What Is a Narcissist?

Mar 1, 2022 | Blog, Health

What Is a Narcissist?

Narcissistic personality disorder is complex and nuanced.

  • Narcissism is a term that is often misunderstood and misused in our society
  • Narcissists present in a variety of ways in everyday life
  • Gaslighting is one of the techniques narcissists use to get what they want
  • Treatment for Narcissists 

Rarely does a week go by that I do not hear someone saying they are dating a narcissist, they were married to a narcissist, their roommate is a narcissist, their neighbor is a narcissist… you get the point. At the ease with which the term “narcissist” is being tossed around these days,  half of the people in the United States seem to be narcissists. Being that the rate of “narcissists”  in community samples is approximately 6%, maximum, there is clearly a misunderstanding of  what qualifies as a “narcissist.” 

Within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—5th Edition, there are 10 personality disorders,  grouped into three “clusters” based on their similar and overlapping features. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is part of the Cluster B personality disorders whose central features are “dramatic, emotional, or erratic” behaviors. Also in this cluster are antisocial, histrionic, and borderline personality disorders.

The Story of Narcissus 

To further understand narcissism and its foundation, let’s look at the origin of the term.  Narcissism is rooted in the story of the Greek god, Narcissus. 

Narcissus was born a very handsome hunter who, one day in the forest, resisted the love of the goddess, Echo. As revenge for his cruelty, Narcissus was lured by the goddess, Nemesis,  to a pool of water to quench his thirst after hunting. Narcissus saw his reflection in the water,  having no idea he was staring at the image of himself and fell in love. In today’s use of the term, the key is that the narcissist has an excess of love for the image of himself rather than his actual self and, because he never lives up to that ideal, beautiful, and perfect image of himself, he hides behind that image. Thus, contrary to popular understanding, at the heart of narcissism is low self-esteem disguised by attitudes and behaviors that serve as a cover and exude quite the opposite—a fixation with oneself, one’s physical appearance, and public perception. 

Profile of a Narcissist 

Not every person who is dramatic, emotional, and/or erratic is a narcissist. Looking through  a less clinical lens, if you are to look at a profile of a narcissist, that individual possesses a  universal and consistent style of being which includes three critical factors:  

  • Grandiosity – they have a bloated sense of self-importance and exaggerate their  achievements and talents; 
  • A constant need for admiration – the more admiration, adoration, adulation, the more  content the narcissist; 
  • A lack of empathy – they not only typically lack empathy, but they also tend to be oblivious to others’ feelings. 

That’s just the baseline. Add to the mix that narcissists have a fixation with themselves – their physical appearance and public perception – and are steeped in fantasies of success, power,  brilliance, beauty, and ideal love. Because they believe themselves to be special and unique – more attractive, more intelligent, and more talented than others – they seek high-status people and institutions, accompanied by a deep sense of entitlement, self-centeredness, and pretentiousness. Narcissists come across as arrogant, obnoxious, and conceited and they take advantage of, manipulate, and step on people in order to get what they want. Finally, contrary to what most people think, they are envious of others or believe that others are envious of them. 

Narcissists in Everyday Life 

In everyday life, narcissists typically have relationship and work problems. They are very difficult to live with and to be around because they tend to be quite exploitative of others to further their own agenda. As a result, those that live and work with narcissists end up frustrated, angry, and unhappy. There is a saying, “if you enter the workplace or a household and you see miserable people, look for the narcissist.”

Narcissists use many techniques and tactics to manipulate people to get what they want;  Gaslighting is one of the most common. Gaslighting refers to a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator, in this case a narcissist, is trying to get someone else to question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. A narcissist may even convince their victims they are mentally unfit. Individuals who experience gaslighting often feel confused, anxious, unable to trust themselves, and often feel like they are going crazy. 

While narcissists will come across as arrogant in their attitudes and behaviors, behind the mask of self-confidence lies their fragile self-esteem. Narcissists see themselves in the greatness of others and believe they are equal although, deep down, they know they are not. They know,  at the core, they are not what they project – that ideal image of themselves. As a result,  narcissists are extremely vulnerable to criticism and when there is a perceived slight or a  weakness is pointed out, this results in what is called narcissistic injury. Narcissists do not take the high road when criticized; rather, they will lash out – verbally and physically – and it can be violent, depending on the person and the level of perceived slight. This is called narcissistic rage. 

Treating Narcissism 

Whether or not narcissists are treatable is a controversial topic and many healthcare professionals would say personality disorders are not treatable. In fact, historically, personality disorders were not covered by medical insurance. The mentality was that, when treating a  psychiatric disorder (e.g. anxiety, depression), you are treating symptoms and, typically,  individuals with psychiatric disorders are unhappy, want help, and are treatable. However,  when working with someone with a personality disorder, you are treating an individual’s character, their way of being. And, this, along with a low level of self-awareness and compliance with treatment, is what contributed to personality disorders being considered as untreatable.  

Although this has changed, most people with personality disorders never come into contact with mental health services. If they do, it is usually in the context of another mental disorder or at a time of crisis – e.g. their marriage is failing or they are close to losing their job. Even then, they will blame their spouse and coworkers; rarely will a narcissist look in the mirror and take responsibility for his own demise. This is because they have a low level of self-awareness and believe the issues in their life are everyone else’s fault; thus, they have little motivation to change. If a narcissist does enter into treatment, he will need to believe that he is seeing an expert in the field, only the best, in order to assuage his ego; otherwise, he will be resistant and likely drop out of therapy. 

A Final Note about Narcissism 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder, like all personality disorders, should be considered as being on a spectrum. In other words, the extent to which someone is a narcissist will vary—i.e. not everyone is a “raging narcissist. It is also important to understand that the pattern of behavior of a narcissist is pervasive and enduring, not just a one-time occurrence, or even a phase in someone’s life. That pattern of behavior you might be experiencing or that you may have  experienced is who the person is, not something someone “has” or “develops.” So, if someone is a jerk, they are not necessarily a narcissist. Being a narcissist is so much more complex and nuanced. So, if someone is having a bad day, they are not necessarily a narcissist. If someone is selfish, they are not necessarily a narcissist. They might just be a jerk, having a bad day, or just plain selfish.

Dr. Mary Beth