Is the word narcissism being overused and thrown around lightly? Do we need a deeper understanding of narcissistic behavior and why it is harmful, and even dangerous? Having studied this disorder for over 25 years, and in treating many victims of narcissists, I have seen firsthand how dangerous, harmful, and disarming the narcissist can be to others. There are certain traits of the narcissist that don’t really matter so much, like the obvious boasting to cover up their fragile sense of self. But when their behaviors hurt others, and particularly children, it does matter. A lot.  

It might even matter to the best interest of our country if we have a narcissistic leader. I’m not diagnosing, but in reading and learning more, you can make your own determination. I think it’s important to break down narcissism from a clinical standpoint using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.1 This guide for mental health clinicians lists nine traits seen in the personality disorder of narcissism. Let’s unpack with some examples.

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance, e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements

Okay, this one . . . not sure we really care? We know a lot of arrogant people, and most of us realize that when people have a need to overstate themselves, they are really covering up their own fragility. Confident and solid people with a good sense of self, achievement-oriented or not, don’t feel a need to brag. The most interesting thing to me about this trait is the part about being recognized as superior without the achievement to back it up. This kind of thinking can be harmful to others when the narcissist says, “Look at me, I am better than you! I am bigger, and more powerful, and I may use it against you.” Particularly in intimate relationships or parenting, this can be hurtful and damaging. Example: Jack believes he is more intelligent than his wife or any of his five children. Therefore, no matter what they accomplish or what viewpoints they share, Jack reminds them that they do not measure up and are “not good enough.” He may say something like, “it’s great that you are in track now, but when I was your age, I was running marathons.”

2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

Where is this hurtful? It’s in the “preoccupied” part. This is the “all about me” and “you don’t matter” way in which the narcissist thinks. They have to be on top and win in all aspects. They value you in regards to how you can help them achieve this perfection, but if you rise above them, watch out! You can’t outshine them, or they will take you down notch by notch. Their “preoccupation” with image takes a lot of energy that causes problems in relationships. Example: Bob has to jog every morning to keep his perfectly fit body, and there are no exceptions, including when his wife or kids are sick and need help.

3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

Frankly, understanding the significance of this one took some time. Again, it is easy to say, “Who cares that they do this?” But, this thinking disregards the person and only represents the achievements of others. It is the mantra of the narcissist that you are valued for “what you do” and “not for who you are.” I see this frequently in high-conflict divorce cases where one partner is a narcissist. For example, when searching for a therapist for the children, the narcissist will value the high-level credentials and prestigious academic background versus the actual ability and experience of the therapist. It is also common for narcissists to reveal the achievements of their friends, rather than who they really are as people. You can see that this does not highlight an intimate connection, but rather assigns value as “my friend, the attorney, consultant, or doctor.” Ask yourself with your own friends why you value them? In healthy relationships, it is because of their wonderful character and personality traits, right?

4. Requires excessive admiration

Everyone I have worked with in a clinical setting, who has either been raised by a narcissistic parent or has been in a love relationship with a narcissist, says they are EXHAUSTED! Why? It's because the narcissist has an empty emotional vessel that needs to be refueled constantly with admiration and praise. If you are in a relationship with someone like this, you are constantly filling up their narcissistic supply needs. It not only gets old, but it is tiring. And your needs don’t get met. The relationship is not reciprocal. Give and take? Uh . . . no.

5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

The entitlement of the narcissist is difficult to deal with, because it leaves out the needs of anyone else. Narcissists’ needs come first, no matter what. They feel they deserve that royal treatment, and if you do not cooperate, what do they do? They take you down, make disparaging comments about you, try to hurt you, and withhold appreciation of you. This is a relationship killer! Do I need to say more?

6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

Once again, to the narcissist, the other person does not matter. It is only about what the person can do to help the narcissist in whatever endeavor they are pursuing. The narcissist thinks nothing of taking advantage of others to meet their own goals. It is a given. And this is a warning to you. If you feel this in a relationship you are in, take a second look. One is not loved or valued by a narcissist for who they are. Example: Mary typically only calls her friend Betty, a professional event planner, when she suddenly needs help with her garage sale or some other event.

7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

The lack of empathy is really the cornerstone trait of narcissism. Without empathy, how can one love? How can one bond and attach to a child? The false acting of loving is possible, but the narcissist cannot sustain it. Have you seen the person who seems to be empathetic and kind, but as soon as things don’t go their way, they turn on you? Or the friend who cannot tune into your feelings, but rather turns the conversation to themselves? Example: When you tell your mother you are going through a divorce, she is more concerned with how it looks to the family and the neighbors, rather than your painful feelings and despair. The most difficult thing about having a narcissistic parent or spouse is realizing their inability to love. It is simply a crushing moment when this awareness hits.

8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

Because the narcissist has to see themselves as larger than life, they assume others will be jealous of them. But what we see more is their own envy of others who may outshine them in any way. How do they deal with their envy of others? They make concerted efforts to take others down in constant criticism, judgment, name-calling, and gossiping, while at the same time pumping themselves up. Example: Linda is jealous of her coworker, Samantha. Samantha is beautiful and also physically fit and slim. Because Linda struggles with her own weight issues, she starts a rumor in the office that Samantha is likely anorexic and unhealthy to attempt to take her down a notch.

9. Shows arrogance, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Again, this is the flashy cover-up for a fragile ego and low self-esteem. While it looks like narcissists have a high opinion of themselves, they really are self-loathing and have a need to take others down to feel better. While arrogant people are hard to be around, this trait seems less bothersome, unless the narcissist is using it to hurt someone with their constant judgment of others.

It is important to understand that narcissism is a spectrum disorder, ranging from a few traits to the full-blown narcissistic personality disorder. Everybody can display some of these behaviors at certain times of distress in their lives. It is when these character traits are consistent over time and are impairing relationships and hurting others that they become dangerous. When winning at all cost and needing to be better than others is the central theme of one’s character, danger is in the air. 

Some additional traits seen in narcissists include the lack of accountability, and therefore always blaming someone else, as well as the projection of their own feelings onto others. Both of these are crazy making to the people around them. It causes crippling self-doubt and leaves the child, spouse, or friend on constant guard, waiting for the next shoe to drop. The projections seem to come out of nowhere and are unpredictable, because they are based on whatever is going on inside of the narcissist. There is a lack of impulse control, and their own feelings get spewed out onto others. This is why we see such hypervigilance in victims of narcissists and a tendency to display many symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Is narcissism harmful and dangerous? Yes, it causes debilitating wounds that take years to unravel. Is a person with this disorder mentally stable and trustworthy? You tell me.

1. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text revision (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2000), 717.

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What Is the Most Overlooked Symptom of Narcissism? is a reply by Susan Heitler Ph.D.

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