Motivation and emotion/Book/2010/Narcissism

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Narcissism and motivation
This page is part of the Motivation and emotion textbook. See also: Guidelines.

Overview[edit | edit source]

When one thinks of narcissism what first comes to mind? For those who are not yet familiar with the term narcissism, it is hoped that this chapter will provide a clear foundation of what it is. Most commonly it may bring to mind someone who is rude and arrogant, selfish and insensitive to the feelings of others around them, a narcissist. It may come as a surprise however, that a certain level of narcissism can in fact be considered healthy. For example, having self-confidence and holding a firm ground with one's values and opinions may be considered by some to be arrogant and rude, however, it does not necessarily make one a pathological narcissist. These traits only become "pathologically" narcissistic. More precisely, a narcissist is an individual who has a pervasive sense of grandiosity expressed via fantasy and behaviour, a need for admiration and a lack of empathy and concern for the needs and feelings of others (American Psychological Association, 2008, p. 736). This chapter will begin with the Greek mythological explanation of narcissism and then moving on to examine the early theories, such as those of Sigmund Freud, Heinz Kohut and more modern definitions, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (The DSM). While further examining how narcissism expresses itself, in both healthy and pathological forms. It may also be beneficial to be aware as to how narcissism may be measured by the use of personality testing. It is hoped that this chapter will provide one with a better understanding of the deeper motivation behind narcissistic behaviour and why it may not be as simple as it first appears to be.

The history and theoretical development of narcissism[edit | edit source]

Greek mythological basis of Narcissism[edit | edit source]

Narcissus & his reflection

The concept of narcissism is believed to have originated in ancient Greece. A number of sources tell the story of Narcissus differently, however, the main elements which are consistent in most sources are as follows. The Greek mythological history of narcissus, as defined by Solomon (1992, pp. 45-6) & Millon, Davis, Millon, Escovar & Meagher (2004, p.282) states that Narcissus was a beautiful young man who was loved by everyone, yet he refused to return that affection which was given to him. However, on glimpsing his own reflection in a pool of water he himself falls in love with it and for days, while pining over what he cannot possess he eventually ends up drowning himself. This story draws attention and awareness to the potentially negative effects of self obsession, disregard for others and how such actions can negatively affect one’s own life and the lives of others. Essentially, for the most part, being self-obsessed and self-centered can ultimately lead to depression, loneliness and social isolation.

Modern theoretical basis of Narcissism[edit | edit source]

Sigmund Freud

Freud[edit | edit source]

Freud's research was and is still considered by some to be controversial and objectionable due to its focus on sex and for being sexist against women. Up until 1914, Freud’s model of the human psyche focused on a conflict between one’s sexual libido and survival instincts/interests of the ego. For example, Freud believed that during early childhood boys had sexual desires toward their mothers and hatred toward the competing male, their fathers. However, this libido threatened the child with castration anxiety and the loss of love from his parents, hence those feelings would then become repressed (Crockatt, 2006). For Freud the term ‘libido’ represented the sexual instinct, while also representing the energy of imaginary regressions, progressions and fixations as a key to explaining human psychology (Shamdasani, 2005).

In 1914 Freud and a number of other psychologists, such as: Carl Jung, Abraham Brill and Sándor Ferenczi, were struck by and puzzled by the phenomenon of psychosis and how some psychotic patients appeared to be trapped, like Narcissus, in a world of their own. This would ultimately lead to a revision of the current psychoanalytic theory and would lead to the development of the concepts of ‘The Id,’ ‘The Ego’ and ‘The Super-ego’ (Crockatt, 2006). Freud’s model of personality was divided into three systems; the id, the ego and the super-ego and defined by varying levels of consciousness. The id was believed to be driven by pleasure and was primarily unconscious, the super-ego was both conscious and unconscious and was responsible for moral and social constraints. The ego being the most conscious system would mediate the conflict between the id, the super-ego and reality (Segrist, 2009). So if one were to have an over functioning superego, it is likely they may be guilt ridden and socially anxious.

Id, Ego and Super-ego
The Id, the Ego and the Super-ego

So how does this apply to narcissism? Libido was seen to be directed toward people in the outside world, that is, it seeks objects which are external to the self. However, Freud now believed that an individual themselves could become an object of their own sexual libido. Essentially, what is being suggested is that when one is in love with another, the lover invests everything into their love (an external object) while feeling themselves to be nothing. However, in a psychotic (narcissistic) state, libido has been so withdraw from external objects and focused onto one’s own ego that the outside world ceases to exist (Crockatt, 2006).

