Is the word narcissism being overused or thrown around too lightly? Do we need a deeper understanding of this behavior and why it is so harmful, and sometimes dangerous? Having studied the disorder for more than 25 years, and having treating many survivors of relationships with narcissists, I have seen firsthand how disarming, and eventually harmful, a narcissist can be. Certain traits of the narcissist that don’t really matter so much, like boasting to cover up a fragile sense of self. But the traits that lead them to hurt others do matter, a lot.
It’s important to break down narcissism from a clinical standpoint using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.1 This guide for clinicians lists nine traits seen in the personality disorder of narcissism. Let’s unpack them with some examples:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance — exaggerates achievements and talents, and expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements.
We all know 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 people with a strong 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 aspect of being recognized as superior without the achievement to back it up. This kind of thinking can be harmful to others when a 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. Fro 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: "It’s great that you are on the track team 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.
How is this hurtful? It’s the “preoccupied” part. This is the “all about me” and “you don’t matter” way in which a narcissist thinks. They have to be on top and win in all aspects. They value you in as much as you can help them achieve this perfection, but if you rise above them, there's a problem: 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 his help.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should only associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
It is easy to say, “Who cares that they do this?” But this thinking disregards the person and only considers their achievements of others. It is the mantra of the narcissist that you are valued for what you do, not for who you are. I see this frequently in high-conflict divorce cases in which one partner is a narcissist. For example, when searching for a therapist for the children, the narcissist will value a prestigious academic background over the actual ability and experience of the therapist. It is also common for narcissists to identify friends by their achievements, rather than who they really are as people. This does not highlight an intimate connection, but rather assigns value to someone as “my friend, the doctor," etc. In healthy relationships, you value friends primarily because of their character and personality traits.
4. Requires excessive admiration.
Everyone I have worked with in a clinical setting who has been raised by a narcissistic parent or been in a romantic relationship with a narcissist says they are exhausted. Why? It's because the narcissist is an empty emotional vessel that needs to be refueled constantly with admiration and praise. If you are in a relationship with someone like this, it not only gets old, but it is tiring. And your needs don’t get met. The relationship is not reciprocal. Give and take? Not at all.
5. Has a sense of entitlement, with unreasonable expectations of 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. The narcissist's needs come first. They feel they deserve that royal treatment, and if you will not cooperate, they may take you down, make disparaging comments about you, try to hurt you, and withhold appreciation of you. This is a relationship killer.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, and 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. If you feel this in a relationship, 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 own event.
7. Lacks empathy; is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
Lack of empathy is a cornerstone trait of narcissism. Without empathy, how can one love, bond, or attach to a child? The false acting of loving is possible, but one cannot sustain it. Have you seen a person who seems to be empathetic and kind, but as soon as things don’t go their way, they turn on you? Or a friend who cannot tune into your feelings, but always turns the conversation to themselves? Example: When you tell your mother you are going through a divorce, she is more concerned with how it will look to the family or the neighbors, rather than your pain or despair. The most difficult thing about having a narcissistic parent or spouse is realizing their inability to love. It is simply a crushing moment.
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 outshine them in any way. How do they deal with their envy of others? They make concerted efforts to take others down through constant criticism, name-calling, and gossip, while at the same time pumping themselves up. Example: Linda is jealous of her attractive coworker, Samantha. So Linda starts a rumor that Samantha is likely anorexic and unhealthy in an attempt to take her reputation down a notch.
9. Shows arrogance, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
This is a flashy cover-up for a fragile ego and low self-esteem. While it looks like narcissists have a high opinion of themselves, they may really be self-loathing and have a need to take others down to feel better. While arrogant people are hard to be around, this trait is generally less bothersome unless the narcissist is using it to hurt someone through their constant judgment.
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, but it is when these traits are consistent over time, impair relationships, and hurt others that they become dangerous.
Some additional traits seen in narcissists include a lack of accountability, and therefore always blaming someone else, as well as the projection of their own feelings onto others. Both of these are frustrating for 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 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.
1 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text revision (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2000), 717.