“Narcissism is connected to traits such as assertiveness and a high sense of self-worth – both of which help people to be successful,” Vater explains. “Narcissists also often seem charismatic to others at first glance, and they can be highly interesting and very persuasive.” But, she cautions, the trait also has its negative aspects, such as lack of empathy and a high sense of entitlement, which make it difficult to deal with these kinds of people as colleagues.
Vater aims to find out what degree of narcissism in an individual’s personality promises future success – and when narcissism begins to become problematic. After all, while some narcissists handle work and relationships quite well, achieving levels of success that serve to further boost their high sense of self-worth, others suffer from the trait’s negative aspects. Internet forums such as Narzissmus.net are filled with discussions in which admitted narcissists complain about being “cold” and “unemotional,” about a feeling of emptiness and the inability to comprehend the emotional lives of others.
Vater is writing her dissertation under Stefan Röpke, a psychiatrist at the clinic and university outpatient psychiatric and psychotherapy unit at Charité, on the Benjamin Franklin campus. Röpke leads a working group that examines the changed emotional lives of narcissists. The group’s research focuses especially on people who have been diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder; at the same time, though, researchers are careful to note that the boundary between “healthy” narcissism and its pathological form can be fuzzy.
“There are people who are professionally successful precisely because of their narcissism. They get along very well in many areas throughout their lives. It’s just that in relationships, their partners often feel underappreciated or as if they are being put down,” Röpke says. It is not until a narcissist alienates someone close to him or her, separates from a loved one, or loses a job that the psychological strain increases and we begin to consider the condition a pathological one.
Narcissists overestimate their own capabilities and underestimate risks. Despite their high sense of self-worth, they have little self-awareness, so they are unable to realistically assess their own strengths and weaknesses. This makes them highly sensitive and acutely aware when others are not convinced that they are extraordinary. Narcissists consider themselves to be magnificent – “grandiosity,” as mental health professionals term it.
Few narcissists are aware that they suffer from a narcissistic personality disorder. They consult a doctor or therapist because they are having relationship issues or problems at work, drink too much, use drugs, or suffer from stomach ulcers or indefinable heart problems. Accurate diagnoses are still few and far between, despite the spread of the term “narcissism” in the popular media. There are gaps in scientific knowledge of narcissism as well: Research on its clinical aspects, in particular, has been sparse thus far, Vater reports. That means there is still a great deal of work to be done in this area.