With so much confusion around the meaning of the word narcissism, is there any wonder that Narcissistic Personality Disorder was nearly pulled from the last edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM V)?
A Brief History of the Word Narcissism . . .
What is Narcissism?
Back in the days when the word ‘gay’ described happiness, narcissism meant ‘showman-like’ and a narcissistic individual was likely to be in big demand. Liberace and Marylin would each have fit this bill, and (quite rightly) no one saw anything sinister in their sparkling eyes and toothy smiles.
Psychiatrists always look deeper, however (and like relating things to sex), so they defined narcissism as the (very normal and healthy) human tendency to choose a sexual partner that looks similar to ourselves.
Later, when Narcissistic Personality Disorder first appeared in the DSM, it was not a phrase people in decent society were likely to hear. Instead, it was a term you only learned when you set out to seek professional help for a lying and cheating spouse. Narcissism, describing the traits of this disorder, now gave psychologists a more professional term for the behaviour of what 90% of country music songs have traditionally been written about.
Because if you are talking about narcissistic personality disorder, a charming, lying and cheating spouse is really what the word narcissism means.
Next stop on our timeline in the confused history of this word, we meet the psychopath (diagnosed on camera for a TV documentary), who, with too much time on his hands while in jail for securities fraud, decided that Narcissistic Personality Disorder was what he was suffering from. Self-diagnosed, he picked up a PhD as cheap and fast as he could to become the new ‘online expert’ on what he coined “malignant narcissism”. This self-created position would not only produce an income for him but also an easy source of victims when vulnerable codependent women looking for help dealing with their narcissistic husbands eagerly sought his advice.
This man’s lengthy and seductive descriptions of his own twisted and psychopathic mind soon became popular reading, and the term narcissism now began its use by journalists and psychologists alike (deceived by this man’s false credentials) describing the whole gamut of psychopathic behaviour from serial killers to kidnappers and rapists.
Already light years from Liberace and Marylin (the narcissistic showmen), the confusion had set in . . .
People diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and their kin were scared badly by this ‘doctor’s’ writing and came to believe narcissists were much more evil–and their situation much more hopeless–than was likely the case. Our psychopathic pseudo-doc revelled in this fear while holding sway over an army of codependent spouses flocking to his website looking for help. Once there, he convinced many that their lying, cheating partners were plotting and scheming psychopaths out hunting in the woods at night rather than simply avoiding their responsibilities by blaming others for their problems and hanging out in bars. He ran online forums where he played with these women’s emotions and minds, making them emotionally dependent on him while he emotionally and mentally abused them semi-publicly.
Meanwhile, back in the marriage counselling camps, therapists and clients alike – with little to go on about what a narcissistic person looked like – were turning to the DSM to find out more about what this disorder was all about. The description they found was helpful, except that it mostly left out the fact that these people are ‘two-faced’.
The cult classic ‘Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’ could have helped. Its narcissistic captain, Zaphod Beeblebrox, was clearly two-faced; in the TV series version of this epic, this famous narcissist even had two heads!
Meanwhile, those looking to identify a narcissistic character from the DSM were ticking boxes when witnessing arrogant and grandiose behaviour that lacked empathy, and it wasn’t long until some decided narcissism must be caused by a baby being fed too often with a silver spoon.
They did not understand that a true narcissist would only let their haughtiness and arrogance show with their intimates. Hence, unpopular, insecure and pompous types, rather than charming, two-faced controlling manipulators, tended to get branded with the NPD label.
Then along came the TV psychologist, quite rightly warning that we might be breeding narcissism in our society from celebrity worship and a general lack of emotionally mature role models in the media and on TV.
Well, meaning indeed – but soon, every older person with the slightest fear of the younger generation began ranting about Facebook and social media causing narcissism and how irredeemably self-interested all young people have become. As a new trend caused by modern technology, we can only assume that these older people had never been self-centred or immature as teenagers.
Meanwhile, many desperate individuals, when consulting better-educated professionals, are still hearing the term narcissism used to describe the chaos of a home life with an egotistical, two-faced partner who, despite dishing out put-downs and aggression, also makes it nearly impossible to divorce.
Domestic abuse is usually considered something that occurs in poorer suburbs, perpetrated by poorly educated men, as an old-fashioned and brutal means of getting their way. The real story of domestic abuse, however, lies hidden in the question, ‘What is narcissism?’ and knows no social or educational barriers.
Control may be the issue certainly, but insults and put-downs will generally be the weapon of choice. A person with the characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, while certainly causing their family despair, will also cause so much chaos in their own and their family’s lives (while also hiding possible addictions and immoral behaviour) that the abuse can be challenging to pick.
Pity the police called in to investigate domestic disputes because the narcissistic personality will be a professional at playing the victim and often an expert at provoking anger and violence in others to hide their crimes.
In fact, a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder will have a greater than average risk of being injured or killed by a partner who finally decides they have had enough of being lied to, scapegoated, cheated and conned.
Whether the confusion causes NPD to eventually be pulled from the DSM or not, the two-faced, skirt-chasing, back-stabbing, manipulative charmers this disorder describes will hardly be going away.
Words grow and change over time and naturally take on their own life. For the sake of members of dysfunctional families, however, already torn by confusion at the hands of their partner’s two-faced charming/aggressive behaviour, maybe narcissism has become too confusing a word.
Victims of domestic abuse have enough on their plate already, living with a manipulative partner (and the public perception that what they are experiencing must be because of their stupidity that they don’t “just leave”) that the least we can do is clear up the confusion or find a new and better term.