Inflated Ego and Narcissism – destructive mindsets?

We all met him and can describe him. He is the co-worker who won’t admit his mistakes, the car driver who will cut you on the highway to show you who “the boss” is, the “friend” who is secretly extremely envious of your success, the CEO who will take all the credit for the good work of his employees…or to put it in other words: inflated egos have small…ears! Because they are too absorbed by their own talk to truly listen to what others have to say.

What is an inflated ego? And what is the difference between an inflated ego and Narcissism (a personality disorder!) ?

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Most of us exhibit mild traits of narcissism – a certain degree of self interest is healthy and gives you the focus you need to achieve personal goals. We all start out life as narcissistic infants, completely self-absorbed and ruled by impulses. As we grow, our focus starts to expand so we can build meaningful relationships and develop emotional intelligence.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists 9 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD):

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance.
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people
4. Requires excessive admiration [regularly fishes for compliments, and is highly susceptible to flattery].
5. Has a sense of entitlement.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty [rude and abusive] behaviors or attitudes.

While NPD is considered an illness, an inflated ego shows the same criteria but to a less severe extent. Nevertheless, an inflated ego can hinder people to live a happy, fulfilled life. Constant comparisons with others, the lookout for validation and success bears risks. I used to knew a person with such symptoms very well once and the periods of haughtiness which were followed by periods of deep self doubt, depending on external events rather than a sense of internal self-worth, were always very confusing to observe.

Narcissists can be “over-achievers” in their chosen field because their exaggerated sense of self-confidence and self-importance drives their determination to succeed. They feel the pressure to show the world just how important they really are. If they are not only succeeding, but succeeding at a top level in their field, they probably will never get diagnosed as having NPD. Especially the Western society puts a high value on personal success and supports high achievers.

A prominent example of a narcissistic over achiever according to best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell:

The great accomplishment of (Steve) Jobs’s life is how effectively he put his idiosyncrasies – his petulance, his narcissism, and his rudeness – in the service of perfection.

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This is why NPD is often under-diagnosed as many highly successful individuals are just considered people with a high drive and will to succeed. Furthermore, our society commonly associates personality disorders and psychiatric conditions as having a negative impact on a person’s ability to perform or function normally. Indeed, that is often one of the criteria for a diagnosis in many mental health conditions.

What all inflated egos have in common is their neediness. Instead of being socially independent and don’t depend too much on other people’s opinion and praise, inflated egos need the admiration and attention of others. They “care” about other people in a very different way than people with a healthy self-confidence. While the latter have a sincere interest in other people’s opinions and expertise without being anxious to know less or look “less successful”, inflated egos care only about how they look like next to other people, always searching for a way to prove their “importance”. Inflated egos hate being ignored, they need attention and they dislike people who disagree with them. They cling to their point of view and are unable to grasp, or accept, those of others. Unable to understand or be compassionate to people they disagree with, their overall attitude is likely to be both critical and dismissive.

People with inflated egos or narcissism often have a poor emotional intelligence. Not necessarily because they can’t see other people’s needs and point of view, but because they simply don’t care. Their capacity is “full” of their own needs and opinions.

Healthy egos, on the other hand, have both the ability and inclination to direct their attention outside themselves. More confident, and so nowhere as defensive as those with inflated egos, they’re far more likely to understand, and sympathize with, the experiences of others–especially those unlike themselves.

I believe the most obvious reasons for an inflated ego are:

1) unrealistic expectations regarding one’s own goals, performance and that of others. Inflated egos expect a lot from themselves and want to show the world how great they are. If they fail to do so and their most important social need is not met, they tend to blame others and see the world as unjust.

2) a deep feeling of being “not enough”. To compensate for that feeling, people with inflated egos show of the nine traits discussed above.

What are the dangers of narcissism or an inflated ego? The wish to impress others and the need for constant praise paired with the thought that other people “owe them something”. This dependency on others and the constant comparison with others (btw. someone is always better than you!) is basically the path to unhappiness and poor decisions. Furthermore, I believe that people with inflated egos tend to chose certain professions over others. In general, professions which have a high reputation in society and eradiate influence and power like surgeons, management positions, consultants or top athletes are naturally more attractive for people with an inflated ego.

Another role in our ego development plays our culture: Whereas Westerners are obsessed with the individual, with the hero character, with the successful CEO, the record athlete, the star solo-entrepreneur…the Eastern culture stresses the importance of the collectivistic mindset where the success of a team is more important the the success of one particular team member. This doesn’t mean there are no Alpha males in the Eastern Asian countries, but it’s not promoted as much as in the Western world.

In short, the many unflattering descriptions of people with big egos enumerated above all signify their need to make up for a fundamental lack of true self-esteem and can lead to an unfulfilled and unhappy life. On the other hand, many inflated egos or even narcissists are high performers without ever being diagnosed with personality disorder.

Probably the first step to overcome the dependency on approval and constant pressure to “do great” is to become aware of one’s own motivation, fears and social needs. If you recognize you have an inflated ego, you can search for other motivators than approval and most importantly accept that you are already “enough” and no one in this world “owes” you anything. Awareness is the first step towards change.

220px-Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)

According to a Greek mythology about Narcissus, the beautiful son of a river god, fell in love with his own mirror image. One day when he sat at a lake and observed his beauty reflected in the water, he stumbled and drowned. A nice metaphor that can remind us to keep our focus on the big picture and look at things from different perspectives. Sink or swim!

If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, check out my older post of destructive ego mindsets.

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10 thoughts on “Inflated Ego and Narcissism – destructive mindsets?

