Narcissists - those infatuated with self

By Mark Price -
16th century painting of Narcissus, attributed to Caravaggio. According to Greek mythology, Narcissus was punished for rejecting a suitor and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool, where he eventually perished. Photo / Supplied
16th century painting of Narcissus, attributed to Caravaggio. According to Greek mythology, Narcissus was punished for rejecting a suitor and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool, where he eventually perished. Photo / Supplied

The trial of Clayton Weatherston has brought the spotlight to bear on one of the less-admired traits of the human character - narcissism.

Search the internet for "famous narcissists" and the names of Marlon Brando, Eva Peron, Casanova, Hitler, Stalin, Peter Sellers, Madonna, Margaret Thatcher, Monica Lewinsky, Saddam Hussein, Nero, Warren Beatty, Ryan O'Neal, Sharon Stone, Elvis Presley, William Shatner, and Joan Crawford head up a very long list.

To that list we can add Clayton Weatherston, the Dunedin economics tutor who murdered Sophie Elliott.

Two psychiatrists who gave evidence on his behalf said, during the gruelling trial, that the self-absorbed Weatherston had a "narcissistic personality disorder".

All these individuals, to a greater or lesser degree, stand accused of selfishness, arrogance, vanity, being uncaring and self-centred, having an inflated sense of their own importance, spending a great deal of time and energy doing things to make themselves look and feel good, bragging and stealing other people's credit.

The pioneer of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, explored narcissism and linked it inextricably with sexuality.

He wrote, in his 1914 paper "On Narcissism: An Introduction", "we say that the human being has originally two sexual objects: himself and the woman who tends him and thereby we postulate a primary narcissism in everyone ..."

Freud considered that narcissism in childhood, stood "side by side" with the child's focus on his or her mother as their "love object".

"We have found, especially in persons whose libidinal development has suffered some disturbance, as in perverts and homosexuals, that in the choice of their love-object they have taken as their model not the mother but their own selves.

"They are plainly seeking themselves as a love-object and their type of object-choice may be termed narcissistic."

Almost 100 years on from the Freud paper, the impression of a rising tide of narcissism was confirmed by a 2007 American study of 16,000 college students over 25 years.

The study, led by Associate Professor Jean Twenge of the department of psychology at San Diego State University, reported that in the 1950s only 12 per cent of teenagers agreed with the statement "I am an important person". By the late 1980s, 80 per cent agreed with the statement.

And since then, the study found, a "moderate, steady" increase in students' narcissistic personality inventory scores, that the increase was driven by women and that it had accelerated since 2002.

Dunedin clinical psychologist at Psychology Associates Chris Skellett considers the trend is also evident in New Zealand.

"I don't think narcissism as a clinical phenomona is on the rise but I think with Generation Y there is a general sense of preoccupation with self in the youth culture, which is a clear bent in society in New Zealand."

He believes students, in their tertiary studies, are much more focused on "what's in it for me".

"That's not to judge it. That's just the way kids are today. They're in a world of their screens and their cellphones and they're not necessarily engaged in the world around them. They're preoccupied with their own agenda."

Skellett questioned whether Weatherston's performance on the stand during his trial was an authentic example of narcissism.

"His attempt to establish an easy rapport with the courtroom was at variance with a preoccupation with self. Narcissists just tend to bore the pants off you. It's all 'me, me, me'. 'I did this; I did that'. There's no familiarity or smiling.

"I think he is a narcissist but it was played-up; an inflated demonstration."

Medical director at the Ashburn Clinic in Dunedin, Dr Stephanie du Fresne, believes that part of the suggested increase in narcissism could be because it has been more clearly defined in the literature and as a result "people have been more able to see it".

"So whether it's increasing in its frequency or whether people are seeing it more clearly, that's always difficult to decide. It's probably a bit of both."

Prof Twenge laid some of the blame for the rise in narcissism on the "self-esteem movement" that began in the 1980s and 90s and is exemplified by the slogan "you have to love yourself before you can love others".

In publicity material for her book, The Narcissism Epidemic, she wrote: "At the core of narcissism is the fantasy that you are better than you really are (and better than those around you).

"Any process that allows that fantasy to exist despite the less glamorous reality is an opportunity for narcissism to thrive."

For 1- and 2-year-old children, a high level of narcissism is regarded as completely normal, with Freud considering, even, that part of the charm of a child lay in its narcissism "just as does the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats ..."

Says du Fresne: "A very small child ought to think they are the centre of the universe and everybody should follow their whims. That's a normal phase of narcissism which we all need in our development and if we don't have it, something is liable to go wrong later on."

She believes narcissism is also not abnormal in adolescence, "when teenagers first start feeling they are the centre of the world and that they are better than everybody else.

"That can be part of defining their own identity rather than a serious problem."

But, for some, the trait grows into a disorder and the role of parents is considered a factor.

Freud recognised that parents encouraged narcissism in their children. "... they are impelled to ascribe to the child all manner of perfections which sober observation would not confirm ..."

And Skellett considers "narcissistic personality disorder" can develop in an individual through the behaviour of their parents ... from doting parents or parents putting you on a pedestal or feeding into your sense of self-importance. That's the clear link that psychologists can see".

He suggested parents should not overlook the need to encourage in their children "empathy and compassion which are both values that require us to walk in other people's shoes".

Du Fresne believes other factors are also at work.

"We would certainly understand the condition as starting very early in one's life and that's part of why it is so severe and so difficult to treat.

"It is a serious disturbance of the earliest relationships and that could be about what the parents are or are not doing but it could also be about unavoidable disruptions in a child's life or it could be about a particular sensitivity in the child."

Narcissism is not a disorder accorded a great deal of sympathy. Consider one of many internet jokes: "How many narcissists does it take to change a light bulb? One. He holds the bulb while the world revolves around him."

But, those with the disorder, who are unable to accept the demands of reality, are often destined to suffer work and relationship problems. And the cure is a difficult one.

Du Fresne considers the patients who are treated at Ashburn Clinic are "vulnerable themselves to very severe bouts of depression when they find the world doesn't fall into line in the way they think it should and they are vulnerable to extremely violent reactions when they are disappointed. So, they can be dangerous for themselves and they can be dangerous to other people."

Treatment relies on patients learning, through such things as group therapy, about how they relate to other people.

"That kind of feedback is very, very difficult to hear, because the nature of the condition is that they are inclined to see themselves as knowing better than other people.

"It's very hard for them to think 'well, maybe, actually other people's perspective on how I am is more accurate than my own'."


The "bible" for the mental health profession is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association.

It describes narcissistic personality disorder as a "pervasive pattern of gradiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy ..."

Individuals with the disorder "routinely overestimate their abilities and inflate their accomplishments, often appearing boastful and pretentious.

"They may blithely assume that others attribute the same value to their efforts and may be surprised when the praise they expect and feel they deserve is not forthcoming.

"They are often preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love."

The manual points out that narcissistic traits "may be particularly common in adolescents" but do not necessarily indicate that the individual will go on to have narcissistic personality disorder.

Of those diagnosed with the disorder, between 50 per cent and 75 per cent are male.


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