Craig Malkin (drcraigmalkin.com) is the author of the popular book Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists, in which he describes the spectrum of narcissism: how it can be healthy to have positive illusions about one’s self and one’s life, as long as those illusions don’t become pathologically unhealthy and toxic. Transcript is below.
Topics discussed include: the spectrum of narcissism, as Craig sees it; common misconceptions about narcissism; the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which is the basis of many people’s understanding of narcissism; existential and psychological factors that can lead to more narcissistic ways of engaging with other people.
Resources we mentioned or that are related include:
- Craig’s book Rethinking Narcissism
- Andy Morrison’s book Shame: The Underside of Narcissism
- Shelly Taylor’s book Positive Illusions
- Episode about the Meaning Maintenance Model (how we respond to our sense of meaning being threatened)
- Narcissism Spectrum Scale (cocreated by Malkin)
- Narcissistic Personality Inventory test (it was criticized)
- Pathological Narcissism Inventory test
- About the Single Item Narcissism Scale
- The Narcissism Epidemic (it was criticized)
- Nietzsche’s analogy of sandcastles
- Sartre’s existential play No Exit
- RD Laing’s book The Divided Self
Zachary Elwood: Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast about better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com, and on my site you can also sign up for a premium ad-free subscription.
On this episode I talk to Craig Malkin about narcissism. Craig is the author of the popular book Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad – and Surprising Good – About Feeling Special. As with some past episodes I’ve done on topics like autism, and psychopaths, I wanted to dig into some of the nuance in this area. Topics we talk about include: the simplistic and wrong ideas about narcissism that are pretty common in mainstream conceptions; How Craig views narcissism: both the positive aspects of it and the negative aspects of it, and his conception of what the narcissism spectrum looks like; Craig’s criticisms of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which is a popular test that you often see used in many of the online narcissism tests and which is the basis for a lot of people’s understanding of narcissism; and we talk about some existential and psychological factors that can lead to people taking more narcissistic approaches in how they engage with people and the world.
A little bit more about Craig Malkin, which I’m taking from his website: he’s a Lecturer in Psychology for Harvard Medical School and a licensed psychologist with over two decades of experience in helping couples, individuals, and families. His research on the role of relationships in psychological growth has been published in peer-reviewed journals, and PsychologyToday.com has called his blog Romance Redux “an essential read.”
Dr. Malkin’s advice and insights on a wide range of topics within his areas of expertise have been featured in major national and international on-line and print media magazines and newspapers, including Match.com’s Happen Magazine, Marie Claire, and Women’s Health, as well as popular TV and radio news shows. He continues to practice full time in Harvard Square, in Cambridge Massachusetts, and serves as president and director of his own therapy and consulting company, YM Psychotherapy and Consultation, Inc., which he owns and operates with his wife, Dr. Jennifer Leigh.
You can learn more about Craig and his work at drcraigmalkin.com, his last name is spelled MALKIN.
If you enjoy this podcast, or my work in general, please consider signing up for a premium subscription at my website, behavior-podcast.com. Or please just share episodes with your friends and acquaintances, to help me gain a wider audience. Or go to Apple Podcasts or another platform and leave a review for the podcast. The more listens and subscriptions I get, the more I’m encouraged to work on these things.
Okay here’s the talk with Craig Malkin:
Zachary Elwood: Okay, here’s the talk with Craig Malkin. Hi, Craig. Thanks for joining me.
Craig Malkin: Hi, Zach. Thanks for having me on.
Zach: So maybe we could start with you talking a little bit about what got you interested in the narcissism area?
Craig: Absolutely. Actually, whenever I talk about this, I’m always reminded my wife and I have forever had this joke. My answer to the question of how I got introduced sounds like the punchline to a really bad psychology joke because it all goes back to my mother, but that’s actually true. Because when I was young, I had this very different experience of my mother. She was a leader, she was charming, people really liked her. I mean, people were really drawn to her. She made things happen in all kinds of ways and I felt supported by her. I actually felt connected to her in a way that I really didn’t when I got older and she got older. She was extremely attractive when she was younger and then she got older, of course like we all do, she wasn’t as attractive. She lost her looks and I think that was a big part of what affected her. But in any event, as she got older, she was critical. She often would come up with these shocking non-sequiturs. I’d be talking about something like my hurt over a breakup and once she said, “Oh, I never had any trouble dating anyone who’s English.” That was not my best impression of her but we’ll press on. And one of the worst experiences was after my father died. We had to move her from their house in New York to nearby here in Massachusetts at a place that was better, more convenient and that she could actually afford. And because they were pretty broke at the end, we did an estate sale and collected the money for the move.
At one point right after that move, she accused me in not so many words of taking the money. She was grilling me on what happened to all that money we raised. Anyway, this was a very different experience of her as a person. And later on when I was studying psychology in college, I was looking at a textbook and they had the description of narcissistic personality disorder and image. You get a picture of a narcissist looking at his reflection, and reading the text underneath, I was shocked. I was floored because it perfectly captured my mother in one paragraph, and then the next paragraph, it didn’t seem to fit at all. So I was struggling with this paradox. As soon as I learned about this, of how can my mother be this and also this, and that’s really what got me interested in the beginning. And I stayed interested so much that in my advanced training at Harvard, I was supervised by one of the foremost experts on narcissism in the world at the time, a guy named Andy Morrison. He wrote a book called “Shame The Underside of Narcissism“, where he talked about how shame played into it. And I just continued to keep a foot in the water, if you will, and try to think about this and understand and solve the problem that I had come to feel was understanding my mother, so much so that I continued writing. And in 2013, I became really interested in coming up with a measure that integrated all the ideas about narcissism. Not just the one picture when we can get into that, but briefly, it’s the loud chest-thumping braggart vision of narcissism that’s really only one aspect of it. I wanted to have a measure that captured all of it, including a notion of health. That’s when my colleagues and I came up with the Narcissism Spectrum Scale, which really became the basis of my book, “Rethinking Narcissism“.
