History is littered with people whose behaviour has been so outrageously self-serving that they have become poster boys and girls for narcissism and you really don’t have to search too hard or too far back to find them.
Adolf Hitler is perhaps the most obvious and dangerous example from the last century, but the most recent ex-President of the United States of America is a more contemporary example who deserves to share the same sentence.
In between there are plenty more celebrities, both minor and major, whose public behaviour and verbal outpourings can easily be described as being narcissistic.
From Joan Crawford’s emotionally abusive parenting to Kanye West’s social media activity (remember his “I have to dress Kim everyday so she doesn’t embarrass me” tweet?), and from Mariah Carey’s legendary despotic treatment of her entourage to Mark Zuckerberg’s ruthless entrepreneurialism, it’s hard to move for well-known folk who exhibit behaviour that you would file under narcissism
And, of course, this isn’t the sole preserve of the famous. Narcissism is nothing if not egalitarian, so it infects the famous and the non-famous indiscriminately.
In fact, we probably all know someone who we secretly believe is affected by narcissism, and those people will have a far greater impact on your life than any of the jaw-dropping nonsense that Kanye might project from his personal imaginarium.
Diagnosed narcissism is known as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and it would be easy to look at any one of the examples above and make a judgement about whether they would be likely to meet that diagnostic criteria.
But, whilst it’s easy to speculate and to quietly ridicule those whose self-aggrandising behaviour seems so preposterous, the more interesting (and empathetic) question is whether these projections are the result of narcissistic wounding.
Narcissistic wounding usually happens in one’s formative years – early childhood to mid-teen years, most commonly – and generally takes the form of persistent or ritualistic shaming or humiliation.
But it can also be linked to behaviour that you wouldn’t immediately recognise as abusive. Ronnie and Reggie Kray, for example, suffered through an obvious absence of parental boundaries.
The result? Murderers, torturers, hardened criminals … but, to their mother, Violet, they were her ‘lovely boys’.
Victims of narcissistic wounding tend to mitigate the emotional impact of those wounds on their self-esteem by over-compensating through behaviour, words and actions that serve to inflate their own status and power.
These adult behaviours or personality traits are inherently narcissistic, but often would not necessarily be sufficient in and of themselves to merit a formal NPD diagnosis.
In other words, it’s entirely possible to exhibit narcissistic behaviour without necessarily being a narcissist.
In fact, narcissism is a sliding scale – at times, we’re all inclined to degrees of narcissistic behaviour, it’s just that most of us are self-aware enough to recognise it for what it really is and keep it in check.
This sliding scale of narcissism ranges from the mild – someone who might be overly inclined to carpet-bomb Insta with selfies – to the severe – a self-serving group of inveterate liars and truth-wranglers insisting we follow their Draconian laws whilst they have a knees up over some eggnog and snog their advisers on CCTV.
So, what exactly is narcissistic wounding, and what is the impact process that leads people to display narcissistic behaviour in later life?
At its base level, narcissistic wounding is as I’ve described above: the desire to be as powerful and omnipotent as possible as a result of being shamed, humiliated, spoiled or un-nurtured in childhood.
Each of us is born a blank canvas – a complex sponge of tissue, nerves, neurons, bone, hormones, chemicals and muscle that learns through its lived experience. Whilst there are some conditions – both emotional and physical – that we may be born with, there are others that are absorbed.
When we experience trauma, we learn from it. This doesn’t have to be trauma with a capital T, such as physical or sexual abuse, but can simply be a lack of nurturing or love, or quietly insidious and relentless belittlement or shaming.
We are all easily traumatised as children, and because no parent is ever perfect – perfect parenting is the deceit of possibility we sell to ourselves when we bring children into the world.
But we need the healthy mirror of ‘good enough’ parenting and ‘good enough’ friendships as we grow in order to dismantle the narcissistic wounding that every child inevitably experiences to some degree or other.
When we don’t get the message that it’s okay to be who we are and that it’s okay to fail, or we’re subjected to more serious Big T trauma, we split off from our ‘true self’ and become what is known as the collapsed self.
This is where the wounding we have experienced now starts to germinate. The collapsed self believes it is unworthy, defective and flawed, that there is ‘something wrong with me’, and that it is ugly or unlovable.
This toxic inner narrative can take many different forms, and far too many to list here. But they are all damaging and, as is the case with all trauma, they ultimately lead us to begin to believe that what happened to us is really who we are.
As a result, we become immersed in shame.
Shame is the great illusionist, always driving us to find a way of obscuring it or covering it up, because we can’t bear to feel or face it.
But our coping mechanisms are almost always negative – sometimes through substance, process or financial addiction (alcohol, drugs, work, gaming, shopping, gambling, etc.), but mostly in the desire to inflate our influence or self-worth.
Real life examples of this may be an obsessive drive to lose weight, to find the perfect partner, to increase our social approval (via likes or followers on social media, for example).
The tragedy of all of this is that the shame that drives these responses is never ours in the first place. Shame is always blame turned inward.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the desire to achieve or to improve, but when that pursuit becomes the way in which we define our self-worth, then the externals become destructive escape routes from something we actually need to stand and face.
There are two major problems with escape routes. They prevent us from healing our internalised shame and trauma … and eventually they turn into dead ends.
Extreme shaming can lead to extreme ‘facade building’, which also presents as narcissism.
In some cases, this turns into the ultimate extreme edge of devolved narcissism where the person creates a one-person universe in which he or she wields god-like powers.
Cult leaders like Jim Jones or Charles Manson are ultimate examples of this. For them, the control of others around them is the endgame and their shame is so great that they project it onto others.
Healing narcissistic wounding requires us to stop adding more externals and instead apply compassion and comb through the shame and the trauma enough times to allow the collapsed false self to disintegrate and allow you to return to your original true nature.
When you begin to believe that you are okay, you allow your internalised shame to be replaced by humility, leaving room to be better without needing to be the best or the most powerful.
When we are able to see ourselves through this prism of self-truth and self-actualisation, we learn empathy and kindness.
That doesn’t mean the behaviour of the likes of Kanye or your personally known versions of him will be any less irritating, but it does mean that we are able to understand them better and can perhaps find a way to live and let live.
Which is not to say that harmful or compromising dickish behaviour shouldn’t be called out. It should, and especially so when others are being harmed.
Too many people spend years – even decades – dealing with and recovering from narcissistic abuse, and narcissistic wounding should not serve as the carpet under which that abuse is conveniently swept.
Because in the end narcissistic wounding is only an explanation for obsessively self-serving behaviour, never an excuse for it.