If you have never suffered from anxiety you are lucky and I envy you. An accepted definition of anxiety involves elements of uncontrolled fear of events or event which simultaneously overwhelms and causes a person to freeze or assume frenetic activity to prevent the feared consequences from happening. For example, a person with social phobia would normally exhibit elements of anxiety when asked to meet new people or enter a room full of people whom they know they were expected to talk to. In such circumstances, they will experience internal changes such as negative self-talk “you are no good at events like these” and somatic changes such as a pounding heart, sweating, confusion and even palpitations.
What is the accepted link between anxiety and narcissism?
The relationship between narcissistic personality disorder and anxiety is a confusing one since the received wisdom is that because of their grandiose sense of entitlement, anxiety is rarely associated with it.
Indeed, there have been many psychological studies into ether relationship between self-presentation, anxiety and narcissism which would seem to support this contention. Akehurst and Thatcher (2010) looked at self-presentation in exercise classes. Where most people suffered anxiety about their bodies, Narcissists on the whole, did not.
In decision-making, too some neurotypicals lay awake at night when the implications of tough decisions they have made, have had a negative implications for the lives of others – to make someone redundant; to withhold medical care; to turn down a request for help, for example. In the same position the narcissist sleeps the sleep of the innocent, knowing that they have made the only decision they could, heedless of the impact on others.
The real relationship between anxiety and narcissism however, is much more complicated.
The narcissist’s anxiety for social approval
Narcissists need their narcissistic supply. In this they are at the mercy of the giver. They cannot control it. Without their supply from colleagues, fans, Facebook “friends”, family they have no ability to self-regulate their own sense of self-worth which is very dependent on external feedback. So, if something they say or do is ignored or a performance given a lukewarm review or praise, they are lost and puzzled and their feelings of self-worth can be compromised. This can present itself as frustration and hot temper, but the root cause and feeling is anxiety. Thoughts such as for example: “what do they think of me?” and their reaction to it inside, is different to the outward presentation. Inward anxiety gnaws at them whilst they lash out at an ungrateful audience/ family/co-worker.
Indeed, the DSM describes generalised anxiety disorder as having an “overzealous” need for approval about their performance. Their anxieties may be the same as the frightened child giving their first solo performance in front of an audience, but their behaviour and outward signs may be completely different. Some narcissists may indeed suffer with GAD.
The relationship between shame and anxiety in Narcissism
Yet there is still more and in it a different view of the relationship between anxiety and narcissism. In a recent review article Pincus, Wright and Cain (2014) suggested a third manifestation of anxiety in narcissists. The article presented case studies one typical narcissist and two atypical narcissists seen in psychotherapy. In their article, they distinguish between narcissistic grandiosity and narcissistic vulnerability. They argue that in therapy, the grandiose narcissist is more likely to receive an accurate diagnosis whilst the vulnerable, anxious narcissist is not. They label narcissist who have overt anxiety as “pathological narcissism” and claim that in many cases these people are misdiagnosed and unfairly treated in therapy:
“In patients with significant pathological narcissism, depressed mood is characterized by emptiness and agitation but not sadness. Additionally, their reports of mood and anxiety symptoms are typically infused with resentment, anger, envy, and shame. Finally, clinicians should recognize the perpetuating influences of entitled expectations and perfectionism on mood and anxiety symptoms. Perfectionism in narcissism can be particularly pernicious, leading to both lack of positive reinforcement from occupational, social, and recreational activities and social withdrawal to hide an imperfect self”
Narcissism and “idisorders” the anxiety of the social media age.
In yet another facet of the relationship between anxiety and narcissism we have the influence of new media. Much social psychology research is now focussing on our relationship with social media and online friendships as they appear more and more to replace conventional relationships. There is some suggestion that a dependence on online relationships may in some cases become pathological. A recent study into the psychological attributes of “addicted” Facebook users suggested that such people are more likely to have narcissistic traits (Not necessarily full blown personality disorder). The same users are also deemed to suffer significant anxieties in connection with the self-presentation aspects of self, associated with Facebook exposure. The double-edged sword of gaining narcissistic supply from social media is that it is fickle and less controllable than those in a conventional social circle.
An example of this came from a friend of mine worked in college in England where the principal was known to be a man with a narcissistic edge. The college used a wide range of social media to portray their successes and the principal was usually at the centre of many images. These high profile postings backfired when memes began to pop up using the much-publicised images of the Principal – dressed as anything from James Bond (a publicity picture for a charity event) to the 100% lycra cycling outfit being unfavourably compared to Sir Bradley Wiggins. The principal reacted with fury, expelling students and trying to have the Facebook pages removed. Memes can be cruel to narcissists.
- Akehurst s, & Thatcher, J (2010) Narcissism, social anxiety and self-presentation in exercise Personality and Individual Differences Volume 49, Issue 2, July 2010, Pages 130–135
Pincus,A Wright, A & Cain N: Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment © 2014 American Psychological Association 2014, Vol. 4, No. 4,
Rosen, L. D et al: Is Facebook creating “iDisorders”? The link between clinical symptoms of psychiatric disorders and technology use, attitudes and anxiety in Computers in Human Behavior Volume 29, Issue 3, May 2013, Pages 1243–1254