What We Can Learn From Narcissists: Keith Campbell at TEDxUGA (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of social psychologist Keith Campbell’s talk titled “What We Can Learn From Narcissists” at TEDxUGA conference.

Keith Campbell – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

“Narcissism” is a word a lot like love: we use it, we talk about it, we don’t really know what it means. And we never know if the person we’re talking to has the same definition in mind that we do.

And narcissism is particularly complicated because of its strange history in Greek and Roman mythology. It comes from the story of a guy named Narcissus, who is this attractive young man who wandered the woods looking for the ideal partner. He had many suitors he rejected, the most famous being Echo, who repeated everything he said.

Eventually, Narcissus stumbled and saw himself in a pool of water. He immediately fell in love with his reflection and froze. He died there. And in this place a flower grew, a daylily which today we call the narcissus.

The term narcissism, or self-love, came to psychology in a couple ways. It was first used by somebody named Havelock Ellis, who was a British sexologist who talked about self-love in a very sort of graphic and physical way — that I won’t talk about.

But then, Sigmund Freud borrowed the term and used it in several ways. He talked about this sort of fundamental love or self-esteem that a child would have for him or herself.

Our connection or our attachment to our own ambitions, he even talked about it as something linked to leadership. Today in psychology, we use the term “narcissism” in three different ways or to describe three different forms of narcissism. And this is where a lot of the confusion comes from.

When most of you think about narcissism, you are probably thinking about what we call grandiose narcissism. This is somebody with an inflated self-concept, maybe a bolder sort of personality, somebody who might be charismatic or extroverted, but also somebody who might be callous, have a strong sense of entitlement, maybe manipulative or well into, you know, use or hurt people.

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When you think about sort of the classic narcissistic actor, you know, politician or leader, you are probably thinking about grandiose narcissism.

The second form of narcissism, which most of you probably don’t think of unless you are in the clinical psychology business, is vulnerable narcissism. These are folks that have some of that same sense of entitlement and the same sense of self-focus, but are relatively shy. And in fact, they can be anxious, have low self-esteem and be hypersensitive to criticism.

So we talk about these sometimes as covert narcissists because they are hard to spot, you don’t really see them out there. Sometimes, we talk about them as shy narcissists because they are shy; sometimes as basement narcissists, as in living in your mom’s basement, spending all your time on the internet and wishing you got the attention that you so rightly deserved while being too scared to go outside and meet people.

Finally, both of these forms of narcissism are personality traits, meaning we all sort of vary on them, we all have some level of both of these. And you can be both grandiose and vulnerable, but the challenge with narcissism, or one of the challenges, is if you become so narcissistic that it sort of pervades all aspects of your life, it can lead to some real problems.

So, imagine you go to work, and you are like: “Everybody suck up to me, high-five! I am awesome.”

You might get away with that, but then at home, you are like: “Hey kids, daddy is awesome. High-five daddy!”

And then, you are like, “Hey, honey! You want to hear about how awesome I am?”

If you do that and you can’t really control it, it can damage your love relationships, damage your performance at work, and eventually be diagnosed as a clinical disorder, a narcissistic personality disorder, which is the third form of narcissism. And this is relatively rare, we are talking about one or two percent of the population at any one time.

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So when you talk about narcissism today, when I talk about it today, I want to talk mostly about the grandiose form because this is generally what we think about when we talk about narcissism. It’s what we have most of the research on, and also grandiose narcissism has some real benefits as well as costs in life.

Most of us think of narcissism as something bad; nobody is like, “Hey, I am a narcissist!” or “Hey, meet my new boyfriend. He is really narcissistic!”

You know, it is generally considered sort of pejorative, but in the case of grandiosity, it can really help. So, grandiose narcissists are really good at starting relationships.

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