On narcissism: its history, definition and cause

Published on September 9, 2011


Last weekend while breaking my fast in a fine hotel restaurant, a young Caucasian couple made a very noticeable entrance and sat at a nearby table. Both were at least 6 feet tall (tall by Asian standards), and attractive looking. She wore short shorts and a clinging tank-top, revealing her well tanned bronze skin. He wore a sleeveless shirt so his muscular arms, both of which were covered with eye catching tattoos, were plainly visible. His presentation was topped off with a blond mohawk haircut.

As two waiters rushed to attend to them, I got the feeling they quite enjoyed the attention and were completely oblivious to the fact that they were dressed in a manner quite inappropriate for Asian culture!

I had to resist the temptation to label them as being narcissistic because as a clinical psychologist I know such labels can not only be very wrong, but also invariably miss out on the tremendous complexity of a human being.  Nevertheless, they made quite an impression. Although they most likely were not suffering from full blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder, they were both exhibiting the classic signs of narcissistic behaviour.


Defining narcissism

The Oxford dictionary of English defines narcissism as “excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance.  Wikipedia describes narcissism as including “both normal self-love and unhealthy self-absorption due to a disturbance in the sense of self.” 


Origin of narcissism from Greek mythology

Narcissus and Echo

In a Greek myth created over 2000 years ago, Narcissus was a beautiful young man who rejected all those who fell in love with him including the nymph Echo.  Echo wasted away in unrequited love so that all that remained of her was a voice that echoed her sadness. When Narcissus happened by a pool of water, he noticed his own reflected image. Tragically he fell deeply in love with his image and because his love was unrequited he too withers away.  After he was gone, all that remained was the flower we call narcissus to this day.

Hence for over 2000 years, narcissism has been recognized as a human condition with tragic consequences. As such it has been the source of much artistic inspiration for writers, poets, and musicians.  And for the last 100 years, it has been the subject of much psychological discussion.

Freud, was much inspired by Greek mythology to create not only his Oedipus theory of infantile development but also speculated for years about narcissism and published in 1914 an important paper “On Narcissism: An Introduction” in which he proposed that sexuality was involved in narcissism.  

Over the following century narcissism continued to be studied by psychologists and even today, the manual used by mental health workers to diagnose mental conditions, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), includes “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”.


What is narcissistic personality disorder?

narcissistic behaviour?It is important to differentiate normal positive self-esteem from pathological narcissism.  The tragic myth of Narcissus suggests the maladaptive quality that characterizes abnormal narcissism.  The DSM-IV describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy ...”.  

Persons with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are also described as having very fragile self-esteem being preoccupied with others' estimation of them.  They also can have feelings of entitlement demanding the best of everything in food, clothes, and even that they receive help from the “top” lawyers, physicians, and hairdressers.  Their personal relationships, including intimate ones, are based on whether the other person enhances their self esteem. 

A much cited example of the narcissistic personality is that of Col. Qadhafi, the recently deposed dictator of Libya.  Narcissistic Personality Disorder can help explain much of his otherwise inexplicable behaviour e.g. changing his clothes or uniforms several times a day, and having a bodyguard of a select group of beautiful young women.  Research has also shown that among narcissists, those who reported the most firmly held positive self-views, also had the most adversarial view of others and they reported the highest cynical hostility and antagonism (Rhodewalt & Morf, 1995).  This may explain Qadhafi’s brutal behavior to anyone who opposes him.


Explanation of how narcissism develops

There are many psychological explanations for the occurrence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  I think we all can see that underlying the narcissist’s need for admiration is a fragile and deficient sense of self worth which they seek to obtain from others.  But the question arises as to why do narcissists have such a poor unstable sense of their worth.

There has been much speculation but most psychological explanations include the premise that something went wrong during the early development of the individual that prevented the usual formation of a healthy sense of self-worth.   

