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What is Narcissism?

(This information is taken from Chapter 1 of my book “You Can’t Co-Parent With a Narcissist”. Click here to learn more.)

When I talk about narcissism, I always talk about my “light bulb” moment, like I mentioned in the introduction to this book. Prior to knowing what narcissism was, I felt so lost and angry and confused when it came to dealing with my ex.

Nothing I tried worked. In fact, it seemed that everything I tried (being defensive, trying to change his point of view, trying to be agreeable, etc.) made the situation even worse. 

So before you can begin to deal with the situation you are in with the narcissist, it’s important to fully understand exactly what narcissism is. Learning more about the disorder is going to help you come to terms with what you experienced and how to address issues now and in the future.

First of all, let’s talk about the difference between Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and people with narcissistic traits. While the term “narcissist” can certainly be applied to someone who acts narcissistic, there is a vast difference between tendencies and the actual disorder.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a diagnosable mental health issue, although those with NPD rarely seek treatment due to the nature of the symptoms. They experience abnormalities and distortions in their thinking and perception of themselves, which causes them to negatively affect the lives of others and their relationships with other people.

Alternatively, those with narcissistic traits will act like narcissists but these tendencies rarely have a significant impact on the people in their lives. For instance, they may display traits in order to deal with stressful situations or advance their career. When they act like narcissists, it’s more situational than personal.

Those with NPD have these traits so ingrained in their psyche that they can’t control their behaviors or who they target.

Now, let’s get into more detail when it comes to what NPD is and what it looks like. Please bear with me – this is a lot of information. But it’s vital for coming to terms with your experiences and navigating through parenting with a narcissist.

Narcissism in a Nutshell

Narcissism is an actual mental health issue. A diagnosis can be made based on strict criteria outlined in the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic Statistics Manuel 5th Edition), which is a diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association to diagnose every mental health condition you can think of.

Therefore, NPD can be tested and treated. The problem is that most narcissists, due to the symptoms of NPD, will never recognize that they have an issue. They are unaware that they have a disorder, will deny that their perceptions are “faulty” or “wrong” and accuse others of having psychological issues.

In essence, narcissists believe they are right about everything. Sound familiar?

Overall, narcissists have an over-inflated sense of their own importance as well as a deep need for attention and admiration. Although they lack empathy, they actually have a very fragile sense of self-esteem and are extremely vulnerable to criticism.

Some of the most common symptoms of NPD include:

  • A sense of entitlement.
  • The need for constant admiration.
  • The expectation to be recognized and treated as superior to others.
  • An exaggerated sense of achievements and talents.
  • A preoccupation with fantasies about success and power.
  • The inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others (lack of empathy).
  • Arrogant, boastful, and conceited.

While we are going to get more into what narcissism looks like in a relationship in the next chapter, you can see how their distorted mental state makes it difficult for them to form and maintain healthy relationships.

Did your narcissistic ex talk badly about their family? Past partners? It’s likely that they don’t have any real bonds with others in their lives. While they will blame this on the other party, the truth is that the nature of the disorder makes it extremely difficult for them to build and maintain strong relationships.

When it comes to how narcissists treat other people, they will do whatever they can to maintain a sense of importance and superiority. This involves belittling and putting down those they feel are inferior and taking advantage of others to get what they want.

But how do narcissists end up this way? While there’s no definite and concrete cause of NPD, there are many factors that can contribute to developing this mental disorder.

The Causes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Oftentimes, there is no single factor that causes NPD. In most cases, it is a combination of factors that will influence an individual’s development of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

One such cause is genetic inheritance where NPD is passed down from parent to child. Many diseases and disorders are linked to inherited mutations that cause mental and physical issues such as major depressive disorder and addictions.

Research has shown that NPD is moderately influenced by genetics but this can also be contributed to the environment in which narcissists were raised. When someone grows up with narcissistic parents, they are at a higher risk of developing NPD. They grow up emulating their parents’ behaviors and these behaviors become the core of their personality.

The same goes for children who grow up in permissive households. They are not reprimanded for inappropriate behaviors and their parents will often defend these behaviors. These children grow up with a skewed sense of right and wrong and do not have a healthy understanding of consequences (often believing that consequences do not apply to them).

Alternatively, children who are neglected cannot rely on their parent’s support due to inconsistent parenting and having their needs dismissed or ignored. To cope with this situation, children will develop a sort of defense mechanism to deal with their cold and unresponsive environment, which can present as narcissism. As well, they may develop NPD to compensate for the low self-esteem they developed in childhood.

It’s safe to say that those who develop NPD do not do so by choice. Does this excuse their negative treatment of other people? Absolutely not, but it’s helpful to know where their mental challenges stem from. 

As far as prevalence goes, NPD is more common in men than women and will begin in the teenaged years or early adulthood. However, it can be diagnosed as young as 8 years old when children typically begin to develop a sense of self-esteem. Around this time they begin to develop impression management strategies to try to influence the ways others perceive them.

Impression management is a thought process in which people try to influence the perceptions of other people. They do this by making excuses and denying responsibility for negative outcomes as well as associating themselves with certain people to promote their self-image.

Not all impression management is malicious, however. Think about social media – how many times have you posted a picture to your Facebook to make your life look better than you think it actually is?

Narcissists internalize these impression management tactics so they become part of every social interaction. They do this to solidify their image as someone who is important, superior, and impressive.

The Diagnostic Criteria for NPD

While it’s unlikely that the narcissist in your life will ever seek diagnosis or treatment for their disorder, there are specific criteria that need to be met in order to receive a diagnosis of NPD. However, even if the narcissist doesn’t fit the entire bill, that doesn’t mean that their behaviors should be excused away or accepted.

