What Is Narcissism?

As I began my counseling career decades ago (1980) I was determined to learn why people struggle with moods and primary relationships.  When individuals talked with me about their unique circumstances, I’d listen for underlying patterns and trends. As those patterns became clear, so my thinking would go, we could begin making the necessary adjustments in thought, attitude, behavior, and lifestyle.  To this day, that’s still the way I operate when I see patients. 

As my experience piled up, one of the most common patterns I detected was self-absorption.  Sometimes the self-absorbed patterns were so blatant, they virtually screamed to be noticed.  Other times, they were subtle and not revealed for quite some time. We call those covert patterns.  

Narcissism is the pattern of life driven by self-absorption, control, and manipulation.  It can be understood as a pattern on a spectrum, with each of us having at least some capacity for it.

On the far end of the spectrum, narcissism is referred to as a personality disorder (NPD), a pathological manner so embedded and so dysfunctional that it renders the individual as one who surely contributes pain and strain in relationships.  People with NPD have an inflated sense of their self-importance, an excessive need for admiration or superiority, and a greatly diminished capacity for empathy.

Short of NPD, many people are sufficiently inclined toward self-impressed behaviors and poor empathy, so they too create exaggerated strain in their primary relationships.  Others may contain their narcissistic tendencies fairly well, yet they may also have moments when it comes to the fore. That’s life on the spectrum.

Narcissism In The Context Of Ancient History

Ancient Greek mythology tells the story of the hunter, Narcissus, walking through the forest and coming upon a pond.  As he paused to refresh himself in the pool of water, he gazed upon his own reflection and became so enamored by what he saw, he was unable to move on from the allure of his own image.  Infatuated, he remained there until he melted away and his remains turned into a gold and white flower. Eventually his name came to be associated with vanity and self-admiration.

In another familiar story, featuring Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the two were drawn into temptation by a talking snake who convinced them they could be as God.  When they ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the error of their decision came crashing down upon them so they hid in the bushes. When questioned, they expressed fear and defensively turned to blaming and shaming.  Having been created and pronounced as very good, they had been given the gift of freedom. But now, they had used their freedom wrongly, thus thrusting themselves and all humanity into a dual pattern of being both good and evil.  They were still capable of goodness and love, yet they also had become self-absorbed, and harbored an inescapable yearning for control. The byproduct was the instinctual tendency to construct a False Self resulting in cover up and blame.

For millennia, cultures across the globe have constructed similar stories and folklore attempting to explain humanity’s capacity for both good and evil.  

8 Primary Indicators Of Narcissism

Consistently, narcissists display most or all of eight identifiable tendencies:

  • An inability to empathize.  Narcissists do not feel the need to know and understand a person’s emotions or experiences.  Being self-enamored inhibits their concern for others.
  • A strong, persistent need for control.  Narcissists believe they should be the ones holding the reins of power in relationships and organizations.  Wherever they go, they have a fixed agenda regarding the ways life is supposed to unfold.  
  • An attitude of entitlement.  Though they show little concern about the needs of others, they routinely focus on satisfying their own needs and preferences.  When they do not get what they demand, anger is inevitable.
  • Manipulative, exploitive behaviors.  Being non-authentic people, they can give the appearance of friendliness or coordination, only to show later that they are users of people.  They are not honest or trustworthy.
  • An inability to receive direction.  Narcissists are pathologically defensive.  They have an image to maintain, and any discussion about flaws or mistakes will be met with strong denial, reversal, blame, or accusation.
  • A need for superiority.  Truly believing in their unique, lofty status, they are commonly critical and condescending.  They justify bullying and stubbornness by focusing on others’ inferiority.
  • An alternate reality.  Their lack of objectivity causes them to anchor upon a version of truth that does not match pitch with others.  They truly believe they hold distinct perspectives that others cannot learn. 
  • Ability to create favorable false impressions.  For a time, narcissists can appear charming, friendly, and agreeable.  Their yearning to be admired prompts them to present themselves as appealing and enviable.  But this charm inevitably is temporary and situational.

Types of Narcissism

Narcissism can be displayed in a very wide array of patterns.  Think of a hub of a wheel and the spokes that extend from that hub. The spokes represent the many patterns that can be offshoots of the core tendency toward narcissism.  

Following are some types of narcissism you might encounter, and while it is not an exhaustive list, it can give you and idea of how pervasive narcissism can be.  And yes, individuals can have combinations and degrees of these types:

The Bully:  Forceful, punishing, coercive, overbearing, demanding, prone to rage, willing to humiliate or shame, preys upon others’ weaknesses, user of people.

The Entitled Narcissist:  Must be unique, doesn’t feel social norms apply, wants favored treatment, refuses to do menial tasks, shuns accountability, “you owe me” attitude, prefers the seat of honor.

