In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is narcissism.
Narcissism is everywhere on the internet these days, so I wanted to 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 the field of psychology has two main ways of looking at narcissism: as a personality trait and as a disorder. Key elements of narcissism are:
- 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
- an orientation towards success
Subclinical narcissism, which doesn’t meet the full personality disorder criteria, is one part of the so-called dark triad or dark tetrad, along with Machiavellianism and psychopathy (and sadism for the tetrad). This combination puts people at particularly high risk for antisocial behaviour.
Narcissistic personality disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a diagnosis in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). It’s classified as being in cluster B, the dramatic/emotional erratic personality disorders. That cluster also includes borderline PD, histrionic PD, and antisocial PD. Lifetime prevalence rates in the general population are around 1%; that number rises 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.” Like any other disorder in the DSM, they must meet a certain number of criteria to get 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 subtypes have been proposed, including the often heard terms covert and overt. Although people with NPD don’t typically seek out treatment, the treatment of choice is psychotherapy, with a focus on improving empathy.
The Narcissistic Personality Inventory is one test to measure levels of narcissism as a personality trait. There’s 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 that test was 5/40 (meaning low levels of narcissism), but what was interesting about the test was the black-and-white nature of it. Each question had two possible responses to choose from; one response suggested narcissism and the other response seemed more suggestive of a lack of confidence. There seemed to be little room for a person who is confident yet modest.
Terms associated with narcissism
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. This is believed 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 applied to parent-child relationships, but came to be more broadly applied to relationships between adults as well. This emotional abuse (gaslighting is a commonly used example) 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.”
Is the term “narcissist” overused?
I wonder sometimes about the appropriateness of ideas from the field of psychology gaining a life of their own as pop psychology on the internet. After a messy breakup, a former friend of mine quickly fell down the narcissistic abuse rabbit hole online. While buddy was a jerk, none of the behaviour she described was very consistent with narcissism. Instead, she’d 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; if anything, it made it harder for her to move on. This isn’t at all meant to detract from the very real and significant harm that emotional abusers cause. 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.
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.