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  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn

Why are People So Mean? Challenge #6: Meeting Our Inner Narcissist

The Perfunctory Opening Paragraph

I'm writing a series of posts prompted by David Brooks's article in The Atlantic titled, "How America Got Mean." I'm offering ten challenges to myself and those who choose to join me.

By the way, I started reading Brooks's new book last week, and it is stunningly good.

An Essential Disclaimer

Narcissism gets a lot of press these days, but not in the same way I'm using it. I won't be accusing anyone of being a narcissist, making any political accusations, or suggesting I'm not a narcissist. Think of narcissism as a continuous trait, like how long a person's hair is, or how tall that person is. All of us have some narcissism, and some have more than others.

Narcissism is Increasing

You probably know that narcissism is on the rise in Western countries. Yes, it's a debatable finding, but isn't everything debatable these days?

Psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell published The Narcissism Epidemic in 2010, observing that scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory have increased in recent decades. Meanwhile, other scholars have shown empathy and perspective-taking dropping.*

Typologies are Also Increasing

A new trend is to delineate different sorts of narcissism. When Twenge and Campbell reported their findings, they used scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which (mostly) represents a "single factor" model of narcissism.

Single Factor Model

​Grandiosity (feeling special, better than others, excessively vain)

That's too simple, though, because narcissism comes in different flavors. A two-factor model distinguishes between grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. In both cases people are locked up with thoughts and feelings about themselves.

​Two Factor Model

​​Grandiosity (feeling special, better than others, excessively vain)

​​​Vulnerability (defensive, resentful, reactive, hostile)

But three is better than two, right? So now we have some three-factor models of narcissism. I'll not detail them here, but they are interesting!

One new idea in the narcissism typology craze is communal narcissism which I find particularly interesting as a person of faith because it carries an eerily familiar self-righteous tone.

  • I am the most [honest, helpful, trustworthy] person I know.

  • I bring freedom to other people.

  • I am the most caring person in my community.

I find myself wondering if communal narcissism is more common inside religious communities than outside. If you're a doctoral student reading this, maybe do a dissertation on it. Here's a scale to use.

Lessons from Germany

Some of us are old enough to remember November 9, 1989, when Germans dismantled the Berlin wall and the so-called Iron Curtain fell. Prior to that, Germany was divided into two cultures, one (West) that was more individualist and one (East) more collectivist. Some German researchers recently had the brilliant idea of testing narcissism differences based on which side of the iron curtain people were raised. Those 6 to 18 years old in 1989 scored higher on grandiose and vulnerable narcissism if raised in West Germany. Younger people who were raised in a unified Germany showed no difference in narcissism scores, regardless of where in Germany they were raised.

Having spent quite a lot of time in former communist countries, I'm no fan of communism, but it's interesting to see that narcissism is fostered with our Western individualist values more than with the hardship and communitarian values of former East Germany.

I'll let you make of that what you will.

Narciss-is-HIM (or HER or THEM)

Whenever I see a new YouTube video or meme about narcissism these days, it's about recovering from people who have hurt us. It's usually a former spouse, a bully, a toxic family member, or a bad boss. And true enough, those with high levels of narcissism have a way of tearing apart people, friendships, families, and communities.

It's easy to see narcissism in someone else. Probably most of us can think of that person, and would love to buy him (or her or them) a Christmas mug.

I get it. Having just emerged from a two-year saga in a meat grinder, I understand the damage of narcissism. I could tell stories, and want to, but I won't. Instead, I want to look deep inside and see the narcissism in my own soul.

Meeting Our Inner Narcissist

Let's put these pieces together.

  • Narcissism is a continuous trait more than a nasty label we can slap on others.

  • The tide of narcissism is rising. Those of us in Western cultures are more vulnerable to it than those in generations past.

  • It's not just grandiosity. Some forms of narcissism are almost hidden, such as vulnerable narcissism.

  • We're naturally more inclined to see narcissism in others than in ourselves.

I've got some narcissism in me, too. Maybe quite a lot. And if I am not willing to look and locate it, I'll probably end up hurting people just as I've been hurt by others who don't see their narcissism.

If I'm honest, the vulnerable narcissist typology looks familiar to me. I easily slink into places of shame and self-criticism, and when I do I become quite self-focused and can project my pain onto others.

I can be mean. And that's not who I want to be.

Your inner narcissist may look different than mine, but we all have one. Maybe it's time we introduce ourselves to that part lurking beneath our best intentions.

Previous posts in this series:

* It may (rightly) trouble you not to find any values on the y-axis of this graph. This is because there are three different variables being shown, each with their own scales. I have adapted them all to z-scores so they can be shown on the same graph.

1 Comment

Nov 10, 2023

Your words about vulnerable narcissism make me think of a phrase that was shared with me about humility. It went something like this: True humility isn't about thinking less of oneself; it's thinking about oneself less. The former seems to describe a form of self-focus that can look (or feel) noble, but really remains narcissistic.

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