The legal profession contains more than a disproportionate share of big egos. But there’s a difference between excessive self-confidence and narcissism. Learning about how the mental health profession defines narcissism can help attorneys keep an even keel, even when working for, litigating against or appearing in court in front of a narcissist.
A clinical understanding of narcissism is beyond the scope of this article, but criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the mental health profession’s classification system for mental disorder (commonly called the DSM), include a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), and a need for admiration and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
• a grandiose sense of self-importance, which can involve exaggerating one’s achievements and talents and expecting to be recognized as superior without demonstrating commensurate achievements;
• preoccupation by fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love;
• belief in one’s own specialness/uniqueness and a corresponding belief that only other special/high-status people and institutions can understand it and thus merit association;
• requirement for excessive admiration;
• sense of entitlement, meaning having unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with expectations;
• interpersonal exploitation, i.e., taking advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends;
• lack of empathy, meaning unwillingness to recognize or identify with others’ feelings and needs;
• envy toward others or belief that others envy him or her; and
• arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
Lawyers, does this sound like someone you know — or like you? If it does, don’t panic, but do be prepared. All attorneys most likely have some characteristics of narcissistic behavior. Those concerned can go online and take the narcissistic personality inventory on psychcentral.com.
But there’s a difference between displaying some narcissistic qualities and having a full-blown personality disorder. A personality disorder is deviant or abnormal behavior that the person doesn’t change, even though it causes emotional upsets and trouble with other people at work and in personal relationships. It is not limited to episodes of mental illness, and it is not caused by drug or alcohol use, head injury or illness. That rules out the bipolar rainmaking partner in a manic phase and the spouse who meets the criteria only when drinking.
Personality disorders involve deviation from what is normal in cognition (perceiving, thinking and interpreting oneself, others and events), affect (the range, intensity, stability and appropriateness of emotional response), interpersonal functioning and impulsivity.
So, there are differences of kind and degree between someone who displays a few narcissistic personality traits and someone with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder. Also, lawyers should know that many individuals who are actually narcissistic do not care that others perceive them this way. Clearly, some lawyers believe arrogance and over-inflated image are positive traits. If confronted, they will claim they simply have high self-esteem that they have earned through their accomplishments, which they will then list at length. The narcissist may also have unique coping mechanisms that allow them to deal with negative reactions. Someone giving feedback to a narcissist likely is not the first person who has shared such observations with him or her.
Individuals rarely seek out treatment but may at a family member’s urging. Individual psychotherapy can be effective at treating narcissistic personality, but the process can be difficult and time-consuming. Patients often are unwilling to admit they have the problem. One of the most often mentioned treatments is cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a method of changing destructive thoughts and creating a more realistic self-image.
Handle With Care
A cross-section of the narcissist ego will reveal a high level of self-esteem, self-focus and self-importance. Narcissists believe they are more physically attractive and intelligent than anyone else and would much prefer to be admired than liked. Narcissists can become enraged if they are told they are not as beautiful and brilliant as they believe, but they are not affected if told they are jerks.
Narcissism affects males more than females, but male and female narcissists share a keen interest in manipulating and charming the opposite sex. Opposite-sex promiscuity is common among narcissists, because they always are searching for a better deal.
Narcissists get angry when rejected, overreacting to small slights and punishing those who don’t support their grandiose image of themselves. They can be entertaining and exciting. Narcissistic tendencies and leadership skills can go hand in hand.
Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder may come across as conceited or snobbish and often immobilize conversation. They belittle or look down on those they perceive as inferior. They also tend to seek others they perceive as equal to their own self-image, insisting on having the “best of” everything in cars, clubs and social circles.
Narcissists’ constant need for admiration and praise drive their personal relationships and interactions. They value others according to how well they affirm their unrealistic self-image, and they can manipulate others to gain social influence. People with this disorder usually aren’t capable of perceiving the needs or feelings of others.
Narcissistic traits are thought to have been learned from early childhood, usually when there is a culmination of parental coldness and excessive parental admiration. It is usually a situation where the caregiver gives indiscriminate praise as well as signals of coldness, which cause anxiety and a state of perpetual insecurity.
One of the most common questions from lawyers is whether they should adjust their practices to counteract the opposing counsel who displays narcissistic traits. The best advice I can give as a psychologist is not to engage a narcissist. It’s generally a losing battle, because narcissists make things all about themselves.
When a lawyer deals with a narcissist, he or she should remember that a narcissist always communicates with a false sense of empowerment. The lawyer should start by acknowledging that the narcissist has a good point, thereby letting this person feel he or she is in control. It is not wise to get into a power struggle with a narcissist. The lawyer then should tell the narcissist how the lawyer sees things from the narcissist’s perspective. Using this method allows the narcissist to feel a false sense of control and power over the other person.
The published data indicates that pro-position narcissism (when the narcissist thinks he does not have a problem) is difficult, if not impossible, to cure. The best way for a lawyer to deal with a narcissist is to understand the characteristics and avoid taking the behavior personally.
Lawyers reading this article who suspect they may have narcissistic tendencies should consider what they want to do about it. As with any psychiatric disorder, the issue becomes how badly patients want to change.
Attorneys who want to change can start becoming aware when conversations turn to them. Listening is an essential skill. Learning to listen can be as easy as repeating back a few words the other person (judge or opponent) has said to indicate that the message has been received.
The greatest paradox of narcissism is that some aspects are not good or bad but simply part of a unique personality. Narcissistic behavior is destructive when it hurts those a lawyer loves or with whom a lawyer works.