What is a narcissist?
“Narcissism falls along the axis of what psychologists call personality disorders, one of a group (of four) that includes antisocial, dependent, histrionic, avoidant, and borderline personalities. But by most measures, narcissism is one of the worst, because the narcissists themselves are so clueless” (Kluger, J. 2011)
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is a publication by The American Psychiatric Association and is used by clinicians for classifying and diagnosing mental disorders. It is the official source for definitions related to mental illness (DSM-V).
Personality disorders, specifically Cluster B types like narcissism, are characterized by drama, unreliable and very emotional behavior (Hoermann, Ph.D., S., Zupanick, Psy.D., C., & Dombeck, Ph.D., M. (2019)
According to the DSM-V, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a Cluster B disorder characterized by these nine criteria:
- grandiose sense of self-importance
- preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty, etc.
- believes that s/he is “special” and can only be understood by, or associate with like-minded people
- requires excessive admiration
- feels entitled to, and expects special treatment
- is manipulative and exploitative
- lacks empathy
- is envious of others and/or believes others are envious of them
- displays arrogant or haughty behavior.
How is it diagnosed?
To be diagnosed with narcissism, at least five of the nine specific traits above must be chronically present.
The word “narcissism” indicates a set of personality traits such as selfishness, vanity, manipulation, and self-importance. Narcissists are described as “challenging” to interact with. They are often defensive, condescending, and “know everything.” They can be aggressive and even physically abusive. Narcissism has no known cure, although Cognitive Behavioral Therapy may provide a means for learning self-awareness. Narcissists don’t usually seek help or therapy because they don’t think there’s anything wrong with their thinking or behavior.
“Narcissists lack the ability to emotionally tune-in to other people. They cannot feel and show empathy or unconditional love. They are typically critical and judgmental” -Karyl McBride, Ph.D.
Common Narcissism Personality Traits
- Concerned with image and status
- Don’t like accountability or taking responsibility
- Prone to Narcissistic Rages when threatened
- Comfortable using violence to achieve goals
- Use manipulation to get what they want
- Test boundaries to see how far they can go
- Easily frustrated
- Can’t communicate honestly because “winning” is the goal
- Invalidating of others. Convey a clear message that “you don’t matter.”
- Shirk personal responsibility
- Use name-calling and public shaming to gain control.
- Selfish, self-centered
- Lack empathy; can’t identify with other people’s feelings
- Their words don’t match their actions (in my experience: their words don’t match their voice intonation and/or facial expressions)
Common Narcissism Behaviors
- They “re-write history” as a way to protect their image. This is known as “Gaslighting.” In their version of what happened, they’re always either the hero or the victim
- Staring at you to make you feel uncomfortable
- Baiting you and picking fights
- Emotional dumping (expecting you to listen to their problems, criticism of you, ways in which you disappoint them, and what or how you should change to please them. This is done without empathy. They have no regard for how this will affect you. They will not allow you to share your feelings with them. It is a one-sided interaction. They are not interested in how you feel.
- Intentionally misunderstanding what you’ve said, “twisting” your words to give them a different meaning.
- Projecting their thoughts or feelings onto you and saying that’s how you think or how you feel
- Threatening to publicly shame or “ruin” you by publishing something embarrassing such as a picture or a letter.
- Expecting behavior from children that isn’t age-appropriate
- Expecting a level of understanding from children that isn’t age-appropriate
- Expecting emotional-caretaking from others
- Life is a game of power and control, they play to win at any cost.
- They use other people’s empathy and vulnerability against them.
- Narcissistic Rages: intense anger, aggression, or passive-aggression that occurs when a narcissist experiences a setback, or disappointment; anything that shatters their illusions of grandiosity, entitlement, or superiority, and triggers their inadequacy, shame, and/or vulnerability.
- Coercion: Getting you to give up or to do something that you don’t want to do. Slowly and subtly takes over. Becomes “protective,” wants to know where you are and what you’re doing; jealous, provokes arguments, limits contact with your friends and family.
