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The Spectrum: From Echoism to Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Wednesday, July 20, 2016



Here's the fifth in this series of unseen video snippets, where I share some bitesize pieces of information on the subject of narcissism. The paperback version of my critically acclaimed book Rethinking Narcissism, with updated material and resources was just released on July 5th, so if this subject interests you, you can buy the book here!

"The first and major rethink I had to do, which is really the first 3 quarters of Rethinking Narcissism..is about how we understand what's bad about narcissism. Most of us when we think about the word narcissism or narcissist, what we picture are vain, preening, primping, boastful braggarts, reality TV types, Donald Trump gets thrown around a lot. That is what comes to mind. The problem with that image, which is really a stereotype about bad narcissism, is that a lot of narcissists could care less about looks or fame or money and some can be extremely quiet. If that's what you are looking for, that particular image, you're going to miss all kinds of signs of trouble in a relationship that have absolutely nothing to do with those things." 

"The other major rethink that I had to do was about healthy narcissism. There is, in fact, such a thing as healthy narcissism. Over a quarter century of research shows cross­-culturally that the vast majority of people around the world feel a little bit special. They see themselves through slightly rose­ colored glasses. To quote one researcher, "they feel exceptional or unique". When we look at the research, we're asked how we compare to others in terms of what’s intelligence, things like that, we tend to think that we are more attractive, more compassionate. We even think we are more human than the average person. When people feel that way, they feel more resilient, according to research, they feel more optimistic, they feel more able in our research to give and receive in relationships than people who don't have those rose­ colored glasses. That's healthy narcissism." 

"What this perspective does for us, is it helps us understand not just one type of narcissism but all of them, and I'll get to that in a second. What's the difference between healthy and unhealthy narcissism? 

Think instead of narcissism as this obnoxious personality trait like the images that I conjured for you, think of narcissism as a pervasive universal human tendency, the drive to feel special, that we all long in some way to stand out from the rest of the 7 billion people on the planet. Even privately, we certainly long to feel special to someone we love, for them to view us as special, as different from the crowd, that's a part of healthy narcissism." 

"Unhealthy narcissism is when people become addicted to feeling special. Think of it like a substance abuse problem. When people, instead of turning to love and relationships, instead of opening up to somebody close to them and saying, "I'm scared, I'm sad, I'm lonely," and trusting that they can depend on them, they depend on these different ways of feeling special. That's when they become addicted to the experience. Now it all comes together because there are lots of ways to feel special. You can feel special by being the most misunderstood person in the room, having the deepest emotional pain." 

"There's a newly studied form of narcissism called communal narcissism. These are people who honestly agree with statements: one day I will be known by the world for the good deeds I have done. These people don't care about money. This is something else. There are all kinds of ways to feel special and that's how we can understand all these different varieties of narcissism and really the core that underlies it is this inability to depend on other people when they feel vulnerable, this fear that causes them to soothe themselves with the experience of feeling special." 

"As soon as you start looking at it this way, like a habit that becomes addictive, other things become clear. I wanted to give people in the book very simple, straightforward strategies, templates and I even provided clear templates so they can have answers to questions like, if I think my partner is narcissistic, should I stay or should I go? How do I figure that out? Instead of trying to struggle with that for weeks, months, years, to give people just a short period of time to figure that out with some strategies. What do you do if you've got a narcissistic colleague? How do you make sure you raise a child who is not extremely narcissistic? So I have these concrete strategies throughout." 

"The other thing that becomes clear as soon as you start viewing this way is the problem when people lack healthy narcissism. That's a problem. We already know from the research that people who don't have those rose­ colored glasses view themselves and the world in a slightly dimmer light. Sometimes they're more anxious, sometimes they're more depressed. In my research with my colleagues, I dubbed this problem echoism. Echo was the nymph who was cursed to repeat back only the last few words she heard. Where Narcissus fell in love with his reflection, Echo fell in love with Narcissus. Like Echo, people who struggle with echoism struggle to have a voice of their own. They're afraid of seeming narcissistic in any way. They're afraid of being a burden. They berate themselves for being too needy. They blame themselves for problems that go wrong in relationships. In the mild range of echoism what we found is these are people who can be deeply empathic. They prefer to focus on others as opposed to themselves. The danger here is in lacking those rose­ colored glasses, in shifting away from themselves to other people rather reflexively, echoists also tend to fall into relationships with extremely narcissistic partners and friends." 

"I'm a recovered echoist. Most people who have been raised by extremely narcissistic parents are vulnerable to this. I learned to echo my mother's narcissism. The other thing I wanted to do was empower people who struggle in this way. There were no words for this. 

Just a quick story: there was a study done one of the researchers who takes apart healthy and unhealthy narcissism put this grid together where in one grid somebody was high in healthy narcissism with rose­ colored glasses, low in extreme narcissism, in another grid they were high and both. Then there was this one group where people were low in extreme narcissism and low in healthy narcissism and it was empty. That's not a thing somehow. We wanted to fill it, and that's how I developed the narcissism spectrum scale which unlike most spectrums that move from degrees of awfulness up, it starts at zero with a lack of healthy narcissism and in the center we have healthy and then at the far end is where you find people who are addicted to feeling special in various ways: people with narcissistic personality disorder. 


Sign up for my newsletter, for more tips and advice, as well as information on my book, Rethinking Narcissism, devoted to understanding and coping with narcissism in all its forms, in our friends, lovers, colleagues-and even ourselves.

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The internationally acclaimed book named Amazon's Book of the Month, Daily Mail's Book of the Week, featured on The Oprah Winfrey Network, in the New York Times, the cover story in Psychology Today, and selected as The Millions "most anticipated book of the year".


After teaching at local universities, Dr. Malkin became a Chief Psychologist at Harvard Medical School’s Cambridge Hospital, in Cambridge Massachusetts, where he instructed interns, residents, and fellows in the theory and practice of psychotherapy. In 2003, he left this position to expand his private practice and continued to supervise and teach for Harvard Medical School’s training program. Read More...


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