The Vanity Narcissist:  Impressed by bling, money, materialism, being at the right events, prestige, the “it” people, outer appearance, tendency toward snobbery, prone to superficial thinking.

The Hedonistic Narcissist:  Perpetually in pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence, instant gratification, disregard for future considerations, now focused, drawn toward addictive behaviors, alcohol and drug consumption, alluring sexual themes, thrill of the moment, it’s all about me right now.

The Covert Narcissist:  Control is subtle, passive non-cooperation, secretive, will not let the real self be seen or known, silent punishment, dominance via quiet withdrawal, evasive, sly criticism, emotionally unavailable, coy.

The Malignant Narcissist:  Cold, calculated, destructive, will harm, sees others as expendable, little appreciation for the suffering they produce, mean.

The Fragile Victim:  Manipulative via helplessness, anxiety, “life is cruel to me,” wants others to cater, complains easily, goodness of others never is enough.

Know-It-All Narcissist:  No need for direction from anyone, must always be right, will persuade and coerce, bossy, unsolicited advice, poor listener, argumentative, quick to disagree, intellectually competitive, loves to debate with a raised voice. 

Perfectionistic Narcissist:  Strong need for order, impatient, micro-manager, picky, exacting standards, good is never good enough, thin-skinned, quickly annoyed, not consistently tender, emotions are a nuisance.

Sociopathic Narcissist:  Rebellious, truth is expedient, rules are meant to be broken, no regard for authority, seems intelligent yet also shallow, lies easily, exploitive, user of people, no consistent moral compass.

Psychopath:  Morally bankrupt, zero regard for human dignity, cold, mean, brutal, no conscience, conniving, aggressive, prone to violence and calculated anger.

Histrionic Narcissist:  Driven by outlandish emotion, very expressive, colorful, depleted ability to reason, happy to extreme, upset to extreme, dramatic.

The Seductive Narcissist:  High need for temporary affirmation, loves being fawned over, commonly sexualizes and objectifies others, charming, shallow, easy come/easy go, love bombing followed by “ghosting,” cannot permanently commit.

The Borderline Narcissist:  Known for all or nothing exaggerations, I love you/I hate you, cling/rage, idealization/demonizing, when dissatisfied there is self-destruction with a wide range of personally damaging behaviors, an enigma to those who draw close.

These patterns each give evidence of core narcissism: low empathy, high control, manipulation, alternate reality, etc.

What Causes Narcissism?

This is one of the most difficult questions to answer because narcissists can come from such broadly diverse backgrounds.  Is it caused by nature or nurture?  

In some cases there has to be a genetically linked tendency.  Think, for instance, how some individuals have a natural bent toward mathematics, music, literary skills, and so on.  We often say, “It’s just in them to be that way.” Likewise some people have a natural bent toward tenderness, friendliness, or sociability.  It’s just how they are.

It also could be presumed that some people are more inclined toward troublesome trends. They can lack interest in emotions. They can be more naturally bossy.   Or perhaps they are relationally elusive. Those qualities, too, can be “just how they are.” So some of the inclination toward narcissism could be “nature.”

That understood, there are some qualities that can have a learned or experiential base.  In other words, there can be a “nurture” component. Following are some common themes that tend to be part of the narcissist’s history, and may be trained in them:

An inability to trust:  A lack of emotional bonding, less than consistent attachments, questions about whether they will be believed.

Unresolved hurt, pain, or disappointment:  Inability to process life events that went wrong, experience of trauma, feeling inadequate or different as a result of unresolved problems, harboring shameful assumptions about oneself, being bullied, feeling perpetually left out.

An evaluative emphasis for acceptance.   Acceptance can be based on achievement.  Grades, public standing, skills, group association, and awards can be central to one’s self-esteem.  If a child is low in these matters, “What’s wrong with you?” If a child succeeds, “Now you have to live up to your status.”

Vulnerability means sure ridicule.  Fear of appearing weak.  Feeling awkward about private themes like sexuality, body image, handling moods, being socially awkward, or having talent deficiencies can result in mocking or ostracizing.

Themes regarding dominance and submission.  Exposure to a pecking order in general.  The loudest person wins. Weakness is not tolerated.  Mistakes lead to shame. The inability to fluidly articulate feelings or ideas is scoffed.

An overt emphasis on superiority.  Sometimes a child can be told how much better he/she truly is.  Others may know how privileged someone else is and will develop envy.

Developing individuals who have ongoing exposure to such themes usually develop defense reactions that cause them to hide behind a False Self.  Fearing being known as imperfect, they do not develop authenticity. They seek ways to find control, even if it is only temporary. They do not learn to connect emotionally due to fear.  Anger, emotional dependencies, neediness, and anxiety can emerge.