The hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder is grandiosity. The narcissist harbors a strong sense of entitlement, self-aggrandizing fantasies, and a craving for admiration. In severe cases, she may be envious, lacking in empathy, and ready to exploit others in the pursuit of her lofty ambitions. Although she can be charismatic and charming, she more often seems self-absorbed, controlling, and insensitive. If she feels slighted or ridiculed, she might be provoked into a fit of destructive rage and revenge seeking. Such a paroxysmal reaction is sometimes called ‘narcissistic rage’ and can have disastrous consequences for all those involved, including the narcissist herself.
In the novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ both the characters of Lord Henry Wooton and Dorian Gray are strongly narcissistic. Lord Henry’s narcissism is insightful and often quite charming and no doubt similar to that of his creator and alter ego, Oscar Wilde.
I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool. They are all men of some intellectual power, and consequently they all appreciate me.
On the other hand, Dorian Gray’s narcissism is cold and destructive, leading, among other things, to the suicide of actress Sibyl Vane. In Chapter 7, Sibyl tells Dorian that he brought her to "something [higher] of which all art is but a reflection" and made her understand the nature of true love. Instead of feeling flattered or humbled or otherwise moved, Dorian castigates Sibyl for her poor acting, claiming that it has killed off any love that he might ever have had for her.
‘Yes,’ he cried, ‘you have killed my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect. I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. You have thrown it all away. You are shallow and stupid. My God! How mad I was to love you! What a fool I have been! You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again. I will never think of you. I will never mention your name. You don’t know what you were to me, once. Why, once… Oh, I can’t bear to think of it! I wish I had never laid eyes upon you! You have spoiled the romance of my life…’
A study carried out by Board and Fritzon at the University of Surrey in England found that narcissistic personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and another personality disorder called anankastic personality disorder are actually more common in high-level executives than in mentally disordered criminal offenders at the high-security Broadmoor Hospital.
This suggests that people commonly benefit from strongly ingrained and potentially maladaptive personality traits. For example, people with narcissistic personality disorder may be highly ambitious, confident, driven, and able to exploit people and situations to maximum advantage. People with histrionic personality disorder may be adept at charming and manipulating others, and thus adept at building and exercising business relationships.
In their study, Board and Fritzon described the executives with a personality disorder as ‘successful psychopaths’ and the criminal offenders as ‘unsuccessful psychopaths.’ It may be that highly successful people and disturbed psychopaths have more in common than first meets the eye. As the psychologist and philosopher William James put it more than a hundred years ago, "When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce… in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries."
Over in the United States, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues investigated how successful psychopaths might differ from unsuccessful ones. They asked several members of the psychology and law division of the American Psychological Association, professors of clinical psychology, and criminal attorneys to first identify and then to rate and describe one of their acquaintances (if any) who could be counted as successful and also conformed to psychologist Robert Hare’s definition of a psychopath:
…social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life… Completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.
From the responses that they collated, the researchers found that successful psychopaths matched unsuccessful ones in all respects but one: conscientiousness. So, it seems that the key difference between unsuccessful and successful psychopaths is that the former behave impulsively and irresponsibly, whereas the latter are able to inhibit or at least restrain destructive tendencies and build on their achievements.
Narcissistic personality disorder is, of course, named for the Greek myth of Narcissus, of which there are several versions. In Ovid’s version, which is the most commonly related, the nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus, a youth of extraordinary beauty. As a child, Narcissus was prophesized by Teiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, to "live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself."
One day, Echo followed Narcissus through the woods as he hunted for stags. She longed to speak to him but dared not utter the first word. Overhearing her footsteps, the youth cried out, “Who’s there?” to which she responded, “Who’s there?” When at last she revealed herself, she rushed to embrace Narcissus, but he scorned her and pushed her away—just, in fact, as Dorian did Sibyl. Echo spent the rest of her life pining for Narcissus and slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice.
Some time after his encounter with Echo, Narcissus went to quench his thirst at a pool of water. Seeing his own image in the water, he fell in love with it. But each time he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to disappear. Narcissus grew ever more thirsty, but would not leave or disturb the pool of water for fear of losing sight of his reflection. In the end, he died of thirst, and there, on that very spot, appeared the narcissus flower, with its bright face and bowed neck.
What does this myth mean? On one level, it is an admonition to treat others as we would ourselves be treated, and in particular to be considerate in responding to the affections of others, which, as with Echo, are often so raw and visceral as to be existential. After being rejected by him, poor Echo had no self and no being outside of Narcissus, and "slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice."
On another level, the myth is a warning against vanity and self-love. Sometimes we get so caught up in ourselves, in our own little egos, that we lose sight of the bigger picture and, as a result, pass over the beauty and bounty that is life. Paradoxically, by being too wrapped up in ourselves, we actually restrict our range of perception and action and, ultimately, our potential as human beings. And so, in some sense, we kill ourselves, like so many ambitious or self-centered people. Treating other people badly is a sure sign that we are still trapped in ourselves.
Teiresias prophesized that Narcissus would "live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself," because to truly know oneself is also to know that there is nothing to know. Our self, our ego, is nothing but an illusion, nothing more substantial than the ever-receding reflection that Narcissus was unable to grasp. Ultimately, Narcissus’s ego’s boundaries dissolved in death and he merged back into the world in the form of a flower. In Greek myth, the hero—Theseus, Hercules, Odysseus—has to die and travel through the underworld (the unconscious) before re-emerging as a hero. He has to conquer himself, to die to himself, to become more than merely human.
Echo had not enough ego, and Narcissus far too much. The key is to find the right and dynamic equilibrium, to be secure in oneself and yet to be able to dissociate from the envelope that we happen to have been born into.
Board BJ and Fritzon KF (2005): Disordered personalities at work. Psychology, Crime and Law 11:17-23.
James W (1902): The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture 1 ‘Religion and Neurology’, Footnote 6.
Mullins-Sweat S et al. (2010): The Search for the Successful Psychopath. Journal of Research in Personality 44:554-558.