What Is Narcissism?

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In Ancient Greek mythology, the story of Narcissus tells the tale of a man who was promised a wonderfully long and healthy life 一 as long as he never looked upon his own reflection. Gifted with extraordinarily good looks, Narcissus had many admirers whom he rejected repeatedly as he considered them unsuitable, or not worthy of his own affection. One of them, named Echo, was so heartbroken that she wasted away 一 so as punishment, the goddess Nemesis cursed him to fall in love with his own reflection until he, too, withered and died. The story explores themes of self-adoration and warns of the dangers of self-obsession一and it’s also what inspired the term “narcissist”. 

At some point in your life, you may have come across someone who’s a little too much like Narcissus for their own good. Someone who’s a little too obsessed with their appearance, overly prideful of whatever they do, and who firmly believes that they are better than everyone else. And a lot of the time, this person is a narcissist. 

In psychology, narcissism is defined as excessive self-love or egocentrism. While having self-love is essential for our mental health and self-esteem, self-obsession ー or having an overly inflated sense of self ー can be quite harmful. Extreme narcissism can lead to Narcissistic Personality Disorder: a mental health issue encapsulating grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. But where does this inflated self-image come from? Read on to learn about the psychology behind narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, find out whether narcissists can change, and how to handle it if there’s one in your life. 

Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

What Is Narcissism?

According to the American Psychological Association, narcissism is defined as excessive self-love and egocentrism. Narcissism is a delusional sense of self-worth, wherein one’s idea of their grandiosity is much higher than that of an average person, and there is a lack of ability to recognize another person's point of view. Narcissists usually lack empathy and find it difficult to understand how another person might feel. For this reason, narcissists are often unaware of how their actions can affect others, and it can result in considerable damage to social relationships.  

A narcissist’s admiration and appreciation of themselves is much higher than it is for other people. Narcissists have such an elevated view of their own ego that when choosing a romantic partner ー whether for a relationship or simply to satisfy their libido ー they tend to choose a partner who is as similar to themselves as possible. They also tend to have a sense of entitlement, believing that they are better than others and therefore deserve more. They may fantasize about unlimited power and success, believing that they are exceptionally worthy of it because they are special and unique.

What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

When narcissism occurs to an extreme, this can lead to the development of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (also known as NPD), wherein one’s excessive self-love and egocentrism is so prevalent and persistent that it can affect everyday functioning. The American Psychological Association classifies NPD as a personality disorder, characterized by a pattern of a need for admiration. It is when one’s narcissism has become embedded into their personality and values, becoming so intrinsic that it’s very difficult for the person in question to let go of these qualities. The major difference between narcissism and NPD is that NPD can cause the individual to develop other considerably serious issues, such as emotional distress, or difficulty building and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. 

The Two Types of Narcissism

Despite the dramatic nature of the Ancient Greek myth after which the condition is named, not all narcissists are quite as theatrical: it isn’t always as clear as the caricature of someone who can’t walk past a mirror without pausing to admire their own reflection. Narcissism comes in different forms and types, and not all of them are people who appear to be overly confident about themselves: people who are more reserved and introverted can also display narcissistic qualities. Displays of narcissism are often grouped into one of these two categories:

Grandiose Narcissism

This form of narcissism is characterized by extroversion, dominance, and attention-seeking. Grandiose narcissists tend to pursue attention and power over others, and usually seek power for status. Using the big five theory of personality, grandiose narcissists are people who have low agreeableness, high extraversion, and low neuroticism. Individuals who display grandiose narcissism usually internalize thoughts such as “I am better” and “I deserve more than others.” 

In extreme cases, grandiose narcissists often believe they deserve to have whatever they desire without necessarily having to earn it, or face any other consequences around claiming it. They tend to show characteristics of impulsiveness, aggressiveness, arrogance, exploitative behavior, and entitlement, in addition to an exaggerated level of confidence in themselves. However, this can come at a cost: this can damage social relationships, and most grandiose narcissists are unaware of or unconcerned with how their behavior affects the people around them.

Vulnerable Narcissism

This form of narcissism may not be what a stereotypical narcissist would appear to be一instead, they can be quiet and reserved. People with vulnerable narcissism tend to possess a strong sense of entitlement, and are easily threatened and hypersensitive. Within the traits of the big five theory of personality, they have low agreeableness, low extraversion, and high neuroticism. Vulnerable narcissists also often display instability with their identity. They can become hypersensitive when interacting with individuals they perceive to be better than them, suppressing their insecurities by using narcissism to protect their ego. This inflated ego is used to mask how deep down, they do not feel good about themselves and have a fear of being seen for who they truly are. Common characteristics of vulnerable narcissists include unstable emotions, a fragile ego, insecurity, entitlement, inferiority, and defensive enviousness.

Grandiose vs. Vulnerable Narcissism

Grandiose vs. Vulnerable Narcissism

Causes of Narcissism

It is believed that narcissism can be influenced or brought on by both genetic and environmental factors. Commonly-attributed causes include genetic factors, brain structures, the culture one was raised in (people raised in individualistic cultures are more likely to become narcissists), and learned behavior (quite often learned from parental figures), and parenting styles: over-praised children tend to develop a warped perspective and inflated ego, while over-criticized children tend to develop insecurities that could lead to vulnerable narcissism. 

