On the last track, we discussed three aspects of the ambivalence of feeling commonly found in narcissistic clients. These three aspects of the ambivalence of feeling in narcissistic clients included: early childhood development; confidence vs. self-dissatisfaction; and altruism and manipulation.
On this track, we will examine four degrees of narcissism. The four degrees of narcissism include: phallic narcissism; the narcissistic character; the borderline personality; and the psychopathic personality.
4 Degrees of Narcissism
Degree #1: Phallic Narcissism
The first degree of narcissism that we will discuss is phallic narcissism. In its least pathological form, narcissism is the term applied to the behavior of clients whose self-esteem is invested in the seduction of the opposite sex. It is these personalities who have been described as phallic-narcissistic in the psychoanalytical literature. Although the term “phallic” widely applies to the male gender, female clients are not exempt from this type of narcissism. For the sake of this course, “phallic narcissism” may apply to women as well as men.
The importance of the concept of phallic-narcissism is twofold:
-- 1. First, it underlines the intimate connection between narcissism and sexuality—specifically, sexuality in terms of sexual potency, the symbol of which is the phallus.
Second, it describes a relatively healthy character type, in whom the narcissistic element is at a minimum.
Clients who are diagnosed with phallic narcissism are often confident, arrogant, and impressive, using their sexuality and power of seduction to control the opposite sex.
In turn, those who fall prey to the narcissist’s attentions feed the client’s ego.
Greg, age 26, constantly described what he called his “sexual conquests.” He stated, “Whenever I’m at a party, I’m always the one with the good sex story. I have a new partner about twice a week, three if I party on Thursday. When I was in my frat at college, I was the ‘stud.’ No ladies could resist me.” I asked him what else he told his friends at parties, if he shared with them his fears and hopes.
He stated, “Nah, that’s not the type of guys I hang out with. They wanna hear about my romp in the sack the night before.” I then stated, “Have you ever tried opening up with your friends? Why is it, do you think, that all you ever project about yourself involves your sexual prowess? You’ve never described yourself as caring, driven, or loyal. Those characteristics do not seem too high on your list of values. Instead, you are governed by your libido. That’s what you have, and that’s all you feel you are good at.” Think of your Greg. How does he or she exhibit the characteristics of phallic narcissism?
Degree #2: The Narcissistic Character
The second degree of narcissism that we will discuss is the narcissistic character. These clients have a more grandiose image than phallic-narcissists. These types of clients, as James F. Masterson points out, have a need to be perfect and to have others see them as perfect. Indeed, narcissistic characters can display numerous achievements and seeming success, for they often show an ability to get along in the world of power and money.
They may think too highly of themselves, but others may think highly of them too, because of their worldly success. However, narcissistic characters are completely out of place in the world of feelings and do not know how to relate to other people in a real and human way. While the phallic-narcissist may recognize that he is inferior in some ways to others, the narcissistic character does not make this realization.
Jeff, age 45, described the feeling as being like a celebrity. Jeff stated, “I felt like an important dignitary or movie star when I’m walking down the street. You know when the cops push adoring fans to the side? That’s how it feels. I think that other people are stepping out of their way for me. I know it’s an irrational thought, but that’s how it feels.” Think of your Jeff. Is he or she a narcissistic character?
Technique: Reality Check
To help narcissistic character clients like Jeff, I suggest that he try the “Reality Check” exercise. Because narcissistic characters are often removed from the perceived illusion of a situation and the actual reality, I asked Jeff that the next time he walked down the street he stop himself and carefully examine his surroundings. Most importantly, I wanted him to take the focus off of himself. I asked him to look at the other people passing by him and compliment them in his mind. I stressed that he was not to bring himself into any of these compliments, but to strongly concentrate on others around him.
The next week, he stated, “It worked, in a way. I didn’t feel any less superior, but I stopped thinking everyone was looking at me. I saw an old man and thought, ‘He probably has been through a lot in his life and has wisdom to bestow on anyone listening.’” Although Jeff’s narcissistic character has not fully evaporated, he can become more aware of those outside of his own sphere of self. However, with narcissistic characters, clients may only be projecting an image to the therapist to gain approval. They may have stated that they completed the exercise, but in truth, they still focused on themselves whenever an opportunity arose.
Think of your Jeff. How would be able to distinguish between a sincere client and one who is still projecting an image?
Degree #3: The Borderline Personality
The third degree of narcissism is the borderline personality. These types of clients may or may not overtly display the typical symptoms of narcissism. Some borderline personalities project an image of success, competence, and command in the world. In contrast to the front of narcissistic characters, however, this façade readily crumbles under emotional stress, and the person reveals the helpless and frightened person within.
Unlike the narcissistic personality, the show of success does not provide any protection against depression. Often, these types of clients enter treatment with the complaint of depression. Narcissistic characters and borderline personalities may share the same types of fantasies, but borderline personalities do not have as strong an ego behind these fantasies as a narcissistic character does.
Dean, age 22, did not present a commanding or self-consciously handsome appearance. However, this outer façade covered a hidden narcissistic tendency. When I asked Dean to describe himself, he stated, “I feel I am strong, energetic, capable. I feel I am smarter and more competent than all others, and I should be recognized as such. But I hold myself back. I was born to be on top! I was born a king, superior to everyone else! I feel the same way on the sexual level. Sex should just be offered to me! Women should cater to my needs, but I act out the opposite. I hold back.”
Although his grandiose fantasies replicate those of the narcissistic character, Dean excuses himself by saying, “I hold back.” Think of your Dean. What narcissistic characteristics is he or she hiding?
Degree #4: The Psychopathic Personality
In addition to the phallic narcissist, the narcissistic character, and the borderline personality, the fourth degree of narcissism is the psychopathic personality. Clients who display a psychopathic personality display a level of superiority that borders on contempt for humanity. Like the other degrees of narcissism, psychopathic clients deny their feelings. However, the psychopathic narcissist is distinctly characterized by moments of “acting out” in antisocial ways. They will lie, cheat, steal, even kill without any sign of guilt or remorse.
These episodes of acting out portray an impulsive type of behavior that ignores the feelings of other people and is generally destructive to the best interests of the self. These impulses stem from experiences in early childhood that were so traumatic and so overwhelming that they could not be integrated into the developing identity. Although narcissistic characters and borderline personalities do act out, as Masterson points out, “The acting out of the psychopath compared to that of the borderline or narcissistic disorders is more commonly antisocial and usually of long duration.”
Jenna, age 32, had moved up in her company to vice-president of her company, largely due to her inability to sympathize with other people. She stated, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world in the corporate business. Don’t get caught with milkbone underwear, or you’re going to get eaten alive. I got where I am by being ruthless, unmerciful, and unforgiving. I don’t regret a goddamn thing. I have to look out for my neck, not others.”
Jenna brings out an interesting point about Western culture. Success and those who achieve this success often display psychopathic traits. Their inability to feel for others allows them to make cruel decisions without batting an eye. It is in this way that many future CEOs climb the corporate ladder. Think of your Jenna. Has he or she completely lost his or her ability to sympathize with others?
On this track, we discussed four degrees of narcissism. The four degrees of narcissism included: phallic narcissism; the narcissistic character; the borderline personality; and the psychopathic personality.
On the next track, we will examine three aspects of the lack of feeling in narcissistic clients. These three aspect of the denial of feeling in narcissistic clients include: overt denial; treatment of others; and suppression of emotion.
What are the four degrees of narcissism? To select and enter your answer go to .