Heinz Kohut[edit | edit source]

Heinz Kohut theories were similar to Freud’s as he also felt that humans were objects of instinct, however, unlike Freud, Kohut deemphasized sexual and aggressive instincts (Banai, Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005). Heinz developed the psychoanalytic theory of “Self Psychology”. At the centre of the theory is the concept of the self, the essence of an individual, their feelings, thoughts, sensations and perceptions of one’s self and the world. Kohut proposed the self as a mental system that organises ones subjective life experiences in relation to their developmental needs. These needs were called “Self-Object” needs, as they sustain one’s self concept and may or may not be satisfied by external objects (Banai et al, 2005). Interestingly, Kohut regarded narcissism as a normal phase of development and critical for a normal and cohesive self, rather than a pathological condition.

A cohesive self, as defined by Kohut (in Banai et al, 2005) was believed to manifest upon three axes:

  1. Grandiosity – An ability to maintain positive self-esteem , healthy ambition, commitment, assertion and accomplishment.
  2. Idealisation – A healthy development of strong goals, ideals and values.
  3. Connectedness – A sense of belongingness and connectedness in feeling that one’s qualities, goals and ideals are understood and accepted by those around them.

Essentially, deficiencies or excesses in these axes would then result in a “disordered self.” Kohut believed that those with a disordered self may overly focus on their shortcomings, becoming highly vulnerable to criticisms and failure leading to negative emotions and feelings of alienation and loneliness. Additionally, to combat these feelings, individuals may create a grandiose and exhibitionist façade, becoming preoccupied with fantasies of power and grossly exaggerate their talents and achievements (Banai et al, 2005).

DSM-IV Definition of a narcissistic personality[edit | edit source]

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (American Psychological Association, 2008, p. 736) defines 'Narcissistic Personality Disorder' as a having a pervasive pattern of grandiosity expressed via fantasy and behaviour, a need for admiration and a lack of empathy and concern for the needs and feelings of others. The DSM (American Psychological Association, 2008, p. 736) states that these patterns of behaviour begin to express themselves in early adulthood, in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five or more of the following criterion:

  1. Grandiose sense of self importance (for example, achievements and talents are exaggerated out of proportion and expects to be praised even if little has actually been achieved).
  2. Obsessive fantasies of superiority, power, brilliance and beauty.
  3. Believes that they can only be under stood by people who are of high status (psychiatrists, lawyers and doctors) and who are 'gifted' and 'unique' like them. They will be quick to devalue those same individuals if they happen to disappoint them.
  4. Require constant admiration. As they are preoccupied with their own performance and how others may judge them and their self esteem low, they will have a constant need for attention and admiration.
  5. Possesses an inflated sense of entitlement. They expect to be catered to and quite often are puzzled or furious when they are not, for example, they do not understand why they have to stand in line as their priorities are much more important than anyone else.
  6. Insensitive to the needs of others, which often results in the exploitation of others. For example, they expect dedication from their employees to their work, not matter what cost or impact it may have on their lives.
  7. Believe that other people are only concerned about their (the narcissists) welfare. Discussing their own needs at length and if others around them display needs or concerns these are seen (by the narcissist) as weaknesses and/or vulnerabilities.
  8. Often envious of others while also believing that others are envious of them. Begrudging others for their achievements as they feel that they were the ones who should have been rewarded instead.
  9. Their personality is often snobbish, disdainful or patronizing toward others. They are quick to complain and create condescending evaluations of people around them.

Narcissism is stated to first occur during adolescents, with 50-75% being male. Although, developing narcissistic traits in early adolescence does not necessarily mean that one will develop narcissistic personality disorder in adult life. The DSM estimates that the prevalence ranges from 2% to 16% in the clinical population and less than 1% in the general population (American Psychological Association, 2008, p. 735).

Expression of narcissism[edit | edit source]

There are multitudes of different forms in which narcissism can express itself. This chapter focuses on healthy narcissism and the most fundamental aspects of pathological narcissism. From the previous discussion it may be hard to imagine that there could be a healthy level of narcissism. However, it would serve one well to be aware that not all of these traits are negative as such, rather they become pathological in their extremes.

