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Thinking Out Loud

Just Definitions: Narcissistic

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 24, 2017

Editor’s Note: Occasionally, “Thinking Out Loud” addresses subjects of a very specific nature. In this special series, “Thinking Out Loud” readers are asked to consider the true meanings of certain terms that have recently found prevalence in the current public discourse. What are your thoughts? E-mail us.

NarcissisticIn the movie version of William Nicholson's play, Shadowlands, about the careers and romance of American writers Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis, there’s a scene in which Davidman says how important it is to get the right word for the right thing. Davidman's observation goes to the heart of the heuristic function of language, using words to explore realities and discover new insights and understandings.* Finding the right word is essential, because the wrong word can lead to a dead end or down a rabbit hole. Lately I've been thinking about Davidman's comment, especially because I've heard a number of words used, often loosely and imprecisely, among politicians, political commentators and in various forms of media, particularly social media.

This blog and the three other special edition blogs that follow will inquire very briefly into the meanings of a few words, recognizing that getting the meaning of some words straight will necessarily require that we compare and contrast them with other words. The words we will look at directly in these four special blogs are narcissistic, totalitarian, pragmatic and Machiavellian. Our exploration of meanings will take us into the realms of psychology, political science and philosophy.

These essays are merely descriptive. They will resist making direct connections with current political situations and the various popular usages or misuses of the words. They will also provide references to a few helpful resources along the way for further exploration.


The origin of the word, narcissistic, of course, is the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful son of Cephissus (the river god) and Liriope (a nymph). Narcissis was extremely proud, and utterly fixated on himself. He didn't give a hoot about others. His nemesis (by the name of “Nemesis”) used Narcissus' self-absorption to entice him to a spring where, seeing his own reflection in the water, Narcissus fell in love with his image, and either pined away or killed himself (depending on the version of the myth you choose). You can read the story for yourself in Ovid's Metamorphoses, book 3.

Today the term “narcissistic” evokes this myth in various ways. It has been used, for example, in social, historical and cultural criticism, as in Christopher Lasch's 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, (for which Lasch won a National Book Award). And, of course, it is an important psychological category.

There are some very fine recent psychological studies of narcissism, which I'll reference in a moment, but one of the most fascinating descriptive studies of narcissism from a psychological perspective was provided by the respected psychotherapist Erich Fromm in his book, The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, in a chapter on "Individual and Social Narcissism," dating from 1963. (Page references from Fromm in the following paragraphs about narcissism are to this book.)

Fromm describes various kinds of narcissism, beginning with what is called "primary narcissism," which is what one finds in human infants for whom the outside world has not yet emerged as real. Fromm's primary concern as a psychotherapist, however, is not with this normal developmental form of narcissism, but with the delusional narcissism of the mentally ill, for whom the real world has ceased to be real (Fromm, pp 65-66). Fromm distinguishes a fully psychotic form of narcissism, which he calls "absolute narcissism," from the more often observed and relatively minor neurotic forms. In this “absolute narcissism,” a person has broken all connection with reality and has made his own person the substitute for reality (Fromm, pp. 66-68).

"How does one recognize the narcissistic person?" Fromm asks. He answers this question in considerable detail based on his clinical observations (and I shall quote him at length):

"There is one type [of narcissism] which is easily recognized. That is the kind of person who shows all the signs of self-satisfaction; one can see that when he says some trivial words he feels as if he has said something of great importance. He usually does not listen to what others say, nor is he really interested. (If he is clever, he will try to hide this fact by asking questions and making it a point to seem interested.) One can also recognize the narcissistic person by his sensitivity to any kind of criticism. This sensitivity can be expressed by denying the validity of any criticism, or by reacting with anger or depression. … Whatever the different manifestations of narcissism are, a lack of genuine interest in the outside world is common to all forms of narcissism.

"Sometimes the narcissistic person can also be recognized by his facial expression. Often we find a kind of glow or smile, which gives the impression of smugness to some, or beatific, trusting, childlikeness to others. Often the narcissism, especially in its most extreme forms, manifests itself in a peculiar glitter in the eyes, taken by some as a symptom of half-saintliness, by others of half-craziness. Many very narcissistic persons talk incessantly - often at a meal, where they forget to eat and thus make everyone else wait …". (p.70)

Fromm explores related psychological problems, such as "the state of self-inflation," "depression," "anger," and "megalomania" (especially in leaders who "'cured' their narcissism by transforming the world to fit it" (pp. 71-77) before analyzing what he calls "malignant narcissism." In some ways, this is the most interesting aspect of Fromm's analysis.

A person afflicted with malignant narcissism focuses not on what he does but on what he has or possesses. "The malignant nature of this type of narcissism," Fromm explains, "lies in the fact that it lacks the corrective element which we find in the benign form." The narcissist who is "great," Fromm observes, because of something he has or some quality he believes he possesses, then has no need to be related to anybody or anything, except in as much as he sees others related to him as an extension of himself.

Speaking in the first-person voice of the narcissist, Fromm writes:

"In maintaining a picture of my greatness I remove myself more and more from reality and I have to increase the narcissistic charge in order to be better protected from the danger that my narcissistically inflated ego might be revealed as the product of my empty imagination. Malignant narcissism, thus, is not self-limiting, and in consequence it is crudely solipsistic as well as xenophobic." (p. 77)

Wayne Oates, a pastoral theologian and professor of pastoral counseling, studied narcissism as it is manifested in religious personalities in his book Behind the Mask: Personality Disorders in Religious Behavior (Westminster John Knox Press, 1987), pp. 43-55. This resource will be especially helpful for pastors, pastoral counselors and other religious leaders. Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert Pressman provide a fascinating study of The Narcissistic Family: Diagnoses and Treatment (Jossey-Bass, 1994); see particularly their description of the characteristics of “the narcissistic family” (pp. 19-40). One of the insights Pressman and Pressman make has to do with the popular pejorative use of the term narcissist. They write:

"When the layperson uses the term narcissistic in a pejorative way - as in 'That narcissistic little twit! All she ever thinks about is herself!' - he is really transposing narcissism for solipsism: the view that the self is all that exists, can be known, or has importance." (pp. 41-42)

Another helpful recent book is Wendy T. Behary's Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed, (New Harbinger Publications, 2013, 2nd edition). These last two resources will be of particular interest to marriage and family therapists.**

Next time we will explore the meaning of totalitarianism.

* The heuristic use of taxonomies is described in my study of ecclesiology in a postmodern context, The Church Faces Death, (Oxford University Press, 1999), 50-68.
** I'm very grateful to my colleagues Loren Townsend, Professor of Pastoral Care and Director of the Marriage & Family Therapy Program, and Jenny Schiller, Director of Clinical Training, both at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, for their suggestions of the resources listed here.

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