Are you a narcissist? Unsurprisingly, not many people want to ask themselves this question. As a personality trait, narcissism gets a bad rap. The victim's experience is the primary focus and we tend to view the trait in extremes, such as when someone meets the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
In everyday language, narcissism has a lot to do with our dark sides; with power, grandiosity and entitlement concepts. Nobody wants to see those connections in themselves. But the truth is, we all have elements of narcissism in our environments and personalities. You just might not have realized it yet.
Lawyers are All Raging Narcissists
Sensationalist subheading aside, I suspect there were a lot of narcissists in my former industry, the legal profession. The word comes from the character Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection. In the tale, Echo falls in love with Narcissus and gets pushed away because Narcissus is able to love only himself. At the end of the story, Narcissus tells Echo, "May I die before I give you power over me!"
Like Narcissus, a lot of lawyers are guilty of being inwardly focused and oblivious to the needs of the clients, organizations and justice systems they are supposed to serve. Many are so preoccupied with advancement and achievement that they become quite exploitative in their work style, taking advantage of juniors, support staff and even clients to protect their own position. I certainly wasn't immune from spreading a sense of intellectual superiority at cocktail parties – hijacking conversations and making them about me. I'm not clear if I naturally have narcissistic traits (something that INTJs are often accused of), but I suspect they came with the territory by some strange narcissistic osmosis.
Everyone's a Narcissist
Research by Dr Larry Richard J.D. reveals that the top six personality types found in lawyers are ISTJ (17.8%), ESTJ (10.3%), INTJ (13.1%), ENTP (9.7%), INTP (9.4%) and ENTJ (9.0%); the least common type in lawyers is ESFP at just 0.5%. So far, so very predictable. It would be easy to make an argument that the signature narcissism traits of self confidence, arrogance and insensitivity are common in these types and may help some in legal situations, and a preoccupation with status-seeking means that these types may work extremely hard on their advancement. As a side effect, narcissists tend to be extremely successful.
But I want to break a lance here for all the executives who are almost universally assumed to be narcissistic. It's just too simplistic. Lawyers also need professionalism, courtesy and empathy to win clients, negotiate effectively and gain the respect of other lawyers and the courts. If you cannot behave ethically, you're going to lose your job at a law firm or get disbarred.
And what about other professions that, anecdotally, have a high number of narcissists working in them, like therapy, counselling and social work? If you use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders' classification of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy" then therapy is a remarkable role for a narcissist to find herself in. The patient is required to bare her soul while the therapist chooses whether to empathize, enlighten, guide, chastise or remain silent. It's a powerful, almost omnipotent, position where the therapist is above reproach. You do wonder what type of personality is attracted to a position like that.
Interestingly, the types most likely to work in these professions are ENFP, INFP, ISFP, ENFJ, ESFP and INFJ – the types who are least likely to become lawyers. Narcissism, it seems, goes well beyond a letter or a personality test result.
Narcissism, a Social Construct?
Most internet articles advise you to run for the hills if you're dealing with a narcissist but there's a lack of differentiation here that's harmful. Narcissism is not usually about malignant personality traits. Rather, it's:
- A social phenomenon
- A group-specific behavioral tendency, like the occupational disease of our lawyers and therapists
- And only then an individual personality tendency.
Environments of money, status, power and importance are powerful drivers, and the social aspect of narcissism is interesting. It might be the only explanation for why narcissism has become a modern epidemic as some social scientists suggest. The past few decades have witnessed an enormous shift from a collective, community or family focus to an emphasis on the individual. Wealth, power, fame and celebrity, while assuredly not the secrets to happiness, are prized above all else, and now form the foundation of how we're expected to interact with each other on a daily basis.
The fact is, we're all a bit reality-show exhibitionist when we communicate through the internet. Some will accuse me of showing off by writing this article; you may be accused of "grandiosity or needing admiration" every time you comment or post on social media. Anyone who puts themselves out there must, by definition, suggest ways in which they are special, show an exaggerated sense of self-esteem, and ask for admiration for who they are or what they do or have done. If you run a business, go for job interviews, Tweet, attend performance reviews, use dating apps or promote yourself on LinkedIn, then already you're shaping your environment in a narcissistic way. Wherever there is talk of appreciation and self-worth, there is a lot of narcissism involved.
But there's a difference between healthy and unhealthy narcissism. And that's why it's important to self reflect – for each one of us.
When Does Narcissism Become a Problem?
Narcissism lies on a spectrum from healthy to pathological although it's often hard to figure out where a person lies. Take a look at the following characteristics of narcissism. How far along the pole are you? Do you regard these traits as positive or negative aspects of your behavior or personality?
- Narcissism produces confidence and pride in your genuine achievements but it can also lead to grandiosity and showing off
- It produces a need to be admired so you work hard and achieve great things to protect your competence but may demand excessive approval from others and seek partners who give you status and esteem
- It produces positive competition or a complete disregard of other people's sensitivities
- It allows you to be assertive in leadership situations or you may arrogantly put yourself on a pedestal and persuade yourself that you have more value than others
- It gives you a positive belief in yourself that you can conquer something difficult and make a difference although you are prone to bragging so others won't doubt your alleged superiority
- It strengthens your resilience and self-reliance but only while you're competing and winning; you get angry when you lose
- It leans towards perfectionism which helps you to learn more, be more, do more and make a real success of your life but your gnawing sense of inferiority leaves you fragile and bruised by the slightest failure.
I've read that healthy or good narcissism operates from a place of goodwill towards others whereas unhealthy or bad narcissism operates from a place of ill will. That seems like as good a differentiation as any. We can all be jerks at times: fishing for compliments, being completely preoccupied with our own problems, envying others for what we lack, acting in a completely self-serving manner and protecting our own egos at the expense of someone else. Then we come back to our baseline of being a decent human being and start considering the wants and needs of others.
True narcissists can not do that. There's no real empathy dial for them to turn up. They can not, or will not, be self-reflective to look beyond their own blind spots. They blame others and use them to boost their power. So, while we're all narcissists, we're not all one of those narcissists. Where the tipping point is, is up to you.