By Robin Roberts
What do Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, Charlie Sheen, Kim Jong Il, and the blowhard in the next cubicle have in common? They’re all narcissists, to varying degrees (and there are many degrees). They’re drunk on an over-inflated sense of self, have an insatiable need for adoration and validation, and have little patience or empathy for others. Narcissistic celebrities and co-workers can be annoying; those in positions of power can be dangerous.
A healthy self-esteem, on the other hand, is vital to well-being and success. Dr. Del Paulhus, professor of psychiatry at UBC, defines self-esteem simply as self-acceptance. “We all have our problems, our foibles,” he says. “People with high self-esteem are willing to accept that. Narcissism, on the other hand, is more about being better than others; thinking of yourself as abnormally great. Bragging, arrogance, and aggressiveness when others disagree with you are characteristics of a narcissist. That is Donald Trump to a T.”
It’s worth noting, perhaps while squirming, that in an intelligence study conducted 20 years ago, Dr. Paulhus says Canadians ranked Trump as one of the smartest people in the world. You can only theorize about the results of a similar study taken today.
As obnoxious as they can be, Dr. Paulhus says many narcissists get along just fine in society. In fact, some of their traits are desirable in certain jobs, such as sales. “Take Steve Jobs, creator of Apple, for example. Nobody in the world believed in his product but he disagreed with the entire world and he was right. Eventually he got fired by his own people, so that part of the job he didn’t do so well. But in pushing a product that needs someone to be enthusiastic and positive, he was the man to do that. He was in the right place at the right time with the right characteristics. He just rubbed people the wrong way.”
Narcissists are often eventually shunned because people quickly catch on to them. “Sometimes they can’t keep a job, their family turns against them, they don’t have any friends anymore,” says Dr. Paulhus. “There may be two or three people who are part of the notion that ‘everybody’s stupid except you and me’, so they can keep friends and family in that way. But people outside that group have less status and therefore they can mistreat them.” In the extreme, “Some people might get themselves killed in a street gang. Others may become president.”
Dr. Michael Sheppard, Ph.D, R.Psych., with the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Centre of Vancouver, which treats borderline personality disorder, says to more accurately diagnose whether someone like Donald Trump is or isn’t a narcissist he’d need to know more about his personality patterns. “Behaviours or patterns are manifested in a bunch of different contexts over a fairly long period; it has to be characteristic of the person. In a two-hour assessment interview it’s hard to get . . . an idea of what that person has been like for years. I don’t know what Donald Trump is like at home. He might totally be acting [in public]. But he certainly appears to be low on empathy, he doesn’t seem to have much time or patience for anyone who disagrees with him.”
Dr. Paulhus says there’s usually a genetic component to narcissism, while Dr. Sheppard says genetics and environment and how they interact will determine whether or not you become a narcissist. That’s essentially what Dr. Paulhus calls “acquired narcissism”, which infects celebrities like Kardashian and Sheen. “They get so many people telling them how great they are they come to believe it,” he says. “There’s usually a kernel of truth, something they have to brag about, whether it’s their intelligence, their attractiveness, being an athlete — something they’ve built into an entire identity. Even when that becomes less important, later on in life, perhaps, they still have the sense that they’re superior to others. You can’t really help it when you’re getting a thousand people a day telling you how wonderful you are. It becomes the truth.”
Some studies have indicated that narcissism is simply a cover, or an over-compensation, for feelings of insecurity, inferiority or inadequacy. Dr. Paulhus isn’t so sure. “A lot of the research in the last 20 or 30 years has suggested that some of them aren’t really insecure, that they never were insecure, that it’s just an exaggerated confidence in themselves that has paid off. It certainly seems to be paying off for Donald Trump.”
Other studies say social media, over-praising children for skills or talents they don’t really have, and self-entitled millennials, have given rise to narcissism. Dr. Paulhus disagrees. “There are psychologists who argue that narcissism has been growing over the years, but every generation thinks that their children are not listening to them and think too much of themselves. It’s a natural phenomenon that has to happen because parents have a different view than young people do. Young people are trying to find their own voice so they purposefully are not interested in the things their parents are, and they rebel.”
Other forms of narcissism are the result of under-praising, neglect or even abuse of a child, who grows up forever seeking the affirmation he was denied.
Regardless of the type, few narcissists ever seek treatment because, well, why would they? They’re perfect. “If you ask narcissists what they’re like, they’ll probably say they’re pretty awesome, they’re smarter than average, they’re a warm, caring friend. And some of them might be, at least sometimes,” says Dr. Sheppard.
But when their behaviour becomes problematic, for themselves and others, and they’re forced to seek treatment, Dr. Sheppard says, “I work on mindfulness, which has its roots in Zen. [Patients] become more aware of their internal experience and not necessarily run away from the thought that they maybe didn’t say the right thing or maybe someone didn’t like them. Maybe there’s something less than perfect about them. I also focus on practising interpersonal validation, trying to look at the other person’s experience from that person’s perspective. It can be difficult for them because it’s difficult to differentiate validation from praise, in general. And more so when it’s a really sensitive issue, where if you get too close to it, it starts to get painful.”
Meantime, how do you deal with a narcissist in your family, friends, workplace or political arena? Dr. Paulhus suggests you avoid them, but if you can’t, Dr. Sheppard offers some coping strategies. “Working with the facts is always good, and keeping a level tone. And corroboration and context can be really useful, [because] they often distort reality.” In other words, have someone else back you up on the facts so there’s little room to distort. “If you’re in a relationship with a narcissistic person and can’t get out, it would be useful to get help for yourself.”
Or, in the case of presidential frontrunners, move to another country.