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Narcissism: Behind the Mask
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All human beings are social creatures and need social interaction, feedback, and validation of their worth. The emotionally mature person doesn't need to go hunting for these; they gain self-esteem naturally from their daily life, especially from their work and from stable relationships. The emotionally immature or neurotic person, however, has a low level of self-esteem and therefore often feels inferior. This can lead to neurosis, paranoia and narcissism.
Narcissists are surprisingly common in the workplace, often as managers.
When asked how many business leaders are well adjusted individuals, Manfred Kets de Vries, an internationally recognised expert on leadership and organizational behaviour, replied, "You can argue that 20 per cent of the general population is relatively healthy; 20 per cent is relatively sick; and the other 60 per cent, who all suffer from 'neurotic misery', somewhere in the middle. That applies to most people I meet."1
Alfred Adler (psychologist) believed that feeling inferior is a neurosis. The neurotic person becomes insecure, indecisive, compliant, and so on. He begins to rely on people to carry him along, even manipulating them into supporting him. To counter these feelings of insecurity, some will spend a large proportion of their lives creating situations in which they become the centre of attention.
Another way that people respond to feeling inferior is to develop a superiority complex. This involves covering up their feeling of inferiority by pretending to be superior. If you feel small, one way to feel big is to make others feel smaller! Bullies operate this way. Other examples are those that put others down for their gender, race, ethnic origins, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, weight, height, etc.
A neurotic person may also suffer from paranoia. A 'paranoid personality disorder' is a pattern of pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others such that their motives are interpreted as malevolent. An inability to trust, doubts about the loyalty of others, distortion and fabrication, misinterpretation, and bearing grudges unnecessarily are hallmarks of the disorder. Pathological envy, instinctive aggressive counter-attack the need to control others, and the gathering of trivial or circumstantial 'evidence' to support their envious beliefs also feature.
A paranoid person may also be a narcissist. The need for attention is paramount to the person with 'narcissistic personality disorder' and they will do anything to obtain that attention.
There are differences between narcissistic men and narcissistic women. Male narcissists in particular are characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity and self-importance, need for admiration, and lack of empathy. They overestimate their abilities and inflate their accomplishments, often appearing boastful and pretentious, whilst correspondingly underestimating and devaluing the achievements and accomplishments of others.2 Pathological narcissism is a result of faulty self-development and results in the maladaptive use of interpersonal relations to promote self expression.3
The narcissist is hungry for 'narcissistic supply'. Even his paranoia is a 'grandiose' one. Through it, he proves to himself that he is sufficiently important, interesting, and enough of a threat to be threatened back, to have people conspire and worry over him, in other words: to be the subject of incessant attention. This narcissistic supply needs constant feeding. He sees enemies everywhere (mainly in his mind) and has delusions of grandeur. He continually tries to sound important; and important men deserve important enemies. The narcissist believes he has much greater power than he really possesses. Such 'power' would look misplaced and abnormal without opponents. The victories that the narcissist scores over his (mostly imagined) enemies serve to emphasize his superiority.4
However, the narcissist is not alone. He needs a codependent partner. The partner will be a follower, not a leader, and a provider of narcissistic supply. Although the narcissist inflicts mental cruelty and humiliation on his partner, the two of them support each other's neurotic behaviour. The partner usually craves and encourages his narcissistic friend's paranoid, or even threatening, attention. He becomes an accommodating and understanding caring for whims and mood swings of the narcissist, eventually learning to adapt to the narcissist's world view. His behaviour and reactive patterns tend to reinforce the narcissist's behaviour. The narcissist uses this partner as an anchor, a 'trusted sidekick', and feels that this sidekick is an extension of himself.5
The narcissist's continual need for attention tends to impact on his work and becomes obvious to his work colleagues, who naturally look to the narcissist's codependent partner to do something about it. This allows the partner to assume a superior position. The partner can treat the narcissist as his 'patient' who is in need of care. This presumed status endows the partner with authority and provides him with a way to distance himself from his own emotions (and from the narcissist's). The partner is permanently enmeshed in a battle to prove himself as worthwhile (both to the ever critical and humiliating narcissist and to himself).6
The nature of the narcissist is such that he will not be satisfied until he has manipulated himself to the top of the organization. But a narcissistic leader is not capable of putting the organization's needs before his own. The result is likely to be a 'lifestyle' organization at best.
To understand more about neurotic, paranoid and narcissistic people, read Narcissism: Behind the Mask.1 Kets de Vries, M. (2003), The dark side of leadership, Business Strategy Review, Autumn 2003, Vol. 14, Iss. 3. p. 26.
2, 4 Vaknin, S. (1999), Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, Narcissus Publications, Skopje.
3 Robbins, S. B. and Dupont, P. (1992), Narcissistic Needs of the Self and Perceptions of Interpersonal Behaviour, Journal of Counseling Psychology, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 462-467.
5, 6 Maccoby, M. (2000), Narcissistic leaders: the incredible pros, the inevitable cons, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2000, p. 75.