Zach: One of the motivations I have for doing this podcast is a bit of frustration I have with the kind of nuanced ways that people use some of these labels, these terms like psychopath, narcissist, autistic in the mainstream and in ways that feel that they don’t really understand the immense amount of complexity and nuance in those areas. That’s just one of my motivations, is to examine some of that nuance and dig into that more. Is it fair to say that’s kind of a similar element of what led you to dig into the nuance that you saw in narcissism?
Craig: Oh, absolutely. There was a lot. Even already at the time I was developing my ideas and trying to bring everything together for the book, not long before that there was a book called “The Narcissism Epidemic“. And as you can tell from the title, its stance was narcissism is evil and destructive and now it’s everywhere and it’s spreading, it’s an epidemic. The problem is that book was based on research from something that we’re going to get into today called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which is even designed to measure pathology. So in order to have an epidemic, you need an illness. And if you’re not collecting anything that captures narcissistic personality disorder, then there’s no basis to declare it as some kind of epidemic. This is a great example of the unnuanced thinking that was happening.
Zach: I’ll try to summarize one of your points and you can tell me if I do an okay job. It seems like one of your main arguments is that as a culture, we’re kind of unreasonably intolerant of behaviors that we view as self-centered. We can kind of have a bit of a grudge or dislike of things we view as self-centered and vain and such, despite the fact that as you point out in your work, some forms of narcissism are pretty standard in most people and even have healthy aspects. Am I summarizing that roughly correctly?
Craig: That’s absolutely right. Part of the reason for the knee-jerk unnuanced picture and reactions that happen around narcissism is we do have this strain throughout our culture and our thinking, it runs pretty deep almost like a puritanical strain. I write about this in my book or mention it when you think about the seven deadly sins. Like, it’s greed, it’s sloth. I mean, all these things are excesses of the self, basically. And so there is, in a way, this valorization of not having any of those tendencies whatsoever, like striving for money. Oh my gosh, if people weren’t striving for money, we wouldn’t have capitalism, we wouldn’t have what we have in the world and certainly in America, right? So the danger of reacting like this is bad, get rid of it and it’s all bad, is that we can’t recognize those very normal tendencies in ourselves. This is a very common phenomenon in psychology and psychological science, that we tend to disown and project qualities that we revile. We find them in others. So then it becomes this cultural game of who can I point out is more selfish than me? It really even plays into some of the ways holier than thou religion and things like that. But the problem is, again, we all have these feelings. And they’re normal. They’re a part of our experience. And actually, you’re more likely to exaggerate them and turn to the extreme, like become incredibly greedy, for example, if you can’t own that that’s an important drive in you in some way. You can’t let it go and you can’t have any flexibility around it if you can’t even acknowledge it’s there.
Zach: Mhm, the recognition that we are fundamentally in some degree self-centered because that’s like the existential way we experience the world. We only have our own point of view, and therefore to some extent, we’re all self-centred in some way.
Craig: That’s absolutely right. Even if we’re not embracing some idea of solipsism, it’s just all we have is our subjective experience. Our best guess is based on what we’re seeing in other people and what we’re hearing from them what their experience is. And just from the very beginning, as a result of that, our experience and what’s happening inside us is always going to some extent take privacy.
Zach: Well, yeah, and I want to get back to that existential discussion but maybe I thought it’d be interesting to go through some of the questions or the elements of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, the NPI, which you criticize in your work and it’s one of the most well-known tests when it comes to narcissism. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that test and its relative importance in the field and your criticisms of it.
Craig: Absolutely. Well, my main criticism is that it mixes together, and this is what we’re talking about, health and pathology. It sort of throws them all into one mix, and then you get one score and this tells you what’s going on with someone. Unfortunately, because it leaves out the nuance, it also then fails to capture a lot of very important information about people’s functioning and strengths and limitations. So we have any number of items that you read them and you’re like, “Yeah, that doesn’t sound great.” Like there’s one on there, “I won’t stop until I get the respect to do me.” Not surprisingly, answering that in the positive, not a great sign! But then there are others that tap more into health and it sounds like you’re going to read some of them, people will see as you read them out loud, it’s a little more complicated. So my main criticism is that it mixes together health and pathology when we should be looking at both and the impact of both and the aspects of what that captures about what narcissism is beyond just the pathological version of it. It also conflates, mixes together in a similar way traits of narcissism with a pathological condition or diagnosis. And we shouldn’t do that either.
Zach: You’ll now be hearing an ad. I don’t endorse these ads and I encourage you to remain skeptical of all ads.
Zach: I’ll go through a few of the elements on there, the components there, and just maybe we can have a little discussion on each one. One of them is I like to be the center of attention. Do you see some nuance in there? Because getting into the realm of like, some of these things, our surface-level instinct is to dislike self-centeredness. But then again, to some extent, a lot of people do like these things, right? Like being the center of attention.
Craig: Yes. Yes, yes! Or it’s a problem and they need to be able to play with it or enjoy it in some way if they don’t. Again, we can get into those aspects of it as well. The heart of narcissism really is what’s also called self-enhancement. Or it goes back to research that was collected in the ’80s and turned into a book called “Positive Illusions” by Shelley E. Taylor. It was a brilliant and landmark book because people were saying that health is all about seeing things in realistic ways, and then she came along and she showed people this vast body of research that happy healthy people do not see themselves, the world, or future in our realistic ways at all. They have these kind of inflated illusions. So when you have some of that, you can flexibly endorse something like, “I like to be the center of attention.” Especially really people who are extremely extroverted. Somebody who’s really introverted, these are different styles. They may not endorse that and now you’re capturing more whether someone’s introverted or extroverted. And that’s one of the criticisms of the NPI as well, by the way.