Healthy narcissism[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Normal Self Regulation.
Figure Legend

Surprisingly, healthy narcissism could best be interpreted as a means of maintaining a balanced sense of self. That is, as a healthy and positive means of regulating ones self-esteem. Sources that maintain healthy regulation of self-esteem can come from a number of different areas. For example, from the body (health and appearance) from early childhood experiences of positive and secure attachment and an ability to separate and resolve personal needs from dependent needs while still retaining a sense of autonomy (Ronningstam, 2001, p. 104). Clearly, gaining a sense of competency and mastery in an individual’s daily life would provide positive input to one’s self esteem. As Ronningstam (2001, p. 104) states, gratification from activities and/or endeavours can contribute to self-esteem regulation and also to sexual/sensual gratification if they are linked to deep interpersonal relationships with others. While being mindful that this can only operate efficiently if there is a realistic and integrated awareness of one’s positive and negative aspects of the self, operating in harmony to represent the ideal self.

In Figure 1 Ronningstam (2001) details, the positive and negative aspects of the self, as perceived by one’s self and by others. The superego is thought to monitor of ideals and thoughts about what the individual would like to achieve/attain and provides a sense of realism between what one is and what one can realistically achieve. This is based on one’s own self ideals ‘’and’’ external pressure from others. Essentially, one with a ‘’healthy’’ level of narcissism has a realistic ability to perceive the positive and negative traits in themselves and others, while also being able to empathise with others and appreciate their separateness and autonomy.

Pathological narcissism[edit | edit source]

Pathological narcissism essentially fails in all of the above aspects. The aforementioned sources of self-esteem are all deficient and the superego fails to provide the individual with a sense of realism. Rather, what happens is that the superego creates an unrealistic standard of what the self should be, which in turn creates a grandiose perception of what the self actually is. Furthermore, regular sources of self-esteem that come from reciprocal interaction with others (parents and friends) actually get blocked by the rapidly inflating sense of grandiosity. That is, when one is deep within a grandiose sense of self they believe they have already achieved their ideal self. There is nothing more that needs to be achieved, as they are already perfect and any negative aspects of the self are projected on others. In this state no emotion growth can occur, there are no ideals to pursue and no ideal figures to emulate as the narcissist is already perfect (Ronningstam, 2001, pp. 104-5).

In Figure 2 (Ronningstam, 1998) the difference and contrast with Figure 1 is immediately visible. The positive perception of the ‘actual’ self is fused with an ‘ideal’ self and an ideal object. This may sound positive, however, this does not allow for a realistic differentiation between the actual and ideal self. What happens is that this unrealistic perception is projected onto external objects that are used only to acknowledged and confirm the individuals grandiose sense of self. Effectively, a split then occurs between the negative aspects of the self and these are projected onto the external world. Hence, the world of the narcissist consists of devalued others and unstable idealisation of particular people and objects as long as they fit into the grandiose scenario.

Figure 2. Pathological Self Regulation.

Clearly, there is fine line that separates healthy narcissism (self-confidence) from pathological narcissism (grandiosity). Additionally, too much self-confidence, as compared to too little is just as pathological. As Million et al. (2004) states, feelings of incompetence, ineffectiveness, unworthiness and inferiority are can be paralysing and in some cases, seen as a chance to lose or perform poorly. Whereas, an inflated sense of self gives one a false/unrealistic belief in what they are able to accomplish. In Figure 3, Million et al. shows how these extremes of self-worth differ from each other, each at opposite points on the high points of the diagram. It also shows that there is a middle road (healthy balance), where one possess empathy, social concern and interest in the feelings of others and a willingness to accept their role in problems when they occur. Ultimately, this means having the ability to accept both positive and negative points of the self and work constructively with them. If healthy narcissism serves to maintain a balanced self-esteem then perhaps pathological narcissism acts a means of defence.

Figure 3. U-Bend between low, normal and high self regard.

A means of defence[edit | edit source]

Interestingly enough Cramer(1999) defines personality disorders in terms of the ‘maturity’ of the response to challenges and criticism. For example, the lowest (immature) level of defence is splitting and denial. The concept of splitting and denial was first detailed in Figure 2; at a mid-level of maturity is defence via projection, also seen in Figures 1 and 2. At the highest level of maturity is identification and intellectualisation. Essentially, pathological states such as anti-social personality disorder and narcissism, use immature and low level defences. The narcissist will at first attempt to rely on rationalisation, but if this fails will most likely resort to using grandiosity, fantasy, denial and projection in the face of criticism or challenges (Cramer, 1999).

Defensive reactions from narcissists have been stated by Perry & Perry (2004) to occur in reaction to: rejection by others (family and peers), situations involving (realistic) ambition, goal setting and achievement, perception of being thwarted by others, the expression of emotional needs and anger, separation/abandonment and a dominant other.

