The tales of Greek and Roman mythology that have been passed down throughout the centuries still serve as powerful lessons for us today. In Greek mythology, Echo, a forest nymph, falls in love with the egocentric youth Narcissus. When he shows clear signs of rejecting her, she struggles through an attachment system which anxiously seeks him, despite his unrequited love. She engages in the masochistic task of echoing back to him all that he says. For her, echoing is painful and humiliating in this context since Narcissus sadistically exploits and rejects hers. All of Echo’s attempts to try to resolve her anxious attachment through an emotionally unavailable character are met with contempt. The story of Narcissus is an allegorical representation and central feature of codependent behaviors in dysfunctional relationships. A codependent giver or highly empathic person may mirror, echo, and compliment another at the expense of their own self-worth and dignity. In the case of egocentric Narcissus, falling in love with his own image was a punishment rendering him incapable of empathic love of another.
Personality Disorders are a complex and controversial topic. It’s important to guard against loosely throwing out terms and labels without the understanding that personality is complex, fluid, and changes throughout developmental life stages. However, personality disorders are stable and debilitating and are often difficult to even identify. Writing about narcissism and borderline personality disorder is in an attempt to educate and encourage examination on the impact they weigh in on our lives. It is not uncommon to come across an individual with a personality disorder as nearly one in ten individuals in the U.S. qualify for the diagnosis. This statistic is higher for those individuals on the sub-clinical trajectory.
We all in some way or another have encountered individuals who have displayed narcissistic traits. Some have been introduced to us through literature, film, and the media. We are inundated by political smear campaigns, spewed by questionable leaders who shroud behind accusations of bullying, adultery, collusion, and treason. In 2017, the movement of #MeToo set the platform for publicly exposing the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault. Culturally, we question the fabric of a society that sacrifices our natural environment and resources in exchange for profit and power.
The book, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, by historian Christopher Lasch, examines the roots and ramifications of the normalization of pathological narcissism in the 20th century. Lasch reasons that post-war America has produced a personality-type consistent with clinical definitions of "pathological narcissism.” On a macro level, narcissism invades entire social macro-systems. As industries and corporations shirk social values and collectivism, the culture of narcissism continues to rise.
Narcissism falls on a continuum from healthy to pathological. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) comes in many varieties with many variables and co-morbidities. Neurotypical individuals may exhibit narcissistic traits yet may not qualify for a clinical diagnosis under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). A healthy sense of narcissism allows us to develop healthy self-love and confidence. Healthy self-love allows for us to appreciate and respect that we have made real achievements in our lives. We also develop the ability to overcome challenges and setbacks. We overcome these obstacles by engaging in mutually empathic relationships with other people.
Narcissism become problematic when an individual’s narcissistic traits move across the continuum and beyond the social construct of what is considered socially, psychologically, and morally acceptable. There are now many differing levels and categories of narcissism. At extreme levels and with further impairment, narcissism can result in a personality disorder (PD) diagnosis. On the narcissism spectrum, you will find sub-clinical narcissism teetering away from the center with a proclivity to lean towards the left or right.
The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality, self and interpersonal functioning, and the presence of pathological personality traits. The Cluster B Personality Disorders (antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder) are marked by a codependent, neurotic need to feed off of the reactions of other people. Cluster B Personality Disorders are stable, maladaptive personality disturbances and can also be considered a cultural condition. Individuals with personality disorders can be described as being highly emotional, dramatic in nature, or erratic. Clinicians and mental health professionals use criteria from the DSM-5 to diagnose individuals.
So are personality disorders born or made? There are two schools of thought about the origin of personality disorders. Etiology is complex and remains unclear despite various theories that have been proposed. These include cultural, evolutionary, Gene X environment, and parenting and developmental models (Cambell and Miller, 2011). Some suggest that there is an Amygdala dysfunction which directly affects emotional regulation and limbic resonance. Without this structural component of our brains, there is no capacity for empathy. Nurture argues that a traumatic childhood, neglect/abuse, or even overindulgent parenting can lead to one becoming narcissistic.
