What Narcissism Is - and What it Isn't
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
By Elena Simonsen
"Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it is beautiful, but because it is his. If it were his beauty that enthralled him, he would be set free in a few years by its fading." ~ W. H. Auden
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a man that ignored the love of others and fell in love with his own reflection. According to the myth, Narcissus died as a result of the sadness that accompanied loving his reflection - something incapable of returning his love.
In modern day society, narcissism is characterized by an over-inflated sense of self-importance and a disregard for the well-being of others. Because society has become increasingly individualistic, some people fear that narcissism is becoming progressively more prominent. But while some people that you know might exhibit narcissistic traits, they are not necessarily “narcissists”. So how do you know whether someone has Narcissistic Personality Disorder or is just exhibiting some narcissistic traits - or is struggling with something else entirely? Learning the typical traits of narcissism and understanding what narcissism isn’t will help you answer this question when it comes to people with whom you may cross paths.
Hallmark Traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
When you think of narcissism, what comes to mind? Is it someone who boasts about their achievements, physical attractiveness, and desirability? Or perhaps a person that interrupts others, strives for success without considering the feelings of others, or can’t seem to see things through others’ eyes? Or maybe it is someone who is selfish and having a relationship with them feels one-sided. These are all examples of someone having a strong sense of self-importance and perhaps a more limited ability to have empathy for others. But does that mean that they are narcissists? Well, not necessarily.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) tells us that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized by “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” In order to meet criteria for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a person must have at least 5 of the following traits:
Has an exaggerated sense of self-importance
Spends a lot of time fantasizing about being important, loved, successful, or gifted
Believe they are special or unique in some way, and feel that as a result they can only associate with those of a “high status”
Seeks admiration from others
Has a sense of entitlement
Takes advantage of others to meet their needs
Struggles to have empathy for others
Is jealous of others or believes others are jealous of them
Acts superior to others
Most people exhibit at least one of these characteristics at some point in their life, but only about 0.5% of people in the U.S. actually have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). While many people seek admiration from others or struggle to empathize with others from time to time, people with this disorder have a consistent pattern of thinking and acting in line with these traits. As a result, an individual with NPD will have a very hard time establishing fulfilling relationships, will typically not be able to meet the needs of others, and/or often seeks the approval of others. This is a very severe, intense pattern of behavior that significantly affects their ability to have healthy relationships of any kind.
Personality disorders are inflexible, chronic patterns of behavior and thinking that significantly impact the way someone is able to function and develop healthy relationships with others. About 10-15% of the general population struggles with a personality disorder - and as mentioned before only about 0.5% of the general population struggles with NPD.
That being said, although it is very rare for someone to be diagnosed with NPD, many people do exhibit narcissistic qualities and can impact others negatively whether they have an NPD diagnosis or not.
You may still be asking yourself whether or not someone you care about has narcissistic traits, so now let’s focus on what narcissism isn’t to help you gain some more clarity.
Narcissism: Common Misconceptions
First, know that everyone has a bit of narcissism in them. That is healthy and normal. And it is much more common for people to exhibit narcissistic traits than to have a diagnosable personality disorder. Think of narcissism as a spectrum - on one end it can be very mild, with someone exhibiting a few mild narcissistic behaviors, and all the way on the other end of the spectrum is an individual exhibiting very severe NPD. Note that there is a lot of area in between those two extremes - so an individual could fall anywhere on the vast spectrum of narcissism, with some people exhibiting more severe behaviors than others.
Additionally, there are several misconceptions about what narcissism is exactly. Some ideas you may have about people that are narcissistic include:
“Narcissists hurt others’ feelings on purpose.”
“Narcissists are always charming and irresistible.”
“Narcissism is not a changeable trait.”
While countless internet memes and Instagram posts may promote all of the thoughts above, none of them are absolute truths. Here are three more myths about narcissism that we frequently hear - and the facts that disprove them:
1. Myth: All narcissists are outgoing, charming, and charismatic
Fact: Some people that are narcissistic appear quite extroverted, while others may be more unapproachable.
Just like with most other personality disorders and/or mental health issues, narcissism can present itself in a variety of ways. Someone that is narcissistic might be quiet and or even dull, while others may be the life of the party. While it may be easier to categorize narcissism based on certain presentations, you have to consider the person’s behavior as a whole before making an accurate conclusion.