It is of interest that there is evidence of child abuse having occurred in the lives of many narcissisticQaddafi Narcissis? dictators.  For example, Hitler’s father was apparently physically abusive.  Little is known of the childhood of Qadhafi other than he was the youngest son in a poor peasant Bedouin family. This low socioeconomic status in conjunction with unknown factors may have been responsible for his narcissism.  Perhaps now, after his downfall, someone will write a valid biography of him that will provide more details of his childhood.

Recently psychologists have accumulated convincing evidence for two types of narcissism: overt narcissism and covert narcissism (Given-Wilson, McIlwain, & Warburton, 2011).  An example of the former in which the self aggrandizement is very openly displayed would be Qadhafi.

In covert narcissism, the self-seeking is repressed so that the person may not be aware of their secret feeling of superiority.  Instead they are hypersensitive to criticism and feel extremely vulnerable and victimized.  Some psychologists have proposed that this is a smoke screen to hide the underlying grandiosity. 


How narcissism can be managed

I doubt that many with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, either of the overt or the covert type, will identify with the descriptions I have provided here.  But I want to emphasize that there is psychological assistance available to help with this very painful condition.  Like other personality problems change is possible but it generally requires considerable time in psychotherapy conducted by a mental health worker knowledgeable in Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

I also want to emphasize that narcissism exists on a continuum from normal healthy to extreme and unhealthy.  Many of us have milder forms of self-esteem exaggeration or from an unstable sense of our own worth.

For example we may wake up feeling good about ourselves but later in the day, perhaps after a failure experience or a harsh remark, sink to an overly low opinion of our self worth.  Additionally, although most codependents have low self-esteem, a few have a false sense of entitlement or have a grandiose view of their abilities and their responsibilities to others.

If you think you might have a very mild narcissism, there are some self-help strategies that may be of assistance. Since the underlying cause of narcissism is a feeling of being defective and hence not worthy of being loved, I suggest that you need to focus on truly loving yourself instead of trying to get love from others by being superior in some way. 

There are many ways to do this as I have described in a previous article “How to recover from childhood trauma using the three A’s to better love the self.”  One exercise I recommend is to take 3 minutes each day to sit quietly and ask yourself reflectively “What can I do today to make me happier?”   This question helps you focus on yourself instead of others and so helps us to stop relying on others to make us feel good about our self. The question also reminds us to select something that can be done today.  

Concluding remarks

One of the most influential books in past decade is Dawkins’ (2006) “The Selfish Gene” (perhaps he could have called it the narcissistic gene instead) which proposes that selfish behaviour is genetically determined.  Psychologists have yet to determine what proportion of narcissism is due to inheritance.

My guess is that the proportion will be small because our evolutionary history strongly selected for a careful balance of both altruistic e.g. cooperation and selfish e.g. competition.  The need for this balance continues in present day human civilization.  Unfortunately some individuals, including those with severe narcissism, are not appropriately socialized during early development and fail to attain the psychological mechanisms required to exercise this complex and dynamic balance. 

Fortunately there is lots of psychological help available.  They deserve it and our society requires it if we are to survive and become a more caring civilization.



Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene (30th anniversary ed.)  New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press. 

Freud, S. (1957). On narcissism: An introduction. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 14,pp. 73–102). London, England: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1914).

Morf, C. C. & Rhodwalt, F. (2001). Unraveling the Paradoxes of narcissism: A Dynamic Self-Regulatory Processing Model.  Psychological Inquiry, 12, 177-196.  (This paper provides not only a new “regulatory” model of narcissism but also provides a very nice introduction and brief review of narcissism research.

Given-Wilson, Z., McIlwain, D., & Warburton, W. (2011). Meta-cognitive and interpersonal difficulties in overt and covert narcissism. Personality and Individual Differences 50, 1000-1005.

Rhodewalt, F,. & Morf, C. C. (1995). Self and interpersonal correlates of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory: A review and new findings. Journal of Research in Personality, 29, 1-23.


Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Brian S. Scott

Category(s):Personality problems, Self-Love, Sensitivity to Criticism

Written by:

Brian Scott

Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties. These include anxiety, depression, addictions (cybersex, love), and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Adult ADHD).

Brian Scott belongs to Scott Psychological Centre in Singapore

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