People exhibiting traits of narcissism are less likely to be stressed or depressed, BBC News reported. Despite possessing one of the serious negative traits a person can have, they’re often happier than most people. But why are they so full of themselves?
According to the BBC article, narcissism is bad for society on the whole. People strongly exhibiting the trait of being that self-centered and self-important have a profoundly negative effect on those around them. They’re often considered to be intolerable and they make others infuriated. Yet they seem to be thrilled regardless of others’ perceptions of them. Understanding why we feel so positively about ourselves is a complex, yet manageable, task that could answer some of our most probing questions about our self-image.
Dangers of Distortion
Most people believe themselves to be better than average at a given task. We also look at our own children or family in a more favorable light than we see others. Obviously we can’t all be better than average; the definition itself of being average implies a middle position with many people above and below it. So is it good or bad to overestimate ourselves? Psychologists aren’t sure.
“One side suggests that it’s healthy and helpful to maintain positive illusions about oneself,” said Dr. Mark Leary, the Garonzik Family Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. “The argument is that having inflated views of oneself creates positive emotions, which is certainly true, and it also helps people stay motivated when they encounter setbacks and difficulties.”
On the other hand, many psychologists fear that too much ego can set us up for failure, which can be catastrophic. “People who overestimate their capabilities are likely to get themselves into situations that they aren’t able to handle,” Dr. Leary said. “Not only that, but overly positive self-views can deter people from doing things to correct problems or improve themselves.”
Two Types of Narcissists
“Narcissists’ self-evaluations go beyond just having high self-esteem to believing that they are superior to other people—a unique and very special person with a wide array of special talents,” Dr. Leary said. “They also require a great deal of attention and admiration from other people, and they believe that, because they are so unique and wonderful, they deserve to be treated special.”
Dr. Leary also said there appear to be two types of narcissists—grandiose narcissists and vulnerable narcissists. Their definitions may sound self-explanatory, but are worth examining.
“Grandiose narcissists evaluate themselves as positively as their behavior seems to indicate—they really do think that they are special and wonderful people,” he said. “[They] spend a good deal of their time promoting their superiority. They want to be admired and to be seen as having status and power, and they use their social interactions to get admiration from other people.”
Grandiose narcissists accomplish this by bragging about their accomplishments and engaging in one-upmanship, though they often quickly grow upset when others fail to see why the narcissist is so special.
At the same time, vulnerable narcissists are rabidly insecure. Rather than promoting their superiority like grandiose narcissists, vulnerable narcissists “think that they are unique and deserve to be treated special, but they are repeatedly disappointed that they don’t get the attention and respect that they think they deserve,” Dr. Leary said. “They are unusually sensitive to feeling ignored, slighted, and disrespected by other people, and they often seethe inside about how badly other people treat them. Vulnerable narcissists often don’t come across as narcissistic, and in fact they can seem anxious and withdrawn.”
Our need to feel good about ourselves doesn’t seem to have any base in our evolutionary survival instincts, and yet most people feel that need. Although there’s surely no harm in taking a compliment or feeling pride in an accomplishment, an excessive self-love can ruin relationships and send one down the wrong path.
Dr. Mark Leary contributed to this article. Dr. Leary is Garonzik Family Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, where he heads the program in Social Psychology. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Psychology from West Virginia Wesleyan College and his master’s and doctoral degrees in Social Psychology from the University of Florida.