Like “psycho” and “sociopath,” the term “narcissist” gets thrown around a lot, typically as a casual, insulting diagnosis. Despite this, the term has a clear clear clinical definition. Celebrities ranging from former president Donald Trump to pop star Kanye West have been described as narcissists, both in media and by their friends and family. Mass public reactions to events like the war in Ukraine have been characterized as narcissistic; individuals who are attracted to other narcissists, such as cult leaders, have been categorized as having “narcissism by proxy.”
Yet though dubbing someone a narcissist might be an apt (and perhaps cathartic) riposte from those they’ve wounded, narcissistic personality disorder is very real. If you or someone you know has a sense of self-importance that is untethered to reality, the explanation may lie in narcissism.
To a narcissist, the ideal companion is a “follower,” individuals willing to be “extensions that either support or espouse their ideas, behaviors or beliefs.”
Of course, one instance of self-centeredness is not the same as having narcissistic personality disorder. So where does casual selfishness end and true narcissistic personality disorder begin? To help separate narcissism fact from myth, Salon reached out to psychologists for a clearer understanding of the condition.
As it turns out, there are so many manifestations of narcissistic personality disorder that the main challenge lies in classifying them. Here are the main signs that they identified, categorized into clusters for convenience.
The term “narcissist” originated from Greek mythology; according to Hellenic tradition, a beautiful hunter named Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and stared at it until he died. While few real-life narcissists are quite this extreme in their behavior, it is obvious from their grandiose sense of self-importance that they are indeed in love with themselves — or, at least, that is the impression they want to present to the world.
“It is important to recognize that the grandiose projection of self-importance in a pathological narcissist is overcompensation for extremely low self-esteem,” explained psychiatrist Dr. Bandy X. Lee in an interview with Salon. If people who try to help a narcissist validate their delusions, “it can swell out of control into megalomania, delusions of grandeur, and grotesque abuses of power.”
Psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula noted that for narcissists are prone to “egocentricity” because, from their point of view, they are the star of life’s show and are therefore simply more important than everyone else. They must always be the center of attention, and all others’ needs are “secondary at best.” In their own mind, they are living an exceptional existence that makes all of this behavior justifiable.
“They live in a fantasy world, the greatest love story, the greatest business ever, they know this celebrity or have this new next great thing, or they ‘know a guy’ who just magically makes things happen,” Durvasula explained. “They aren’t living in the real world, and if you are, it can feel detached, and they may also get angry at you if you bring up real world stuff.”
Indeed, as Lee observed, narcissists will often weed out people who share inconvenient truths that deflate their self-image. A narcissist “believes 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).” A narcissist with power might “take over institutions or recruit patrons (‘flying monkeys’) in a manner that can destroy the institutions over which they take charge.”
“The person acts as if they are owed by others.”
These words from psychologist Dr. Jessica January Behr succinctly sum up the notable second characteristic of narcissists. They do not simply have an unjustified feeling of self-importance. As a result of that feeling, they act as if the rest of the world should give them whatever they want, as they believe “they are special and the rules don’t apply to them but do apply to others,” as Durvasula put it.
Anyone who has been in a relationship with a narcissist — romantic, familial, professional or otherwise — can relate to feeling “as though you are mired in a world of hypocrisy which can make a relationship feel impossible.”
This can manifest itself in a number of ways. As Lee pointed out, the sense of entitlement often leads to unreasonable expectations, “especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with” whatever the narcissist demands.
“When there is an excessive sense of entitlement — and disordered individuals will be prone to take more than they give — a person will be more destructive than constructive toward others and society,” Lee added.
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Envy is the other side of the entitlement coin. If a narcissist believes that the world owes them what they want, then naturally they will also become jealous of other people who have those things if they do not.
“They hate that anyone has something they want — can be stuff, money, opportunities, love — and when this happens, they can be quite petty, critical, manipulative, and victimized,” Durvasula explained. “It means that in a relationship you may feel chronically guilty when things go your way.”
Perhaps the thing that narcissists envy most are people who succeed in cultivating meaningful relationships, which narcissists struggle immensely to do. To help themselves feel better, narcissists will often become convinced that others are equally jealous of them.
“The subconscious recognition that one is excluded from the loving, caring, and empathic life that most people enjoy makes pathological narcissists extremely envious, vengeful, and hateful toward others,” Lee told Salon. “Hence, it is more tolerable to believe that others are envious of them.”