But think about what it means if somebody doesn’t enjoy being the center of attention ever. And then you get into one of the main problems from the start that people stumbled into when they started to try to use the NPI. We didn’t get into the history of it but it came out around 1980 when people first started proposing a formal diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, largely based on the works of two thinkers, Kernberg and Kohut. They tried to put something together to capture this. And the NPI came out along with it and the idea is, well, maybe we can use this to diagnose people. Well, it turned out it was terrible. It did not correlate with narcissistic personality disorder diagnosis at all. But on top of that, the question you read, if you don’t endorse that at all, it’s like you’re a zero on that. Or say you’re a zero on some of the other items that you’re going to measure. Or you’re a zero on the NPI. That is not healthy.
Zach: You’re hiding from the world, kind of.
Craig: Exactly, it’s not a well-functioning person. So unless that’s taken into account, we can’t have this view that zero on any one item or all these items is good and a high score is bad. Again, it collapses it into very black and white. That’s a really good example. It’s not a bad thing to enjoy being the center of attention, not by itself.
Zach: That gets into your work about the spectrum of it, the zero to 10 scale and examining some of the more healthy aspects of what we view as narcissism and at the low end, a zero is somebody who doesn’t have any of these self-enhancement tools at their disposal or doesn’t use them.
Zach: Let’s look at another question here. I am a born leader, which is another aspect of you can imagine someone believing that in a healthy sense like a more objective sense. Like maybe they’ve had experiences that show them that. So I think that’s another area where you can see a lot of nuance just like for the last one, I think.
Craig: Oh, absolutely. Let’s talk a little bit too about what we’re looking at here. This is called a forced-choice questionnaire. And the NPI has been criticized for the problem with that, too. They try to take care of it. They just want listeners to hear the flavor of the introduction, which is you have a series of 40 statements. One of them is in the narcissistic direction and one of them is supposedly not in the narcissistic direction. Again, you’ll start to see that even that assumption gets a little bit problematic. So, it’s which of these two statements is closer to your own feelings about yourself. If you identify more with liking to have authority over people than not minding following orders, you would choose option A. You may identify with both A and B. So they try to guide people in this way. In this case, you should choose the statements which seems closer to yourself. Or if you do not identify with the statements, select the one which is least objectionable or remote. In other words, read each pair of statements and then choose the one that’s closer to your own feelings. So you see what they’re trying to do there.
Zach: Which way you lean. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah. So it’s really an endorsement and attitude. Now, somebody who says I’m a natural-born leader, this taps into a component of the NPI. Again, this is one of the problems. They take a unitary score usually when they collect data from the NPI, researchers do that. You know, whatever score from zero to 40, right? Because we’ve got zero is non-narcissistic and one is narcissistic. But when you look at the actual items and how they cluster, it actually falls into three clear mathematical piles. Related, but in some ways they don’t overlap all that well. They can be looked at distinctly. These are called factors. I’m a natural-born leader or whatever, it was something like that, right? Taps into a factor called leadership authority. Leadership authority does not correlate with any negative relational patterns or patterns of behavior. It only predicts positive behaviors by itself. So this is, again, the mixing of health and pathology. You can hear in that “I’m a natural born leader”. Well, who the hell believes that? Well, maybe they’ve got some evidence but endorsing it, really, you really are embracing some idea that you’re special. You stand out from the other 8 billion people on the planet in some way. That’s what self-enhancement is. It turns out just believing that is not inherently pathological. So it’s another great example. You want people with leadership authority who score high on that in leadership positions. This is one of the reasons why presidents and politicians score higher than average on narcissistic traits. Because some of those traits tap into this more adaptive aspect of self-enhancement.
Zach: There’s a lot of these we could talk about. Another one I’ll pick at random, I wish someone would write my autobiography. I think many people, similar to the things we’re talking about, I think many people if they were being honest would dream of doing something big enough or interesting enough for someone to want to write about them. That doesn’t even mean they’re necessarily doing something that big. It could be like, “Oh, look at what a humble and caring life they lead.” Getting back to that idea of self-enhancement, I think we all want to believe that we are special, and that’s a very practically functional way to experience the world. I’m curious what you’d say about that one.
Craig: It’s core, for sure. Read the question again.
Zach: I wish someone would write my autobiography. I don’t have the other forced choice one, I didn’t write that one.
Craig: I wanted people to hear that again because it’s a wish also, it’s a fantasy. Do you endorse that? Do you not endorse that? And so once again, there’s validity and helpful information you can capture, especially when it was presented as you heard. They’re trying to give some flexibility in people’s thinking. Just, whatever do you lean towards? What do you most identify with? And there is some helpful information that you can collect, all of this data, and then you look at what it relates to. And it does look like people who score extremely high on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Again, that’s not great either, as you can imagine somebody who’s scoring a 40. Now you’re racking up these things where most people would be on the fence. But that sense of specialness that I matter enough, that I wish somebody would write my autobiography, there could be people who are really accomplished to actually feel that, too, and then they’re going to endorse that. But to your point, a big part of what comes out of this research and why we have to have a notion of health is that illusion. And it is an illusion. We’re all kind of brief flickering lights in the universe. No one’s going to remember even the biggest star 300 years ago, that’s just the reality. But the illusion that we’re special in some way and that we stand out from the other 8 billion people on the planet, when it’s held flexibly, it’s clear from other research that that actually does help us thrive, helps us persist in the face of failure, it might even help with closeness and relationships. So somebody who, for example, believes their autobiography should be written, that question doesn’t correlate reliably with any horrible outcomes or patterns of behavior.
