Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Narcissistic Character

By Beth Terrell

The personality disorder called narcissism takes its name from the ancient story of Narcissus, a young man of staggering beauty whose arrogant dismissal of all his suitors resulted in heartache. In the Roman version, by Ovid, the nymph Echo grieves her life away for him, pining away until only her voice remained. One heartbroken maiden prayed that Narcissus should one day learn the pain of unrequited love, and the avenging goddess Nemesis granted the prayer by placing a deep pool in the young man's path. He gazed into it and saw his reflection, with which he immediately fell in love. Narcissus wasted away for love of the beautiful boy in the pool, and eventually died, still pining for his own reflection. It is said that he still stares longingly at his own image in the River Styx.

The narcissistic personality can be an interesting character in fiction. The disorder is related to antisocial, histrionic, and borderline personality disorders and is characterized by dramatic, emotional behavior. Narcissists feel superior to others and, like the psychopath, lack empathy. However, the narcissist's inflated sense of self-importance covers a very fragile sense of self-esteem. The narcissist has a deep need to for the admiration of others and is exceptionally sensitive to even the slightest criticism.

Narcissists expect a constant stream of praise and admiration and, to achieve this, may exaggerate their talents and accomplishments. They're often jealous of others and believe others are jealous of them. They value themselves far more than they value others and often belittle others in an attempt to make themselves seem better or more important. Easily hurt and susceptible to feelings of rejection, they may become enraged if they don't receive the attention and admiration they feel they're due. They have a strong sense of entitlement.

Although the narcissistic ingenue is a literary stereotype, the disorder is actually more common in men than in women. Even so, it's a relatively rare disorder, believed to affect less than one percent of the population of the U.S. (I wasn't able to find statistics on its comparative rarity in other populations). No one knows what causes the disorder, but it is probably, like most personality disorders, the result of a complex interplay between neurological and environmental factors. Some believe there is a correlation between narcissism and a dysfunctional childhood, with extremely high parental expectations, extreme pampering or "spoiling", abuse, or neglect as possible contributors.

The Mayo Clinic lists the following as possible risk factors for narcissism:

1) Overly sensitive as a child
2) Overindulged and overvalued by parents
3) Given excessive admiration without realistic feedback to balance it
4) Given unpredictable or unreliable caregiving by parents
5) Severe emotional abuse in childhood
6)Being praised for exceptional looks or talents by adults
7) Learning manipulative behavior from adults

Narcissism is difficult to treat, in part because narcissists resist the idea that something may be "wrong" with them. However, the disorder has a negative effect on many facets of the narcissist's life. They have trouble establishing and maintaining relationships, and people often don't want to be around them. This makes them unhappy and confused and can lead to complications such as substance abuse, depression, and suicidal behaviors.

It's easy to see how a narcissistic character could make an interesting antagonist. It would be more difficult to incorporate the disorder in a protagonist, though it might be an interesting challenge, at least for the duration of a short story. Agatha Christie may have come close with Hercule Poirot, but while Poirot had the sense of superiority, in my opinion, he lacked many of the less attractive traits of the true narcissist.

How about you? Anyone out there have a good example of a narcissist in literature?

9 comments:

Jean Henry Mead said...

Good post, Beth. I can think of a number of world leaders who must have been narcissistic, including Napolean and Adolph Hitler.

Mark W. Danielson said...

I think I've flown with some of those characters, Beth. You'd be amazed at how many characters are inspired by my co-workers.

Beth Terrell said...

Hmm. Mark, does that mean next time I fly the friendly skies I should compliment my pilot and co-pilot effusively?

Jean, I think you're right!

Ben Small said...

I thought the same thing, Beth. :<)

Vincit said...

Your post sent me to Barlow and Durand's Abnormal Psychology, 5th Edition, (455-457). What you say matches up well with their description, and the DSM-IV-TR, table 12-9. Cognitive therapy focuses on "their grandiosity, their hypersensitivity to evaluation, and their lack of empathy toward others." The text quotes Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (1978): "this personality disorder is increasing in prevalence in most Western societies, primarily as a consequence of large-scale social changes, including greater emphasis on short-term hedonism, individualism, competitiveness, and success" (456).
I see some of this disorder in Maggie, but that's not the whole picture. I think if Maggie were truly a narcissist, she would abandon Athena to Central State and move on. Of course, you know it's Athena who tells Maggie to get lost.

Beth Terrell said...

Interesting idea, Vincit.

I never saw Maggie as a narcissist. Although she's selfish in many ways, she's more idealistic and--at least in some ways--altruistic--than a narcissist would be.

I saw her as being more misguided and stubborn than mentally ill.

Chester Campbell said...

If you guys don't stop talking about me in such glowing terms, I may become a narcissist.

Vincit said...

Thanks for the feedback, Beth. I do, however, see Athena as a narcissist.

Beth Terrell said...

Vincit, so do I (see Athena as a narcissist).

Chester, not much danger of you becoming one. Humility is only one of your many endearing qualities.