Jane Austen, psychologist: “Pride & Prejudice,” Another Way of Saying “Narcissist & Borderline Personality”?

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of articles written by people who are angry at those in their lives they label as narcissists. A narcissist, according to the DSM 5, the bible of the American Psychological Association that is used by insurance companies and hence most healthcare providers to fill out the diagnosis codes necessary for them to get paid, is someone with these characteristics:

  • Has an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expects to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerates achievements and talents
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believes he/she is superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requires constant admiration
  • Has a sense of entitlement
  • Expects special favors and unquestioning compliance with his/her expectations
  • Takes advantage of others to get what you want
  • Unable or unwilling to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Is both envious of others and believes others envy him/her
  • Behaves in an arrogant or haughty manner

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is “discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased” at his first encounter with Elizabeth Bennet. He reinforces this impression by telling his friend Mr. Bingley that he won’t ask Elizabeth to dance because “”She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”

Angered by his disdain, most of the locals snub him in return. Elizabeth’s mother later tells her father that Darcy “walked here, and he walked there, fancying himself so very great!” The only dissenting voices in the general disgust against Darcy come from Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte, who says Darcy has a right to his pride, and Elizabeth’s sister Mary, who points out that “pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” These two do not see Darcy as inordinately vain. Darcy himself tells Elizabeth that “”vanity is a weakness” that he does not have. But he does acknowledge that “I have faults enough . . .  My temper I dare not vouch for. It is, I believe, too little yielding—certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offenses against myself. . . .  My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost, is lost forever.” He does not justify these faults; he simply admits that he has them.

But Elizabeth clings to her first prejudices about Darcy. Soon after, she meets George Wickham, who tells her a pack of lies about himself and Darcy that she is only too ready to believe. Why?

Jungian therapist Glen Slater has a different take on narcissism. A narcissist, he says, does not in fact believe that he or she is “all that”; instead, they believe that unless they appear perfect to others, they will be criticized and abandoned. They have been raised to believe that they must never demonstrate a flaw because the minute they do, others will focus on that and make it an excuse to detest them. Which is exactly what Elizabeth does with Darcy. As soon as he admits to a flaw—an inability to forgive—she exaggerates it as “your defect is to hate everybody,” which is not true. When Darcy makes his first awkward proposal to Elizabeth a few months later, she is infuriated by his honest avowal of the issues that kept him from proposing earlier, and retorts that “your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others” make it impossible for her to like him, much less marry him. Elizabeth feels free to insult him because she thinks he won’t really care what she thinks, but in fact he is deeply wounded.

She has penetrated his “perfect” shell, and he will never be the same. He thinks back over his life, and as he later tells Elizabeth,  realizes that “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own.” Darcy’s honesty extends to himself, and he sees how his own behavior affects others and is horrified.

Why is Elizabeth so quick to judge and yet so easily taken in by the man who lies while put off by the man who does not? Here too we must look to the father. Mr. Bennet, although always loving to Elizabeth, is in fact a highly critical person who does not bother to engage with people who don’t meet his standards, including his own wife; instead, he makes fun of them and then goes away. Elizabeth has grown up with a model of male-female relationships that teaches her to look upon flaws with disdain and to see flawed people as those who must be avoided.

Slater says that most people who are “normally neurotic”—that is, most of us—fall somewhere on a continuum from narcissism to what the DSM 5 calls “borderline personality disorder.” (This ugly term, borderline personality, came about because psychologists at first thought it indicated a person who was on the borderline of becoming fully psychotic, but these days there’s a great deal of pressure to rename the syndrome to something like “emotional regulation disorder.”) A person suffering the extreme form of the disorder, says the DSM 5, shows these traits:

