Never leave home without your bad ideas.
If you’ve ever wondered if you’re a narcissist, there’s a simple test. Just answer one easy question: are you a narcissist?
As it turns out, narcissists may be all too happy to answer in the affirmative. This was the finding of a 2014 study that evaluated different tests for narcissism. People who are self-absorbed see little fault in their vanity (and are not ashamed to say so).
For a more rigorous assessment, this 40-question test asks participants to choose between statements like “Compliments embarrass me” and “I like to be complimented.” Sometimes both statements—or neither—can be true. The evaluation is a rough measure of one’s tendency toward pride and entitlement.
Researchers are careful to note that this exam does not test for narcissistic personality disorder. It evaluates a more run-of-the-mill narcissism—the kind of self-aggrandizing tendencies seen in postgame interviews and law school seminars. A high score on this particular assessment doesn’t necessarily mean someone is clinically narcissistic. Narcissism represents a complex with a range of features and applications—several associated behaviors are normal in a healthy person.
The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the clinical handbook for mental health professionals, notes that in order for narcissism to qualify as a personality disorder, one must have both a deep-seated need for approval and a profound lack of empathy. Clinical narcissists often also struggle with intimacy.
A need for approval isn’t problematic on its own. Seeking approval is a natural byproduct of our capacity for self-awareness and a central aspect of what makes us human. When we look in the mirror, we might see a smiling, confident face beaming back. Or, we might fixate on our love handles and feel filled with disappointment. When a dog looks in the mirror, it only sees another dog staring back—dogs are incapable of recognizing their own reflection.
Because we have a sense of self, we also have a sense of self-esteem. A healthy level of self-esteem—what some psychologists call “healthy narcissism”—can make it easier to withstand the slings and arrows life inevitably throws our way. [Editor’s Note: if self-esteem isn’t your strong suit, try the Self-Esteem meditation pack.]
Narcissism can become problematic if the self becomes our sole focus, or we view the people around us as vehicles for validation. The condition may develop during childhood, in response to an overly fawning parent who inflates the child’s ego. Or, it may come as a response to a parent who withholds approval, leading a child to inflate the own ego as a coping mechanism.
If self-esteem morphs into a feeling of superiority, it can interfere with empathy. It can fuel racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry. It can also make it difficult to relate to others or form lasting, meaningful relationships.
Narcissism seems to be growing more prevalent over time. A 2008 study found that the average score of college students on tests of narcissism has risen in recent decades, tracking similar increases in traits associated with narcissism, such as assertiveness and self-esteem.
Read more: Empathy can be taught. Here’s how.
“Standards have shifted, sucking otherwise humble people into the vortex of granite countertops, tricked-out [social media] pages, and plastic surgery,” write psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell in their book, “The Narcissism Epidemic”. “In contrast to the obesity epidemic, which has been widely publicized, Americans have become inured to the incivility, exhibitionism, and celebrity obsession caused by the narcissism epidemic.”
Still, it is possible to treat narcissism. First, it can be useful to identify narcissistic tendencies. Then, we can take steps to navigate feelings of grandiosity and entitlement. Be grateful. Acknowledge your shortcomings. Practice compassion.
The word narcissism comes from Narcissus, a lesser figure in Greek mythology. Narcissus caught sight of himself in a pool one day and, so taken with his own beauty, continued to stare into the water until he withered away and died. Clearly, Narcissus would have done well to splash the water, clear his reflection, look away from the pool, and gaze on someone he admired.
As Freud said: “Whoever loves becomes humble. Those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism.”
Artwork by CHRIS MARKLAND