Between a healthy dose of overconfidence and narcissism
We all know them. Whether in politics or business, whether at work or in the private sphere. Everywhere we meet people with narcissistic personalities. Some famous examples are the politician Silvio Berlusconi, the writer Thomas Mann, the football player Christiano Ronaldo and the designer Coco Chanel.
But how does a narcissistic personality develop?
The Psychoanalysis of Narcissism
According to the psychoanalyst Alice Miller, who dealt with narcissism in her work “The Drama of the Gifted Child” (1983), the cause of the narcissistic personality is to be found in the “adaptation of the infant” to its environment. Miller assumed that the child’s caregiver is narcissistically needy herself or himself and dependent on a certain echo of the child. The child is thus used for the narcissistic stabilization of the caregiver. Due to their own neediness, the caregiver cannot respond to the narcissistic needs of the child for reflection, understanding or participation. The child, who needs an accepting counterpart to experience feelings, subsequently develops a mechanism to deal with these circumstances – the conscious experience of her or his own feelings is made inaccessible. This ability to adapt will continue into adulthood: narcissists often do not consciously experience their own feelings, such as anger, fear or envy. Therefore it is also difficult for them to rely on their own feelings. They have difficulty knowing their own needs and in extreme cases are highly alienated from themselves. The person concerned is dependent on his or her social environment in that it serves as a mirror for his or her own value and greatness. The counterpart is desired to turn to her or him, admire her, mirror her, acknowledge her, and thus fulfil the early narcissistic needs.
Just a side note: In addition to the individual perspective, scientists at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin have investigated the influence of social orientation on the development of narcissism. They were able to show that people who grew up in the western, individualistic-capitalist states have higher narcissism values than people who grew up in the former GDR and thus in a socialist-collectivist society. Click here to learn more.
Healthy vs. pathological narcissism
Every person has narcissistic parts. These help us not to feel permanently inferior. They also mean that we can mobilize enormous forces to show that we can keep up, deserve recognition and sometimes perhaps also admiration. Without these parts, we might not be so committed to our projects, which are particularly close to our hearts. Maybe we wouldn’t be so innovative and maybe we wouldn’t dare to present our ideas to the whole department. In these moments we need a healthy dose of overconfidence and the promised recognition of superiors and colleagues.
Although the line between healthy and pathological narcissism is fluid, some striking features can be identified. In contrast to a healthy narcissist, a pathological narcissist feels very easily offended and tends to devalue other people and their achievements. In addition, the person concerned has a pronounced claim to authority and performance, a tendency towards self-representation and, in extreme cases, tends towards exploitative and manipulative behavior. Even though the pathological narcissist may remain without suffering for a long time or even a lifetime, the environment may suffer considerably from the narcissist’s behavior.
Narcissistic personalities as superiors and colleagues
Productive (healthy) narcissistic parts can thus be very beneficial to the working environment, as these people are often very enthusiastic, action-oriented and have a good ability to assert themselves. This can also have a positive effect on a team that feels inspired and motivated by the narcissistic person’s vision. However, this can become a problem in cases of extreme narcissistic manifestations. Especially when the narcissists’ increased sense of entitlement and lack of empathy is reflected in antisocial and destructive behaviour towards colleagues and staff.
For many narcissistic personalities, the work serves to stabilize their self-esteem, as they can gain much recognition and admiration. Particularly in the case of narcissistic managers, the position of power is often used to get the confirmation of the employees and thus compensate for their own self-doubt and feelings of inferiority. Hereby narcissists find it difficult to think and work in a factual and solution-oriented way. Time and again, the relationship process comes into focus: Do I get the recognition I deserve from my colleagues or employees? Does my counterpart have a different opinion and criticize me?
When dealing with narcissistic superiors and colleagues, communication is crucial. It is usually helpful to focus communication on the factual level and to persistently return to this level again and again. Communication training and the acquisition of central conflict management skills can be helpful here. Sometimes the individual network of relationships with the supervisor or employee is very complex. In this case, dealing with the narcissistic person can also become the focus of an individual coaching process.
Please feel very welcome to contact us if you need support. We coach in our premises in Berlin-Mitte or via video.
Psychologist (B.Sc., M.Sc.) Leonie Derwahl