“In today’s selfie-obsessed, social-media-driven culture, narcissism has become more or less synonymous with ‘vanity.’ … These days, it seems that almost everyone is narcissistic.”
That’s how Joseph Burgo opens his introduction to The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. As a Generation-Y child growing up when social media launched, and as an adult now attuned to various technology platforms, I could immediately identify. Yes, it seems like these days the world is hyper-narcissistic.
But, Burgo cautions, we may be overusing the term. His aim, he writes, is to “rescue narcissism from trivialization” and explore the personalities of those he calls extreme narcissists: people who “fall short of the diagnostic threshold” for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but who are still, well, quite narcissistic.
According to Burgo, they make up five percent of the population.
The Narcissist You Know is for everyday readers. It’s for people who want to take a closer look at narcissism and find out what is underneath it. Could this book be easily incorporated into a psychology course or into a circle of esteemed academics? Yes, absolutely. But on the whole, Burgo writes, it is not to be used as a tool for diagnosis. Instead, it helps readers understand why extreme narcissists do what they do.
To do this, Burgo moves past the “He’s full of himself and doesn’t care about anyone else” clichés and shows us the pain, shame, and blame that create (and sustain) every narcissist.
The book’s conversational layout simplifies a complex psychosis, and helps those seeking to understand the narcissism spectrum do so in an informal manner. Sparse on clinical terms and heavy on interesting case profiles, this book is one to read if you have any interest in understanding the MO of your potentially narcissistic co-worker, parent, friend, or associate — or the person you know best: yourself.
Burgo gives readers a concise breakdown of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). One percent of the population is officially diagnosed with NPD per American Psychiatric Association standards. And NPD has precise criteria: a list of nine points, of which five must be met by any individual before being diagnosed. A few of the defining characteristics are a grandiose sense of self-importance, lack of empathy, a need for excessive admiration, and a sense of entitlement.
But this one percent, Burgo argues, does not account for the people we encounter on a day-to-day basis who fall short of the required five points, yet who certainly exceed the “high self-esteem” excuse often attached to them by observers.
“In other words,” Burgo writes, “many individuals who don’t meet the full diagnostic criteria for NPD are narcissists all the same — Extreme Narcissists, as I refer to them. And they are all around us, causing us damage, wreaking havoc in our lives.” He continues, a bit ominously: “We’re ill equipped to cope with them. Often we don’t even spot them until it’s too late.”
Burgo adds that the nine points put forth by APA can actually be boiled down to two: an inflated sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy for other people. The remaining points, he writes, are byproducts that naturally follow from these two main personality traits — and extreme narcissists are no exception.
Does that mean that everyone who exhibits those two traits is also an extreme narcissist? Not exactly. While again emphasizing that the book is not intended to diagnose, Burgo offers a checklist of narcissist traits, writing, “The more of them that apply to someone you know, the more narcissistic that person.” He breaks the list down into six categories, including empathy and emotion, impulsivity, self-image and social comparison, interpersonal relationships, and moral code and personality responsibility.
Upon reviewing the list, it’s easy to find points that apply to you and everyone you know. You probably have someone in your life who makes obvious plays for attention, who lacks self-control, who goes on the attack when hurt or frustrated, who can be seductive. In fact, we all know someone with narcissistic tendencies, because we all have narcissistic tendencies!
We also have narcissistic defenses. These defenses are how many of us cope with narcissistic injuries. Were you late for work? I was stuck in traffic! It wasn’t my fault! Did you receive a less-than-stellar performance review as a result? This job is boring anyway. Were you recently dumped by the significant other you’d been seeing for a few months? That guy was a jerk anyway!
This is a snap-shot of three common defenses: blame shifting, taking refuge in superiority, and angry indignation. Used less frequently and without the accompaniment of other excessive narcissistic tendencies, they are completely normal — important, in fact, for survival. Used too frequently, however, and they usher you into narcissistic territory.
But the defenses and traits don’t stop there. Burgo dissects extreme narcissists into personality types, case studies, and even celebrity personas. There’s the bully narcissist (Lance Armstrong). The narcissistic parent (Earl Woods). The seductive narcissist (Madonna). The grandiose narcissist (Kanye West and Julian Assange). While each personality type is slightly different, they are all equally fascinating and well worth the read.
When Burgo describes the grandiose narcissist, he reminds us that humans have an innate need to find leaders — and that we often overlook red flags when doing so. He also writes that not all narcissists are hot-tempered, vain people. Some of them are charming and alluring, and appear to be the antithesis of what we expect a narcissist to be like.
The only upset comes when Burgo attempts to offer solutions in the “How to Cope” section of each chapter. In many cases, he advises us to avoid extreme narcissists at all costs.
As many of us know, this is next to impossible when the narcissist in your life is your mother or your boss.
Unfortunately, Burgo describes a lose-lose situation. When we avoid narcissists, it means they are not held accountable for their catastrophic behavior. On the other hand, when we confront narcissists, it triggers their defenses and can result in long-term damage to everyone around them. The best case scenario Burgo pitches is to enable them: to swallow your pride and stroke their ego. To me, however, it seems none of these solutions provide much resolution.
This is the first book I’ve read solely dedicated to narcissism. While the coping section paints a grim picture of a potentially narcissistic-run world, the rest of the text does make one thing painfully clear: it’s much easier to have compassion for an extreme narcissist when you read a case study than when you try to learn from a real narcissist you know.
It’s even easier if we ignore something: that the extreme narcissist we need to be concerned about may be looking back at us in the mirror.
The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age
Touchstone, September 2015
Hardcover, 272 pages