Hierarchy of Needs[edit | edit source]

It may be worthwhile to consider Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of needs in the expression of narcissism. For example, people living in poverty conditions may have a hard enough time trying to survive let alone have the time behave arrogantly or grandiose. Remembering Maslow's hierarchy of needs: once basic physiological needs, such as water and shelter have been satisfied, esteem and self-actualisation moves into the foreground, as do pathologies such as narcissism (Millon et al, 2004). This would be more likely to occur in societies that value individualism rather than collectivism.

Case study: Willie[edit | edit source]

Willie (Not his real name) in his early 30's was an office assistant working for a small law firm. He had a poor employment history as he never stayed in one job for more than two years and would often go from one job agency to the next. However, your first impression of Willie would not give you such an impression. He would greet you upon arriving in the office, even though he was not the receptionist, behaving very solicitous in offering assistance and coffee and to make yourself comfortable in his office. Additionally, Willie was very talkative, however, the conversation would always get redirected to make him the center of attention. At first his other co-workers were very impressed by this behavior, although it soon turned into annoyance when he began referring to his co-workers as his staff. As time went by he became more controlling in his job, taking jobs that were assigned to others and then failing to complete these tasks. When confronted with these difficulties, he would always blame others first, that is, it was never his fault. It was clear that his self centeredness and controlling nature were at the heart of his insufficiencies. When further confronted, he became explosive and accused his co-workers and employers of being out to get him. Further adding that he had excelled in his performance in his previous jobs, although despite this, his past employers has also be out to get him too. On seeking professional help Willie was diagnosed with major depression and narcissistic personality disorder. Adapted from Durand & Barlow (2006, pp. 457-8).

How is narcissism measured?[edit | edit source]

The most commonly used measure of narcissism is the The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), being used in 77% of all social and personality research regarding narcissism (Widiger, 2010).

Test Yourself: Could you be a Narcissist?

Having gotten to this point of the chapter, this may be a confronting question to ask oneself! But if your interested you can take an NPI quiz here.

Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI)

The NPI is a 54 item self-report inventory, which bases its definition of narcissism on the DSM, measuring both healthy and pathological narcissism as a personality trait (Watson, P.J., Grisham, S.O., Trotter, M.V., & Biderman, M.D. (1984); Shulman, D.G., & Ferguson, G.R. (1988) & Svindseth, Sørebø, Nøttestad, Roaldset, Wallin & Dahl, 2009). Sedikides, Rudich, Gregg, Kumashiro, & Rusbult (2004) and Judge, LePine & Rich (2006) state that researchers have defined narcissism as multifaceted construct which consists of the following components:

  • Autonomy & Self-Sufficiency - Freedom and the ability to engage productively in relevant tasks.
  • Entitlement & Exploitation - A belief that one is skilled at and entitled to manipulate people.
  • Exhibitionism & Vanity - An elevated admiration for oneself and a belief that one is special and unique compared to others.
  • Superiority & Arrogance - A belief that one is better than others and was born to lead.

Additionally, Corry, Merritt, Mrug and Pamp (2008) state that, as NPI scores have positively correlated with traits such as "psychoticism, extraversion, dominance, impulsivity, independence, self esteem and hostility." Adding that due to these findings, the NPI is reliable and has good construct validity for the assessment of narcissism.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

From the early Greek mythology of Narcissus, we begin to get a better idea of what constitutes narcissism. Narcissus was vain, turned away other peoples’ affection with disdain and fell in love with something which was not realistically attainable, his own reflection. Today the foundations of narcissism still reflect these elements. Freud built upon this with psychoanalysis and the theories of the id, the ego and the super-ego. Freud believed that when one was in a narcissistic state, the motivational force of the libido which was usually directed at external objects and people, would instead become so focused onto one’s own ego that the external world would cease to exist (Crockatt, 2006). Essentially, the narcissists sole focus and priority was themselves, with little care for the people around them. As the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (APA, 2008, p. 736) would later come to define, narcissistic personality disorder, as having as a having a pervasive pattern of grandiosity expressed via fantasy and behaviour, a need for admiration and a lack of empathy and concern for the needs and feelings of others. However, before one dismisses someone with narcissistic traits as a rude, arrogant and egotistical person, it would do one well to reflect on the motivation behind why a narcissist behaves the way they do.