Zach: So, the test with its criticisms you and others can make of it, is it still respected in the industry? Is it still useful for maybe the more pathological results, or how is it viewed and do you see it?
Craig: Again, the higher someone is on this, the more problematic. A 40 is obviously more likely to be reflective of pathology, but there’s going to be exceptions. What the NPI came to be used for, and there are problems even in this, is measures of trait thinking of narcissism on a spectrum. Like, how high on the trait is this person? So you can say somebody who scores high on the narcissistic personality disorder is a narcissist. That means they’re higher on the trait than the average person. You can look at things that that predicts, that narcissists tend to react to threats to their ego with aggression, that narcissists are more likely to cheat in relationships. Likely, right? Not always that narcissists tend to be more entitled. Likely, not always, when somebody scores high. But what you can’t conclude is that this person has narcissistic personality disorder. Because when the research is looked at closely on high scores on the NPI as I said earlier, it doesn’t really correlate all that well. There are other better ways to capture that. So what it’s used for largely to this day is collecting interesting data on convenient samples. I mean, I did this myself, where you’ve got college students who need credit. You sit down these college students and then they take the test and now you’ve got some data. And if you give them other tests of personality and other tests of behavior, you can correlate it with that and you can find some interesting patterns about what happens when people are high in narcissistic traits. But it tells you nothing about what happens when someone is disordered.
Zach: So, are there certain tests that you think are much more useful in these areas? Maybe there’s tests that you helped invent yourself.
Craig: Well, I think our test, the Narcissism Spectrum Scale, the NSS, is actually pretty great because it envisions the spectrum from zero to 10; where zero or a lack of healthy narcissism or failure to self-enhance is problematic, which is what the research shows. There’s something called the sadder but wiser effect. So if you ask people to rank themselves on different traits like warmth, intelligence, beauty, or whatever compared to their peers, and say, “Do you think you’re in the top 10%, the top 20, etc.,” happy healthy people won’t see themselves as average. They’ll see themselves through an overly positive lens or slightly rosy view. Not so rosy they’re blind to the truth, but it’s a little bit distorted. That’s what self-enhancement is. People who don’t do that tend to be depressed and anxious and they see things fairly realistically. Turns out that’s not a great thing. That’s what Shelly Taylor showed. I call this echoism, which is a fear of special attention, a fear of standing out, a worry about becoming a burden. In other words, a worry that… And really, the core of it is fear of seeming narcissistic in any way. It goes back to your earlier question that fear, often, is a problem. Like, this is going to seem selfish or greedy or too much of me. That actually causes people problems. Put that as echoism. We capture that.
The centre of healthy narcissism, these are people who score high on those self-enhancement measures, including aspects of the NPI and other measures. But they have no pathology whatsoever and they’re not addicted to feeling that way about themselves. If you give them feedback that they’re not as intelligent as they thought they were, they say, “Oh! Well, that’s disappointing. I thought it’d be higher than that. Oh, well.” And they take it in stride. And then you can look at people at the high end of the NSS who have exploitation, entitlement, and empathy impairments– I call Triple E— that’s the core of pathological narcissism. If you give them feedback that they’re not as special as they thought they were, they’ll call you an idiot. “This test is ridiculous! This is the dumbest thing.” So they’ll attack when their ego’s threatened. The NSS captures that, so at the far end, you can capture pathology. Then there’s another well-validated measure, which is called the Pathological Narcissism Inventory, the PNI. The Pathological Narcissism Inventory, which was developed by a researcher clinician, a clinician who diagnoses and specializes in narcissistic personality disorder. His name’s Aaron Pincus. He developed the PNI and it actually predicts pathology really, really well. So if you’re interested in disorders, you really want the PNI.
Zach: Then there’s also a single-item test, right?
Craig: Yeah. [laughs]
Zach: Can you talk a little bit about that one?
Craig: It’s funny. I should go back and say that the Narcissism Inventory, the other failing of it as you can tell by reading the questions, is that it captures extraversion. So you’re not going to capture introverted narcissists or what are called covert or vulnerable narcissists with this test, you need a separate test for that. And so it’s the more outgoing brand of narcissism. That’s what I’ve referred to as the narcissists we all know and loathe. Everybody has a caricature image of that reality TV stars, things like that. The SINS actually does a pretty good job of capturing mostly extroverted narcissists a little bit better and more. It’s a fascinating one because it is what it says, the SINS is a single item measure, and it’s just; to what extent do you agree with the following statement, I am a narcissist. Then it says in parentheses a narcissist is someone who likes to feel self-important and whatever, it goes through the traits. It turns out somebody who is willing to say, “Well, yes, that’s me,” is likely to score higher on narcissism inventories. [laughs] And part of it is, this is that problem again where this feeling special can also get out of control. Because the reason they do that self-importance, that’s a good thing! Because if they feel that they are that way, the reason they embrace it so freely, the more outgoing or extroverted charismatic types, is because they valorize it. It’s like, “Yeah, of course, that’s me!” Because that’s great. That’s what I should be doing. Because they think anything they do is great. That’s the SINS.
Zach: Yeah, when I think of somebody like Donald Trump answering that, I would think he would say, “Yes, I am this way.”
Craig: Yeah, and it’s good.
Zach: Yeah, and that’s a good thing. So I think yeah, it’s like there is self-knowledge of some sort. I think people would say, well, you might know you have those traits, but it’s not understanding why you have those traits or why those traits can be so harmful. That aspect might be not examined or off limits.
