This is your brain on narcissism: The truth about a disorder that nobody really understands

The term "narcissist" gets thrown around more and more often these days. But almost everyone's getting it wrong

Published September 20, 2014 10:00PM (EDT)

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho"     (Universal Studios)
Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho" (Universal Studios)

In Greco-Roman myth, Narcissus, a beautiful young man, catches sight of his reflection in a body of water and falls deeply in love with his own image. This is, of course, where we get the word "narcissism."

What many in today's culture overlook when tossing around the term "narcissism," explains Jeffrey Kluger, author of "The Narcissist Next Door," is that it is actually a clinical personality disorder affecting 1 to 3 percent of the population. Kluger's book goes beyond cautionary tales of narcissism -- like that of Narcissus -- and explores how the disorder affects daily life, relationships, government, Hollywood, sports and elsewhere.

Salon spoke to Kluger about narcissism, group-thinking, how to spot a narcissist and why we still vote for them. This article has been edited for length and clarity.

I was curious why you picked this subject. Did you go in knowing anything about narcissism or were you completely shocked by what you found?

Well there were a couple of reasons I went into it. I picked the topic, first of all, after I started noticing an upsurge in narcissism research. It also because a very, very widely used word culturally, a bit of a shorthand to describe all kinds of behavioral phenomena, so I wanted to [explore] that a little.

And you know, I'll be perfectly candid. I have not been without a little self-adoring behavior in my life. While I never approach that truly clinical dysfunctional level, I knew that there were times that I had been far too self-absorbed, had far too much of a sense of entitlement, was far too uninterested in listening and being as reciprocal in relationships as I could be. And I thought it might be worth looking into this.

The story I like to tell is about when I worked on my first book with Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13. I wanted to write a book on Apollo 13 and I wrote to him and asked him if he'd be willing to be interviewed and he wrote me back saying he would prefer to collaborate, which was fantastic. Jim Lovell, American hero! And the very first thing that happened after that was my professional and personal narcissism insinuated itself, and I was like, "Well, whose name should go first on this by line? I mean I'm the journalist, and K begins alphabetically first."

And then I thought back to 1970 and realized Jim Lovell went to the moon that year, and I went to summer camp. So clearly we were in somewhat different places.

Is there a correct amount of narcissism?

There's no sort of fever chart where, below [this level], you are a healthy narcissist, or above [this level] you are an unhealthy narcissist. I will say that there is a level of narcissism that energizes and motivates, that makes you creative, that makes you particularly value the reward of recognition, but not become drunk off that reward of recognition. And it can be very, very beneficial. The level of narcissism that helps you step forward with confidence and tell your ideas in an engaging and charismatic way can be really helpful.

Whatever else people may like or dislike about Bill Clinton, the man can work a room like nobody's business, because he wants to be recognized, he wants to make a difference. Even if we don't necessarily respect the gratification he's getting from that -- the narcissistic gratification he's getting from that -- the fact is that he's doing to make a difference, to make the word a better place. So, you know it depends on what your larger goal is and how you're deploying those talents to achieve it.

What were some of the most interesting examples of extreme narcissism that you found when writing your book?

Well I certainly think you see it at almost epidemic levels in politicians. Richard Nixon was clearly suffering from mass-model narcissism, a level of grandiosity that conceals its direct opposite. It is often the case when you're simultaneously trying to reconcile those two incompatible world views -- I'm the best and I'm the worst -- that you can generally engineer your own destruction that way.

Clinton did that in a much smaller way. Good lord. He knew that if there was one thing his enemies were lying in wait for when he took office, it was the sex scandal. So he went right ahead and served it up to them, because he was incapable of controlling his own lack of narcissistic impulse control. Incapable of seeing something he wanted and denying himself that. So he's a very good example of that.

Lyndon Johnson is a terrific and terrible example of narcissism with his monomaniacal prosecution of the Vietnam war, and his inability to stand down from it because his point was peace with honor, and "I won't be the first American president to lose a war." You may have to sit with that historical fate, in order to save the lives of 58,000 Americans. So clearly Johnson was a terrible, quite literally bloody, example, even if that wasn't his intention.

We see it in less consequential ways with people like Justin Bieber. You can't look away from Justin Bieber, because he's an unfolding train-wreck.

So you know we see these examples of people who do great damage to the world, or damage to themselves by not being able to keep their narcissistic demons under control.

I'll reveal that I have anxiety disorder. And I thought I had a pretty good idea of what sort of disorders there are, and I had no clue about narcissism as a psychological issue. Do you think that there needs to be greater awareness that this is something that people should get treated in some way? Or at least recognize? Or is it even possible to recognize and treat?

Believe me, don't worry about revealing too much. I have spend a great deal of time in the clinical anxiety world, so I completely understand. It's a terrible feeling. And, as you know, with general anxiety disorder, with phobias, with OCD, with social anxiety, with all ranges of disorders, you know it's a problem. You want it fixed. You can't keep people with anxiety disorders out of psychologists' offices, because they want to be happy. They know they're not as happy as the people around them and they run into doctors' offices and say, "Fix me, please!" There's nothing as quite as gratifying and liberating for people with anxiety disorders as when they first begin googling and realize, "Wait a minute this is a real condition. I can go get this fixed!" And they do go get it fixed. That is because the disorders are, as I say in the book are egodystonic. You know that there is something you want to get fixed.

