Can ego development theory better explain narcissism?

4 min read

Jason Brien.

Susan Cook-Greuter is an ego development theorist. Susan suggests that the “Ego represents the striving of human beings to understand themselves and the world they live in. It is the tireless organizer, interpreter, and synthesizer of experience. Its task is to turn experience into a coherent narrative about the world. How does it do that? It does so by telling a culturally influenced story about who we are, why we are here and for what purpose.” Susan also suggests “Ego underlies the universal drive to explain everything and make us feel safe, important, and to belong” and “Ego labours mightily to create and maintain meaning and vigorously defends against dissonant information and its deep, unspeakable sense of helplessness”.

This article will examine how Susan’s second and third stages – the impulsive stage and the opportunistic stage – can be regarded as an alternative view to the construct of narcissism. By viewing the construct of narcissism through these two stages, this article hopes to demonstrate why narcissism is considered a form of arrested development and why ‘narcissists’ are often regarded as ‘children’ or ‘child-like’. These two ego development stages can also provide an account for overt and covert narcissism among other traits often associated with ‘narcissists.’ Viewing ‘narcissists’ through an ego development framework can help remove the negative and ‘evil’ connotations and thus draw attention to the true ‘plight’ of such people thus hopefully increasing empathy and understanding.

Impulsive stage: 

This stage is characterised by the beginnings of an ego and so the child or adult can classify themselves using terms such as “me”, “my” “mine” and “I”. Children or adults in this stage are governed by their impulses hence the stage name. They are preoccupied with getting their basic needs met and, due to their lack of understanding of how to get these needs met appropriately, they will act ‘impulsively’ and so without thought as to how their actions may affect others or appear to others. The ‘I’ is of most importance and so relationships with others are limited to what others can provide the “I”. Children and adults in this stage are not capable of mutual exchanges and they will also lack the ability to regulate their emotions thus they become easily overwhelmed.

Opportunistic/self-protective stage: 

Children and adults in this stage lack insight into themselves and they lack theory of mind (an understanding of how others think, feel, etc). They operate on a much simpler level which allows them to understand life in terms of ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t work’. They are also acutely aware of who they can manipulate and who they cannot manipulate. Children and adults in this stage test boundaries to see how far they can go. If boundaries are porous or non-existent, their manipulative actions are reinforced and so they continue with these actions because they “work” and so it makes sense to keep doing what works. Since the children and adults lack theory of mind, there is no sense of guilt or remorse. They view the world in simple terms and so since you reinforced or allowed the manipulation, you are to blame if your get hurt and not them.

The mindset of the children or adults in this stage is often one of “It’s me against the world”. They also view themselves and the world in black and white terms such as ‘with me’ or ‘against me’ or in terms of ‘good and bad’ or ‘winners and losers.’ Likewise, rewards are viewed as ‘good for me’ and punishments are viewed as ‘bad for me’. Both rewards and punishments are personalised. Rewards mean “you like me” whereas punishments mean “you don’t like me”. The children and adults in this stage often feel threatened and scared and so they seek to control and manipulate others in order to make their world ‘safer’. Since they lack the ability to manage and regulate their internal worlds and thus make themselves feel safe, they must control that which exists outside of them. In this regard, the opportunistic and self-protective labels refer to two different types of manifestations within this stage.

Opportunists are aware of their size, status, strength, etc and leverage these assets to intimidate others and so get what they want. The opportunist takes a ‘strike first and strike hard’ approach causing them to be highly reactive to real and imagined threats. Opportunists are often distrustful and wary of others intentions. Opportunists are also action oriented rather than thought or planning oriented meaning they will seize moments of opportunity rather than plan or create moments of opportunity. They are reactive more than they are proactive. The self-protectives however are often shy and physically weak or powerless in some other way (status, size, etc). They focus on protecting themselves by not drawing attention to themselves. They remain unseen because others cannot bully or intimidate that which they cannot see. Both types however actively seek to hide or minimise their inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Whereas the opportunist will fight to protect their vulnerabilities, the self-protective will hide to protect their vulnerabilities. Hiding from vulnerabilities means an awareness or understanding that one is vulnerable. Self-protectives retaliate to grievances through deviousness, secrecy and planning. They are proactive more than reactive. When opportunists ‘lose’ or are they are exposed, the cause of their transgressions always lay outside of themselves. Others are to blame and never themselves – “It is your fault if I hurt you because you didn’t protect yourself”. Blaming others protects one from having to admit to weakness or culpability and so it protects oneself. Opportunist will show no guilt or remorse because in their eyes, they did nothing wrong and you got what you deserved. Self-protectives view transgressions slightly differently. The illegal or immoral actions are only bad if one gets caught. They will display false guilt and remorse ONLY after being caught.

Opportunists are more likely to embrace the spotlight and so become leaders, celebrities, etc. Their manipulativeness, deceitfulness, aggression and underhanded tactics can make them successful within the corporate or business worlds. The lives of both opportunists and self-protectives are chaotic and they are often engaged in conflict, drama and other such turmoils. Since self-protectives hide from attention, they are more likely to be lone wolves or hide behind the infamy of others. Opportunists and self-protectives both focus on dominance and power however they differ in how they view each. Opportunists use dominance and power to influence and intimidate others whereas self-protectives are afraid that others will use dominance and power to intimidate and influence them.

By examining and understanding Susan’s two early stages of ego development – impulsive stage and opportunist/self-protective stage -  it is easy to draw comparisons to the traits and behaviours commonly associated with narcissism and ‘narcissists.’ The advantage of using Susan’s ego development theory to view and understand such traits and behaviours is that it allows us to view the traits and behaviours in a more holistic and logical way. Rather than the traits and behaviours being born out of ‘intention’, ‘malevolence’ or ‘evilness’, ego development theory allows us to view the traits and behaviours as the product of immaturity and arrested development. Ego development theory also provides hope in the sense that since the ego/personality is not fixed and rigid, it is possible for ‘narcissists’ to change and heal given the right conditions.