Craig: Perfect. Exactly. Like the aggressive devaluing that happens with some people who have pathological narcissism. They can tell you I’m treating this person like dirt because they’re an idiot. What they won’t say is I’m treating this person like dirt because lording my power over them and feeling like a bigger person makes sure that I never feel small, and I can view them as small so I can feel big. They won’t say that. They’ll just say, “We’ll, sure, a lot of people are idiots.”
Zach: Yeah. And you mentioned the introverted form of narcissism, which I think that’s the kind of nuance you get into in your book and I think it’s… That kind of opens up an area of nuance where I think a lot of people won’t be familiar with because we tend to think of narcissists as outgoing and brash and these kinds of things, but it seems like there’s all sorts of ways to be a narcissist basically. For example, let’s take an extreme example, you might be a narcissist who says to themselves, “Well, I’m one of the most humble and down-to-earth people in the world.” That could be an extreme. Or, “I’ve suffered so much,” and they focus on their amount of suffering, just to say that there’s all sorts of ways we might put ourselves on a pedestal and put other people, you know, minimize them basically.
Craig: Exactly, all sorts of ways to feel special or self-enhance. Not all of them are positive. That’s what you’re getting at when we’re touching on what introverted or vulnerable or covert narcissists. Those are all names for the same thing. So, think of narcissism as the drive to feel special, exceptional or unique– a trait, a survival strategy. This is where we get to talk about the existentialism behind it, right, the positive illusions. So that’s the drive that to some extent exists in everyone to greater or lesser degrees. Then there’s all kinds of ways of feeling special. This is how we mapped out in the NSS, the underlying ideas of what narcissism is; core drive to feel special or self-enhance. And then you can feel like the most attractive or intelligent person in the room, right? These are people who endorse items on the NPI. This is an extroverted or grandiose narcissist.
But then you can also feel that you’re special by virtue of negative qualities; the ugliest person in the room, the most misunderstood, the one who’s suffered the most. You’re special by virtue of your pain. That is what vulnerable or covert or introverted narcissism is. These are people who score high on introversion, but they don’t feel they stand out from the other 8 billion people on the planet because they’re rich or smart. In fact, they might feel like they have less of that than everyone else in the room. So it’s negative self-enhancement. I’m special because of what’s lacking in me, I’m special because of what I don’t have, I’m special because of what hasn’t happened to me. That’s introverted or vulnerable or covert narcissism. But then the one that you mentioned as you can also feel special by virtue of feeling like the most helpful person in the room, it’s communal narcissism. Communal narcissists agree with statements like, “I’m the most helpful person I know.” As a psychologist, that always makes me laugh, I can’t even imagine. “I’m the most helpful person I know and one day I’ll be famous for all the good deeds I’ve done.”
Zach: Like a philanthropist angle of narcissism, yeah.
Craig: Exactly. But it can be quiet, too. Communal narcissists can be people who are not movers and shakers in the community, they just sort of corner you in the room at the party and talk about all the great things they’re doing through the neighborhoods and friends, and how much they’ve given up in order to do that. So those are all different ways to feel special and I’m sure that we’ll be able to capture more over time.
Zach: Well, it seems like there’s so much nuance and complexity in these areas when it comes to the more normal range of narcissism. For example, thinking about my own life, there’s times I could be uncertain, like am I feeling really low about my place in the universe? Because I can feel an urge to combat that to searching for meaning kind of way like trying to put myself at a higher level, and you can kind of feel like in your life that you can swing back and forth. Another example is like in arguments I’ve had with my wife like disagreements. There can be elements of, who exactly is being more narcissistic here. It feels like there are going to blind spots that people can have and it can be hard to define. Like, “Well, who exactly is actually being the more narcissistic one?” And for me, it comes back to when it comes to separating the more pathological elements from the more normal aspects of this, I think to me it’s like the non-pathological aspects are a willingness to self-examine, a willingness to admit fault, a willingness to be vulnerable. That’s how I separate the more normal healthy personalities from the less healthy, and I’m curious would you agree that’s the rough line where separating the pathological exists?
Craig: Well, 100%. In fact, that’s an empirical fact. One measure of adjustment or mental health is people who tend to be in their relationships what’s called more securely attached. Securely attached people feel that when they’re lonely, when they’re sad, when they’re blue, when they’re struggling, when they’re vulnerable, they can turn to one special person or special group of people. And when push comes to shove, they will matter enough to those people that they’ll be there for them and there’ll be a sense of mutual care and connection. That’s what attachment security is. It turns out that people who score high on attachment security self-enhance. They moderately self-enhance. And I alluded to this research earlier. People who moderately self-enhance who have healthy narcissism– there’s a way you want to think about that– they believe they’re special enough that it helps them pursue big dreams if they’re more outgoing and extroverted, or it helps them suffer the trials and tribulations of life and not feel completely knocked down just to have this slightly overly inflated view of themselves where they have more of these positive illusions of self. But they don’t rigidly cling to them, people who are securely attached. And the way I think about this is to the extent that you can depend on people, you will not depend on feeling special. That is, if I can feel valued in a mutually caring and connected way in a relationship and trust that people love me and accept me, flaws and all and all my vulnerabilities that I show, I’m not going to need to sustain and maintain any sense of value of myself with these either negatively or positively inflated self-enhanced views of myself. I won’t need those in order to feel like I have a self at all. Because I can feel that in connection to others. That’s what attachment security does. So it’s not a surprise that securely attached people score moderately on self-enhancement measures and score high on things like leadership authority on the NPI.