On the other hand, personality disorders like narcissism, paranoia, histrionic personality disorder and borderline personality disorders are what is called egosyntonic. You think you're not narcissistic, you really are better. You're not paranoid, there really are people who are after you. So until you get over that belief, until you can stop fighting on behalf of your disorder, you're never going to get into a psychologist's office in the first place.

And I also think that for a lot of narcissists, they only get there under duress, and when they get there they still believe that they are smarter than the shrink, and they're only there because nobody understands them. And they fire the doctor very quickly and go on and continue to make a mess of their lives and the lives of the people around them. So, I agree with you that greater awareness of this as a clinical personality disorder is necessary. But I fear that no amount of banging narcissists over the head with evidence of their issues is going to make a difference, as opposed to someone with OCD or anxiety.

Yeah, I guess I didn't understand the extent of narcissism as a behavioral disorder, because I think differently than a narcissist — or at least think I do.

Don't worry about it. You think very differently than a narcissist. Absolutely. I mean we all have these feelings. We all think we're terrific at things, and we all think we're terrible at things, and we all do feel a sense of entitlement. There are simply things that you feel that you ought to be able to accept and ought to be able to conceive. We're not all as empathic as we can be or should be and we're not as interested in other people as we are with ourselves. All of those things are real, so we know what it tastes like.

But the question is: Is that the only flavor on your palate? When you're a narcissist, that's it. You have those handfuls of behaviors and you never get past them. 

How is it that some of the more dangerous narcissists in history have been able to come to power?

What you have to be able to do is sell your maligned idea. You have to be able to appeal to people's biases and appeal to their sense of grievance and on a positive level appeal to their sense of hope and aspirations, even if you're going to betray those promises. You have to be able to sell who you are to people, and people have to come along and lend you the power that you need. Or lend you the support that you need initially to attain power.

Narcissists are very good at that because they're stubborn and they're charming and they're absolutely full of energy -- full of creative energy, full of salesmanship. These guys can sell the hell out of themselves and, in business, the search committees looking for CEOs can't get enough of them. Well, when the search committee is an entire electorate and you're coming in selling yourself, you can do a terrific job of getting that job. And that's a real problem. So you need people who are making the sale and you need people who are buying. And unfortunately narcissists are very, very good at attracting those shoppers.

Is there a chapter that was really surprising?

The one on tribal narcissism. I find that topic terrible and dark and fascinating and all kinds of combinations. I've written a bunch for Time on morality and racism and how tribalism drives those kinds of behaviors. And tribalism in this case really is just narcissism, the grandiosity of the group. So it wasn't too hard to find the overlap in the Venn diagram there. So I find that topic both compelling and awful.

Do you want to delve more into the chapter for the reader who hasn't gone more into it?

There's narcissism of the individual and there's narcissism of the group, and in both cases it's essentially the same thing. We are better, we are more entitled, we are different or at least less interested in the people around us, or the tribes or nations around us, because we're worthier than they are. Our people are the prettiest, our language is the most musical, our clothes are the most stylish. And these people are barbarians or at the very best civilized but crude. We are deserving of resources just as I, as the individual, am deserving of the raise, or deserving of the job or deserving of the hottest girl at the party because I'm better than the other guys around me. Now this has its benign expression in sport, except when people are killed, in soccer brawls or when a fan of the San Francisco Giants is beaten up in a parking lot by a Dodgers fan. Obviously it can get ugly sometimes.

But for the most part you go to a game -- and I would go to an Orioles game, I would paint my face orange and black -- and we are literally different colors. We are parts of different tribes. And for that kabuki-ish three hours, I don't like you and you don't like me. But then we go home, we wash the paint off and go back to what we're doing. It's a good way of bleeding off some of the steam and pressure of those feelings and it's a culturally controlled way of doing that. And there's even a bit of prettiness and pageantry around it. So that's how we contain those feelings and express those feelings in harmless ways and have a really good time doing it.

That doesn't mean you don't feel lousy when your team loses the World Series. Why do we personalize this and feel such a real sense of loss when a game was lost that you do? Well, it's because the tribe has been hurt and you're part of the tribe and therefore the loss is yours too.

At the end of book you arrived at a place of having sympathy for narcissists. What led you to that that place?

Well there's nothing wrong with responding to narcissism with frustration and fear and outrage and exasperation, and all these different things we feel when we're dealing with impossible people. But at the same time, almost all that behavior comes from pain. Almost all of that behavior comes from some kind of internal suffering. So, I'd like to have Kanye West's money and his fame and his privilege, but whatever drives those self-adoring demons can't feel that great. The same is true of anyone. Anyone who is so tormented by internal doubt and a private personal history that affects the way you behave — I wouldn't want to feel the pain the raging narcissist feels.

And on those occasions where I have behaved narcissistically, I know what's driving that. I know the insecurity that's driving that. I know the sense of entitlement that's driving that and that doesn't feel terribly good. Well, imagine if you felt that way all the time. Again, it's similar with all personality disorders: Take borderline personality disorder, in which people cling desperately to their relationships, but at the same time claw their loved ones away. And people just loathe the borderline, the borderline is just in excruciating psychological pain all the time.

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

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