Donald Trump is often described as a textbook case of the downsides of extreme narcissism — the cruelty, the conceit. But the Republican front-runner’s success in business and politics raises this uncomfortable question: What if he also exemplifies the upsides of narcissism? And what if it would behoove many of us to be a bit more like him?
Your knee-jerk response may be, “I don’t want to emulate Donald Trump in any way!” But can we take just the useful pages from his playbook and leave out the ugly parts?
I put that query to Dr. Craig Malkin, author of the new book, “Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad — And Surprising Good — About Feeling Special.” A clinical psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, he begins with a massive disclaimer: “I would not advise anyone to emulate Donald Trump in a lot of the ways that he behaves.”
But broadly speaking, he says, it’s a myth that narcissism is all bad. In fact, narcissism is a trait, not a diagnosis, Malkin says; it’s a drive to feel special. And it exists on a spectrum, unhealthy mainly at the extremes.
“We are surrounded by this idea of empty, soulless, dangerous narcissists, and there are people like that out there,” he says. “But the reality is, what we see in the research is that there are healthy aspects, and they coexist, often, with the unhealthy in people who are extremely narcissistic. So you get the good with the bad.”
What’s the good? “The good is what comes from seeing yourself through slightly rose-colored glasses. There are many gifts that come with that, including better relationships. People who see themselves through slightly rose-colored glasses also tend to see their partners through slightly rose-colored glasses, and that’s not a small thing. People who do that actually have longer relationships. They’re more likely to have longer relationships if they’re capable of doing that with their partner than if they have winning personalities or great self-esteem.”
“In a study of 40,000 people, that ability to put your partners a little bit on a pedestal, not see them entirely realistically — I call it ‘feeling special by association’ — was the strongest predictor of how long the relationship lasted.”
So maybe we should try on those rose-colored glasses and look at Donald Trump. Malkin offers these eight Trumpian qualities worth absorbing, in moderation:
“Pride is a gift of healthy narcissism. Trump clearly sees himself through extremely rose-colored glasses. He’s proud of his hair. But the vast majority of people around the world, across cultures, see themselves as a little bit special, and when we don’t, we suffer. It’s called the ‘sadder but wiser’ effect. We might even see ourselves realistically, or even negatively, but it leaves us feeling anxious and depressed. Without that healthy pride, worse, we’re more likely to attract really narcissistic friends and partners.”
“Few people achieve anything great without first feeling like they’re capable of greatness, whether or not they are at the start. Trump clearly thinks he’s capable of anything, including giving speeches unprepared. And while he can’t, we can all do with a little of that conviction — just not so much that we skip doing our homework, and we come out with word salad. That’s not optimism, that’s hubris.”
“Trump clearly stays the course, and that’s what people find appealing. It’s helpful to feel like you’ve got things figured out enough to follow through on your plans and see where they take you. That’s part of healthy narcissism, too. That’s part of feeling special enough to keep going, as long as you don’t feel so special, so infallible that you can’t correct course without feeling weak or ashamed. That’s where people fall into unhealthy narcissism, and black-and-white thinking. When they can’t correct course, they usually adopt the attitude of, ‘there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way and that’s all there is to it.’ There’s no nuance.”
“This isn’t easy to come by, but Trump obviously has it. We can acknowledge that. It does come from seeing yourself through rose-colored glasses. I should mention even quiet, introverted people can have it — there’s something compelling about them, whether you love them or hate them, you can’t stop watching. When the person is extremely narcissistic it can be like watching a train wreck — but none of us can approach this kind of appeal at all if we don’t feel a little exceptional or unique.”
“We all have doubts. But some of us are overly influenced by other people’s questions about what we have in mind, and healthy narcissism really protects us from that. We can hold on to our vision of the world long enough to make choices — as if they’re absolutely the right ones regardless of what other people say. At least until they turn out to be wrong — and extreme narcissists don’t pay attention when they are.”