According to the DSM-5, five or more symptoms of NPD must be satisfied to achieve a diagnosis. These include:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance such as exaggerating achievements or expected to be recognized as superior.
  • A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  • The belief that they are “special” and unique and can only be understood by other special or high-status people.
  • The requirement of excessive admiration.
  • A very strong sense of entitlement such as unreasonable expectations of special treatment and automatic compliance with expectations.
  • The exploitations of others.
  • A lack of empathy.
  • Envy toward others and/or the belief that others are envious of them.
  • Arrogance, haughty behaviors, or haughty attitudes.

Treatment for NPD involves long-term psychotherapy and may involve medications for depression and addictions. Psychotherapy is used to help narcissists develop a more stable and realistic sense of self and relate to others in a healthier way. They can also learn how to stabilize their emotions and become more aware of how their behaviors affect others.

Just don’t get your hopes up the narcissist will receive treatment and change. As I mentioned earlier, simply recognizing that they have a disorder is beyond their scope of comprehension. Instead, you are taking the right step in learning more about NPD and how you can take control and make the situation more tolerable.

Ultimately, whether or not you can officially label your ex as a “narcissist” is not as important as learning how to deal with them. What they are on paper doesn’t matter when it comes to how they treat you and make you feel.

Types of Narcissism

Now it’s time to complicate what we just learned by explaining the two types of narcissism. I promise it’s not hard to wrap your head around but it’s important so you can recognize what type of narcissist you are dealing with.

The first type is overt narcissism. As the name implies, these narcissists are easy to spot because their symptoms are obvious. Overt narcissists typically display grandiosity, arrogance, and boldness as well as open feelings of superiority and entitlement.

The second type is covert narcissism. These narcissists are more defensive and avoidant and need constant reassurance. They still act like they are better than everyone but are extremely sensitive to criticism so they tend to stay away from people and attention. 

Most narcissists, however, have an overlap in their symptomatology and display traits of both covert and overt narcissism. Each will display the same traits in different ways. By understanding the range of symptoms, you’ll be able to better understand if you are dealing with narcissism, whether it is overt or covert.

How Do Narcissistics Treat Other People?

Poorly, to be honest. They will use and abuse people in whatever way they can to maintain the “perfect” image and not just the one the world sees – they fight to preserve perfection in their own minds as well.

This is why dealing with a narcissist is difficult. There’s no convincing them that the way they behave or treat other people is inappropriate or unfair. They will simply see you as the problem and act accordingly, blaming you for everything that is wrong instead of taking responsibility.

Narcissists will also view any criticisms or disagreements against them as personal attacks and use defensive tactics to put other people down. In fact, they sometimes do this without being provoked, targeting minorities as “wrong” and “inferior” for no reason.

Because narcissists have no sense of empathy, they will use and manipulate people to get what they want with no regard to how these individuals feel. They don’t see people as beings with emotions – they only see them as a means to an end.

However, don’t let their “romantic” or “loving” actions fool you into thinking they care. Narcissists operate by using whatever tactics will serve their purpose. If maintaining their control of you requires being kind and affectionate, they will display these behaviors when necessary.

For all of these reasons, narcissists have a very hard time establishing relationships as well as having long-term relationships. For the most part, it’s because people get fed up with their behaviors and walk away. However, because the narcissist relies on people to fulfill their needs, they will “cut off” people who don’t deliver.

Plus, keeping on that mask of “perfection” can sometimes be exhausting for the narcissist, so they will move on from friend to friend and relationship to relationship before people figure out who they truly are. Despite all of the symptoms of NPD that we have discussed, narcissists are very good at putting on the “charm” to win people over (which we’ll look at further in the next chapter).

Overall, if ever you are unsure that you are dealing with a narcissist, look at how they treat other people – particularly their family. Narcissists typically have difficult relationships with family members and will place blame for any of their shortcomings on parents, siblings, and other relatives.

The History of Narcissism

I’ll be completely honest with you: you can go ahead and skip this section if you’re ready to move on to what narcissism looks like in relationships. Just make sure to stop by the “key points” at the end of this chapter!

Otherwise, I thought it would interesting to share with you the history of narcissism.

Narcissism is often mistaken as “self-love” where an individual is overly obsessed with themselves or excessively vain. This common misperception stems from the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo.

Echo was a wood nymph who fell in love with a boy named Narcissus. He was a beautiful individual who thrived on admiration and ended up rejecting Echo’s love because she, and everyone else, was unworthy. Echo ended up dying from a broken heart and Narcissus was forced to live alone and never experience love again due to his vanity.

One day he saw his reflection and became mesmerized by it. He believed it to be another person and couldn’t stop staring at it. In the end, he died alone having only ever experienced being in love with himself.

You can see how Narcissus was the inspiration when discovering and naming Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Narcissus’ personality traits, such as vanity and pride, were deemed undesirable. In the world of psychology, these were seen as traits that are detrimental to good quality of life.

So, in 1898, psychologists started to recognize pathological self-absorption in individuals as a mental illness. In 1914, psychotherapist Sigmund Freud wrote an essay called, “On Narcissism: An Introduction” that explored the idea that the existence of narcissism depended on whether or not one’s libido (sexual and survival energy) is directed inward or outward.

In his theory, infants are born as narcissists because their survival energy is directed inward – they do whatever they can to ensure they are fed and cared for. The healthy development of all energies as a child ages makes them naturally drop narcissistic qualities.

Freud had some pretty radical ideas but he was on to something when he attributed narcissism with a need to survive. During the 1950s and 1960s, psychoanalysts Otto Kerburg and Heinz Kohut began to further explore this phenomenon and develop specific theories in regards to narcissism, narcissist defense, and the cause of narcissism.

By the 1980s, Narcissistic Personality Disorder was included in the DSM.