  1. Luca says:

    Marina, your articles are often very interesting.

    Actually, I do not believe who has an inflated ego looks for constant comparison with others and validation, it should rather be the opposite: that with an inflated ego knows that he/she is already above the others, comparing is not even necessary. If he/she compare, has a low self-esteem, it’s a different issue.
    It was also new to me that narcissists had periods of self doubt.

    This sentence is very true: “If they are not only succeeding, but succeeding at a top level in their field, they probably will never get diagnosed as having NPD”
    Good catch.
    However the fact that “Western society puts a high value on personal success and supports high achievers” may open the question whether is society that plays a big influence to boost such traits that lead to NPD?
    What is the role of society in triggering certain psychological diseases?
    I wouldn’t be surprised if certain cultures or historical periods registered more diagnoses of certain diseases.

    A good depiction of this personality is the character in The Social Network (the actual MZ is quite different from the movie), even if that is more Asperger sindrome than NPD

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Marina Zayats says:

    Thank you, Luca! Your feedback is always to the point!
    I believe that inflated egos compare themselves a lot because they have this inner drive to succeed, to show their “worth” to the world. To show this worth, they need the competition with others..only in reference to others we can see if we are better or worse.
    I also think that inflated egos would mostly compare themselves with people who are about their level and therefore “worth” comparing with!

    Very good thought on the influence of culture on such psychological conditions as NPD. I’m pretty sure that certain cultures play a very important role in either promoting or preventing such personality disorders or character traits.

    Like

    • emmanuel says:

      Good article. Here’s how I see it.

      There are two people living inside you. One is the real you, eternal and caring. The other is a social construction, identified by the name you are given. I disagree when you say we are born narcissists. I don’t see that in little children, I believe they are free and spontaneous because they don’t yet identify with that second person, with what society makes of them. They don’t care if they look ridiculous, which is a narcissists worst nightmare. When you grow up you lose sight of the real you and start identifying more with your name. You start worrying about your looks, about what you say, how many Facebook friends you have and so on. If you identify too strongly with your name, you become a control freak, a marble statue, always thinking before you act. You lose the ability to shout and dance and you become more and more anxious, some people even forget how to breathe. Narcissists live only in this social realm. They are ‘mirror people’. If they can see that this is not who they really are, they can start to heal.

      I believe our western ‘celebrity’ culture does indeed promote this. Every society gets the mental problems it deserves and they are huge in our society. People with mental illness are like canaries in the coal mine. They are sent ahead and show us what the prospects are. For example, when you see someone with anorexia, it makes you think about what we are doing.

      Anyway, thanks for the article. It helps me to read about it. Greetings from Belgium.

      Like

    • Monique says:

      Yes. Culture in the US absolutely fuels ego-inflation and this demon called Narcissism. I love being American but I hate how we scoff at the little guy, even though we’re a democracy, and idolize celebrities to the point of insanity. We have a huge problem with this in the US.

      Like

  3. Erik says:

    I to have an inflated ego. Deep down i have always thought that i was a little better than others. In the back of my mind. I do mental exercises now so i can practice see that everyone has something good about them. I try to look at the way i behave and do something about it. It’s not extreme but enough to make me go “hey wait a minute” i want to be loved like everybody else so i really want to do something about it. Like looking deeply at my own flaws and mistakes in life. I never thought it was a problem before to be honest, but it really is. You set yourself apart from everybody else and it’s alienating to some extent. But i never boast. I just really like myself. I feel good about myself. But it’s a delusion because i have a hard time looking at all that is dark and ugly about me. People don’t really interest me that much. I mean i care about them. But an inflated ego is not something that is written in stone even if it takes years to figure out how to change it and wanting to change the way you behave.

    Like

    • Monique says:

      It seems that you are capable of self-reflection, which most narcissists avoid like the plague. Ego inflated people can be nice-I’m married to one. If you can see it yourself and laugh about it when you notice it, then you are probably okay. Just be kind. Ego inflated people who are unkind are dangerous. Be kind to yourself also. Then perhaps you won’t feel the need to inflate your ego artificially. Humans need an ego to survive. We have all been egotistical at some point. Just don’t hurt others, like some ego inflated people do.

      Like

  4. Monique says:

    What I find so dangerous about those with NPD and/or a highly inflated ego, is how absolutely livid and hostile they become toward those who do not cater to their need for constant approval, who refuse to grovel at their perceived superiority, and who prefer to ignore NPD and ego-inflated individuals, rather than deal with them. If that person with those traits are not your parents, a boss, or a higher-up at your place of work, then it’s easy to dismiss these people as fools, and walk away. The “Emperor Has No Clothes” type of thing. BUT, if these people are your parents, your boss or anyone that may have some influence and power over your life, and if you do not cater to their whims and fancies in regards to agreeing with their high opinion of themselves, well then, watch out! They no longer are the fool, they are the fury. I work with several of this people of this type. I hate my job because of it. All women, a couple of men. They all are upper management. They all talk too much and too long about themselves. They all paint stories on how great they are, and how great their lineage is. Should they decide to be nice to you, they will talk down to you, in a very patronizing way. As if you are a dummy and could not possibly understand the language they are speaking or the meaning of their words. And they feel that you should appreciate the time they “giving” you, that it such a favor that they “see” you and are actually wasting their precious time “speaking at” you. And, they are experts at everything; if you say you popped popcorn in the microwave for a snack, they will spend an half hour telling you how they are experts at microwave popcorn, how they prepare it at home, what superior television they watch while they eat it, perfectly of course without any getting stuck in their perfect teeth. It is absolutely endless with this people. I really hate them.

    Like

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