2. Myth: Narcissists have a “holier-than-thou” attitude.
Fact: Many narcissists struggle with low self-esteem.
It’s helpful to note that while narcissists have an inflated sense of self-importance, this is not identical to having an inflated sense of self-esteem. Self-importance refers to overestimating your worth, while self-esteem refers to being confident in yourself and your abilities. Someone with high self-importance may lack confidence in themselves, and thus seek the admiration and attention of others as a means to fulfill that need.
3. Myth: Narcissists cannot form close, meaningful relationships.
Fact: Narcissists can and do form intimate relationships with others.
Though certain traits of narcissism can make forming and maintaining relationships difficult, it is possible for someone that has narcissistic qualities to have intimacy with others. Remember - it is a spectrum - not everyone is unable to grow and change. Depending on how severe the narcissism is, some individuals can learn to improve the way that they interact with others by identifying and changing unhelpful behaviors and beliefs that cause narcissistic behaviors.
Narcissism Vs. Avoidant Attachment
Another common confusion is the difference between avoidant attachment style (i.e. someone that struggles to form intimate relationships as a result of their childhood experiences) and narcissism. Because the two present similarly, it’s easy to mistake one for the other, so here are some key differences between the two:
Narcissists influence the emotions of others by intentionally attaching and withdrawing in order to get what they want from them, while someone that is avoidant will pull back due to discomfort with intimacy
Narcissists separate themselves from others because they believe they are superior to them, while people that are avoidant separate themselves out of fear of closeness
Narcissists want constant praise, someone that is avoidant feels uncomfortable when they are the object of others’ attention
Narcissists appear to show empathy when they can benefit from doing so (perhaps by getting a promotion, e.g.), while someone that is avoidant can genuinely feel empathy, but feels struggles to express that empathy in a way that cultivates closeness- because they both fear and crave it
So how do you approach someone that you believe is narcissistic and at the same time set and maintain healthy boundaries? Let’s shift gears to take a look at this in more detail.
Safeguarding Yourself from Narcissism
You may now be at a point where you are thinking that someone you care about is narcissistic, but you aren’t sure what to do next. Identifying that someone has narcissistic traits is the first step in protecting yourself from the potentially harmful impacts of their behaviors. Here are three simple tactics you can use to preserve your well-being if you are in a relationship with a narcissist:
1. Set healthy boundaries
People with narcissistic qualities often are unable to respect the boundaries of others, because it can be difficult for them to recognize these boundaries. By calmly, respectfully, and firmly stating what your boundaries are and how the person is crossing them, you can assert your needs while considering the other person’s emotions. Gently state how the narcissistic person can act in a way that respects your boundaries, and be prepared to stand firm in the boundaries that you set.
2 Remember that a narcissist’s behavior is not about you
Narcissists struggle to empathize with and consider the needs of others, not because they don’t want to but because they are not capable of it. Understanding this and trying to take a stance of compassion towards someone with narcissistic traits can help you to have patience with them and help to keep you from personalizing their behavior.
3. Be prepared to end your relationship with a narcissist if your well-being is compromised
While you may care about a narcissistic person immensely, it’s important to recognize when to take a step back and take care of yourself. It’s especially hard to leave a narcissist that is charismatic and charming, or who leads you to believe that you are responsible for their happiness. Some signs that it’s time to end a relationship with a narcissist include:
Boundaries that you set continually being violated
Friends or family members expressing concern about the way the person is treating you
Feelings of intense guilt when you do not meet the needs of the person
Physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse from the person
While navigating relationships with someone with narcissistic traits can be difficult, it is possible! Knowing how to identify narcissism and in turn how to respond to and protect yourself from someone with narcissistic traits can help you to preserve your well-being. If you are struggling to navigate your relationship with a narcissistic person, know that you are certainly not alone - there are many others that are also trying to navigate their relationship or have overcome this problem in their past. Help and support are available to you through support groups and therapy - both can help you process your feelings and give you guidance on what to do. You deserve to be loved, respected, and happy in all of your relationships!
Be Your Best Self & Thrive Counseling uses a holistic, non-judgmental approach to help you build an alliance with your mind, body and spirit that work together for your benefit. Elena is a therapist who is experienced in working with people struggling with setting boundaries and navigating relationships. You can find out more about her here. Book your free consultation here to discuss how we can help!