The role of parenting styles in the development of young adult narcissism was investigated in a longitudinal study from Block and Block (1980). They examined parenting and inherited genetic factors in subclinical grandiose narcism. The results showed that parenting styles had a direct effect on the development of healthy narcissism, but the effect on the development of maladaptive narcissism depended on the child’s initial proclivity towards narcissism. The study found overpraised children showed narcissistic traits six months to a year later. BPD is approximately five times more common among people with close biological relatives with BPD.
One of the distinguishing traits of Narcissism from other personality disorders/traits is the individual’s inability to truly feel and exchange feelings of empathy. Rather than having “feelings,” they merely register disconnected “intensities” which gives the impression of someone on the Narcissism spectrum as being emotionally stunted. Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of narcissism is that individuals struggle to understand how their behavior impacts others. Unless they are mandated to attend treatment, most won’t be lined up to embark on a journey of introspection and self discovery with a therapist, especially if they don’t recognize that there is a problem within themselves. Pat MacDonald, author of the paper "Narcissism in the Modern World," shares, “Traditionally, it is very difficult to reverse narcissistic personality disorder. It would take a long time and a lot of work.” Clearly, some may be in denial about their issues, and more still are fully aware of them and even embrace them. Narcissists are not always easily detected and often appear shy, coy, very polite, professional, and courteous. They gain the victims trust by mirroring and projecting the traits of those they wish to emulate.
The narcissist may bring traits of co-dependency into the relationship through demands, defenses, projections, and boundary infractions. Individuals who are highly empathic and/or have borderline tendencies/traits are more likely to engage in relationships with individuals with narcissistic traits and/or NPD disorder. One of the distinguishing traits of Borderline Personality Disorder from other personality disorders/traits is the individual’s anxious/neurotic preoccupation with alleviating their anxious attachment style by seeking empathic emotional validation. Individuals with BPD can feel empathy, however they may struggle with issues of co-dependency as a result of seeking to fill their emotional void through another person.
One symptom common to those with BPD is chronic feelings of emptiness. To counter these feelings, he or she may use sex as a means of trying to fill a vast void. These individuals may protect themselves from rejection/abandonment by acting so agreeable to others, via their mirroring capacity or through engaging in sex as a way to reinforce connectedness. For the narcissist, sexual partners may be characterized as trophies used to enhance his or her self-esteem and self-worth. Rather than building an emotional attachment before engaging in sex, they may simply be seeking pleasure rather than trying to bond and build a relationship. These transgressions set the stage for codependent behaviors and anxious attachment for the borderline personality type.
There is a symbiotic relationship between Narcissus and Echo, and because of it’s predatory relationship, it is one that cannot be sustained long term. A relationship with individuals showing marked narcissistic traits will require others who will provide them with an ongoing narcissistic supply. Individuals with borderline traits/disorder may enter into relationships with a great variety of people, though at the core there is a tendency to choose situations in which unrequited love will be the outcome. For those with NPD, a lack of emotional connectedness and closeness results in a lack of long-term relationships. Both individuals with traits of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) engage in maladaptive behaviors resulting in harmful relationship outcomes.
