“He only thinks about himself!”
“Wow, she really loves herself…”
“Why are they so entitled?”
At some point in our lives, the majority of people will interact with somebody who makes them think something along those lines. Somebody who thinks the world of themselves, constantly needs attention from others, and maybe even totally disregards the feelings of other people in favor of their own.
These people are often identified with a very common label: narcissists.
Narcissists can be very difficult to be around, whether we know we are interacting with one or not. But what exactly is a narcissist? More specifically, what does it mean to be narcissistic, why does the trait exist, and how can we manage when we are dealing with somebody in our lives who is considered to be a narcissist?
Over the next few months, A New Beginning will be taking a closer look at narcissism to try and help answer some of those questions. Today, we will be focusing on the basics: What is narcissism?
What Is Narcissism?
Over the years, psychologists and researchers have sought to define what we refer to as narcissism, but sometimes all of the different terms, similarities, definitions, and so on can get pretty confusing.
According to Merriam-Webster, narcissism means acting “extremely self-centered with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, marked by or characteristic of excessive admiration of or infatuation with oneself.” The term narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a young man who falls in love with his own reflection and ultimately perishes by the pool he is unable to draw away from.
In other words, a person with narcissistic traits or tendencies has an incredibly inflated view of themselves, which often leads to a significant sense of entitlement and behaviors that disregard the needs/wants/feelings of others around them.
When reading that general definition, it isn’t unusual for someone to immediately pop into our minds; maybe a significant other, a co-worker, or a family member. Narcissism, like all traits or behaviors, is far more complicated than the dictionary definition leads on. It exists on a spectrum, so it isn’t a surprise that most of us have encountered—or even demonstrated ourselves—narcissism in one way or another. While these traits can be frustrating for those around them, they are considered to be relatively harmless.
So, how can we start to tease apart the various aspects of narcissism, especially when the narcissism in question is something to be concerned about?
Types of Narcissism
When a person is considered narcissistic— that is, they have narcissistic traits or tendencies—this already poses a specific question: What kind of narcissist are they?
Researchers have begun to identify two types of narcissistic traits. These two types essentially describe what is underlying various narcissistic traits. The first type, grandiose narcissism or overt narcissism, is when a person has a superior image of themselves, and has a desire to maintain that image, gain admiration and attention from others, and demonstrate a sense of dominance or power.
The second type, vulnerable narcissism or covert narcissism, is categorized more by fragile self-confidence, and their inflated self-image is often a coping mechanism for low self-esteem. Vulnerable narcissists often also have a deep fear of rejection or criticism as a result of these challenges.
Where Does Narcissism Come From?
Psychologists and researchers over the years have pondered the question of narcissism just as they have with all other forms of human behavior, beliefs, and personality: that is, what causes somebody to develop narcissistic traits?
The short answer is, it’s complicated.
The longer answer is that psychology research is still unpacking all of the different factors that could potentially play a role in the development of narcissistic personality traits. But they've begun to identify a few key players so far.
Some research is beginning to come forward suggesting that narcissistic personality begins to manifest at around 8 years old, as children are beginning to develop a sense of themselves and a sense of others.
As for where narcissism comes from, it appears to be a combination of biological temperament (inherited differences in how someone reacts to their environment, and how they control those reactions), early social interactions, and the resulting psychological systems. One study, in particular, provides evidence that avoidance (strong reaction to negative stimuli) and approach (strong reaction to positive stimuli) temperaments can play a large role in the development of narcissism.
At the same time, they argue that parents who are overindulgent toward their children, as well as parents who are considered cold/unsupportive of their children, could be a significant factor in emerging narcissistic traits.
Long story short, while researchers have an idea as to where narcissism comes from, there is still much to be done before we can say for sure. We also know that a lot of different factors can lead to the same outcome—which is why it’s important for us to be able to identify narcissistic traits no matter what the context is.
Narcissistic Traits vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder
As mentioned above, narcissism exists on a spectrum from occasional displays of superior views of self to behaviors and traits that can warrant a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
While somebody with narcissistic traits may often feel intense admiration for themselves or a sense of entitlement, NPD is one of several personality disorders recognized by the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM-5).
The DSM-5 defines NPD as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts…,” where at least five of nine potential criteria are present (i.e., lacks empathy, is interpersonally exploitive, etc.).
As with all personality disorders, the important thing to note is that these traits are persistent, cause significant distress to the person or those around them, and impair their day-to-day functioning.
It should also be mentioned that reading symptoms of NPD or narcissistic traits on paper and interacting with a narcissistic person in real life are totally different experiences—teasing these apart can prove to be a challenging task without professional help. Don't be afraid to seek guidance from a mental health professional if you or someone you know is looking for clarification.
Knowing the basics of narcissism, having an idea of where it may come from, and recognizing the difference between narcissistic traits and someone with NPD is incredibly important, especially as we navigate interactions with people in our lives that display narcissistic behaviors.
Want to learn more about narcissism, as well as some helpful tips for navigating the people in our lives with narcissistic traits? Keep a lookout for the next post in our narcissism series, here on A New Beginning!
Caligor, E., Levy, K. N., & Yeomans, F. E. (2015). Narcissistic personality disorder: Diagnostic and clinical challenges. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(5), 415-422.
Rohmann, E., Neumann, E., Herner, M. J., & Bierhoff, H. W. (2012). Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. European Psychologist, 17(4), 279-290.
Thomaes, S. C. E., Bushman, B. J., Orobio de Castro, B., & Stegge, H. (2009). What makes narcissists bloom? A framework for research on the etiology and development of narcissism. Development and Psychopathology, 21, 1233-1247.
Cartwright, M. (2017, February 20th). Narcissus. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved January 27, 2021, from https://www.ancient.eu/Narcissus/
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Narcissistic. Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved January 27, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/narcissistic