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Pop psychology speculation about public figures—or even entire generations—who may be narcissists has been a popular sport in the media and across the Internet for at least a decade. But narcissism is also a clinical disorder—and a rare one at that: Pathological narcissism is estimated to afflict about 1 percent of the population, when you consider only individuals whose symptoms actually interfere with their functioning.

Misconceptions about the disorder are rampant, which can deter people who have it from getting help, says Ellen Finch, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology from Harvard University. Finch says the biggest misconception about the disorder is that people with pathological narcissism are out to hurt and antagonize others, when in reality, their behavior is aimed at maintaining feelings of self-worth.

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Finch recently published a study together with Harvard psychologist Jill Hooley that attempts to explain the role of one of the core diagnostic criteria for the disorder: grandiose fantasizing. Psychologists have long assumed that grandiose fantasizing—daydreaming about unlimited fame, fortune, and beauty—is a coping mechanism for pathological narcissists, aimed at helping them shore up damaged self-esteem. What she and her colleague found surprised them. Finch hopes the findings will help to destigmatize pathological narcissism.

Grandiose fantasizing has been considered a core feature of narcissistic personality disorder since the time of Freud. Why is that?

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It’s one of the clinical phenomena that’s most easily recognizable and has emerged in lots of early case reports. It has shown up time and time again. And that’s been reinforced by more recent literature looking at frequencies of certain symptoms in a more systematic way. For someone to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, they don’t necessarily need to engage in grandiose fantasizing. But they do need to have five of nine criteria, and grandiose fantasizing is one of those. It’s one of the cognitive processes that can contribute to the development and the maintenance of the disorder. So it’s less an outcome and more a process that’s inherent to it overall.

 It works until it starts causing problems for someone.

What is an example of a grandiose fantasy? I’m sure it depends on the individual, but people so often talk about this idea of “fake it till you make it,” or the value of ambitious goals. And so how does it differ from those kinds of ways of looking at the future?

One way we think about it is that grandiose fantasizing is a bit more disconnected from reality. So if someone has been a star athlete all their life and is a really promising college player and then is fantasizing about hitting a grand slam and joining the major leagues, that may just be an ambitious future goal. They’re sort of on that track. There’s a world in which maybe they could make that happen even if the odds are slim. But someone who’s in their 30s or 40s and hasn’t played baseball in a decade or two, but is still fantasizing about playing in the major leagues? It’s extremely unlikely to happen at that point. So, our hypothesis is that it depends on how close to reality it is.

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Is grandiose fantasizing always maladaptive?

This is my favorite question to think about, and I don’t think there’s a clear answer. In general, the way that we think about any of these traits is like, it works until it starts causing problems for someone. So we don’t want to pathologize something that might just be an effective way of regulating their emotions throughout their lives. Maybe the person just escapes to a fantasy world when they’re feeling down, but after that they move on with their lives. There’s no problem with that. It becomes more problematic if this becomes like the go-to form of emotion regulation or the only form of emotion regulation. It can also lead to long-term difficulties if someone is hanging onto this vision of achieving goal X, Y, Z for years, and then they fail to meet that goal. So in that sense, it could become maladaptive.

Why are such fantasies thought to be a useful form of coping for pathological narcissists?

That’s really what we’re trying to explore in this paper. The basic idea is that thinking about something really happy in the future makes us feel happy; it makes us feel good. So what we end up finding is that, particularly for those scoring higher in pathological narcissism, thinking about that grandiose future in the moment does a really good job of making them feel better. But it’s a short-term effective regulation at potentially the cost of long-term functioning.  We also found that grandiose fantasizing was less effective for self-esteem—how someone felt about themselves in that moment. The current assumption is that grandiose fantasy is more of a self-esteem regulator. So that was a surprise.

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I was surprised also to read that non-narcissists chose to engage in grandiose fantasizing rather than simple positive thinking when they were feeling down.

Yes, but interestingly, for some of the folks who are lower in narcissism, this kind of fantasizing actually seemed to increase their negative emotions. So people are more likely to select grandiose fantasizing regardless. But then when it comes to actually seeing how good it is at making people feel better, that does seem to vary with narcissism.

What do you make of that?

I think it makes a lot of sense. If we think of an average person with relatively stable self-esteem, someone without narcissistic traits, when they envision something that’s really sort of outlandish, something that feels unachievable, it wouldn’t necessarily be comforting. If anything, it actually might induce some feelings of sadness or inadequacy.

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Where is the disconnect for people who have pathological narcissism? Can they not tell the difference between fantasy and reality?

It’s a great question and, honestly, the next thing I’m hoping to look at: What is moderating this effect? Why is it more effective for these folks? I think one possible hypothesis is just perceived plausibility. People with pathological narcissism generally have self-aggrandizing thoughts and think more highly of themselves, so maybe they just are more likely to think such fantasies are actually achievable.

Lead image: delcarmat / Shutterstock.

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