Heinz Kohut built upon Freud’s theory of narcissism, however, he believed that narcissism was critical for developing a healthy and cohesive sense of self. For example, grandiosity was involved in building and maintaining positive self-esteem and idealisation was critical for developing ideals and values. Kohut believed it was when these elements became excessive or deficient that narcissism became pathological. We saw that later research, by Ronningstam supported this perception of healthy narcissism protecting self-esteem. Defensive reactions from narcissists occur in reaction to: rejection by others (family and peers), situations involving (realistic) ambition, goal setting and achievement, perception of being thwarted by others, the expression of emotional needs and anger, separation/abandonment and the presence of a dominant other (Perry & Perry, 2004). In order to defend themselves narcissists create an unrealistic concept of what they feel they should be, creating a rapidly inflating sense of grandiosity, which in turn leads them to believing they have become perfect. However, this is a bleak state to be in as in this frame of mind no emotional growth can occur. There are no ideals to pursue and no ideal figures to emulate, the narcissist sees no value in these external objects or figure as they truly believe they are already perfect.


1 Narcissus fell in love with...

Those around him
No one


Freud stated that a narcissists focus was so (internalised/externalised)

that the (internal/external)

world ceased to exist.

3 There is such a thing as healthy narcissism (True/False).

4 Select three narcissistic traits.

Grandiose sense of self importance
Obsessive fantasies of superiority, power, brilliance and beauty
Overwhelming concern for others around them
Possesses an inflated sense of entitlement
Can easily relate to most people
Have a moderate sense of entitlement


Narcissistic traits become pathological in their

6 Select the prominent psychologists discussed in this chapter.

Sigmund Freud
Karl Popper
Heinz Kohut
Tony Stark
Friedrich Nietzsche
Abraham Maslow

7 Those with an over functioning Super-ego may...

Have no control over pleasure seeking behaviours
Feel guilty and socially anxious
Behave inappropriately

8 The most common measure of narcissism is...

Empirical studies
Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI)
Personal report survey

See also

References[edit | edit source]

American Psychiatric Association. (2008). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author. ISBN 0890420254

Banai, E., Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P.R. (2005). "Self-object" needs in Kohut's self-psychology: Links with attachment, self-Cohesion, affect regulation, and adjustment. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 22, 224-260

Corry, N., Merritt, R.D., Mrug, S., & Pamp, B. (2008). The factor structure of the narcissistic personality inventory. Journal of Personality Assessment, 90, 593-600

Cramer, P. (1999). Personality, personality disorders, and defense mechanisms. Journal of Personality, 67, 535-554

Crockatt, P. (2006). Freud's 'on narcissism: an introduction.' Journal of Child Psychology, 32 (1), 4-20

Durand, M.V, & Barlow, D.H. (2006). Essentials of abnormal psychology (4th Edition). Australia: Thomson Wadsworth. ISBN 0495031283

Garcia, C.A. (2003). The superego and its vicissitudes in contemporary society. International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 12, 221-226

Judge, T.A., LePine, J.A., & Rich, B.L. (2006). Loving yourself abundantly: Relationship of the narcissistic personality to self- and other perceptions of workplace deviance, leadership, and task and contextual performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 762-776

Millon, T., Davis, R., Millon, C., Escovar, L., & Meagher, S. (2004). Personality Disorders in Modern Life. USA: Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0471237345

Perry, J.D.C., & Perry, C.J. (2004). Conflicts, defences and the stability of narcissistic personality features. Psychiatry, 67, 310-330

Ronningstam, E.F. (2001). Disorders of Narcissism: Diagnostic, Clinical and Empirical Implications. USA: Jason Aronson. ISBN 0765702592

Sedikides, C., Rudich, E.A., Gregg, A.P., Kumashiro, M., & Rusbult, C. (2004). Are normal narcissists psychologically healthy? Self esteem matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 400-416

Segrist, D.J. (2009). Whats going on in your professors head? Demonstrating the Id, Ego and Super-ego. Teaching of Psychology, 36, 51-4

Shamdasani, S. (2005). Historical Keywords libido. The Lancet, 365, 115

Shulman, D.G., & Ferguson, G.R. (1988). Two methods of assessing narcissism: Comparison of the narcissism projective (N-P) and the narcissistic personality inventory (NPI). Journal of Clinical Psychology, 44, 857-866

Solomon, M.F. (1992). Narcissism and Intimacy: Love and Marriage In An Age of Confusion. USA: Norton & Co, Inc. ISBN 0393309169

Svindseth, M.F., Sørebø, Ø., Nøttestad, J.A., Roaldset, J.O., Wallin J., & Dahl, A.A. (2009). Psychometric examination and normative data for the narcissistic personality inventory 29 item version. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 50, 151-9

Watson, P.J., Grisham, S.O., Trotter, M.V., & Biderman, M.D. (1984). Narcissism and empathy: Validity evidence for the narcissistic personality inventory. Journal of Personality Assessment, 48, 301-5

Widiger, T.A. (2010). Commentaries: In defence of narcissistic personality traits. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 1, 192-194