Parenting Styles to control Narcissist Behaviors in Kids

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

The most classic signs of a narcissist are a strong sense of entitlement and a high level of attention-seeking. Yet there is no singular list of traits a narcissist may exhibit. Narcissism isn’t the same as NPD, either一a narcissistic person might not have NPD, but people with NPD are generally narcissistic. It exists on a spectrum, and almost everyone has some degree of narcissism一and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

In our busy modern and fast-paced world, the occasional narcissistic traits we may all display from time to time can help: Take, for instance, having the confidence to proudly speak about your own top achievements in a job interview, and believe that you are absolutely worthy of landing the role, even if it’s a position that might have been slightly above your reach if you went by a humble assessment of the title alone. In certain circumstances ー such as performing on stage or in the entertainment industry, or having little to no shame in being your true self even if that’s quite different from the rest of your community ー having higher narcissistic tendencies can be a boon. In fact, one study found that people with narcissistic traits tend to be happier, tougher, and less stressed 一 to a reasonable degree, of course. When taken to an extreme, and when narcissism develops into NPD, it can be extremely harmful. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists several symptoms that people with NPD may present.  

  • Exaggerated Self-Appraisal: People with NPD often compare themselves to other people in order to regulate their self-esteem, for example by reinforcing their belief that they are superior to others. In grandiose narcissism, their self-appraisal can be inflated, whereas with vulnerable narcissism, it can be deflated.
  • Self-Directed: NPD people are self-directed: most of the things they do are to satisfy their own needs. It is not uncommon for narcissistic people to set goals simply to gain approval from others. They can also set unrealistically high or low standards to create situations where they may view themselves as exceptional compared to the average person. For instance, a narcissistic individual may join a sports team and push them to win, not because they are motivated by a belief in the team’s ability, or the desire to build stronger team spirit, but rather, a desire for fame and attention from others. 
  • Lack of Empathy: People with NPD have an impaired ability to recognize and identify other people’s feelings. This makes them often over- or under-estimate how their behavior will affect others. When a narcissist puts others down to feel better about themselves, they may not realize how their behavior can make the others feel bad. 
  • Lack of Intimate Relationships: Relationships with narcissistic people are usually quite superficial. In general, this is because narcissists have little interest in getting to know other people - particularly on a deeper level - as they are too focused on themselves. They may, however, decide to build connections with people for the sake of certain benefits, whether that’s to reinforce or boost their sense of self-worth, or further their career. Narcissists tend to avoid intimacy with their romantic partners, since they are afraid of being judged for their imperfections. 
  • Grandiosity: Grandiose behavior involves an irrational feeling of superiority, with feelings of entitlement. It can be either overt (displayed explicitly), or covert (not easily recognizable by other people). Entitlement can lead to self-centeredness and condescension towards others. Narcissists with this trait may believe they’re better looking and more intelligent than others. 
  • Attention-Seeking: Attention-seeking behavior is characterized by excessive attempts to attract the attention of others, and becoming the focus or centre of attention in various situations. Narcissists are also admiration-seeking. They tend to enjoy indulging in self-promoting behavior, and emphasizing their uniqueness. 

Can a Narcissist Change?

Since it’s a part of one’s personality, it’s difficult for a narcissist to change. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible: there are several different approaches ー a lot of which are talk-based therapies ー that can be used to make narcissistic qualities more manageable. Yet their effectiveness depends largely on how committed the person is to change. The first step is for them to identify the issue, then become motivated to address it. 

Although narcissists and people with NPD are usually unaware of these characteristics of theirs, they do tend to become more aware of it as they grow older. Below is a list of common treatment options for narcissism and NPD.

  • Transference-Focused Therapy: This psychodynamic therapy method was initially used to treat Borderline Personality Disorder. It is an active and interactive approach, wherein the therapist helps someone recognize their narcissistic personality and modify it. It also aims to discover the causes for the person’s narcissism, then help them develop a more realistic and reasonable self-representation. 
  • Mentalization-Based Treatment: This treatment focuses on self-regulation and awareness of mental states in others. It is a unique approach that combines various concepts related to the psychodynamic, cognitive, and relational. The practice aims to increase the narcissist’s mentalization: an ability to reflect on others’ views as well as their own. 
  • Schema-Focused Therapy: This approach aims to work on the narcissist's schema – a cognitive framework that supports one means of organizing and interpreting information. Schema-focused therapy postulates that schema is the major reason that causes people to be narcissistic. The therapist will address the narcissist's schemas and reconstruct them to be less egocentric. Techniques like roleplay and interpersonal training are often used in this approach. 
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Like schema-focused therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on the narcissist's thoughts. The CBT therapist educates the narcissist on the theory that thoughts influence behavior, and by changing their thought processes, narcissism can be manageable. This approach also uses worksheets and take-home assignments.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: APA Dictionary of Psychology - Narcissism; What are Personality Disorders?; A Behavioral Genetic Study of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Dimensions of Narcissism; DSM Criteria of NPD; Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Progress in Recognition and Treatment; Transference-Focused Psychotherapy (TFP) for Narcissistic Personality: Engaging Patients in the Early Treatment Process; Mentalization-Based Treatment for Pathological Narcissism; Could Schema Therapy Help Treat Narcissistic Personality?; Cognitive Behavioral Perspectives on the Theory and Treatment of the Narcissistic Character; Narcissism and Attractiveness; Why Do Narcissists Cheat So Much?

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