Zach: I’m someone who’s interested in existential psychology and it’s something I examine on this podcast a good amount in various episodes. And from an existential psychology perspective, we can see this inherent conflict in how we exist with other beings. There’s always this conflict between ourselves and other people. For example, when I talk to other people and interact with these other minds around me, I have to keep in mind this complex model. I have to keep in mind my own mind sense of self, while also keeping track of these other minds around me that I interact with and also a surrounding model of the world that we’re in. So there’s this immense complexity just in this sheer existential way of being a thinking person with other thinking beings in the world. That can create various conflicts. For example, when I’m interacting with other people, if I’m overly focused on either myself or the other person, it can be unconducive to so-called normal social interaction. If I find myself identifying too much with the other person having too much focus on them, I may find myself melting into them a little bit, losing myself, feeling like they are impinging on myself in some way. And vice versa, you can also focus too much on yourself and come across in maybe a more narcissistic way. So, just to say that there’s these various conflicts that we deal with at some existential level. Like the quote in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “No Exit“, the quote that everybody knows is hell is other people getting at this idea that there’s something existentially threatening and in conflict when we’re just interacting with other people. So from that aspect, you can see the more narcissistic ways of being is almost this one strategy for dealing with these existential conflicts. It’s like arriving at some sort of strategy where by putting your own feelings and beliefs on a pedestal and denigrating other people’s, it is one solution to solving that problem of dealing with other people. I’m wondering what you think about those kinds of existential layers to this.
Craig: Absolutely, yes. One of the problems existentially that, even if it’s coming about unconsciously, it’s an unconscious survival strategy; one of the core things that it deals with is limitation. And you’re touching on one of them, which is, how do I maintain a sense of self and also a sense of integrity in the presence of other people? Other people have needs too, they have an impact, what they do might limit what I want to do. You can’t approach that flexibly if you’re preoccupied with the sense of danger. We all are, at times, and I know we’re probably going to have a chance to get into how that plays out too in conflict. But one of the experiences that tends to line people up to have pathological narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder is that they often grew up with extraordinarily narcissistic parents. That’s not the only way it can happen, but a caretaker or a parent who’s extremely abusive.
And now you’ve got this model where in order to be in a relationship, in order for me to accept the impact of another person and what they need and what they’re imposing, I have to submit. There can be only one. This is sort of the model with an extremely narcissistic parent. We might be able to get into nuance of that, I’m just taking the most extreme version. There’s a two-body problem that’s reduced to one. And then what happens is, that person now has a learned sense of danger. Not just the subtle existential concerns about how do I hold on to my desire and needs in the presence of another person with their own, but where if somebody is allowed to have impact or presence in the relationship at all, I’m in danger. I could be abused, I could be hurt, I could be attacked.
So, the existential solution there is how do I, at least, convince myself in my own personal psychology? How do I sustain this illusion that other people don’t matter and I’m the one that matters? Well, you have to resort to things like entitlement, right? I don’t have to ask for anything, I can just expect it. Where people now become, rather than separate beings, they become extensions of me. They are there for me and I don’t need to consider them at all. What a fantastic though destructive solution to the experience that other people are really hell. See, that quote is great because one of the main thinkers in narcissism, a guy named Kernberg, would agree that that’s what leads people to be extremely narcissistic, right? Where they’ve had that experience, even the worst form of malignant narcissism, he described as this position that’s essentially, “I am everything and have everything, and you are nothing and offer nothing. And that’s how I’m going to maintain a sense of self.” Because if you have anything to offer and you are anything, I’m in danger.
Zach: Yeah, when I think about the people in my life, people I know who I view as pretty narcissistic, I see them as trying to escape this pain of letting other people in, the pain of self-doubt, the pain of self-examination, and I think it’s almost like an allergy to that kind of vulnerability. It’s like driving away and keeping that vulnerability and self-examination away in whatever means they can.
Craig: Well, because also the vulnerability was, for people with that character type, it was often a reason for them being hurt or attacked or abused. So now they have to find ways to deny the vulnerability.
Zach: And we’ve been focusing on the more extreme pathological aspects of the mean narcissist, but I think there’s also– getting back to the idea that there’s many ways of being narcissistic– it’s like you can also just be someone who is the life of the party, somebody who’s not overtly mean to people, but can be just avoidant of ever wanting to be vulnerable. And this is like fun time narcissist too, which I think is important because I think it helps get into the nuance of there’s many ways that we can try to avoid being vulnerable with other people or being vulnerable, even interiorly, with our ourselves. There’s all these different solutions we can hit upon that just results in a similar kind of behavior.
Craig: Absolutely. Because say, if you’re completely invested in always being the life of the party, you’re dependent on that for a sense of value or worth addictively so. Not so great. People who just sort of enjoy it, who embrace it, who if it doesn’t go well, they can let that go. Again, now we’re talking about in the range of healthy narcissism. And these are people who are often leaders, they’re often very charismatic people. We know that healthy and unhealthy narcissists and narcissism don’t rise and fall in perfect step with one another just looking at the data and the research collected from these tests, but also interpersonally, that is in our relationships. We know that as well because there are plenty people who their way of being like that in the world lifts people up, lifts them up, and it doesn’t put anyone down.
Zach: I also think of R.D. Laing’s book, “The Divided Self”. He had this part of that book that was about mental illness and more psychosis kind of situations, but he had a part where he described there can be a way of perceiving being understood by other people or being seen clearly by them as a form of death. It can feel like we’re exposed and that can feel really terrifying to feel like someone else knows us or understands us. And I kind of associate that with a narcissist view of the world where they’re just allergic to someone else seeing them naked and vulnerable.
Craig: Yes, to be seen as dangerous and to be seen fully. R.D. Laing wrote a lot about psychosis. These ideas are closely linked because, of course, if you are constantly feeling in an ongoing way a sense of existential threat like you can be wiped out in any moment, you need all kinds of ways around it. It’s not a surprise that inpatient psychiatric units are often hosts to people who believe that they’re Jesus, or they believe that they’re the smartest person in the world.
