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Difference Between a Narcissist vs. Narcissistic Behavior

Three distinctions separate narcissistic behavior from pathological narcissism.

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Much has been written about narcissism in recent years: A narcissist is someone who often comes across as grandiose, self-centered, self-absorbed, manipulative, and overall highly conceited, to name just a few traits. Based on the many descriptions of narcissism and its various subtypes (overt, covert/introvert, passive-aggressive, situational, sexual, etc.), almost anyone seems capable of being a narcissist, at least some of the time.

However, to avoid generalizations and examine narcissism more critically, it is important to distinguish narcissistic behavior from pathological narcissism. Most people are guilty of narcissistic behavior on occasion, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they have Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

What distinguishes certain narcissistic behavior from pathological narcissism are frequency, intensity, and duration. While some people may exhibit narcissistic traits occasionally and mildly, a pathological narcissist will routinely use destructive narcissistic tactics in order to gain false superiority and exploit relationships.

Here are two examples of narcissistic behavior that may not be pathological narcissism:

  1. A colleague at work receives public praise from management, and for a few days afterward behaves egotistically and begins acting like “the boss.” However, after a week this situational narcissism recedes, and the colleague returns once again to working collaboratively.
  2. A friend who recently entered into a romantic relationship talks incessantly about her new-found love, which dominates her conversations and social media. She even shows a sense of conceit towards her peers who are still single, making snide remarks while basking in her self-absorbed romance. However, after receiving constructive feedback she realizes her insensitivity, apologizes to her single friends, and returns to positive friendship.

In both examples above, the individuals involved may be characterized as showing narcissistic traits rather than being outright narcissists. These examples are momentary lapses of good judgment.

The pathological narcissist, on the other hand, often purposely and willfully induces toxic environments and harmful relationships, all for the purpose of exploiting others to serve one’s own self-interest. In addition to common narcissistic traits such as false superiority, arrogant conceit, and high insensitivity, the pathological narcissist also tends to exhibit one or more of the following five sets of character flaws, with references from my books How to Successfully Handle Narcissists and A Practical Guide for Narcissists to Change Towards the Higher Self.

Frequent Lies and Exaggerations

Many pathological narcissists habitually spread falsehoods in order to make themselves look good and others look bad. They often resort to distortion of facts, misleading statements, personal attacks, blaming, and coercion in order to achieve their ends. They also rely on these tactics in order to boost their fragile self-esteem.

Entitlement and Constant Need for Gratification

Chronic narcissists frequently expect others to be at their beck and call and fulfill their every need. They demand constant attention and validation and can become easily upset when not catered to. To the habitual narcissist, the world revolves around them.

Rule Breaking and Boundary Violation

One of the most striking traits of many pathological narcissists is that they believe they are “above the law” and “exceptions to the rule,” which entitles them to boundary violations. Chronic narcissists often trespass on others relationally, socially, professionally, and/or financially, which to them signifies superiority, “conquest” and “winning.” Other people’s thoughts and feelings are disregarded.

Negative Emotion and Invalidation

Chronic narcissists tend to enjoy instigating and spreading negative emotions in order to make others feel inadequate and establish psychological control. Significantly, they often blame and show contempt toward their victims.

Manipulation: Using Others as Extension of Oneself

Pathological narcissists have the tendency of manipulating those in their orbit in order to achieve their self-serving agenda. To them, others merely exist as extensions of their selfish machinations, to be exploited at will. Common manipulative devices include insincere flattery, negative pressure, guilt-tripping, blaming, shaming, and threatening. Chronic narcissists do not relate, they use.

Can someone with narcissistic tendencies change for the better? Perhaps. But only if he or she is highly aware, and willing to go through the courageous process of self-discovery. For narcissists no longer willing to play the charade at the cost of genuine relationships and credibility, there are ways to liberate from falsehood, and progressively move toward one’s Higher Self. For those who live or work with narcissists, perceptive awareness and assertive communication are musts for establishing healthy and mutually respectful relationships. See the references below.

© 2019 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.


Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Narcissists. PNCC. (2014)

Ni, Preston. A Practical Guide for Narcissists to Change Towards the Higher Self. PNCC. (2015)

Ni, Preston. Understanding Narcissism’s Destructive Impact on Relationships — An Indispensable Reader. PNCC. (2018)

Bursten, Ben. The Manipulative Personality. Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol 26 No 4. (1972)

Buss DM, Gomes M, Higgins DS, Lauterback K. Tactics of Manipulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 52 No 6 (1987)

Mayo Clinic Staff, "Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Symptoms." Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2016)

Johnson, S. Humanizing the Narcissistic Style. W. W. Norton & Company. (1987)

Johnson, Stephen. Character Styles. W. W. Norton & Company. (1994)

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