It’s common for mental health professionals to have a notion of narcissism as a conglomeration of characterological features occurring solely in psychologically corrupted individuals. However, there seems to be a vague awareness of the possibility of mental health providers displaying some of these personality traits.
It is rather unusual to contemplate that altruistic career aspirations can unconsciously become distorted into ego-driven ambitions of owning more titles, distinctions, awards, salaries and exclusive jobs, for example. Therefore, if we explore the altruistic nature of the mental health profession we may argue why such ego driven impulses are even present in the work we do.
There is enough literature already on the clinical presentation of a narcissistic personality disorder. They tend to present themselves as overachievers in distinct areas of their lives and will look for constant re-assurance and admiration from others.
Their grandiosity is usually based on fantasy ideals of socially esteemed constructs. When confronted, they tend to react defensively. Also, their empathy for others is secondary to their unique special attributes, which is a reason why they are likely to devalue people around them.
An important aspect about subjects with narcissistic personalities is that they can be socially functional. Therefore, they rarely seek therapy on their own. They usually seek therapy when it’s asked by their partner, suggested by an enforcing social agency (i.e. DCF) or mandated by court.
The root of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is yet unclear. However, there are many theories that recurrently point out to a fragile ego identity that leads to a sense of inferiority. As a defense mechanism, the subject tends to overcompensate by fantasizing about an idealized self-concept of themselves. This internalization helps them endure and disguise their shame about their true self.
Our society seems to over value the self-image of individuals. This experience is seen at a very young age in life, when our caregivers constantly remind us to “study in order to become someone in life.”
People who are not able to accomplish this goal may be left with a feeling of shame and failure. In order to manage their distress, they may eventually turn into unhealthy behaviors (i.e. workaholic, drugs, hyper-sexuality, criminal activity, etc.).
There appears to be a general belief in our culture that if you own more, you are better by default. Individualistic competition is usually rewarded with power and distinction from society.
This superiority charade permeates into the collective unconscious of our society as something desired and something for which to aspire. Therefore, people generally tend to get inspired (and obsessed at times) by those who enjoy of more materialistic possessions and social recognition
Mental health professionals are commonly trained and/or fostered to compete mercilessly against each other in higher educational institutions. It is usual to notice apprentices and professors undermining the work of other clinical programs (i.e. M.D. vs. Ph.D. vs. Psy.D. vs. Ed.D. vs. M.S.W. vs. M.S. vs. M.A., etc.) instead of acknowledging its value.
In the same way, it is common to observe researchers, clinicians and professors in the field getting into endless debates about their grandiose-like work and attacking those who don’t agree with their intellectual superiority.
Such people tend to enjoy these narcissistic-like intellectual battles, and can certainly get addicted over time to their thrill.
Aspirational goals should never be seen as negative, but on the contrary a healthy feature of human life. It is solely when career aspirations turn into obsessions, when the subject begins a journey into a destructive pattern of thoughts, emotions, attitudes and behaviors. Nonetheless, even if the subject gets what he longs for, his insatiable ego will most likely continue to push back by seeking other objects representative of power.
Throughout this greedy path, the subject learns the game of getting what he believes should be awarded to him.
If the subject’s morality is not well founded, he may even go as far as necessary regardless of how unethical it may be. If the mission is accomplished the person is rewarded by a feeling of power and control. However, if the subject fails, he is left with a feeling of shame, guilt and low self-esteem.
When the tragedy of failing the mission occurs the subject may also become resentful toward others he believes are holding the trophy (i.e. object) of his admiration. Constant criticism against others is common, as an unconscious act to reduce the anxiety it creates being unable to satisfy his own narcissistic needs.
In this act of narcissistic rage, the subject is left struggling with resentments and will usually look to disguise his/her identity through the creation of superior fantasy ideals of the self.
Even though it’s healthy to challenge ourselves in order to achieve our professional goals, we must never forget what motivated us to become mental health professionals. Narcissistic-like extensions of what is socially idealized can cause us a load amount of distress, because it can easily detach us from our true aspirations in life.
This situation is usually observed in people who take prestigious jobs they dislike because they are obsessed with power. As a result, these people tend to get bored and/or irritated at work and have a difficult time giving all of their effort on a daily basis.
We must never forget that we are not only dealing with our happiness, but with human lives (either directly or indirectly) as well.
Society is filled with mirages of what is better for us. However, it is up to each individual to find his/her correct path regardless of the standards of others. Trying to deny our professional identity will most likely result in a tiring struggle with our ego. Our ego will look to confuse us either by making us feel hopeless or by creating unrealistically inflated expectations of ourselves.
By putting aside our ego, we unleash our true unique potential. Losing our career path at the mercy of others will only shut down the spark of our motivation, making us feel miserable at what we do.
Regardless of our genetics, culture, relationships and education, we all have the power to decide at present in favor or against ourselves. In order to achieve the former, it’s important to find what truly makes us happy.
Identifying our professional areas of interest and strengths is a good way to start. Cnsulting mentors and supervisors for guidance is another great way to support our goals. Just remember to decide to do something that you feel passionate about, and not something that you should do because others believe it’s a better fit for you.
The information presented in this article has no empirical evidence and relies solely on the subjective experience of a recent graduate in clinical psychology. The author hopes to create an awareness about the most outstanding feature of becoming a mental health professional: altruism.
He also hopes that higher education institutions place more emphasis on cooperative work, which he believes is a fundamental skill to have now more than ever when agencies seem to be transcending titles and distinctions in favor of professionals who are able to work in a team environment.
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