Narcissism: What is It?

Defining Narcissism

Narcissism Definition

Narcissism can also be called pathological self-absorption. But when we’re talking about toxic narcissism, there’s a very important personality quality that all toxic narcissists share: the lack of empathy.

Narcissism first identified as a “mental disorder” in 1898 by a British physician named Havelock Ellis. Today, we use the label “narcissistic personality disorder.” 

General characteristics of narcissism include an inflated self-image, delusional fantasies, an apparent sense of confidence and a cold-hearted approach to dealing with others. While the narcissist may appear to be very confident in his or her self, their composure can be shaken by a narcissistic injury or a situation that threatens their ability to feel superior to other people.

People who rank high on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory test (NPI) are likely to take people around them for granted and to exploit people without remorse. The term “narcissism” was taken from the mythological Narcissus, who was said to have fallen in love with his own reflection so deeply that he stared at it for so long without food or water and died.

Famed psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that while narcissism is a normal stage in child development, it should be considered a personality disorder if it remains part of the personality after puberty.

How Narcissism is Diagnosed

Narcissistic personality disorder must be officially diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist through a proper clinical evaluation. While we can figure out that someone is toxic on our own, the official diagnosis must be done by a medical professional. NPD was defined by the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013.

Noted were the personality traits of grandiosity and attention-seeking, along with major impairments in the way these types of personalities function in society. Also noted are the following common qualities of narcissistic personality disorder:

  • Relying excessively on outside sources (other people) to regulate self-esteem. (See also narcissistic supply)
  • Seeing him/herself as exceptional
  • Obvious lack of empathy
  • More often than not, relationships are superficial as opposed to deep and meaningful

In general, people with NPD don’t change; that is, the qualities mentioned above aren’t due to any medical condition, drug use or abuse, and they aren’t related to any developmental issues.

Important to Note: Many researchers also note that there are people who seem to fall into what they call a “narcissistic personality type.” These people have many (or all) of the qualities shared here but may not be diagnosable because they are on the lower end of the spectrum, which in some cases can still be considered “within the normal range” of personalities. So, researchers say, this is a less extremem form of narcissism.

Signs and Symptoms of Narcissism

According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder and the severity of symptoms vary. People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can:

  • Be envious of others and believe others envy them
  • Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious
  • Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
  • Exaggerate achievements and talents
  • Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
  • Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exploit or take advantage of others to get what they want
  • Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
  • Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office
  • Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior

And people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) will also have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism, and they can:

  • Become impatient or angry when they don’t receive special treatment
  • Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change
  • Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection
  • Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior
  • Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation
  • Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted
  • React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior

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Narcissism FAQ

Identifying a Toxic Narcissist

What are the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, the official list of symptoms is as follows.

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

What are codependency and enmeshment and what do they have to do with narcissists?

Enmeshment and co-dependency are two unfortunate byproducts of toxic family relationships. In a co-dependent relationship, one or both family members involved are psychologically influenced or controlled by the other–or they may need that other person to help fulfill their own needs or even to feel whole.

Related: What You Need to Know if You Love a Narcissist

While the term “co-dependent” was originally coined by the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery group, it has since been adopted by psychologists and other mental health professionals.

“A co-dependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior,” says author Melody Beattie, in her book, Codependent No More.

Enmeshment goes hand-in-hand with co-dependence. When you are enmeshed with another person, it means that you depend on that person to define your identity, your sense of being good enough or worthy of having good things in your life, your overall sense of well-being and even your own safety and security. Or, to put it more clearly–you are enmeshed when you can’t feel like a whole or satisfied person without the approval or presence of another person.

Being enmeshed with a toxic family member is unhealthy for all involved–it isn’t compatible with being an individual. Enmeshment takes away your personal power and the ability to manifest your true desires.

If you think you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, check out this resource page – and don’t forget to join my new online support group, SPAN, right here. 

Isn't Narcissism Just High Self-Esteem?

“They tend to exaggerate in an immensely obvious way – as people they’re unusual in their personality,” says clinical psychologist Jillian Bloxham. “It becomes very evident when a person is narcissistic.”

Healthy self-esteem is important for everyone, but some people develop an over-inflated sense of self-importance that leads to the belief that other people’s feelings, thoughts and beliefs have no relevance. This is the first sign many people recognize in a person who suffers from NPD.

NPD is a tricky condition, because often, narcissists don’t even realize anything is wrong–so identifying narcissistic personality disorder can be a challenge–but mostly for the narcissists themselves.

In general, narcissists are known for their sense of personal entitlement that causes them to expect people around them to cater to their every desire, to anticipate their every need and to respond post-haste in fulfilling them.

“It is good to think highly of yourself – but for these people it is out of control,” says personality disorders expert and consultant forensic psychologist Kerry Daynes. “It has gone off the scale.”

What is the 'False Self' of a Narcissist?

While a narcissist may appear to be an upbeat, happy person to outsiders in his or her life, people who know him or her intimately are likely to see a whole other personality. This can manifest in several ways–but a primary marker is that they are unable to empathize with those around them, and they consistently blame others for problems they’ve caused.

How do you deal with a narcissist in a relationship?

As with any other toxic family situation, it may be best to distance yourself from a person with NPD. This is especially true because they don’t generally realize that anything is wrong. Plus, there is currently no known “cure” for NPD–though if a person affected with it seeks therapy, change is possible. However, it’s very unusual for a person with NPD to seek therapy since they don’t see a problem with their behavior.

