Often, you’ll hear people use the word “narcissist” when describing someone with high levels of self-confidence. However, narcissism is actually a serious mental condition that can lead to depression and unfulfillment from people suffering from it.
Self-aggrandizing, grandiose, and supremely self-absorbed, you would think that narcissism is a common trait amongst criminals, and yet, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is actually more common with corporate executives and politicians than in murderers and mentally-disordered criminals. This is because narcissism and other maladaptive personality traits are often rewarded by a system that promotes ambition and confidence.
Despite this, it’s important to recognize narcissism and find ways to harness it for good.
What is Narcissism?
Narcissism is named after Narcissus, a figure in Greek Mythology who was so aesthetically beautiful that he spent all of his time admiring himself in reflective surfaces. Legend has it that Narcissus was so self-absorbed that when he saw a reflection of himself in a pool of water, he immediately fell in love with it. Unable to leave, he withered away and died.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD, is a type of personality disorder and mental condition wherein a person possesses an inflated sense of self-importance. Often, this comes with a deep and constant desire for attention and admiration. Because a narcissist believes that they are the most important person in their reality, they often display a lack of empathy for people around them, which severely affects any relationship they might have. Despite their delusions and their grandiose confidence, most narcissists tend to have extremely fragile self-esteems that break even with the smallest criticisms.
NPD isn’t just a minor annoyance: it can cause severe problems in major life areas such as school, work, personal relationships, and can even extend to spending habits. Narcissists often have a hard time holding down jobs or intimate relationships, as they are prone to depressive bouts when they aren’t given the special attention or admiration that they believe is due to them. Narcissists are generally unsatisfied with most relationships, and most people do not enjoy being around a narcissist.
Narcissism is classified as a personality disorder, which means that for a person to qualify, they must display the symptoms of that disorder throughout an extended period of time, usually through an enduring behavioral pattern. Because of this, children and teenagers are rarely diagnosed with NPD due to their ongoing physical and psychological development, mood changes, and maturing personalities. However, like most personality disorders, the symptoms of narcissism decrease in intensity as the person ages, with researchers noting that only a few of the symptoms are observable by the time a person is in their 50s.
NPD has been observed more often in males than in females. In one research, scientists theorize that the disorder crops up in 6% of the general population.
Signs and Symptoms
Narcissistic Personality Disorder can manifest in many ways, most of which involve having the narcissist as the center of attention via grandstanding or turning conversations towards them. They’re also noted for being manipulative. Some other traits to look out for:
- Narcissists MUST be the hero of their own story. They tend to exaggerate their achievements or talents, and they expect to be treated as heroes. They believe that they have no equal and that they are above everyone else.
Delusions of Grandeur
- Often, narcissists spend their time fantasizing about attaining success through their greatness. They preoccupy themselves with thoughts of being the most powerful, or the most influential, or anything that puts them above everyone else.
Believes that they are innately “special”
- Narcissists believe that they are “special”, that they possess some innate quality that makes them intellectually superior to everyone. Often, they feel alienated from society because they feel “misunderstood”. To this end, narcissists tend to believe that they should only associate with other “special” people or organizations.
A Desire to Be Admired
- Narcissists believe they are worthy of admiration, and they won’t be shy to let everyone else around them know WHY they should be admired. A narcissist will spend a lot of their time trying to convince everyone that they need attention/admiration and will often take it against you if you don’t.
A Strong Sense of Entitlement
- Not only are narcissists convinced of their own admirable qualities (imagined or not), they are also convinced that they deserve what they want, when they want it, how they want it. They are very entitled and will show very little patience towards people who do not automatically comply with their (unreasonably high) expectations.
- Nothing is more important to the narcissist than themselves. This manifests in a lack of empathy and a glaring lack of connecting with another human being. Narcissists have a hard time comprehending emotions other than their own and are so caught up with their own feelings that they refuse to recognize the feelings and needs of other people.
- Because they lack basic empathy, narcissists have no qualms exploiting other people to achieve their own ends. A narcissist will not hesitate to use, abuse, and manipulate another person because they simply do not care about how this will affect the other person.
Green With Envy
- Narcissists don’t believe that other people can be as great as them, which is why they feel envious, even cheated, when someone else does better than them. A narcissist feels bad when someone else does better than them because they feel like the other person doesn’t deserve it.
Arrogant and Above Everyone Else
- The classic narcissist is arrogant, smug, and with a superiority complex fit for a King. They aren’t afraid to strut around as if they’re better than you because they truly believe that they are. Narcissists will often make others feel small and will not hesitate to turn conversations towards themselves and their achievements.
How Can it Be Positive?
Despite the overwhelmingly negative traits, some psychologists believe that narcissism can be a positive trait, but only if it’s regulated properly and exhibited in highly-controlled doses.
Through talk therapy or psychotherapy, narcissists can learn to hone their abilities into traits that build character:
- Narcissists are generally charming and are able to convince people to do what they want. However, this charm is often superficial and hollow, as most narcissists tend to use people until they are no longer useful. But some psychologists believe that this outpouring of charm can be a good thing, IF it’s used to create meaningful connections with people. Narcissists can use this charm to persuade people into useful endeavors and can be a way for them to listen and understand other people.
- Narcissists are natural rule breakers: because of their belief in their innate specialness, narcissists tend to act as if they’re above the rules. While most narcissists break rules in order to get what they want, this trait can be re-purposed into pushing the boundaries of their work or art in a positive manner. Recognizing boundaries and setting realistic expectations with tasks, a narcissist can learn to respect personal boundaries and lessen their sense of personal entitlement.
- Narcissists have a LOT to prove. This often translates to aggressive competitiveness and the classic overinflated sense of self-worth. However, some researchers believe that this trait can be used to succeed, if it’s heavily regulated. The need to overachieve can be used to produce amazing results and can even be used as an opportunity to work with a team and create strong and genuine human connections.
As with all psychological conditions, understanding that Narcissism is a SPECTRUM rather than a DICHOTOMY is the first step in acknowledging and understanding it. However, should you or anyone you know present symptoms of NPD, always consult with a trusted psychological health provider. Not only will a trained professional help the person with NPD lead a more fulfilling life, it makes life for everyone else around the narcissist much easier.