Narcissism is the desire to stand out, to be noticed, to be recognized. At its best, it can drive you to set audacious goals that explore your potential. At its worst, it can make you self-obsessed, arrogant, and even dangerous. Appropriately metabolizing narcissism is not an easy task. To do so requires understanding more about it.
The Origins of Narcissism
The word narcissism is derived from Narcissus, a character in mythology. According to the legend, Narcissus was the son of a Greek god and a nymph. Known for his astounding beauty, many fell deeply in love with him — simply by looking at him. Unfortunately, he was also an arrogant jerk.
When a lovestruck nymph named Echo fell in love with Narcissus, he was appalled by her, and pushed her away. Devastated, she left to wander the woods until she wasted away, with only her ghostly voice remaining. Outraged by his behavior, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, decided to punish Narcissus by leading him to a pool where he was able to gaze upon his own reflection. He immediately fell in love. Unable to take his eyes off of the reflection, and realizing the object of his love would never be real, Narcissus became despondent and eventually died of thirst. Although there are several versions of this myth, it is clear that being narcissistic is typically not considered a good thing. However, people like Narcissus are few and far between; they usually only make up about one percent of the population. What is more common are our own narcissistic tendencies. Everyone at some point wants to be special, to stand out, and to be recognized. And it’s not based on mythology, it’s based on neurology.
The Biochemistry of Narcissism
Even as an infant, when we are being adored and paid attention to, we are getting a powerful cocktail of chemicals produced in our system. The quick-working neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are released, as well as the longer-lasting hormone oxytocin. Feelings of love, admiration, importance, and safety flood your body when these feel-good chemicals are introduced. This is your brain’s way of telling you something is pleasurable.
While there is an immediacy to the feeling with dopamine and serotonin, it is short-lived. Neurotransmitters are designed to flood and flush our systems quickly. But because they are powerful feelings, once they fade we tend to want more. Our brains are wired to crave these feelings, so we repeat the behaviors that made us feel that way. This is nature’s way of encouraging humans to seek companionship and to take care of each other and form groups. We need others to feel that way - and we need others to survive.
Additionally, within our groups there also need to be protectors. This is not an easy job. It usually requires that a person position themselves at the forefront of danger, and often, depending on the species, risk and/or give their lives to protect the group.
So, nature needed a way to encourage those protectors. Chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin do just that. It feels good to be recognized and adored, which is how these protectors were treated. In an interesting twist, serotonin & oxytocin are produced (in smaller amounts) in those people doing the adoring. Nature also needed a way to encourage the group to recognize the protector - so it balanced the system. The bottom line is that the same chemicals that contribute to narcissism also contribute to our ability to survive as groups. This is the healthy metabolization of narcissism, neurologically & biologically. At our simplest level, we crave those feel-good chemicals, and our quest for finding them is the foundation of narcissism. In modern-day society, the upside of wanting to be noticed is that it can lead us to set audacious goals. To do things that we would normally be afraid to do, and to then discover potential that we never knew we had. So, narcissism can be a good thing and an incredible part of our overall drive. Too much, we know though, can be dangerous.
Finding the Narcissism Balance
So how can we use our natural narcissism to drive us positively and not end up like the mythological nymph? Finding the balance and avoiding dangerous territory can be tricky. Here are three steps that can help you walk that thin line:
Be honest with yourself. Everyone has narcissistic tendencies. Everyone likes to have those feel-good chemicals. The first step of balancing narcissism is understanding that desire is natural. Be honest with yourself about your personal tendencies. “Know thyself” can sometimes sound a bit cliche - but it really does work when it comes to performance.
Understand the biological chemistry. Knowing how those neurotransmitters and hormones make you feel can help you balance narcissism. Understanding that the immediate jolt of pleasure you feel from dopamine and serotonin will soon fade, you can deliberately seek out the longer-lasting oxytocin. Social media, for example, releases lots of dopamine and serotonin but can leave you feeling down after a short period. A great conversation with a friend or loved one, however, will give you good feelings for quite a while. Favor those “real” relationships, spend more time on them instead of scrolling your feed. The other cool thing about our close relationships is that once we’ve established them - even thinking about them provides us with bursts of those chemicals - but you gotta put in the work first.
Know that narcissism is invisible to yourself. Recognizing narcissism in ourselves is unfortunately like a vampire staring in the mirror. It’s extremely difficult to see our narcissistic tendencies, sometimes even at healthy levels. Ironically, it’s incredibly easy for us to see in others - especially those people we truly care about. Those close relationships with people also serve to help keep us grounded. They tell you the hard truths when you need to hear them. When we are getting a little too focused on attention, or when we are getting out over your skies in terms of arrogance. These people are essential to balancing our own narcissism - let them do it. When someone you care about tells you some hard truths - be grateful that you have them in your life to do it.
Beware the disordered Narcissist
These people have a hard time balancing their narcissistic tendencies and tend to want the quick hit of dopamine and serotonin instead of the longer-lasting oxytocin. The quick hits of those feel-good chemicals often make up for their low or fragile self-esteem. These people are also extremely sensitive to injuries — both physical and mental — that may come from criticism or defeat, and they very easily feel humiliated or degraded.
You can tell the high narcissists by looking at their group. People who have tipped over the edge surround themselves with sycophants. Additionally, those relationships are transient since one-way loyalty is inherently unstable. People tend to leave because there is often not enough reward for their adoration - the chemical exchange is one-way as well. Nature is balanced and our natural physiology operates within the same balanced rules. All that to say: beware the narcissist in your sphere. They will often use all of their energy — and others’ energy – to serve their own needs instead of the larger group. They are not, put simply, team players.
Not Easy, But Worth It
Narcissism can help drive you to be your best, or it could be your downfall. Understanding how to balance your narcissism is the first step in optimizing your Attribute. Being honest with yourself, understanding your neurobiology, and fostering honest relationships are critical steps. This all might not always be easy, but it’s definitely worth it.
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