It’s become fashionable to refer to anyone who seems like a bad person as a narcissist, but are they really?

So, just what constitutes narcissism?

If you have healthy self-esteem, you will have some narcissistic traits. Narcissism, like other mental conditions, exists on a continuum. There are degrees of narcissistic traits, and to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), you have to have several traits that are a predominant part of your personality. Having a few of those traits isn’t enough, but before we go any further, let’s examine the official definition of narcissism and the toxic traits associated with the condition.

Formal Definition and Traits of Narcissism

The fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines NPD as “comprising a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by the presence of at least 5 of the following 9 criteria” (Ambardar, 2019):

  1. A grandiose sense of self-importance;
  2. A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;
  3. A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions;
  4. A need for excessive admiration;
  5. A sense of entitlement;
  6. Interpersonally exploitive behavior;
  7. A lack of empathy;
  8. Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her;
  9. A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes.

To be diagnosed with NPD, a person must demonstrate several characteristics over an extended period of time. These traits point to how the narcissist has an inflated sense of their own importance, which thus manifests as a deep need for admiration and adoration. This is combined with a lack of empathy for other people, and as you already know, that can result in troubled relationships.

The thing is that, although they have this inflated sense of importance, underneath that lies a very fragile self-esteem that makes the narcissist vulnerable to any kind of criticism. This combination of an exaggerated sense of importance combined with a fragile ego manifests in the following symptoms.

  • They have a sense of entitlement — they believe themselves to be deserving of special treatment because of their inflated sense of importance;
  • They require excessive admiration, validation, and adoration — if you’re not focused on their every need, they feel slighted;
  • They believe themselves to be superior, regardless of their achievements or lack thereof, and they expect to be recognized as such;
  • Because they believe themselves to be superior, they will often exaggerate their talents and achievements;
  • They believe they can only associate with people who are also special, but they will never recognize them as being as special as they are. They will also try to “take down” people they believe are better, as that will show just how special they are;
  • They will usually monopolize conversations, and if they believe you to be inferior to them (which they do for almost everyone), they will belittle or look down on you;
  • They expect to be given special favors;
  • They demand unquestioned compliance with their wishes;
  • They will not hesitate to take advantage of other people to achieve their goals;
  • They won’t recognize the needs or feelings of other people because they can’t;
  • They are arrogant and often behave in a haughty manner, which manifests as being boastful, pretentious, and conceited;
  • They insist on only the best, whether it’s their car, office, or home, because they believe they deserve nothing less.

When they are confronted with even the slightest criticism, they feel extremely threatened and will frequently react in one of the following ways:

  • If they believe they are not being treated in a special enough way, they may become very impatient and even angry. For example, they might snap at a waiter who doesn’t seem to be giving them the devoted attention they believe they should receive. Jennifer described the nightmare of going out to eat with her toxic husband, “Once he had decided the waiter was no good, he loudly criticized his every move. It was mortifying”;
  • They are easily offended and may respond with rage or contempt to even the gentlest suggestion. Jim, a narcissist, reveals that he feels the same kind of threat when criticized — no matter how gentle the critique — as if his very life is being threatened. He feels an immediate need to respond and an almost uncontrollable urge to “crush” the person criticizing him;
  • They often belittle other people to make themselves feel and appear superior. Jonathan notes that his narcissistic wife frequently tells their friends how inept he is at handyman tasks. She often tells stories about how she has to fix an appliance or redo a home improvement project after he did it. He describes feeling emasculated by her demeaning treatment of him;
  • They are unable to appropriately regulate their emotions and behavior. Another narcissist, Trevor, describes that he simply can’t control his rage. When he is triggered, it’s as if a bomb explodes inside him, and he can’t stop himself from yelling and belittling the person responsible. The context does little to quell his rage. He will yell at a coworker in front of others as readily as he will his wife in the privacy of their home;
  • They have great difficulty dealing with any stress, and they struggle with adapting to change. Carol describes her narcissistic husband Mark as a virtual slave to his routine. He experiences great stress if anything causes a change to his normal pattern, and he often blames her if that happens;
  • They may become depressed if they feel they are falling short of perfection. Jon expresses a great sense of failure over even the smallest problem that he can’t resolve quickly. He notes, “I feel like I’m a loser if something I’m doing — even if it’s the first time I’ve tried it — doesn’t work out”;
  • They harbor secret feelings of shame, vulnerability, insecurity, and humiliation. Steven describes his almost constant fear of being exposed as a fraud. He has worked hard to get where he is in his job, but he still believes that someday, someone will come along and expose him as a fake.

These descriptions give you some insight into what the narcissist is thinking and how their symptoms cause problems in their life. It’s no wonder that narcissists typically have problems with forming and maintaining relationships, be they romantic, professional, familial, or even just friendships. This usually means they end up unhappy and disappointed with their lives, particularly since it seems like they are not getting the admiration, special treatment, or favors they believe they deserve.

Many people think of narcissism as being excessively vain, but according to psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula, although taking and posting selfies and checking your look in the mirror every chance you get are narcissistic tendencies, the fact that you have those tendencies doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a narcissist.

In fact, she believes that narcissism has been badly misunderstood. It’s become a bit of a buzzword in our modern society. Dr. Durvasula identifies four main pillars of narcissism. These are a lack of empathy, a chronic sense of entitlement, grandiosity, and a desperate need to seek out validation and admiration. These pillars are the core of personality disorder.

READ MORE insights about narcissism in my book “What narcissists DON’T want people to know”

Photo credit:Unsplash

Certified relationship coach, Psychotherapist and Author