Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Rethinking What We Know

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Rethinking What We Know

Surprisingly, to the eyes of many experts, DSM-5 better captures the essence of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) than previous versions did. Many clinicians (myself included) were dissatisfied with the descriptions of NPD in earlier versions of DSM. Persons with NPD are aggressive and boastful, overrate their performance, and blame others for their setbacks; current editions of DSM portray them as arrogant, entitled, exploitative, embedded in fantasies of grandeur, self-centered, and charming but emotionally unavailable. This portrayal of persons with NPD conveys only a minimal sense of their self-experience and misses their complexity.

Prototypical persons with NPD present with many interpersonal problems and comorbid disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, with consequent increases in risk of suicide, alcohol and substance abuse, and eating disorders.1,2 Romantic relationships are typically shallow, and narcissistic persons build and maintain them with difficulty. Conflicts at work are the rule rather than the exception, as are problems with commitment when faced with negative feedback. As these persons get older, mood disorders can worsen because of dissatisfaction with their personal and professional lives.1

Characteristics of NPD

The draft of DSM-5 gives hints of what persons with NPD experience and, most importantly, provides a snapshot of a complex set of their self-experiences and disturbed mental processes. This description, though it may not be complete, is consistent with much of what we know from clinical experience and personality research about both NPD and narcissistic traits in the general population. An inherent problem of NPD is a disturbed internalized representation of self and others.

Self-states and self-other schemas

Feelings of grandiosity and fantasies of power and success are certainly important but are not the core theme in a narcissistic stream of consciousness. The DSM-5 prototype notes how self-appraisal can swing from hypervalued to self-derogation along with fluctuations in self-esteem. This is consistent with the idea that nuclear narcissistic states are not lim-ited to “being the one who sets people’s standards for the year to come,” as the disdainful protagonist of The Devil Wears Prada loved to say.

NPD manifests as anger triggered by feelings of social rejection and tendencies to derogate those who give negative feedback. Persons with NPD often feel hampered in pursuing goals and blame others for being inept, incompetent, or hostile. States in which the self-image is extremely negative are important but are so hard to bear that fighting with others and blaming them for any personal flaws is a more suitable defensive maneuver. When shortcomings are impossible to deny (eg, being fired from work, breaking affective bonds), persons with NPD are likely to become depressed; as they age, the risk of suicide increases. Following the lead of the psychoanalysts Kohut 3 and Modell,4 states of emptiness, emotional numbing, and devitalization are now included in NPD models. Such states are quintessential to the disorder, but they are not included in the current DSM-5 prototype and have been overlooked by researchers. Other prominent narcissistic states include an inability to forgive and feelings of shame, guilt, and envy at others’ successes.

In persons with NPD, self-experience patterns coalesce into self-other relational schemas: the dominant motives are concerns with social rank/antagonism, and the need to be admired and recognized by others as being special; the dominant image is of an “other” person unwilling to provide attention. The main schema is the “self” who desires to be recognized or admired and the “other” who is dominant and critical. In one schema, the self reacts with overt antagonism or by resorting to a metaphorical ivory tower.5 Another prominent schema is the self that needs attention while the other rejects and again criticizes the self, which, in turn, steers the self to compulsive self-soothing and denial of attachment needs.5,6 In general, such persons spend much time ruminating about issues of antagonism/social rank and avoid forming or thinking about attachments, thus concealing their vulnerable self. Empirical support has been found for the possibility that patients with NPD or narcissistic traits tend to seek self-enhancement, to overreact when they perceive others are setting limits, and to self-soothe.7

The development of NPD

There is no consensus on the causes of NPD, although lack of parental empathy toward a child’s developmental needs may bear some responsibility. In the context of disturbed attachment, parents may fail to appropriately recognize, name, and regulate the child’s emotions, particularly in cases of heightened arousal.8 The developing child is therefore left with intense affects that receive no appropriate recognition or appropriate responses, which leads to affect dysregulation. In children, with their basic needs unmet, attachment becomes an issue; this translates to being attachment-avoidant in adulthood yet, at the same time, constantly striving for attention and admiration.

Another trigger for NPD may be that the child is raised in a family where status and success are of utmost importance and only qualities that lead to sustaining a grandiose self-image are valued while other behaviors are disregarded or punished. Another possibility is that overt grandiosity is a reaction to slights and humiliation, a sort of armor used to avoid subjugation.

Other factors, such as an externalizing personality and the role of culture (the narcissistic society) in paving the way to narcissism, should also be explored. Although studies on causation are scant, Tracy and colleagues9 summarize some recent findings in which parenting styles, such as mixtures of overt praise and coldness, lack of supervision, corporal punishment, and authoritarian parenting, predicted future narcissism.

What is already known about narcissistic personality disorder?

? Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is characterized by complex self-experiences, including grandiosity, anger, self-derogation, and emptiness or apathy. Lack of empathy is a feature of the disorder. Frequently, there are impaired romantic and professional outcomes as well as co-occurring disorders.

What new information does this article provide?

? Impaired ability to recognize inner states is a feature of the disorder. Evidence for affective but not cognitive empathy is presented. An agency deficit is a core characteristic of the disorder, with typical oscillations between diminished agency and hyperagentic behavior. Structured options for psychotherapy are succintly offered.

What are the implications for psychiatric practice?

? Persons with NPD are amenable to treatment. Understanding that underlying feelings of vulnerability, impaired self-reflection, and diminished agency are core features of the disorder may lead to refined psychological treatments, keep these persons in therapy longer, and promote structural personality change. The need for testing the effectiveness of manualized treatments for NPD is called for.


Regulatory processes

NPD features unrelenting standards for maintaining a sense of self-worth and personal goals valuable enough to be pursued. As a result, narcissism seems to include perfectionism as a trait and, after any accomplishment, the target is usually raised even higher, which results in never-ending dissatisfaction.5 Perfectionist standards are also set for others, which leads the narcissist to easily derogate others for not living up to his expectations. Other strategies for affect and interpersonal regulation are blaming others, withdrawing from relationships, adopting controlling and domineering strategies when facing problems and conflicts, and typically self-enhancing when facing others’ expected feedback.


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