Zach: Yeah, ways to compensate for low self-esteem.
Craig: Exactly. So this link between the grandiose sense to self and grandiose illusions and existential fear or existential terror is very real. And so when you take that example R.D. Laing was interested in, these are people who have a very porous, easily dissolved sense of self.
Zach: When it comes to some of the more violent outcomes that can happen with somebody who’s got a more narcissistic personality, some of those things can stem from them running out of the ability to fool themselves that their way of viewing the world is legitimate, you know, like somebody who’s been able to lead some sort of narcissistic personality life but then all of a sudden, they’re kind of faced with like, well, maybe my illusions of being great, these things I’ve told myself or being strong or whatever and being self-sufficient, some of those things can run out and then they’re faced with this existential crisis where they might do something bad to themselves or bad to other people because they can’t really face the reality of reality crashing down on them kind of thing.
Craig: Exactly. Attack the world, attack other people. Also, the other form it can take when somebody reaches that kind of existential crisis that their grandiose or positive illusions aren’t maintained by the world anymore, I think of my mother who probably was sustained by the idea that she was one of the most attractive people or the most in the room. When that didn’t sustain her anymore, it can lead to what’s called narcissistic collapse. And that can take the form of acting out and aggressing and others, or it can just take the form of severe depression. Back to your idea of the existentialism and everydayness of this, another way to think about it is there was a brilliant writer named Stephen Mitchell, a psychoanalyst, a relational psychoanalyst. He wrote about Nietzsche’s parable or his analogy of the sandcastles. Do you know this?
Zach: I’m not sure.
Craig: It’s great. So in facing our mortality– again, think about narcissism and it gets more and more extreme– we’ve got the playful illusions, I’m better than I actually am, I’m smarter than most, I’m special even though no one’s special, and then we’ve got an addiction to those beliefs. It’s all about how dangerous is it for me to accept limitation. And the ultimate limitation, of course, is death and mortality. Nietzsche wrote about this by saying that in facing our mortality and that ultimate limitation, it’s like we’re all out on this shore facing the ocean. And our lives and what we produce, they’re like sand castles. He said there’s three possible solutions; the Apollonian derived from Apollo, the Sun god. The Apollonian solution is the person who stands there and in a frenzy builds all kinds of elaborate structures and builds the castle higher and higher. So unconsciously preoccupied with the awareness that nothing is going to last so they have to pour all their energy into denying it. Denying limitations. Too dangerous to lead then and just stop if I don’t. And then the [00:50:55 ???] Dynasan stance is where the person is so preoccupied with the fact that the water is going to come and wash everything away that they can’t build it all.
Zach: Like a Hamlet reaction to it. Like, what do I do?
Craig: Exactly. To be, or not to be? I don’t know what to do with that, so here we are. He said the third solution, he called The Tragic. And the tragic stance is that this is positive illusions. This is why I love this, it’s the response to the existential dilemma. Yeah, I know the water’s going to come and wash everything away, I know I’m not the most important person in the room, I know that I’m not going to be so famous that people are going to remember in 300 years or whatever, right? Those limitations. And instead of trying to in a frenzy deny it or just become shut down because of it, the tragic person builds their castle and sometimes they put an elaborate structure. They may stop and eat a sandwich and they have a passing thought like, “Oh, well, it’ll be sad when this is gone, which is going to be soon,” and they go right back to building. And they play.
I love that analogy because it also captures the play in it. And narcissistic illusion, the health of it is all about play. It’s being able to dip into that sense of illusion enough to create, to build, to think that it matters enough to keep building, but not to get so attached to it that you have to deny any limitation whatsoever; limitation in the self, limitation of mortality. Again, there’s also people on psychiatric inpatient units who believe they’re immortal, right? It’s another solution to that existential problem. So I think that’s a really important way to think about why it’s so core to our experience as human beings that narcissistic illusions are all about trying to face that existential reality in some way. And we can’t have no illusions and we can’t become addicted to them.
Zach: When we talk about fear of death, I think sometimes we have this idea that it’s just the fear of our bodily death. But I think there can also be this fear of this person that I’ve built up, this person I am, could be extinguished.
Craig: Psychic death.
Zach: Psychic death. Like, melt away. Which I think is the narcissistic element of like, “I need to protect this because if I let in other people or let in weakness, my being will dissolve in some way and I’ll go crazy or I’ll be this weak shell of a person or whatever these things are.” It’s also just this fear of psychic death, ego death, or whatever it is.
Craig: Absolutely. I’ll be nothing, literally. Annihilation.
Zach: Right. Yeah, annihilation of different forms that we envision or don’t even envision if we push it away. I interviewed Steven Heine who was part of this meaning maintenance theory work and it was about if we lose meaning in one area of our lives, we kind of need to maintain some meaning. We’ll search for it in another area.
Craig: I’m not familiar with this, this sounds interesting. Keep going. Yeah.
Zach: Yeah, I think you’d like it because I kind of see some similarities in the sense that one way or another, we have to maintain some meaning. And part of that meeting can be a sense of our own specialness maybe, right? We can see some relation to the narcissism. If our ego is threatened in some way, like something bad happens in our life, we have to search for another way to boost up that meaning to get ourselves back, to have enough sense of specialness or purpose or some sort of goal, or whatever it is. But yeah, I think you might like some of that work. I kind of see it as different sides of the same coin of one way or another, we have to prop ourselves up in some way.
Craig: Yeah, that does sound like an overlap. Yeah.