In the film Listen Up Phillip, a narcissistic writer, Philip, played by Jason Schwartzman is involved in a parasitic relationship with his girlfriend Ashley, played by Elizabeth Moss. The relationship seems unfathomable considering how little he actually cares for her, and yet still needs to harbor the illusion of being humanly connected. Philip enters and exits Ashley’s life throughout the film. On one occasion he suddenly leaves her for several months to focus on writing in the country while casually saying, “I hope this will be good for us, but especially me,” while waltzing out the door. The film shows Ashley's emotional roller coaster in the wake of finally deciding to ban Philip from her life for good. At first averse to the notion of being actually alone, as opposed to figuratively alone, Ashley experiences depression and disinterest in her work. When she finally comes out on the other side of their break-up, which Philip deems merely a temporary separation while he accepts a teaching job at a college upstate, she is stronger than ever and finally able to cut ties with Philip. This may be the most redeeming aspect of the film - the fact that at least one person experiences a metamorphosis.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder describes individuals who consciously feel superior to others (at least this is what they tell themselves). Individuals struggle with a strong discomfort with feeling vulnerable and a lack of empathic connection with others. Narcissists choose their lovers based on whether the person enhances their self-esteem. This ongoing need is referred to as a narcissistic supply. As this need continues, there is little to no incentive to wait to get to know a person better. The things that attract a Narcissist are not strong redeeming character traits or compatibility, but may focus on if a person has high status in their eyes. The experience of loving an individual with NPD can be emotionally traumatic and confusing. Since their real interest in relationships are shallow, they often leave relationships as suddenly as they began them.
Borderline Personality Disorder is a complex disorder and involves many aspects of the human psyche. The poor relationship one has with themselves is mainly due to a combination of their upbringing and interactions with others at an incredibly early age and their genetics. With borderline personality disorder, the individual fears abandonment in close relationships and cycles through an anxious attachment style and extreme emotions. The emotional intensity surrounding this fear can lead to inadvertently enabling narcissistic behaviors in those for whom love, admiration, validation, attention, and empathy are sought. The fear of abandonment is irrational for those with BPD but when they engage in relationships with individuals on the narcissism spectrum they may find these fears to be valid. This is especially so when they form quick strong attachments and resist any information that suggests that they should detach because someone may be an inappropriate mate. The idea of detaching brings up their underlying fears of abandonment, so they find reasons not to leave. Narcissistic and Borderline individuals want different things in relationships. Narcissists want continuous self-esteem enhancement and Borderlines want continuous unconditional love.
If you are in a toxic and co-dependent relationship, and find that you are enabling narcissistic or borderline traits in another, it’s important to start protecting yourself:
- Don’t be quick to be swept away by quick, intense romantic attachments without looking very closely at the other person’s real personality.
- It’s important to be honest with yourself and evaluate if this relationship is mutually empathic. Is there an equal emotional give and take? Does this person see you as their equal and not a source of narcissistic supply or an unhealthy codependency?
- Know who you’re dealing with. Some individuals with personality disorders may react with anger, resentment, or revenge when you confront them. Challenging their narcissistic supply or disagreeing with them may become a narcissistic injury, which may illicit a strong negative reaction.
- It’s important to be confident, and to assertively set clear boundaries.
- Calmly and carefully explain to them how their behaviors and words affect other people.
- Respectfully ask them to put themselves in the place of the other person.
- Help them to see behavioral expectations that should be obvious.
- They are capable of intellectually understanding their behavior outcomes, but this is very difficult for them. It is hard work and requires a firm and serious life commitment and the tenacity to openly discuss insecurities with a partner and therapist on an ongoing basis.
Listen to your intuition and refuse the temptation to overanalyze and diagnose. If you suspect someone is being abusive towards you and you are in a situation that is potentially dangerous, be proactive and take the steps to remove yourself from this relationship. Refer to a mental health provider and other qualified professionals to help you identify and work on changing your own self-defeating behavioral patterns. And in the process of healing ask yourself, what made you put up with the abuse in the first place?
- Alloway, T., Runac, R., Qureshi, M., Kemp, G. Is facebook linked to selfishness? Investigating the relationships among social media use, empathy, and narcissism. Soc. Netw. 2014;3:150–158.
- Association between physiological oscillations in self-esteem, narcissism and internet addiction: A cross-sectional study http://www.psy-journal.com/article/ S0165-1781(17)30425-0/references
- Levine, Amir, and Rachel Heller. Attached: the New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find - and Keep - Love. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.
- Lewis, Thomas, et al. A General Theory of Love. Vintage Books, 2001.
- Bender, L. (Producer), &. Perry, Alex Ross. (12014). Listen Up Philip [Faliro House Productions]. United States.