Narcissism (Part 1): What It Is and Isn't

Wednesday, May 03, 2017


Definition(s) of Narcissism

There are many definitions and classifications of narcissism. Some put it together with sociopathy or psychopathy, others say there is both an overlap and a distinction between them. Sociopathy and psychopathy are also not clearly distinct as separate concepts and often are used synonymously.

Regardless of its many definitions, I find it helpful to conceptualize narcissism as a spectrum, just like any other set of character traits, behavioral patterns, and psychoemotional problems. Meaning, usually there are shades and nuances. Yes, there are people who can be called narcissists because they clearly fit all the criteria, but most fall somewhere in the middle. They are not 100 percent narcissistic but exhibit some traits, which may be somewhere from negligible, to mild, to severe, and everything in between. Rarely a person who possesses narcissistic traits is a complete narcissist, and even those who display more severe narcissistic traits are not just this. They don’t just “do narcissism” all day every day. They laugh, get angry, cry, smile, go to work, feed their children, go for lunch, socialize, and so on. Usually they look and act quite similar to your average person. Some of them are insidiously cunning or brilliantly deceptive, to the degree where they fully believe their delusions or successfully convince everybody around them. As a result, some of them are never identified for who they are, even by most educated and trained professionals and experts. Others, on the other hand, are more obvious in their behavior.

So narcissism can be seen as a spectrum from having the least intense tendencies to the most. Moreover, it’s a branching spectrum, meaning that whatever tendencies the individual exhibits is based on the their specific personality traits and personal experiences. For instance, some may still be insecure or lack empathy yet don’t go out of their way to hurt people, and if they do hurt others, they feel remorse. While others persistently seek power and acceptance and don’t care about those they hurt, and may even be proud of it.

Why Narcissists Are Who They Are

Whatever conception(s) of narcissism you accept or are familiar with, you probably have noticed that it is always related to one’s self-esteem, sense of self, and all of its manifestation in relationships and social interactions.

The roots of narcissism, as is the case with most psychological problems, go back to one’s childhood. The most significant factors in a person’s development are their early experiences and their relationship with their primary caregivers. Narcissism is a consequence of and a reaction to a problematic childhood environment. As psychologist Elinor Greenberg astutely puts it, “Narcissism is a Personality adaptation to a childhood situation that left the person with unstable self-esteem and low empathy for other people.” To cope with a skewed or non-existing sense of self and with a low self-esteem—and with all the emotions that come with it—the person develops certain tactics that are considered narcissistic behavior. (More on that in the future articles.)

Identifying Narcissistic Characteristics

Over the years, I have studied narcissism a lot. Some descriptions are more helpful than others, especially those that are more specific, for example, descriptions of narcissistic parents. However, when listing general traits, descriptions are either completely obvious and extreme, or not very helpful nor necessarily accurate. For the every day person googling narcissistic traits, some of these lists, websites, blogs or videos may confuse or even harm more than they educate. In other words, they are not always helpful to the general public because they are too broad, lack nuance, or they are very basic.

Because of it, I won’t put any lists here; instead, I will address some problems related to the common descriptions of narcissism that I believe are rarely addressed, but are exceedingly important to one’s understanding of people.

I briefly mentioned in my video series on self-esteem, and it’s worth noting here, that narcissism often resembles high, healthy self-esteem, and vice versa. For example, one prominent narcissistic trait is selfishness and disregard for others. Yet a highly individual and mentally strong person may be perceived as “selfish” or “not caring” or “lacking empathy” if they refuse to do what other people—who often are actually narcissistic—want them to do. This dynamic is overwhelmingly common in a relationship between a parent and a child or an adult-child. Or, plenty of people have told me that they are never acknowledged for their efforts at work, or that others steal their ideas and claim their work as their own, or blame them for things they didn’t do, so they simply want some credit or acknowledgment of what is going on, yet are called insecure and seeking admiration (in other words, “narcissistic”). Or, you work with highly incompetent people and you are actually the most competent person there—are you necessarily narcissistic and self-aggrandizing for noticing it? Of course not. Other lists of narcissistic symptoms state that talking about yourself or using singular first person pronouns “often” is narcissistic. Or at least that’s what a lot of people take from reading these lists. “I told a story about myself, so it must mean I’m narcissistic.” “Someone said no to me, so they must be narcissistic because they lack empathy, are selfish and don’t care about me.” And so on. Well, what’s the context? What is the person like? What's the relationship like? What are their true feelings and drives behind it? What’s the purpose of it? How do you know? Sometimes it's not that simple to tell.

