What is a Narcissist, Really?

What is a Narcissist, Really?

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This year, suddenly, the media is full of articles about narcissism. Women are sharing stories about husbands and boyfriends, and employees about bosses. The term has even been used to describe both presidential candidates and a whole generation of young people. So if “narcissist” is the psychological diagnosis du jour, is narcissism on the rise? And what does the term even mean?

Psychologists say narcissism is no more common today than in the past. Actual pathological narcissism is a rare condition, affecting only an estimated one percent of the population. Most of the people described as narcissists are simply victims of a label that has caught the attention of popular culture. They may be self-involved and have healthy egos, but they are well within the norm of human behavior.

Healthy narcissism is a trait most people exhibit to some degree. Psychologist Craig Malkin, of Harvard Medical School, is the author of Rethinking Narcissism. He says healthy narcissism is useful.

It is the capacity to see ourselves and others through rose-colored glasses.

That ability is functional, because it instills us with the confidence to take risks.

Pathological narcissism is something else altogether. It is a mental health disorder, diagnosed through the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). When a person is a true pathological narcissist, the condition interferes with daily functioning and the ability to have successful intimate relationships.

The cause is unknown. It might be related to identity, or might arise from extreme antagonism. The true pathological narcissist is often characterized by grandiosity and attention-seeking. Development psychologist Eddie Brummelman of Stanford explains:

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is an extreme manifestation of the trait. Narcissism is a continuum, and the disorder sits at the very end.

Malkin agrees:

A personality disorder is a pervasive disturbance in a person’s ability to manage his or her emotions, hold onto a stable sense of self and identity, and maintain healthy relationships in work, friendship, and love. It’s a matter of rigidity.

True narcissists genuinely believe they are in the top .01 percent of all human beings in terms of their abilities, appearance, talent, and success. But they manifest this belief in different ways. Some are braggarts, constantly telling others why they are special.

Some fulfill their egos by devoting their lives to altruistic pursuits.They present themselves as saintly. Still others are introverts, who do believe they are better than other people, but still have many self doubts.These narcissists perceive themselves as more temperamentally sensitive than other people. They may think they are misunderstood and persecuted by lesser people who do not recognize their worth.

The thing all types of pathological narcissists have in common is “self-enhancement,” says Malkin. They believe they are better than other people, and this feeling of being distinctive soothes their own internal doubts.

Brummelman says:

Narcissists feel superior to others, but they are not necessarily satisfied with themselves as a person.