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Feeling special — a boon or bane?

Tony Blair has been accused of being a narcissistic personality, but there are the pros and cons about people falling in love with themselves

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Narcissus was a beautiful youth. So beautiful that a nymph, a spirit-creature, fell in love with him. When he rejected her, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, punished him by letting him see his own reflection in a pool. He fell in love with it and killed himself when he realised his love could never be fulfilled. The myth stands as a warning against vanity and self-love. The phrase “beautiful youth” may not leap to mind when we think of Charles Saatchi, but he is nevertheless a self-described “narcissist”: After his latest public row, with his girlfriend Trinny Woodall, he sighed: “If you are a narcissist, as I am, you may find it difficult to hold on to your wives.” Within a few days, the author and New Labour confidant Robert Harris used the same term about Tony Blair: “It’s a cliche to say that most politicians go mad if they are in office for more than about six or seven years and they become a member of a club, and become quite disconnected from reality, and I think there were in Tony things we perhaps didn’t realise at the time — of narcissism, a messiah complex, that had merely accelerated this impulse in him.” Vanity of vanities! All is vanity; but when we refer to someone’s “narcissism”, these days, we do not necessarily mean that they consider themselves beautiful. The English physician Havelock Ellis, in the last years of the 19th Century, was the first person to use the Narcissus myth to describe a psychological condition. The modern meaning of narcissism, of ego and vanity and self-admiration, came with the birth of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud wrote a paper about it in 1914. And “narcissistic personality disorder”, narcissism of such an extreme that it interferes with one’s life, was first defined in 1968.

“If you had to summarise narcissism, it’s a feeling of specialness,” says Dr Adam Perkins, a researcher at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry. “Narcissists view themselves as special, as deserving of better treatment than the rest of the world.” In the past, personality disorders were viewed as a discrete condition, Perkins says. One can be pregnant, or not pregnant, but nothing in between; and similarly, one could be narcissistic or not narcissistic, psychopathic or not psychopathic. “But now we think of them as part of a spectrum, like height,” he says. “When we call someone tall, we mean that they fall towards one end of the ‘height’ spectrum. If you really expect people to bow and scrape to your every whim, it could be that you are so high on the spectrum that it becomes a disorder. But it’s only a disorder, really, if it interferes with your life, with your job.” We are warned off narcissism, and vanity, and hubris and self-obsession and all the little galaxy of related personality traits, by stories like that of Narcissus. Pride comes before a fall, and all that. But narcissism can, in certain circumstances, be an advantage.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes how excessive self-confidence can actually help you. “Risk-takers underestimate the odds they face,” he says. Those of us setting up a new business or embarking on some other great and risky venture such as marriage, tend to assume that our chances are better than average; a new business, on average, has just a one in three chance of surviving five years, but people assume their own chances are twice as good. And it’s important that they do: If they did not think they had a good chance, even when they do not, they would never try. “When action is needed,” says Kahneman, “optimism — even of the mildly delusional variety — may be a good thing.”

And a healthy dose of narcissism is probably helpful for certain tasks and protective in certain situations. “If you’re dumped, it may help you feel special — to think, well, their loss,” Perkins says. “And in some occupational settings, too. You could imagine that the commander of a platoon in the Parachute Regiment who believed himself to be special would find it easier issuing commands, because he believes in his right to give them. Someone less confident, more hesitant, might say the same words, but not have the same effect.” It is easy to imagine that such a dose of narcissism would be extremely helpful if, for instance, you were a PR mogul like Saatchi, or a world leader like Blair. “I’ve never met Tony Blair,” says Perkins. “I don’t know him. But he probably is narcissistic - it would be more surprising if he weren’t. It would be strange, though, to call it a ‘disorder’, since he was clearly able to do his job.” This echoes something that Robert Hare, the creator of a checklist for the diagnosis of psychopathy, told me when I interviewed him earlier this year. Psychopaths are often highly successful people, he said: “It’d be pretty hard for me to go into a high-level political or economic or academic context and pick out all the most successful people and say, ‘Look, I think you’ve got some brain deficit.’”

It is easy to believe that Blair is a narcissist — look at all the things he has named after himself: The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, the Tony Blair Sports Foundation. But it clearly has not done him much harm. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection not because he was narcissistic, necessarily, but because his reflection was so beautiful. May it be that Blair and Saatchi and the like are narcissistic (if we agree that they are), not because they were born that way, but because they’re successful? “It’s a chicken-and-egg question — do people get narcissistic because they’re successful, or do they become successful because they’re egotistical? I think it’s probably the latter,” Perkins says. Lots of people remain humble despite success; he points to an interview that the rugby star Jonny Wilkinson gave last week, after he retired from the sport having won the Heineken Cup with his club, Toulon.

“It was a very downbeat, almost worrying interview. He said that he felt like a fraud, that he got too much credit for what he did.” But Wilkinson is by any standards a great champion, a winner; if success bred narcissism, you would expect him to have it. The difference, of course, is that Wilkinson’s success is based on his ability to do measurable, physical things. When he kicks for goal, he either scores or misses — failure cannot be spun into success. “But in jobs that involve bluffing and talking, feeling special might be an advantage,” Perkins says. “I’d expect Saatchi would always have been confident, narcissistic, because he chose a career where it gives him an advantage.” Extreme narcissism, like psychopathy, usually manifests itself in men. Caring about your own needs more than those of others could be evolutionarily disastrous in mothers; but for male mammals, who do not need to invest so much energy and effort in reproduction, not caring about anyone, simply moving on to the next conquest, building a harem, might be advantageous. Saatchi says it’s “difficult to hang on to your wives”, but the difficult bit for many narcissists might be remaining interested in just the one wife. Narcissus’s story ended badly, of course. You could argue that Blair’s and Saatchi’s have not ended as they would like. It may be tempting to draw a parable from them about hubris and self-regard. But the parable will be false. Whatever you think of their lives, narcissism is only in the most extreme cases a drawback: Feeling special, it seems, can actually make one so.

According to the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder can be made if a patient displays five of the following nine symptoms, and other psychiatric disorders have been ruled out: An exaggerated sense of one’s own abilities and achievements. A constant need for attention, affirmation and praise. A belief that he or she is unique or “special” and should only associate with other people of the same status. Persistent fantasies about attaining success and power. Exploiting other people for personal gain. A sense of entitlement and expectation of special treatment. A preoccupation with power or success. Feeling envious of others or believing that others are envious of him or her. A lack of empathy for others.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2014