One problem is on the reader’s part, where many are prone to what sometimes is called a fallacy of composition. In this case, it looks like this: narcissistic people do X; person A does X; it must mean person A is narcissistic. And another problem is that some of these explanations and lists are not very well explained, sometimes to the degree where they even suggest the aforementioned fallacy. As a result, people who are just beginning to learn about narcissism oftentimes learn a misunderstood or harmful idea of what narcissism is or how to even accurately identify it.

Other lists describe a “successful” or a “well-adjusted” person, mentioning such characteristics as likeable, persistent, intelligent, professionally acclaimed, financially well off, having a family, and so on. Again, what is the person like? What are the drives, motivations, emotions, and relationship dynamics behind it? There are people who don’t match some, or all, of those descriptions or disagree with them, yet are objectively healthier than some people who do match them. And there are a lot of very unhealthy, narcissistic people who seemingly fit the description perfectly. Yet it doesn’t mean they are resolved, well-balanced individuals.

As mentioned in the first section, narcissistic people oftentimes look and act normal. What is different, though, is the feelings and motivations behind the behavior. Lists and descriptions then, fail to capture this fundamental observation. Narcissistic characteristics are not so much a set of behaviors but rather a set of emotions and motivations which lead to certain behaviors, some of which are more problematic than others.

Consider the following two comparisons of certain behaviors and the psychoemotional mechanisms behind them:

  1. Both a narcissistic and a non-narcissistic person are into exercising and healthy living. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with exercising or healthy living, per se. However, the non-narcissistic person does so because they simply want to be healthy. The narcissistic person does it because they want to be accepted as and admired for being healthy, or they want to blend in as being normal, or they want to be associated with a certain group of people or a certain activity to gain social status, or to be able to get closer to their victims.
  2. Both a narcissistic and a non-narcissistic person become a doctor. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with becoming a doctor. However, a non-narcissistic person simply wants to help people and live a decent, simple life. Meanwhile, a narcissistic person becomes a doctor because they want to have power over others (patients, those below them), or to gain prestige and raise their social status, or because they are jealous of other doctors and feel more gifted than them, or they want to be accepted as an authority, or prove that they are better than others.
Again, narcissistic people in many cases are well adjusted, functioning, and good at being a chameleon. Many of them are also advanced in social games and manipulation, as they can be charming, intelligent, eloquent, convincing, seemingly confident, good looking, helpful, well-connected, and respected. Combine that with people's lack of knowledge about individual and social psychology, with our societal values, with people's personal unresolvedness, and all of it results in the inability to evaluate yourself and others accurately.

The fact that someone does something seemingly “bad” or seemingly “good” doesn’t necessarily mean they are narcissistic or non-narcissistic. And so if you simply look at the behavior and remember a certain list you read somewhere on the Internet, things that are not narcissistic may appear narcissistic and things that are narcissistic may look completely normal when in fact they aren’t.

Since highly narcissistic people are severely detached from their true self and lack identity, it is easy for them to mimic anybody they admire or are jealous of, all of which they confuse with being their true self. Or if they have a specific goal, they can unceremoniously become whatever they need to be to get what they want.

And because of their distorted sense of self-esteem and dominant false self, narcissistic people are attracted to positions of power, status, attention, fame, money, prestige, or notoriety. Narcissistic and predatory people often choose such occupations as politician, police officer, actor, singer, professional fighter, bodybuilder, model, mental health worker, Internet celebrity, activist, teacher, professor, priest, CEO, doctor, journalist, and so on.

Now, to avoid the fallacy of composition on the readers’ part, I want to reiterate here that not everyone on this list of professions is a narcissist. Is simply means that people with narcissistic traits are also or more attracted to these professions, but for different reasons than those who don’t have such traits or have them in a much milder form.

In the next article we will look at a narcissistic person's sense of self-esteem and how they regulate it. Stay tooned!

Resources and Recommendations
Narcissism (Wikipedia)
Psychopathy (Wikipedia)
Characteristics of Narcissistic Mothers [article]
On The Difficulties of Identifying Narcissistic, Unhealthy, Toxic, Dangerous People [article]
Why Do People Become Narcissistic [video]
Narcissism / Family Dysfunction [playlist]
Empathy And Laughing At Others’ Misery [article]
Self-Esteem [playlist]
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