Having a personality disorder significantly decreases one’s ability to correctly perceive reality.
How Narcissism Begins
So, how does someone become a narcissist? Narcissistic thinking and behaving can be learned in childhood from a narcissistic parent or caregiver. Victims of narcissists often create a “false self” as a coping mechanism to survive emotionally. The false-self expresses itself more suitably and socially acceptably than the true self. This false self imitates “normal” human emotions including empathy, which allows narcissists to appear to be kind, caring, and compassionate human beings.
As children, we cope the best we know how, with the skills that we have at that time, healthy or not. Narcissists may have dealt with adverse childhood trauma by imitating a narcissist in their life, or they may have learned to please those narcissists instead, thereby becoming codependent in the process. (Codependency is a set of learned, maladaptive coping tools such as monitoring the environment, attempting to control people and/or outcomes, “helping” or fixing other people’s problems, protecting others from the consequences of their choices, anticipating and meeting other people’s needs without being asked, and putting themselves last.)
Narcissistic parents are not healthy role models for their children. They may use foul language in front of (or directed at) their children, make age-inappropriate adult/sexual statements and inferences, behave immaturely, violate the law, openly show their addictions, and may bring partners home for sex around (or in front of ) the children. If they’re “serial monogamists,” they often state that every new partner is “the love of their life” or “the one.”
When a primary caregiver is a narcissist, kids are much more likely to endure narcissistic abuse. Very young children don’t have the mental capacity to comprehend that a parent is mentally ill. They completely trust and depend on the parent, making them more easily manipulated and emotionally controlled.
It’s important to understand and accept that if a parent is a narcissist, they’ve been deeply hurt and damaged, and were probably also abused or taught to expect “entitlement” as a child. Perhaps they learned this from another narcissist, caretaker, or role model. This is not an excuse for their behavior, but rather a way to view them with understanding and perhaps compassion.
Because they’re self-absorbed, narcissists are oblivious to the damage they do to their children, and if they do, they are not self-aware enough to care.
Most narcissists will never know whether they’re on the NPD spectrum or if they have full-blown NPD because most don’t seek treatment. They don’t see or acknowledge that they have a problem. So, most narcissists have never gotten a professional diagnosis or sought professional assistance.
It’s important to a narcissist that their ego is kept intact and inflated. The “ego” is the part of the mind that arbitrates between the conscious and the unconscious. It’s responsible for our sense of self and personal identity. It is the filter through which we see ourselves. We tell our egos specific “stories” so we can live with our beliefs about who we are.
Narcissists enjoy believing they’re superior to everyone, smarter, and better at everything. This is one reason they’re often so defensive and argumentative and are quick to anger. If you challenge a narcissist, there will always be repercussions. Narcissists need to feel superior and “right” in any situation. They don’t experience feelings of remorse. Remorsefulness would require the narcissist to feel empathy, and sympathy, and to take responsibility for their actions (Hammond, C. 2018). They are not capable of these.
Conscious awareness: Be aware and make conscious choices before acting. Self-awareness releases us from making impulsive and potentially damaging decisions.
Self-care: We can only choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves, our own thoughts, actions, and behavior. The good news is that we can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice. We can take responsibility for getting our needs met, instead of waiting for someone to change or meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves and no one is responsible for us but us.
Understand how the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle is different
Learn about codependency
Learn about letting go of what you can’t control, by using loving-detachment
Learn about expectations
More resources to guide you in healing from childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. (ebook, audiobook, hardcover, and paperback.)
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About the author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf has developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those insights with others who want to learn.
Her books and articles are the result of her education, knowledge, personal growth, and insight regarding her childhood experiences and subsequent recovery work.
Diane holds a Master of Science degree in Information Technology and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She has worked in numerous fields including domestic violence and abuse and is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer about family dysfunction. Currently, she writes about recovery from narcissistic victim syndrome and symptoms of C-PTSD on The Toolbox and has authored three books in the “Lemon Moms” series. Visit her author’s website here.
She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager, or Advocate.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.