“This one actually comes directly out of research on the narcissistic personality. Self-sufficiency is only healthy. It helps to feel like when no one can be counted on, you at least have yourself, especially during tough times. Self-sufficiency emerges again and again on narcissism measures as a gift that comes from seeing ourselves as a little special. [Extreme] narcissists cling to it so much they often push other people away. Trump goes it alone too much — that’s the hubris again, that’s where it goes too far. But for the rest of us, nurturing a little self-sufficiency, no matter what our cultural background, helps us feel stronger when life is challenging.”
“This one goes along with decisiveness and conviction. We find it compelling when people are sure of themselves, right? And healthy narcissism gives us a talent for persuasiveness when we believe strongly in ourselves — so much that we light up the room, or at least can’t be ignored. People listen. Just make sure you have something substantive to say. Extreme narcissists use their persuasiveness to exploit others instead of inspire them.”
8. Big Dreams
“People who see themselves as special enough to believe they’re capable of extraordinary things hold on to their dreams — even dreams of becoming president, for example. We all need to dream. It keeps us going when reality seems to fall short. Dreams sow the seeds of ambition. One of the questions on the Narcissism Spectrum Scale, our scale in “Rethinking Narcissism,” that related strongly to healthy narcissism is: ‘I like to dream big, but not at the expense of my relationships.'”
All in all, sounds like a tricky balancing act, doesn’t it? Some narcissism is good, but too much can be bad. Dr. Malkin reassured me:
“It’s actually not as hard as you worry, because what’s amazing is that what relates to healthy narcissism is a capacity for authentic connection and caring — something called secure attachment in the research. When we have the ability, in times of need, to acknowledge when we’re feeling vulnerable, turn to others when we feel sad or scared or lonely or worried, and trust that they will be there for us, and depend on them — that actually is related to seeing ourselves through slightly rose-colored glasses. And even more fascinatingly, it keeps people from becoming arrogant and self-involved. So that is the tether that keeps us in the center.”
“Rethinking Narcissism” includes accounts of researchers’ attempts to increase empathy in narcissists. So is there hope for Donald Trump?
“There’s only hope for Donald Trump if he can acknowledge where he has difficulty,” Malkin said. “And please note: this is not a diagnosis, but I can certainly talk about narcissistic traits. If you openly take delight in buying and selling people, you’re crossing the line and you need to recognize that. If you go viciously after someone because you don’t like their line of questions, that is crossing the line — it’s bullying, really, and it’s actually emotionally abusive, that’s what we call it as therapists.”
“You have to recognize that those are behaviors that if you want to be a caring, passionate person — with conviction, with decisiveness — that you want to stay away from those things. And you can only do that if you have the capacity to acknowledge vulnerable feelings, like ‘Ugh, maybe I shouldn’t have done that, I’m sorry!’ If you have to cling so much to this image of yourself as unwaveringly perfect in every decision you make no matter how bad it is, then you’re never going to be able to apologize, and more concerningly, you’re never going to correct course.”
“There’s hope for people like Donald Trump or anyone who’s extremely narcissistic if they’re not physically and emotionally abusive– and not all narcissists are — if they’re not in denial of their problems, and they have to have a capacity for vulnerability.”
How best to affect a narcissist like Donald Trump? In a piece for The Huffington Post, Malkin lays out his argument that “we influence politicians with our vote, and our applause. If you applaud open manipulation or ad-hominem attacks, you’re applauding unhealthy narcissism. That is the hallmark of unhealthy narcissism: Extreme narcissists put people down and attack them to feel superior instead of making points.”
I found myself feeling more and more guilty about even writing a Trump-related headline.
“This is the problem: we are compelled by this,” Malkin said. “But the reason we’re compelled is exactly the list we just went through — there are those good aspects, the healthy aspects we should all nurture and are often there in great supply. The problem is that they coexist with all the nastiness.”
Readers, reactions? To check on your own narcissism levels, Malkin has a test on his website here.