We often hear the label “narcissist” thrown around to describe people who act selfish and self-obsessed. While most of the time they may not really be narcissists, there are cases when it can become a full-blown personality disorder. Much of the time, the people who use the word “narcissist” don’t really know what it means. Even if it may be true, we need to avoid throwing labels around without knowing what narcissism means. It can distract people from realizing they may be in need of psychological help.
Regarding narcissism, there are different types. It even has its own personality disorder when the symptoms are severe. There’s a whole psychoanalytic theory about the topic. So we’ll look into narcissism as a trait and how identifying it can be the next step to getting help for everyone involved.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. But when he tried to embrace his image, he fell into the water and drowned. As far-fetched as the story maybe, this was where the term “narcissism” came from. According to Freud, the father of modern psychology, narcissism refers to when a person’s mental energy is directed towards their own ego rather than others. Alike to Narcissus, these kinds of people are preoccupied with their self-image, primarily.
Freud’s use of the term narcissism was used interchangeably with self-esteem, which is no longer the case. Now, it is a trait to describe people who act extremely self-involved, with blatant disregard for others. The only time they do care about others is when it involves themselves.
Anyone can present with narcissistic behaviours every now and then. You may feel the need to be defensive over your mistakes because it can be hard to accept the blame for yourself, even if you know it’s your fault. You may want the attention of a loved one and cling to every chance you can get for yourself, even if it means manipulating the situation. But these traits can fade in time. You can still see reason after acting this way. People with pathological narcissism, however, have a harder time being convinced.
When is narcissism a problem?
Narcissists may not present with these traits when you first meet them. But if you have been interacting with them long enough, it will eventually become apparent. You may begin to notice that they say things that devalue you. They may try to manipulate you. They start to enforce the idea that they are superior to you and others. It may be obvious or very subtle most of the time. But later, these traits become undeniable and affect their relationships with people.
It’s been said that being with a narcissist is like being arrested. Everything you say can and will be used against you. When you argue with a narcissist, they can make it feel like everything is your fault. Some people, begin to believe it and blame themselves. But in actuality, narcissists lack the capacity to take responsibility for their mistakes. While merely a personality trait, narcissism can negatively affect people around them in destructive ways.
What is the difference between Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Narcissism is a trait and personality disorder are different. Most people can manifest narcissistic behaviour once in a while. Some people can be manipulative. Some can be full of themselves after achieving something important to them. But they can return to their normal behaviour after a time. It’s still easy to convince them that what they are doing is harmful to others. Then they can begin to fix their behaviour.
But when this trait becomes pathological, it can develop into a full-blown personality disorder. Pathological narcissism is defined by its frequency, intensity, and duration. It is frequent when it happens more often than what is normal in other people. It is intense when it affects their relationships and work. The behaviour persists in other contexts, whether it’s at work, at home, or online. The duration refers to the behaviours being there for a long time. Even when someone tells them their behaviour is harmful, they still have not changed.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a psychological disorder with narcissistic characteristics fitting its DSM-5 criteria. This criterion includes the frequency, intensity, and duration of the symptoms. Where people can show narcissistic behaviours from time to time, Narcissistic PD is consistently there. They do not see a problem with their behaviour and refuse to be convinced otherwise.
What are the signs of narcissism?
While it can be hard to pinpoint what counts as narcissistic behaviour from what’s normal. Much of the time, if it’s someone we love, we might choose not to see it. Narcissists usually do not see their behaviour as a problem. Usually, they blame someone else when things go wrong. This can become a problem and affect their relationships. If you or anyone you know present with the following characteristics, it is important to have them seek help for their behaviour. Especially when it begins to severely affect their life:
- Strong sense of entitlement
- Inflated sense of self-importance
- Manipulative behaviour
- Preoccupied with self-image
- Excessive need for praise
- Lack of empathy
- Easily envious
- Extreme arrogance
Narcissism can manifest in two ways: grandiose or vulnerable narcissism. Grandiose Narcissists believe they are superior to others. They can be aggressive, dominant, and have an inflated sense of entitlement. When you criticize them, they cope by telling themselves that your opinions are of less value than theirs. This often makes people feel invalidated.
On the other hand, Vulnerable Narcissists shift between feeling inferior and superior to people. If you criticize them, they get offended and neglected. As a response, they may withdraw socially, cut you off, or act aggressively. This can make others feel like they are the ones at fault.
What are the causes of narcissism?
The cause of narcissistic behaviours can stem from how the person was raised. When they were growing up, he/she likely withdrew within themselves. In other words, they began to live in a world of their own. This resulted in their lack of grounding to reality. Thus inflating their fantasies of being superior, special, and self-important.
For Grandiose Narcissists, they were raised believing they were special and above others. They learned people love them for being special and are entitled to be loved by others because they are. You can see these traits in elitists, racists, and people who generally discriminate against others for who they are.
Vulnerable Narcissists grew up in a household of abuse or neglect. They are more sensitive because they learned they were lacking in something important. In reality, they did not have the love they wanted from their caregivers. This resulted in them doing whatever they can to cling to the love they wanted all their lives, at any cost. You can see this in people who are manipulative and need excessive amounts of praise to be happy. While it is normal to want reassurance, these people tend to ask for it excessively.
Why do narcissists think this way?
Even at a subconscious level, they feel vulnerable and incompetent. Some of them value themselves based on the amount of “love” they get from others. To cope with these feelings, they must have a steady supply of love and attention. If they cannot maintain this supply, they will do whatever it takes to keep it. Even at the cost of another person’s feelings.
