There’s Such a Thing as ‘Temporary’ Narcissism (and How to Recognise It)

There’s Such a Thing as ‘Temporary’ Narcissism (and How to Recognise It)

Most of us are familiar with narcissism, whether we’ve had personal experience dealing with a narcissist or someone close to us has. Dealing with a narcissist — whether it’s a parent-child relationship, long-term partnership, or professional relationship — can have a number of devastating effects, including anxiety, depression, and a hollowed-out sense of self.

Narcissism in the classic sense is difficult to treat. However, Carrie Barron, M.D., who is the director of Creativity for Resilience at University of Texas Austin’s Dell Medical School, makes the argument that some people can retreat into a temporary narcissistic state after experiencing a major life event that is damaging to their sense of self.

As Barron recently wrote in a series of Psychology Today articles, “Sometimes reality is too much to bear and a vulnerable person retreats into what has been described as secondary narcissism.”

Extreme coping mechanisms can look a lot like narcissism

This could take the form of a person withdrawing from their friends and family after a major setback, neglecting many of their responsibilities in the process, or a person who retreats into a fantasy world to the detriment of the people who depend on them, due to a feeling of hopelessness caused by something going on in their life. This is what Barron calls “reactive temporary narcissism.”

Narcissistic personality disorder is characterised by an exaggerated sense of self, an incessant need for admiration and attention, and a lack of empathy for others. For many narcissists, they will often cope by retreating into grandiose fantasies as a way of self-soothing when the real world won’t provide the adulation they crave. But there are many overlapping characteristics between someone with narcissistic personality disorder and someone who is retreating into narcissistic behaviour as a way of coping with a crisis, and some subtle differences.

“The fantasies may have a slightly different quality if they are a form of self-medication in a crisis period, as opposed to an ongoing part of an everyday false-self persona,” said Barron in an email to Lifehacker.

Reactive temporary narcissism may be more amenable to treatment

Although this is certainly an extreme coping behaviour — one that can be hard on a person’s friends and family — there’s hope, as this is a type of narcissism that can be both temporary and amenable to treatment.

“[O]ne would want to ascertain how the person was before the massive stressor, the meaning of that stressor to them and how responsive and malleable they are in therapy,” said Barron, in an email to Lifehacker.

In other words, if a person is able to recognise that their coping mechanism is both maladaptive and harmful to the people they care about, and are willing to put in the hard work necessary in order to establish a healthier pattern of behaviour, they are capable of change.

“Patience, empathy, and a slow chipping away are paramount for the treatment process,” Barron said.


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