Photo by Rodrigo Basaure via Flickr (Creative Commons).

The narcissist is the modern day bogeyman and we sling around the characterization with impunity–baby boomers are narcissists, kids today are narcissists—assigning blame right and left–it’s the self-esteem movement, helicopter parenting, Facebook.

I don’t think we are a nation of narcissists, as some insist. But certainly narcissists walk among us, wreaking havoc with their impenetrable sense of entitlement, insensitive to others’ feelings, failing in relationships without ever understanding why.

Research into narcissism is a little slippery, not unlike narcissists–or, to be specific, maladaptive narcissists. Narcissism can be healthy, too, if it is paired with empathy. Phebe Cramer writes in a November 2010 article in the Journal of Research in Personality: Adaptive narcissists may be overly ambitious, but they have sufficient interpersonal sensitivity so that they do not suffer the eventual rejection that is often experienced by maladaptive narcissists.

Researchers also distinguish between overt and covert maladaptive narcissism. An article in the journal Personality and Individual Differences maps it out: Overt (ON) characterized by grandiosity, entitlement and self-absorption and Covert (CN) characterized by hypersensitivity, vulnerability and dependence on others.

Most of us probably think of overt types when we think of narcissists, but there’s that clinging, needy type as well.

Finding compassion for maladaptive narcissists isn’t easy, but in her article, Cramer challenges the notion that narcissists were spoiled and overindulged in childhood. She instead asks you to imagine a little narcissist-to-be, yearning for validation from mommy and daddy.

Cramer parsed data from a 20-year longitudinal study undertaken from 1968 to 1988. Participants (and their parents) were recruited at age three, and assessed every few years until they were 23 years old. What she found was that the greatest predictor of maladaptive narcissism was “authoritarian” parenting —those parents who set the rules with no discussion, allowed no backtalk, think children should be seen and not heard. These parents are considered demanding but not responsive.

As is usually the case whenever such numbers are crunched, authoritative parenting, which is demanding but responsive, had the best outcomes. In relation to narcissism, indulgent and indifferent parenting were essentially benign, although indifference paired with demanding was problematic. (Here are the basics on those parenting styles.)

Cramer also tosses into the mix a child’s “narcissism precursors,” identified when the children were three years old. These were the kids who had to be the center of attention, had poor impulse control and tended towards histrionics.  Were those tots born with those “precursors,” or  were they the result of parenting through their infancy? Remember the baby coup? Babies have their eye on things. They know what’s going on.

At any rate, it appears children who are not treated as valued individuals may develop into narcissistic adults who demand admiration. I guess as children they learned that nothing will come to them unless they take it. They grow up into black holes of need for validation. If they don’t get it elsewhere, they provide it for themselves with grandiosity.

Was Narcissus fascinated with his own reflection because it was proof that he did, in fact, exist?

I’m not sure you can undo this particular type of damage—narcissism is a defense mechanism, fortified with denial. Narcissists don’t think they’re broken so they are difficult to fix. Still, compassion is powerful. (Tempered with self-protection, of course.) How might it change our relationships if we think of narcissism as an imperfectly healed wound rather than a weapon?