narcissist woman looking in the mirror

The original version of this article was first published in The Guardian.

They may seem grandiose, but some narcissists are just compensating for their deep-set insecurities. Others are out-and-out psychopaths.

Name: Narcissism.

Age: It was the Greeks who named it, with the myth of Narcissus – the beautiful youth so in love with his own reflection that it killed him. The Roman poet Ovid produced the Technicolor version of this cautionary tale of self-love.

Appearance: Gorgeous, of course.

And why, pray, is it in the news? Something to do with Boris Johnson? I do hope you are not suggesting our esteemed PM is a narcissist. No, it is something far more surprising: a new academic study suggests narcissism is born not of self-love but of self-loathing.

You’re joking. No, this is not a Volkswagen-style early April fool. Narcissists are misunderstood, according to a new report by a group of psychologists at New York University, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

I don’t think my copy has arrived yet, so you had better summarise the findings. “Narcissism is better understood as a compensatory adaptation to overcome and cover up negative self-worth, instead of genuine grandiosity and grandeur.”

You mean we should feel sorry for narcissists? Exactly. They don’t believe all that self-boosting stuff. It’s a defence mechanism. “Narcissists appear to harbour deep-seated insecurities,” writes Pascal Wallisch, one of the co-authors of the study, on his blog. “If triggered by challenges to self-worth, they tend to cope by flexing.”

Flexing? Wallisch describes it as “performative self-elevation”. The study developed the Flex scale “designed to probe insecurity-driven self-conceptualisations that … lead to self-elevating tendencies”. Pretending you are more important or more successful than you are, in other words.

How was the study carried out? By asking more than 300 students to fill in a questionnaire about themselves. The questions were designed to separate the troubled “narcissists” (self-boosting boasters) from the out-and-out psychopaths.

So the authors accept that not everyone with narcissistic personality disorder is just crying out for help. I’m impressed you know the lingo. Traditionally, narcissists have been divided into “grandiose” narcissists and “vulnerable” narcissists.

What’s the difference? Grandiose narcissists believe what they’re saying; vulnerable narcissists don’t.

A useful distinction. Wallisch and his fellow authors don’t think so. They prefer to classify grandiose narcissists as psychopaths seeking power and vulnerable narcissists as “narcissists proper” who are seeking status.

Is the recalibration helpful? They are seeking a tighter definition of narcissism, so it can be treated rather than just mocked (or perhaps feared). “Something must have caused psychological wounds, probably in childhood,” says Wallisch, of narcissists. “Maybe it is time to heal those wounds in a more positive and sustainable way.”

Absolutely not to be confused with: The empath in 10 Downing Street.

Don’t say: “What a fantastic pass notes. I don’t know how I do it day in, day out. Brilliant … don’t you think?”

Do say: “I can’t decide if you’re a narcissist or a full-blown psychopath.”

The original version of this article was first published in The Guardian.

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