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Narcissism & The Dark Triad of Personality

The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.

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For those who don't know, the Dark Triad of personality consists of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. In some areas of psychology, there are considered to be differences between these things, but it is acknowledged that they overlap greatly. In other words, they don't exist independently of each other. Someone who has one, has all. There are some other traits starting to be included in with these, such as sadism or being spiteful, but they really aren't separate. They all go together, are interdependent and are actually functions of each other in many ways.

The truth is, they overlap because the root of all of them is the same - which the research is finally starting to reflect and support. If you haven't guessed, the core root of them all is pathological narcissism. The way narcissism is often perceived clinically can make it appear differently from the other two, but as those who have dealt with pathologically narcissistic people know, there is really no difference at all. It's the same thing highlighted multiple ways and given multiple names.

For example, Machiavellianism is the "ends justify the means" type of mindset, consisting of all the traits that go along with that: callousness, cruelty, deceitfulness, lack of morality, lack of remorse, lack of empathy, conning others, coldness, pathological self-interest and self-focus... Sound familiar? The views and behaviors associated with Machiavellianism don't exist without a core of pathological narcissism. They are pathological narcissism. In some ways, it is an outdated misunderstanding to label this as something separate from narcissism, because it isn't. Even the so-called hero narcissist displays Machiavellianism because they have no qualms about conning or manipulating others to get their needs met or get what they want.

It's not a dark triad thing. It's a narcissist thing.

It's the same with psychopathy. Psychopathy is predicated on pathological narcissism. There is no psychopathy without a core of narcissism. It is what we could call "end-stage" narcissism. It's what you end up with when it's not possible to be more pathologically narcissistic. A normal personality structure is triadic. Even in non-psychopathic narcissists, this is true. "Triadic" means the personality has three parts: ego, superego and id. The id is primitive desire and need, the ego is the part that tries to keep the id in check by finding real world ways to fulfill the id's needs and desires using logic, communication or whatever else it needs to use, and the superego is the guide that keeps the ego in check regarding how to do these things by utilizing morals, empathy, guilt and other things taught by society and caregivers. The psychopathic personality is so narcissistic that it functions without a superego; that is to say, there is no conscience. For whatever reason, this did not develop correctly and it is either nonexistent or so completely dysfunctional that it is rendered completely ineffective.

We could use the analogy of a horse and a rider. The id is the horse and the ego is the rider, controlling the horse and keeping it in check. The horse is stronger but the rider is logical and able to think rationally, therefore the rider is able to direct, protect and guide the horse. Without the conscience, that superego, to guide the rider, we end up with a person who does whatever they want in the pursuit of pleasure and feeling good, regardless of if it hurts others. That is what a psychopath is like: a careless rider with no compass on a runaway horse.

Pathologically narcissistic people who are not psychopaths have a dysfunctional superego, but they do have one. This is evidenced by the pathological shame they feel and their continuous attempts to alleviate that shame, even to the point of living in a made-up reality where they are somebody else and it's just not there. However, even though they have one, their conscience does not operate the way that it does in a person who is not pathologically narcissistic. In some situations where they should feel guilt or shame, they don't (usually because they've justified their behavior with their Machiavellian "ends justify the means" way of relating to others). In other situations where they don't need to feel guilt or shame, they often do - far too much of it, in fact. It's a complicated, backward situation that results in the confusing - and confused - behavior and views that you see from those who are pathologically narcissistic. This is why the same person who can abuse others heartlessly and laugh can also become suicidal over a very small mistake. As we've discussed many times, this isn't just a behavioral, emotional or cognitive problem. There is a fundamental problem with the actual personality structure and as you would expect, it affects virtually everything about how the person thinks, behaves and feels.

Narcissism is a spectrum, and the farther down the spectrum toward psychopathy somebody is, the more narcissistic they are. Someone does not have to be a psychopath to have psychopathic traits or behaviors. They don't have to be a psychopath to have strong Machiavellian traits or views. Being pathologically narcissistic is enough. There is a lot of overlap and everyone is different, so the combinations or ways these things can present themselves are seemingly endless. That they will present themselves in some way is something we can say for certain.

The truth is, Machiavellian and psychopathic traits or behaviors are basically intrinsic to pathological narcissism, because narcissism is the base upon which these behaviors and viewpoints grow. If this kind of personality were a garden, then narcissism is the soil and these other things are the plants which flourish in it. It can be delineated and separated from itself as many times as anyone wants to do it, it can be spread out and parceled into numerous different pieces with different names if that's what people want to do. The Dark Triad as a focus of research has been helpful and illuminating in some respects, but in the end, as Father Merrin said in The Exorcist, "There is only one."