Narcissists have a prominent place in the popular imagination, and the label "narcissist" is widely deployed to refer to people who appear too full of themselves. There's also a growing sense that narcissism is on the rise around the world, especially among young people, although most psychological research does not support that notion.
Narcissism is properly viewed on a spectrum. The trait is normally distributed in the population, with most people scoring near the middle, and a few at either extreme. The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), developed by Robert Raskin and Calvin S. Hall in 1979, is the most commonly used measure of the trait. Scores range from 0 to 40, with the average tending to fall in the low to mid-teens. Healthy individuals who score somewhat higher may be perceived as exceedingly charming, especially on the first encounter, but eventually come across as vain. Such individuals may have awkward or stressful personal encounters but still have a fundamentally healthy personality.
It’s easy to describe someone who spends a bit too much time talking about her career or who never seems to doubt himself as a narcissist, but the trait is more complicated than that. Narcissism does not necessarily represent a surplus of self-esteem or of insecurity; more accurately, it encompasses a hunger for appreciation or admiration, a desire to be the center of attention, and an expectation of special treatment reflecting perceived higher status. Interestingly, research finds, many highly narcissistic people often readily admit to an awareness that they are more self-centered. A high level of narcissism, not surprisingly, can be damaging in romantic, familial, or professional relationships.
Narcissism is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, a need for excessive admiration, and the belief that one is unique and deserving of special treatment. If you encounter someone who consistently exhibits these behaviors, you may be dealing with a highly narcissistic individual.
Pathological narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder, is rare: It affects an estimated 1 percent of the population, a prevalence that hasn't changed since clinicians started measuring it. The disorder is suspected when narcissistic traits impair a person’s daily functioning. That dysfunction typically causes friction in relationships due to the pathological narcissist's lack of empathy. It may also manifest as antagonism, fueled by grandiosity and attention-seeking. In seeing themselves as superior, the pathological narcissist naturally views everyone else as inferior and may be intolerant of disagreement or questioning.
If you wonder whether someone is a narcissist, it might be best just to ask them. It’s generally assumed that people either don’t realize that they are narcissists, or deny it to avoid a challenge to their identity. But in research using the so-called Single-Item Narcissism Scale, people who answered affirmatively to the single question, “Are you a narcissist?” were far more likely than others to score highly on narcissism on the 40-question Narcissistic Personality Inventory.
Research has discovered some benefits in relatively high but subclinical narcissism, such as increased mental toughness (performing well in high-pressure situations) and higher achievement in school and on the job. A heightened sense of self-worth may also make a person more motivated and assertive than others. Other research has linked narcissism to a lower incidence of depression.
A narcissistic boss places getting ahead over getting along, which means they’re often uncollaborative, arrogant, and argumentative, and myopically focused on becoming “the winner.” Narcissistic bosses take all the credit for successes and lash out at those who do not demonstrate loyalty. These tendencies and others indicate that you may be dealing with a narcissistic boss.
Navigating a relationship with a narcissist can be deeply frustrating and distressing. In their quest for control and admiration, narcissistic people may manipulate and exploit others, damaging their self-esteem and even aiming to alter their sense of reality. Arguing with a narcissist about their action often proves fruitless. A more successful solution is to establish boundaries and emotionally distance yourself. Recognize that you may not be able to control your feelings about a person, but you can control how you respond to them. Cutting ties with a narcissistic partner, family member, or boss may eventually be the best if not the only solution. In that process, it's helpful to reflect on the characteristics of the individual to avoid finding oneself in similar scenarios in the future.
Acknowledging your frustration, appreciating where the behavior comes from, and refusing to lose your own sense of purpose when a narcissist takes center stage are key strategies, among others. Researchers who classify narcissists as either vulnerable or grandiose argue that specific approaches are warranted for each type.
Manage your expectations, align your successes with your boss’s, draw boundaries, and don’t try to argue, justify, or explain yourself. These and other tactics can help you navigate a narcissist in the workplace.
Narcissists tend to have an intense drive for power, attention, and affirmation, which may benefit them in campaigns for corporate management or political leadership. Once in charge, though, they may focus more on self-promotion and the suppression of opposition than advancing an organization’s goals and their lack of empathy fosters little loyalty.
A narcissist's desire to elicit admiration and praise, especially from potential romantic partners, often makes them charming and charismatic, traits that can rapidly ignite a romance. But their inherent deficit of empathy may prevent them from understanding a partner's inner world and establishing a fulfilling long-term relationship.
It's nearly impossible for people with narcissistic personality disorder to truly fall in love and build a trusting, equal partnership. Such an individual may seek to establish strict rules in a relationship and attempt to isolate a new partner from friends and family, among other disturbing behaviors.
Narcissists may show passion and charm in the early stages of dating. But for most narcissists, relationships are transactional. They provide positive attention and sexual satisfaction to bolster a narcissist’s ego and self-esteem. The objective is to enjoy uncommitted pleasure, and most narcissists lose interest in the relationship as the expectation for intimacy increases or they feel that they’ve conquered the challenge of securing a relationship.
From an evolutionary perspective, it has been theorized that, at least in the realm of mating, narcissism may serve an adaptive function: increased success in short-term mating. Cross-cultural research has found that narcissists tend to have higher levels of sociosexuality: They are more interested in short-term relationships or hookups, and more likely to pursue partners who are already in committed relationships.
Narcissistic personality disorder is relatively rare—there are many more people who are simply selfish. The difference lies in whether the person is periodically mean and self-centered or whether they consistently lack empathy.