“Why would someone who thinks they’re special and great come for therapy?” Bloxham says.

What is love bombing?

Also known as the idealization phase, love bombing is how a narcissist gets you to commit to them and it’s what they use to intermittently reinforce the relationship throughout. In short, it’s how they keep you feeling tiny bits of hope as the relationship goes on, and in the beginning, it’s that the “honeymoon” phase that never fails to dazzle. In other words, people with NPD are good at making those around them, especially people who don’t know them intimately, believe that they are something special. Family members of people dealing with NPD will typically find themselves trying to please him or her, and feeling guilty if they fail. They may even be afraid of how the person with NPD will react if their desires can’t be met or if they are defied in some way.

How do you know if you have a toxic family relationship?

In general, if you feel like you’re being emotionally, physically, spiritually or otherwise abused, manipulated or mistreated by any family member on a regular basis, there is an element of toxicity.

Related: 44 Warning Signs You’re Being Emotionally Abused

These family members can include your spouse and other nuclear family members, but also extended family such as parents and in-laws, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents and other relations.

Your toxic family member may over-criticize you or openly judge you for your personal choices, or they may be a little sneakier about it by gossiping or telling lies about you (or your choices) behind your back.

Related: Top 10 Warning Signs You’re Being Gaslighted by a Toxic Narcissist

Some family members may take it to a whole other level and actually attempt to wreak havoc in your life or even to control, destroy or alter your nuclear family, domestic situation or other outside relationships.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

What are some signs of a toxic relationship?

  • Overstepping Boundaries–Psychological boundaries are defined as perceptions or beliefs that people hold in relation to their social group memberships, including but not limited to families, as well as their own identities and overall self-concepts. In part, boundaries help us to distinguish ourselves from other people–you know, that thing which separates “I” from “We.” Boundaries also help us define how we are linked together within our families and extended families. Toxic family members often have trouble with boundaries. That is, they will often feel entitled to involve themselves in your life on an unhealthy level. They may try to make you feel responsible for their emotions or their circumstances, blame you for things that you have no control over or try to control you and your choices.
  • Unfair or Unrealistic Requirements–Toxic family members generally have different beliefs or perspectives than you when it comes to things like trust, responsibilities, money, time and attention. They may become angry if you don’t do as they wish, even if it doesn’t directly affect them–but especially if it does. For example, if you are unable to attend a family gathering, a toxic person might try to make you feel guilty or simply stop speaking to you.
  • Double Standards–Many toxic family members hold tightly to their own double standards. For example, they may expect you to keep their secrets or “have their backs” when other people gossip negatively about them, but they can’t or won’t offer you the same courtesy.
  • Manipulation–Toxic family members are master manipulators–and they will deny it if you call them on it. They will use every manipulation technique at their disposal in order to control you. They may cry, scream, argue, beg–anything they can think of to get you to do what they want, even if what they want isn’t what’s best for you. And, if the first technique doesn’t work, they’ll often move down the list.

How do you know it’s NPD?

As you can guess from the official list of symptoms above, diagnosis of NPD would typically be made when five or more of the characteristics are identified – but generally, the condition goes undiagnosed because narcissists see nothing wrong with their behavior.

NPD goes undiagnosed because narcissists see nothing wrong with their behavior.

People who are involved with narcissists and those who have NPD typically report the following kinds of behaviors and characteristics – do we see a pattern?

  • The belief that he or she is “special” and the desire to only associate with people he or she perceives are on their wavelength or who will “appreciate” them.
  • The need for excessive admiration from those around him or her.
  • An expectation of especially favorable treatment and automatic agreement by people around him or her.
  • Exploitation of others around them for their own benefit or advancement.
  • Inability to empathize with others.
  • Feels envious of others, but also feels that others are envious of him or her.
  • Acts arrogant, and may try to disguise arrogance with ethics.
  • Displays an exaggerated sense of self-importance and is typically extremely judgmental.

How can they not care how others feel?

Since narcissists tend to see other people as objects or possessions, they cannot fathom it when they are not obeyed or catered to. If the person is a friend or acquaintance, the narcissist may just discard them and pretend they don’t exist–but if it’s a family member, things can get more serious.

For example, the narcissist may try to pressure the family member into conforming to his or her wishes, and if that doesn’t work, additional and potentially life-altering steps may be taken to get what is desired.

Because narcissists are incapable of empathizing with others, they don’t even consider (or care) how their words or actions could affect others–and they will never admit that they are wrong. Instead, they will play the victim and use the situation to gain more attention from others around them.

Why do people become narcissists?

Risk Factors for NPD: Why People Become Narcissists

According to some researchers, NPD may be developed when a parent fails to act empathetically toward the sufferer during his or her infancy. This is common among those born to very young parents or those born to mothers who suffer from postpartum depression or psychosis.

Kids who don’t feel safe during childhood or who suffered from a lack of affection and parental praise may also develop NPD, as can those who were neglected and emotionally abused.

Related: Researchers Blame Mom for Narcissistic Kids

Those who live in unpredictable situations and who feel they cannot rely on their parents are also at risk, as are those who are learn manipulative behavior from their parents.

When this happens, the child gets sort of emotionally “stuck” at an early stage of development and while they may later understand logically that others exist and have real feelings and needs, they may not ever fully embrace it emotionally. While a “normal” child will usually develop feelings of empathy for others around them by the time they hit kindergarten, those suffering from NPD never do–leaving them to become adults with the empathic capacity of an infant.

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