Wednesday, April 04, 2007

More questions about narcissism

A psychologist explains how to help a child develop self-worth while still caring about others.

By Sarah Lindner
Saturday, March 31, 2007

To learn more about narcissism, we turned to Austin psychologist Jan Ford Mustin, clinical director of the [Peak Performance Institute]( and author of "Removing Your Roadblocks to Love, Happiness and Success" ($19.50, Metadigm Publishing). Mustin answered our questions in an e-mail interview. What is the difference between narcissism and healthy self-esteem?

Jan Ford Mustin: Healthy self-esteem is subjective and realistic self-approval and self-respect, while narcissism is an inordinate fascination with oneself, excessive self-love and vanity.

The healthy self-esteem of young children is based on the love and acceptance of significant others. As we mature, this healthy self-regard is balanced and calibrated by evaluating oneself against external criteria such as societal standards, relationships with others and personal and professional achievements.

An individual with healthy self-esteem has a high level of respect for others as well as him or herself and maintains a strong sense of what is called internal locus of control or self-reference. This individual has internalized healthy values that balance love of self with a well-developed concern for the welfare of others known as social interest or altruism.

The individual who is narcissistic, on the other hand, has an inordinate fascination with him or herself that hides an extremely fragile self-esteem. Narcissists feel superior to everyone else and yet desperately need others to validate their own worth. While the individual with high self-esteem feels an inner security and self-acceptance while they strive to be creative, productive and achieve excellence, the narcissist, by contrast, is more-self-centered, tends to evaluate himself by external standards with an external locus of control and tends towards feelings of insecurity.

High self-esteem fosters a sense of mutual respect and cooperation while narcissism engenders unhealthy levels of competition based on the need to be better than someone else. The narcissist is rarely considered a team player, while the individual with high self-esteem is often the most valuable player, expressing sincere gratitude for the support from family and mentors, essentially being humble in moments of greatness and giving all the credit to others. What are some ways that narcissism can damage someone's life?

Jan Ford Mustin: Narcissism is an unrealistic relationship with oneself and others and as such creates elevations in stress, both internal and interpersonal.

The narcissist tends to be more reactive to external factors than is the person with high self-esteem, and therefore, is likely to have more emotional and stress-related health problems throughout life.

Because the narcissist bases self-approval on comparisons with other people, there is an absence of an inner strength of acceptance of actual limitations or shortcomings. This can make it more challenging to adjust gracefully to many of life's challenges and disappointments.

The person with an inflated sense of self-importance can suffer interpersonally, as their need to dominate or control others can lead to unhealthy relationships and stressful situations.

According to a recent Psychology Today article, the narcissistic individual might experience elevated reactivity and might be predisposed to a variety of related disorders.

Studies show that there are some correlations with such problems as substance abuse, eating disorders, erratic behavior, and most frequently unstable relationships.

The narcissist is likely to suffer from marital problems as well as job-and career-related dysfunction. With this element of life-stressor, they might be more prone than the average individual to experience a variety of stress-related health problems.

Individuals with extreme narcissism might tend to be especially image-conscious, which might influence their self-assessment of their body weight, attractiveness and other forms of outward appearance, including their clothing.

They might be more prone than some to body-dysmorphic issues, always feeling that they must alter something about themselves in order to compete more successfully against an ever-changing external standard of perfection. How can parents raise kids who both have a sense of self-worth and who show respect and compassion for others?

Jan Ford Mustin: Parents should provide an optimum mixture of acceptance, affection, rational limits and controls and high expectations.

Clinicians and theoreticians believe that there might be a genetic predisposition among children who are narcissistic, but agree that overly permissive parents who lavish their children with unmerited praise also might contribute a child's narcissism or inflated sense of self-importance.

Today, parents focus too much on praising and flattering their children and shy away from the caring and authoritative parenting that is needed to prevent narcissistic tendencies. Children require experiences while growing up that provide meaningful challenge and opportunities for real effort.

It is in the best interest of the child to be encouraged and guided by parents and other authority figures to engage in cooperative and collaborative play and projects with their peers.

Activities such as team sports, scouting, band, and community-related volunteer projects are cornerstones for building healthy self-esteem and a spirit of caring about others.

While children and teens require a certain element of unstructured time for relaxation and autonomous entertainment, a balance of responsibility and accountability helps them develop a healthy sense of relationship with others.

Within the family itself, children and teens should be encouraged to contribute by helping with chores and family-related responsibilities, such as caring for pets and other siblings. Parents play a key role in providing their children with the opportunities as well as the incentives to engage in activities that build healthy self-esteem. How can a narcissistic person start to change his or her behavior?

Jan Ford Mustin: By definition, the narcissistic individual is fascinated by self-knowledge and thrives on information about how he or she feels. Also a defining characteristic of a narcissist is an inability and unwillingness to find fault with him or herself and to blame others for their failures.

Therefore, typically the narcissist is likely to be very sensitive to criticism and therefore will seek safe, nonthreatening sources of self-knowledge.

Any form of direct feedback regarding their personality might be perceived as rejection or diminution and, therefore rejected outright.

Quite often, the initial step toward self-knowledge and subsequent improvement in self-awareness is that of information gathering. This might take the form of exploration of interpersonal topics on the Internet, books or even audio books.

Therefore, confronting a narcissistic person and succeeding in getting them to admit they need help is usually very challenging. Their self-esteem is very fragile and they are likely to experience the challenge as what is known as a narcissistic injury.

Customarily, the narcissistic individual seeks help only if encountering a life crisis or extremely elevated situational stress and is able to conceptualize therapy or counseling as a form of problem solving.

The narcissist is able to tolerate professional input best if it is offered from a neutral and nonjudgmental perspective and from a professional perceived as both expert and respectful, always fostering a sense of curiosity rather than evaluation.

This type of benevolent and practical counseling and therapy provide a mirror for the individual in which to observe both desirable and undesirable characteristics. Frequently, supportive psychotherapy is a starting point for change, as the narcissistic individual seeks both approval and gentle redirection, while always maintaining a sense of control.

As with all human characteristics and conditions, narcissism might be measured on a continuum and certain degrees of narcissism are healthy components to the self-assured and competent person. If an individual is highly narcissistic and if this condition adversely affects their personal and professional relationships, this condition might constitute a clinical disorder and they will most likely require intensive therapy. How can you respond if someone close to you is narcissistic?

Jan Ford Mustin: If you are in a relationship with someone who is narcissistic, you might consider consulting a professional to assist you with an intervention.

A first step might be to employ a trained individual to be a sounding board for you, since you might doubt your own perceptions and might feel that the interpersonal challenges you experience with the narcissist is "all your fault."

Narcissists often find themselves in relationships with persons who lack a sense of grandiosity or self-importance, someone they can dominate or control.

Since Narcissists often construct their identity based on external or false premises, they might feel empty inside and confused about their relationships with others.

Since they tend to have very little or no empathy, it is unlikely that they will be sensitive to the interpersonal stress or pain that they may cause, and therefore, are unlikely to seek professional help.

When you've built a life on falsehoods, it's hard to grapple with questions that everyone faces, like the meaning of life. The needle's stuck on "I'm wonderful," and your personality doesn't allow you to grow — to change your behavior or attitudes in response to life's challenges.

For further reading:

[Psychology Today](


[Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting](