In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.
This week’s term: Narcissism
It seems like there’s talk about narcissism all over the internet these days, so I thought I would delve into it a little further. The term derives from Greek mythology and the story of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and became so obsessed he did nothing but stare at it. He eventually died out of grief that he was in love with someone who didn’t exist outside of himself.
Wikipedia explains that within the field of psychology there are two main ways of looking at narcissism: as a personality trait, and as a disorder. One study reviewing literature on the topic identified six key elements of narcissism: a belief of being better than others, greatly exaggerated views of the self, an inflated belief in their ability to create change, a belief of being unique/special, and an orientation towards success.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a diagnosis in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual). It is classified as being in cluster B, the dramatic/emotional erratic personality disorders, along with borderline PD, histrionic PD, and antisocial PD. Lifetime prevalence rates in the general population are around 1%, with that number rising to 2-16% among people with other mental health conditions. Wikipedia says that “people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are characterized by their persistent grandiosity, excessive need for admiration, and a personal disdain and lack of empathy for other people”, and like any other disorder in the DSM they must meet a certain number of the diagnostic criteria to be given a diagnosis. There is some evidence that NPD is heritable, but various environmental and cultural factors play a significant role. The DSM-5 doesn’t break down NPD into subtypes, but various researchers have proposed different subtypes, including the often heard terms covert and overt. Although people with NPD don’t typically seek out treatment specifically for NPD, the treatment of choice is psychotherapy, with a primary focus on improving empathy.
The Narcissistic Personality Inventory is one test to measure levels of narcissism as a personality trait, and there is a version available here. This test is designed for use in the general population, so high scores don’t automatically indicate that someone would meet the criteria for a diagnosis of NPD. My score on the test I’ve linked to was 5/40 (meaning low levels of narcissism), but what struck me about the test was the black-and-white nature of it. Each question had two possible responses to choose from, with one response suggesting narcissism and the other response more suggestive of a lack of confidence. There seemed to be little room for a person who is confident yet modest.
There are several terms related to narcissism that often turn up online. Narcissistic supply is a psychoanalytic concept that refers to those individuals who are drawn upon to boost a narcissist’s self-esteem, and it tends to stem from a lack of such supply in childhood. The narcissist may use techniques like flattery in order to maintain this supply. The term narcissistic abuse was originally used to describe parent-child relationships, but came to be more broadly applied to relationships between adults as well. Gaslighting is a frequently used technique. This abuse may be used to gain/maintain narcissistic supply, and may result in trauma bonding. Wikipedia states that “narcissistic injury occurs when a narcissist feels that their hidden, ‘true self’ has been revealed.”
I wonder sometimes about the appropriateness of ideas from the field of psychology gaining a life of their own on the internet. A former friend of mine had a messy breakup and started spending a lot of time reading websites about relationships with narcissists, and she quickly identified with this. Problem was, while buddy was a jerk, none of the behaviour she described was very consistent with narcissism, and she had brought her own considerable emotional baggage to the table that she seemed completely unaware of. Latching onto this idea of narcissistic abuse wasn’t helpful to her, and if anything it made it harder for her to move on. This isn’t at all meant to detract from the very real and very significant harm that narcissistic abusers may cause for their victims. It’s just that once something gets popular on the internet, there’s a tendency for people to run with it, even if it means they’re running in the wrong direction.
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.
My book Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis breaks down the different categories of DSM-5 diagnoses, explaining the diagnostic criteria and providing first-hand stories of the various illnesses. It’s available on the Mental Health @ Home Store, as well as Amazon and other major retailers.