Zach: I sometimes focus on political polarization, I talk about that a good amount on here and I wrote a book about it, “Defusing American Anger”. I’m curious, when it comes to extreme polarization and conflict, do you think that leads to people becoming more narcissistic? One thing I see in that area is because when we start seeing others as more of a threat and start getting more scared of them and start to dislike them more and put them down and denigrate them in our minds, it seems like we can start to behave in ways that resemble some pathologically narcissistic personality behaviors, basically, in the same way that we can see narcissists perceiving others as threats and behaving in those ways. Do you see some elements of our culture becoming a bit more narcissistic?
Craig: Absolutely. Because you’re describing the whole problem of how do you maintain connection or at least acknowledge the humaneness of somebody else in conflict. Let’s take the simplest example politically of are you invested in the belief that the election was stolen or are you invested in the belief that the data that we have is sound, that there is no evidence that was thrown out in court? Things like that. Depending on how– and this is what I thought the meaning-making was going to be about, the meaning preservation– but if you go, I don’t know, probably 50 years back, there’s some similar idea of how we create and maintain meaning. And it has everything to do with how closely we identify with beliefs– think about these political beliefs, election stolen, election wasn’t stolen– the more closely it touches on our sense of self to embrace that belief and to hold on to it, the more we identify with it like my belief is me, the more we do behave narcissistically. This is determined in the research, meaning I’m going to get more angry and aggressive about ideas being attacked if they’re closer to my sense of self.
Zach: Right, those ideas represent me in some way.
Craig: Exactly. An attack on my specialness and my special beliefs and what makes me special in the universe, how could you dare challenge that? And so the more that we experience things in that way, the more we’re going to rely on narcissistic defenses. This is where there has to be a distinction made between narcissistic personality disorder and adaptation or survival strategies or defenses, unconscious and conscious. So if I find what this person is saying is such a challenge to my beliefs that I feel that sense of threat, I’m more likely to attack. And it’s going to be a whole lot easier to attack. This is the defense of contempt. Contempt is a defense. It is not a healthy primary feeling, it’s a way of bypassing anger. If I have to treat somebody that I’m angry at as a human being, I have to consider their needs and feelings even though I’m angry at them. As soon as I can see them as a thing, as less than human because of what they’re doing to me, I can do whatever I want to them, I don’t have to consider them at all.
That’s a narcissistic defense. Because you are attacking something so central to me, you are nothing. And now, because of the sense of potential shame or diminishment of me having to accept what you’re saying, then I’m more likely instead of allowing myself to feel vulnerable in that way– because again, it’s too much of a sense of threat to accept there might be some possibility this is true– instead of allowing myself to feel vulnerable in that way, I’m going to say and do things to make you feel ashamed like you are nothing, like your ideas are pointless and ridiculous. Now we’re into a battle of narcissistic defenses and we’ve gone way beyond ideas.
Zach: Yeah, that’s where I really see the mapping over. It’s like when we’re viewing the quote “other side” as this unthinking mass, we’re behaving in a pathologically narcissistic way, like the failure to examine the humanity there and the reasons for why they believe things. It’s much easier to just view them as this monolithic mass of objects, basically, than to examine… And to speak in ways, even while you’re dramatically disagreeing with them, to speak in ways that keep in mind their humanity. That’s a harder thing to do. Which I think gets back to the idea of narcissism being this easily understood strategy for dealing with the stress of the world. It’s like blotting out other people is helpful in a way. It’s like that’s one less thing I have to think about.
Craig: Exactly. I have this quote in my book, “Rage makes narcissists of us all.” There are times when we become so enraged– and we’d have to examine what’s that’s about– that we can’t keep in mind other people what they’re feeling. That’s what rage is. That’s what intense anger is. The difference here is when it becomes a rigid defense is when it’s chronic, when it’s pervasive, when it’s reflexive. Occasionally, we all behave narcissistically out of rage. We’re healthy if we can say, “Oh, my gosh, that was so over the top. I am so sorry.” And actually do repair.
Zach: Right, you’re relatively healthy if you’re able to fluctuate along the spectrum of narcissism. It’s not like you’re always operating in one part of the spectrum or something.
Craig: Exactly. Exactly.
Zach: This has been great. Do you want to mention anything else, maybe about what you’re working on now before we end it?
Craig: I’m not actively working on anything, because I’m often called in to do writing. I did a piece for Psychotherapy Networker, that’s more of our psychotherapy colleagues, on how to treat people with narcissistic personality disorder, particularly introverted. And I’m probably going to keep doing that. One thing I would mention is I have a lot of free information on my website, drcraigmalkin.com, and I have a lot of free information. Of course, I have a YouTube channel called Dr. Craig Malkin. And though I’m a little bit on hiatus because I’m sending my girls… Speaking of limitations, my girls are now 18, my daughters. We’re dropping them off in college, I’m leaving tomorrow. [chuckles] But as a result of all those things, I’ve had to take a little break. But I have a lot of material already on the YouTube channel and I plan to continue it as an empty nester, so I guess I should mention that. And I often post on my Facebook page, and I’m probably going to get more active on Instagram.
Zach: And your book’s great and pretty cheap for people who want to go that route. Well, this has been great. Thanks, Craig. Thanks for joining me and thanks for talking about these things.
Craig: Oh, you’re so welcome. My pleasure.
Zach: That was a talk with Dr. Craig Malkin, author of the book “Rethinking Narcissism“. You can learn more about Craig’s work at his site, drcraigmalkin.com.
This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zachary Elwood. You can learn more about this podcast at www.behavior-podcast.com. If you want to give me moral or financial support, you can sign up for a premium subscription to my podcast there.
If you enjoyed this episode, I’ve got other episodes you’d probably enjoy. I have a compilation on my website with more psychology and mental-health-focused episodes. I have episodes on dealing with anxiety, on autism, on psychopathy, and more.