INNER MISSION: Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist. To read past articles click here.
Narcissism and You
by Bill Harrison, MA, LPC
How many divas does it take to change a light bulb? One – they hold the bulb and the world revolves around them. (Rim shot.) This gender-neutral version of the ancient joke epitomizes how much of the world views people in the performing arts. Actors, dancers, singers and musicians have the reputation of being inordinately self-centered, perhaps lacking in empathy, having poor interpersonal boundaries, being excessively arrogant and generally being rather unpleasant to hang around with. Many folks in show business no doubt share this opinion – not about themselves, of course. But is it true that performers are generally more narcissistic than the rest of humanity? What is narcissism exactly, anyway? Are there any positive aspects to narcissism?
Derived from the Greco-Roman myth about a hunter named Narcissus, narcissism is generally defined as a cluster of personality traits that includes self-admiration or vanity, lack of interest in others, hypersensitivity to criticism, entitlement and shamelessness. Briefly, the myth recounts the story of a handsome young man who spurned the affections of both men and women. The specifics of the plot vary according to source, but the common upshot is that Narcissus sees his own reflection in a pool of water and falls madly in love with it. He dies as a result of the realization that he cannot possess this ‘other’, which is, in fact, his own reflected image. The implied moral is, of course, that extreme self-absorption can be deadly.
In this culture, we tend to use the label “narcissist” to describe anyone perceived as overly selfish, vain or uncaring. We’ve gotten used to throwing the term around without much thought, resulting in the muddying of its actual meaning. Pop culture also regularly fails to distinguish the generic term narcissism from the psychological diagnosis Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which is a specific pathology described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
What if I told you that there is such a thing as healthy narcissism, and that you actually need it to thrive, especially if you’re a performing artist? Zounds, you say? It’s true. Although there’s a bit of controversy in the psychological literature on the nature of narcissism, there’s general agreement that it exists on a continuum. It’s possible to inhabit one extreme end of the spectrum, where NPD lives. It’s also possible to be at the other end, where there’s a deficiency of positive self-regard. Both extremes are unhealthy. Somewhere in the middle is a degree of narcissism that promotes confidence, a healthy sense of self-worth that nourishes your resilience, a non-exploitative enjoyment of your individuality and personal power, and strong interpersonal boundaries.
The one personality trait that most clearly delineates the boundary between healthy and pathological narcissism is empathy. Empathy is a person’s ability to vicariously and accurately experience another person’s emotional state or point of view. As Brene Brown points out, empathy promotes connection between people. Individuals at the pathological end of the narcissism spectrum do not have the capacity for empathy. They are so self-involved that they are unable to get outside of their own narrow perspective, even for a moment. This characterological impediment prevents extreme narcissists from experiencing true intimacy with other people, and is the main reason they are so difficult to co-exist with.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no data to support the idea that performers are any more narcissistic than the general population – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, of course. What I believe is true, however, is that people in the arts and entertainment community need a healthy dose of narcissism to survive. If you’re singled out as “special” because of your talent at an early age, it may fuel your sense of self-importance. But the expectation of continued excellence and achievement also creates a tremendous internal tension, characterized by uncertainty, self-doubt and pressure to succeed. “Who would I be if I wasn’t talented?” “Would my parents (teachers, friends, et al) still love me if I didn’t have some special ability?” “What would happen to me if I don’t live up to my vaunted potential?”
In addition, show business is guaranteed to challenge your self-esteem. Auditioning and performing are inherently ego-threatening activities. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, actors, dancers and musicians make themselves vulnerable to scrutiny and criticism every time they take the stage. They are constantly being evaluated, cast or not cast, hired or not hired – often in maddeningly arbitrary ways. Trying to survive, let alone thrive in this environment is just about impossible for people with a fragile sense of self. Healthy narcissism can therefore be understood as the ability to maintain one’s sense of self-worth throughout and despite the everyday situations that threaten it.
Here’s a chart outlining the differences between healthy and pathological narcissism:
|HEALTHY NARCISSISM||PATHOLOGICAL NARCISSISM|
|Reality-based (self-aware)||Fantasy-based (self-deceiving)|
|Accountable for one’s actions||Blames others for one’s own actions|
|Ability to regulate emotions||Emotions out of control|
|Keeps judgments in check||Highly judgmental|
|Firm, reasonable interpersonal boundaries||No boundaries|
|May enjoy fame, power or wealth||Relentlessly pursues fame, power or wealth|
|Genuine concern for others||No interest in the welfare of others|
|Empathic||No ability to sense others’ feelings|
|Consistent set of applied values||Willingness to subvert or ignore values for personal advancement|
|“Good enough” childhood||Childhood abuse and/or neglect|
Of course, someone with excessive narcissism is very unlikely to know it. The very nature of this psychological malady precludes that kind of awareness. This is one reason why NPD is such a difficult disorder to diagnose and treat. However, if you’re able to take direction, hear criticism without much defensiveness and sustain healthy relationships with family, friends and peers, you’re probably OK. If you fall apart after every audition or have trouble bouncing back from a less-than-stellar performance or evaluation, you may need to do some work to bolster your self-worth. Healthy narcissism can be increased with help, effort and time. If you plan on making a career in the performing arts a strong, resilient sense of self is essential.