Vanity can lead you higher

[caption id="attachment_37222" align="alignright" width="250"] FAN MY EGO: US rap star Kanye West has never held back when singing his own praises and was recently ridiculed for a particularly self-absorbed interview with the New York Times[/caption]

NARCISSUS was a beautiful youth. So beautiful that a nymph fell in love with him; when he rejected her, Nemesis, 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" might not leap to mind with PR mogul 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".

When we refer to someone's "narcissism", these days, we do not necessarily mean they consider themselves beautiful.The modern meaning of narcissism, of ego and vanity and self-admiration, came with the birth of psychoanalysis; and "narcissistic personality disorder", narcissism so extreme that it interferes with one's life, was first defined in 1968. "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 deserving better treatment."

In the past, personality disorders were viewed as discrete conditions. 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 expect people to bow and scrape to your every whim, it could be you are so high on the spectrum, it becomes a disorder. But it's only a disorder, if it interferes with your life."

We are warned off narcissism, and vanity, and hubris and self-obsession. 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 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 they do: if they didn't think they had a good chance, even when they don't, they'd 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 might help you 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."

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 don't 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.

Narcissus's story ended badly, of course. – The Daily Telegraph Nacissistic personality disorder: the symptoms ACCORDING to 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 Daily Telegraph