Research begins to reveal how the complex, poorly understood condition affects work, health, and relationships
Only a narcissist would claim to fully grasp narcissism. It’s among the most complex and utterly dichotomous human traits: producing leaders and destroying relationships. Armchair psychologists attach the term to friends, relatives, and maybe the current president. Despite an “exponential explosion in scientific attention” in recent years, “the narcissistic personality stubbornly persists in puzzling psychologists attempting to understand it, all the while perplexing clinicians attempting to treat its pathological manifestations,” researchers opined in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review two years ago.
The latest research provides a peek at how youthful narcissistic tendencies play out later in life, affecting jobs, relationships, and well-being, plus how the “selfie-generation” feels about being labeled narcissists. To understand it all, some narcissism 101 is helpful.
Named for the Greek character who fell in love with his own reflection, narcissism is a set of personality traits characterized by an outsized sense of self-importance and lack of empathy, along with a great need for attention and, in the most extreme cases, ironically fragile self-esteem that can ruin careers and relationships. Extreme narcissists can be know-it-alls. They may bully, blame, and humiliate others, refusing to take responsibility for their own mistakes, explains Joseph Burgo, author of The Narcissist You Know. And they can be vindictive. “Extreme Narcissists always need to prove that they are ‘winners’ in comparison to other people they view as ‘losers,’” Burgo says.
But there are many shades. “People have differing degrees of narcissism from high to low,” says Eunike Wetzel, a professor of psychology at Otto von Guericke University in Germany. People can also have varying levels of each of narcissism’s three main facets, with effects ranging from good to bad to ugly. The three main facets are:
Leadership: Extraversion, high self-esteem, a strong persistence toward goals, and a desire to lead. By itself, this can be a very healthy trait, particularly in work and social situations.