  • An intense fear of abandonment, even going to extreme measures to avoid real or imagined separation or rejection
  • A pattern of unstable intense relationships, such as idealizing someone one moment and then suddenly believing the person doesn’t care enough or is cruel
  • Rapid changes in self-identity and self-image that include shifting goals and values, and seeing oneself as bad or as if one doesn’t exist at all
  • Periods of stress-related paranoia and loss of contact with reality, lasting from a few minutes to a few hours
  • Impulsive and risky behavior, such as gambling, reckless driving, unsafe sex, spending sprees, binge eating or drug abuse, or sabotaging success by suddenly quitting a good job or ending a positive relationship
  • Suicidal threats or behavior or self-injury, often in response to fear of separation or rejection
  • Wide mood swings lasting from a few hours to a few days, which can include intense happiness, irritability, shame or anxiety
  • Ongoing feelings of emptiness
  • Inappropriate, intense anger, such as frequently losing one’s temper, being sarcastic or bitter, or having physical fights

Most people are not this extreme, of course. But those who fall a little ways over to the “borderline” side of the continuum do tend to have low self-esteem that often leads them to idealize people whom they then want to connect to in some way, for if they can make a person they think is wonderful like them in return, they can feel better about themselves. (Which explains why people who are rabid fans of something react to any criticism of that thing as if it is a personal affront.) For a while, that is. The problem is that as soon as they discover that the person they’ve put on a pedestal has feet of clay—has a flaw—they flip from adoration to disgust and leave, looking for someone else to adore instead.

Naturally, narcissist types and borderline types are drawn to each other! The narcissist appears, at first, to be the perfect person the borderline type wants to connect with, while the borderline person never criticizes the narcissist, helping them feel safe and loved. Until the crash comes, as it always does, and confirms the narcissist’s fear that they are just not lovable and the borderline type’s fear that they’ll never find their “true love.”

We can acquit Elizabeth of most of the items on the DSM 5 list. She does take what the Bingley sisters consider extreme steps (literally) to avoid separation from her sister Jane at one point, she flip-flops on her opinions about people, and she doesn’t mince words when she is upset with someone. And she puts George Wickham on a pedestal. This is not love, and she herself has to admit that as soon as he leaves the area, she doesn’t really give him another thought. At the same time, her tendency to think in black-and-white terms about people—she can’t acknowledge the positive reasons why Charlotte would marry silly Mr. Collins, for example—leads her to hate Darcy until his letter shows her just how wrong she is, how prejudiced, which not only causes her feelings to flip to admiration, but makes her realize that “until this moment, I never knew myself.”

The great moral of Pride and Prejudice is that both people become aware of how they have created the situation and learn how to move closer to a balanced position. For they do truly need each other. Elizabeth comes “to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgement, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.”

Both need to understand and start to accept themselves before they can move on to understanding, accepting, and loving another. Darcy needs to learn that he can be loved even if he is flawed, and to do that he needs to reveal his true self, as he does when he writes Elizabeth the letter and when he confesses near the end that it was her criticism of his “pride and conceit” that caused him to change and grow up. Her gentle teasing of him helps him to realize that people can see his flaws and still love him.

Elizabeth needs to stop idealizing OR demonizing others right off the bat on little evidence, as she does with Wickham and Darcy, respectively, and accept that no one is perfect–which means realizing that she too is “good enough” as she is even when “society” (Lady Catherine and Caroline Bingley) seems united in telling her she is not. Elizabeth comes to see that Darcy’s genuine admiration of herself, precisely because it is reluctant at first, is worth much more than the idle flattery of Wickham; she comes to value his opinion above all others. At the same time his acceptance of her criticisms of him teach her that she can speak her mind to him and be heard as someone whose opinion also matters. Then they can meet as equals.

Jane Austen didn’t know the terms narcissist and borderline, but she accurately portrays the dynamic that can lead to healing for both.

Dec. 13, 2022 Addendum: Dr. Stephen Diggs informs me that Darcy probably is not a narcissist as such, but instead has a “narcissistic veneer” – he appears to be a narcissist to others, especially at first, but most of the narcissistic traits they ascribe to him are in fact their own projections. When Darcy finds out how Elizabeth sees him he is truly shocked and horrified, but he is also able to admit how his own behavior has led her to make those assumptions. A true narcissist probably could not do that.

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