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!) ?
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:
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.
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.