As a result, they can be obsessed with their own image. They need to be viewed as someone with no flaws or faults. They’re afraid if people see through them, they will be considered a lesser person. Thus making them conclude that they will no longer be loved if they are not their ideal self. So on the outside, they are manipulative people with no regard for others. But on the inside, they’re scared of being unloved and left behind.
To cope, many of them have altered perceptions. They tend to dismiss or deny experiences that don’t fall in line with their idea of superiority. If they do something wrong, they shift blame to others because, in their mind, they can do nothing wrong. Even if they subconsciously think they’re wrong, they’ll project it onto someone else before admitting it. This stems from their belief that if they are flawed, they will no longer be loved.
If you’re someone dealing with a Narcissist, it’s important to evaluate how someone like this entered your life and how to look out for yourself. You will have to change your dynamic with them and seek to correct some narcissistic behaviours. But that is not to say that you should sacrifice your self-care for them!
It is important to consider that you may be someone that attracts these types of people. Narcissists prefer people who make it easy for them to manipulate. These are people who are dependent on others, have a deflated sense of self-esteem, and are quick to sacrifice their well-being for others. While it may be a good trait to be modest and selfless, you must draw the line where it can hurt you. If you allow narcissists to keep you in a world where they are free to act this way, it will be harder for both of you to get out of it.
Narcissists can change. But it is difficult for them to believe their behaviour is wrong. They are usually satisfied with themselves. So they do not come in for counselling, even when their relationships are failing. They only admit there is a problem when the effects of their behaviours become too severe. Like if they feel like they have been abandoned and are suffering emotionally. When recognized early, you can prevent it from becoming a full-blown disorder.
If you see these Narcissism traits in yourself, you can re-evaluate your self-image and focus more on compassion towards others. You need to see not only yourself as deserving of love, but others as well. But more importantly, you need to love yourself for all your flaws. Self-worth shouldn’t come from how much praise and attention you receive from others. It is good to be self-aware of your actions and know when it is negatively affecting others. Seeing a counsellor can help with finding self-awareness and dealing with your fears and anxieties.
Relationships with a narcissist
Have you ever felt disappointed because your partner is different from when you started? Have you ever been left confused and hurt after they argue, then blame you? Do you ever felt frustrated that their mood can change so quickly? Have you ever felt unimportant or that they don’t care about you?
Whether it’s a romantic, familial, or friendly relationship, being involved with a narcissist can be mentally exhausting. They may have started out as charismatic, and charming people, but as time went by, their behaviour became more hurtful. It can feel like the most important thing to them is themselves. If they are a narcissist, it probably is.
You may have heard about the word “gaslighting” being thrown around to describe toxic relationships. Gaslighting refers to psychological abuse by making a person question their own sanity or reality. This is common in toxic relationships because of the manipulative and abusive nature of narcissism. There may have been times you thought you were always wrong, and always had to apologize. Even then, your excuses would still be met with more conflict and guilt.
The next step is to figure out if you want to continue being with a narcissist or leave the relationship. If both of you sincerely want a healthy and happy relationship, it may be worth working out. But not at the cost of your own happiness. Choosing to not address their behaviour or yours will not be helping anyone.
How can a psychologist help?
Help is never beyond anyone, even those with narcissistic behaviour. While they may not qualify for a personality disorder, it would still be beneficial to seek professional help. The fact they only present with the behaviour occasionally means they may still be able to change and listen to reason.
A psychologist or therapist can help bring to light the root cause of their irrational beliefs and help fix their coping mechanisms. They would also be able to correct any harmful behaviours to help them interact better with others.
Mental help isn’t just for people with problematic behaviours. It is also for people dealing with narcissists. A psychologist can help you figure out what your next step would be and how to take care of yourself. Many people who are subject to narcissistic relationships are in danger of compromising their well-being. This can already be an indication of psychological counselling.
Even though you may be dealing with a narcissist and want them to stay in your life, this doesn’t mean that you cannot be happy. The narcissist may never change their behaviour, but you can still hope for a happier life. Therapy for those dealing with narcissists consists of:
- Identifying and finding the “how”s and “why”s of narcissistic behaviour. Those dealing with narcissists often think it is their fault.
- Rebuild self-esteem. Victims of narcissists are usually those with low self-esteem
- Setting boundaries or changing the dynamics of the relationship. This may be changing the dynamics by having a talk with the narcissist or ending their relationship.
- Recognize the effects of the narcissist on the victim’s thoughts and feelings.
- Making healthy coping mechanisms that don’t feed into the narcissists’ behaviour.
- Psychological screening for any mental health issues and planning your next steps.
Hart, J. (n.d.). What is Narcissism and what is Narcissistic behaviour?. Retrieved 4 May 2021, from https://www.thehartcentre.com.au/what-is-narcissism-and-what-is-narcissistic-behaviour
Narcissism / Narcissistic Personality. (2019). Retrieved 4 May 2021, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/narcissism
Narcissism: Symptoms and Signs. Retrieved 4 May 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/narcissism-symptoms-signs
Ni, P. (2019). Difference Between a Narcissist vs. Narcissistic Behavior. Retrieved 4 May 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/communication-success/201908/difference-between-narcissist-vs-narcissistic-behavior
Sadock, B., Sadock, B., Sadock, V., & Ruiz, P. (2015). Kaplan & Sadock’s synopsis of psychiatry. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.