What is... psychology series

What Is… Narcissism

diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.  This week’s term is narcissism.

It seems like there’s talk about narcissism all over the internet these days, so I thought I’d 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.  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.

Narcissistic personality disorder

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a diagnosis in the DSM (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 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 for the condition, the treatment of choice is psychotherapy, with a primary focus on improving empathy.

Measuring narcissism

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 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.

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, 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 emotional 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.”

Is the term “narcissist” overused?

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 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.

Your thoughts?

You may also be interested in the post What is… the Dark Triad/Tetrad, a cluster of personality traits that includes narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.


Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

You can find a directory of the psychology terms covered in the what is… series here.

There’s also a collection of psychological tests here.

book cover: Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis by Ashley L. Peterson

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 Amazon and other online retailers, as well as the MH@H Store.

This post contains affiliate links that let you support MH@H at no extra cost to you.

28 thoughts on “What Is… Narcissism”

  1. what strikes me about narcissism and narcissists is their popularity in the Internet, or maybe the popularity of these terms. When I started to hang around English language INternet more consistently I was pretty amazed how often people seem to refer to any kind of toxic people as narcissists. And then communities like Quora and such, narcissists’ victims are all over there. And while I absolutely don’t want to question or invalidate their experiences, the fact that they were abused and traumatised and all, I feel kinda sceptic as for whether really all those abusers are narcissistic. Since NPD is so rare, how can soooo many people be traumatised by narcissists? That feels kinda weird to me, but maybe I’m just not getting something.

    1. That’s a really good point. Maybe “narcissist” has become a buzz word for anyone who’s toxic or creates drama? I guess some other terms could be: drama queen, toxic, negative, unfriendly, unhappy, mean, insensitive, uncaring, cruel, harsh, manipulative, game player or playing games, b****, inconsiderate, center of attention, etc.

      Maybe the rarity factor involves other “bad” qualities. What if you took that 1% of narcissists, and added in whatever percentage of people are psychopaths? And then you added in the percentage of people who are ….. what else would be bad? Narcissists, psychopaths… Hmm.

      1. That’s a good list of terms you’ve made, they’re all much better suitable I think. I would also suggest energy vampire, that seems to be a fashionable word too but not as ultimate and unequivocal sounding as narcissist. Well I guess we could add sociopaths as well but I guess there’s not much essential difference between psychopaths and sociopaths.

    2. I wonder the same thing. Perhaps some people who’ve been emotionally abused use the narcissist label to try to find a way to explain what they’ve experienced.

  2. I agree. To me, it sort of feels like everyone wants to label everything and not see them for what they are, so they go online and search and search until something sounds just right and they roll with it.
    It’s been mentioned by more than one person that my ex has narcissistic tendencies but I think he’s just a giant asshole–a fully grown man who acts like a toddler when he doesn’t get his way!
    I think we should stop looking for labels and just call it for what it is.

  3. Yeah, I discovered the “Is your ex a narcissist? Take the quiz!” sites about a year ago, but I gotta say, even a year later, that guy I was involved with last summer was definitely a menace. I don’t know if he was a narcissist or even a psychopath, but he was evil and manipulative and scheming and hurtful, and I don’t have a single good thing to say about him. For example, he introduced me to someone who’s one of my best friends right now by saying, “Meg, I want you to meet ‘Laura’. Laura’s a sex addict who I don’t feel safe being alone with.” (Laura’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.) Those sites helped me realize that it was hopeless, being with him. (Although I was STILL in denial despite the sites.)

    If no one involved is a narcissist (or something similarly bad), I think the sites can help temporarily to get you over the initial breakup. But if at some point you don’t realize, “I was hurt, but he wasn’t a ‘bad’ person and neither was I,” then there could be a problem. I was involved with another guy earlier this year, and at this point (later, with perspective), I certainly have nothing bad to say about that guy at all except that he wasn’t for me. At the time, though, I may have trashed him a little bit, which is probably normal. It pushes away the pain.

  4. I agree with these concerns. My Mum has NPD and it has caused lifelong psychological devastation for myself and my siblings being brought up by a “mother” with this level of damage and dysfunction. It makes me mad that the term narcissist is just chucked around on the internet to describe anyone immature and selfish. I’ve been in relationships with a good number of self-absorbed, childish, arsehole men in my life, who could easily be described as having ‘narcissistic traits’, but their behaviour was a million miles away from the narcisstic abuse I grew up with!

    1. Yes I think anytime words get casually tossed around, whether it be narcissist, anxious, depressed, etc., it distracts from the severity of the real thing.

  5. I also think it is overused. A lot of people have narcissistic traits and I’d have to say that even fairly mild narcissism in parents (especially if both) can cause a lot of damage to children and set them up for dysfinctional relationships and abuse later, and learning more about the concept can be helpful in coming to terms with the damage it’s caused. But all of that is exponentially different from NPD and the effect of being on the receiving end of full-on narcissistic abuse. You don’t walk away from that being the same person you were before, it haunts you forever.

    1. And I think a large part of that is the way they are able to draw other people in to hurting you as well, or hurt you while seemingly keeping their own hands clean.

  6. Thank you for this article – very informative and further brings to fore the current overuse of labels.

    I am however grateful that I came across a Blog on narcissism and narcissistic abuse – most importantly the cycle and tactics most commonly used by perpetrators. I was careful not to jump to conclusions but very much aware of my experiences which matched almost all descriptions. I utilised a number of methods such as ‘grey rock’ etc which was tremendously helpful in my situation. I also kept a diary for 8 months documenting all episodes and behaviours subsequently culminating to the dissolution of that relationship.

    So, although we all have some degree of narcissist traits (self-preservation is part of survival) and it also takes two, there are those more towards the extreme end and use this to their selfish ends.

  7. Yes, it was extremely helpful. You tend to dismiss a lot, second guess yourself and end up sucked right back into it. Without realising it, you become an enabler. So, yes my diary became my saviour – I could see the pattern emerge, play out and repeat regardless of any attempts I made on my part, to seek a different outcome.

    Thank you for the comment 💞

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