violence, usually as a means of perpetuating a lie or a self-belief.  The Brian Blackwell case is an example of where narcissism becomes more than just irritating and unlikeable, but a potentially sinister and dangerous psychiatric disorder. The Theresa Riggi murders are another example about which I have previously blogged and edited for the #mhchat Narcissism Twitter debate. Fortunately most of will never meet a Brian Blackwell or Theresa Riggi, but may certainly know someone who spends an awfully long time staring at their reflection and being very (ahem) wonderful.
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