Narcissism and Incivility: Is There a Connection?

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©2018 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Did you ever wonder where incivility comes from? Is it always what someone else is doing? It seems to have spread far and wide over the last few years. In all professions, in all organizations and in the larger society, we seem to be becoming more rude, more insulting and less sensitive to each other. This appears to be directly connected to the rise of narcissism in our society. This article suggests why these two trends are increasing hand-in-hand—and what we each can do about it.


The Rise of Narcissism

In 1994, the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition—the DSM-IV—was published by the American Psychiatric Association. It indicated that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) was present in less than one (1%) percent of the general adult population. (Personality disorders are generally not diagnosed until adulthood, since children and adolescents are still developing and changing.) This personality disorder is characterized especially by a “grandiose sense of self-importance,” a “sense of entitlement,” and a “lack of empathy.” These are just three of the nine criteria used by the DSM-IV, but it’s easy to see that this personality has increased over the last twenty-five years.

In 2013, the DSM-5 was published and, using the same criteria as before, recognized that the prevalence of NPD may be as high as 6.2%, based on a study done by the National Institutes of Health. While it may be that this study was the largest ever done and therefore more accurate, it does seem that narcissistic behavior has increased. It’s important to note that personality-based behavior exists on a continuum so that there are many people with some traits of this disorder but not the full personality disorder.


Why Now?

Narcissism has been increasing in our society for many years. Interestingly, two researchers have traced this to a specific time period: the early 1970s. The authors of the book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (2009)studied surveys of high school and college students over several decades, as well as articles written in major publications. It seems that this was significantly the time of a societal transition from group goals to individual goals, from emphasis on citizenship to self-esteem, and from self-discipline to self-expression.

I believe a significant aspect of this societal change was the birth control pill in the 1960s and the ability to have smaller families. With families having just one or two children, it became easier for each child to become the center of attention. In 1970, California introduced “no-fault” divorce laws which then spread around the country and significantly boosted the divorce rate. Soon, parents were fighting over their one or two children, to give them attention and to get their attention during the marriage; and to have primary custody of them or equal custody of them after the divorce. Children went from being “seen but not heard” up to the 1960s, to becoming the center of the family and at times making key decisions for the family.


The Rise of Incivility

At the same time, professions have seen a dramatic rise in incivility over the past twenty years. For example, in 2007, the California State Bar Association published the “California Attorney Guidelines of Civility and Professionalism.” Yet incivility increased in the legal profession after that. In 2013, I wrote an article “Misunderstanding Incivility and How to Stop It” for the statewide California Family Law News, pointing out that 80-90% of lawyers didn’t need such Guidelines because they were already civil on their own. I said that the 10-20% of lawyers who were engaging in uncivil conduct had such behavior as part of their personalities and that they would not change without enforcement measures, but there were none built into the Guidelines. Incivility has continued to increase.

Today, we have many cultural and political leaders who regularly engage in uncivil conduct, so that we are seeing increased incivility from children on the playground to the daily news.


The Incivility Connection with Narcissism

Simply put: uncivil behavior is narcissistic behavior. It involves one person putting another down, embarrassing the other, humiliating the other, and so forth, often in public. This is a trait of narcissism, as the theme for narcissistic personalities is “I am very superior to you,” and they repeatedly engage in arrogant behavior that says they are “winners” and others are “losers.” They often even use these terms.

With this connection, hopefully, it is obvious that incivility is baked into the personalities of those with narcissistic traits or personality disorders. This means that this behavior will not easily change or go away. However, the larger culture makes a difference. If narcissistic behavior is glorified and rewarded in the media, we will get more incivility. Those with narcissistic traits will act like those with disorders. And ordinary people will start acting like they have these traits. That is what is happening right now in our culture. Leadership and leader emotions are contagious. Repetition of images of uncivil behavior leads to more uncivil behavior.


What Can We Do?

Yes, we have a more individualistic culture now compared to pre-1970. But this doesn’t mean that we have to be more narcissistic (arrogant, superior, etc.). We can be respectfully individualistic and value each other as equals at the same time. This means we need to learn skills to manage our own narcissistic tendencies and teach skills to our children and the larger culture of balance: respect for all individuals and respect for our culture—our community, nation and planet. Here are some suggestions:

1.  Our Words: We can individually become more aware of how we give feedback, how we use sarcasm, how we promote ourselves by putting others down. Much of this is very subtle and we don’t even realize the way it may affect others.

2.  Our Emotions: People often justify their uncivil behavior by claiming that it is justified because of how someone else made us feel. When we are emotionally triggered, we are more likely to emotionally and impulsively react, saying and doing things we don’t ordinarily do. We can think ahead about situations in which this is more likely to happen so that we give ourselves some reassuring statements that we don’t have to react at all.

3.  Our Behavior: We tend to mirror each other’s behavior, and children certainly mirror that of other children and adults. But we can override mirroring. Rather than: “She just insulted me, so I have to insult her back.” We can tell ourselves: “She has a problem and it’s not about me.” (Notice how I said we can “tell ourselves”: we don’t have to say this out loud.)

4.  As Professionals: In our roles as lawyers, counselors, mediators and others, we can make sure that we don’t speak of others in a case as inferior beings. Even opponents who are arrogant, abusive, lying and/or hostile can be treated with empathy, attention and respect (EAR statements). There’s no point at which it’s appropriate to switch into disrespectful language with our colleagues or other individuals, even in a difficult case.

5.  As Parents: When a parent is trying to co-parent with someone with a narcissistic personality or other personality problem, it’s easy to take on some of those characteristics. Rather than trying to publicly shame a narcissist or other high-conflict person, it’s always better to focus on the future and what you want the person to do—rather than criticizing their past behavior. And of course, it’s better to avoid sharing angry or disparaging remarks about a co-parent with the children. Get support from other adults, who you can privately say anything to.



We’re living in narcissistic and uncivil times. Yet the vast majority of people still act civilly and don’t have narcissistic personality disorder. We need to give less attention to bad behavior and more attention to good behavior in our families, in our professions and in our larger culture. Times are changing and it’s up to all of us to create a better balance of individual and community behavior. We can’t do it alone.


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BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high-conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic, developed methods for managing high-conflict disputes, and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries. He is also co-host of the popular podcast It’s All Your Fault, and writes a popular blog on Psychology Today.

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