Arrogance is a broad term, but it applies in a very specific ways to narcissists. As Behr observed, an arrogant narcissist will easily have their ego deflated and act “angry, empty, disposed” when life fails to hold them up in the regard that they desire. By contrast, if a person validates the narcissist’s sense of self, the narcissist will lift them up “because of your association to them — the person compliments you or praises you because of how your image reflects back on them.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, narcissistic arrogance can also come out in the ways one usually associated with pomposity — “pretentiousness, preening, snobbery, a sense they are better than others,” according to Durvasula. Yet in seeming contrast to this sense of superiority, narcissists will often act in very immature ways when pressured to do something they do not want to do.
“They do not like being told what to do, and will become intransigent 3-year-olds when you ask them to do something from emptying the dishwasher to providing discovery for a divorce,” Durvasula observed. “They will yell about freedom and my rights and other nonsense (even when the thing is actually good for them). You often feel like you are trying to get a 3-year-old to eat their broccoli in these relationships because anything you ask them directly, they will not do.”
In addition to having an extremely high opinion of themselves, narcissists are noted for their shocking indifference to others. All of the psychiatrists to whom Salon reached out named “lack of empathy” as one of the defining characteristics of narcissism.
This can be “manifested as a callousness in the face of yours or others feelings, disinterest in the experiences of others,” Durvasula explained. Lee added that it can also “be taken further into finding pleasure in others’ suffering. The thrill of the sense of power when others suffer or die does not compare to any feeble feeling of empathy. This is why detecting a lack of empathy, or lack of conscience, is critically important in elected officials, and why fitness testing would be highly advisable; no electorate should desire to put into office individuals who are driven to destroy them and society.”
Behr identified other narcissistic traits that one could classify as lacking empathy. For instance, Behr pointed to “transactionality,” which means that “relationships or interactions are often transactions and are valued by how much can be gained or traded.”
Hence why narcissists have, as Durvasula put it, “sensitivity to feedback or criticism.”
“Narcissistic people are thin skinned,” Durvasula added. “They can dish it out but they cannot take it, and if you do give them even the most constructive feedback, they will reach with rage, tantrums, gaslighting, passive aggression. It can make moving forward impossible.”
Since “losing” in any form is an absolutely unacceptable prospect to a narcissist, someone with that personality disorder will bend the rules of reality themselves to guarantee that they triumph. Untethered by empathy for those they must gaslight or otherwise harm to achieve this goal, a narcissist who is about to “lose” — even if, logically and morally, they should lose — will pull out every stop they can think of to avoid that outcome.
“Nothing is ever their fault or responsibility, they are chronic victims and accountable for nothing,” Durvasula told Salon. “They will blame you for their extramarital affair or embezzlement.”
Behr identified another manifestation of this, one in which narcissists will put people up on a pedestal or deride them as utterly worthless depending on how it serves their ego’s purpose. Called “splitting,” Behr defined this as “the person devalues and idealizes you or others.”
In addition to never wanting to lose, narcissists want to always be in control of other people. This leads to manipulative behavior, with narcissists possessing “an uncanny ability to get what they want from you while making it seem like it is in your best interest,” according to Durvasula. They also have transactional rather than emotional relationships with people, valuing others based solely on what they can gain from them.
“If nothing can be extracted from a person, they are deemed as having no intrinsic value,” Behr wrote to Salon. To a narcissist, the ideal companion is a “follower,” individuals willing to be “extensions that either support or espouse their ideas, behaviors or beliefs.” In addition to valuing their ego, followers are convenient because “the narcissist can add and remove these extensions with ease.”
“Narcissistic folks have to control everything,” Durvasula wrote. “The narrative, the plans, the money — all of it, and this can mean relationships with them are stifling.”
Matthew Rozsa is a professional writer whose work has appeared in multiple national media outlets since 2012 and exclusively at Salon since 2016. His diverse interests are reflected in his interview, including: President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (1999-2001), animal scientist and autism activist Temple Grandin, inventor Ernő Rubik, comedian Bill Burr (“F Is for Family”), novelist James Patterson (“The President’s Daughter”), epidemiologist Monica Gandhi, theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, voice actor Rob Paulsen (“Animaniacs”), mRNA vaccine pioneer Katalin Karikó, philosopher of science Vinciane Despret, actor George Takei (“Star Trek”), climatologist Michael E. Mann, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (2013-present), dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson (2012, 2016), comedian and writer Larry Charles (“Seinfeld”), Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman (2000), Ambassador Michael McFaul (2012-2014), economist Richard Wolff, director Kevin Greutert (“Saw VI”), model Liskula Cohen, actor Rodger Bumpass (“SpongeBob Squarepants”), Senator John Hickenlooper (2021-present), biologist and genomics entrepreneur William Haseltine, comedian David Cross (“Scary Movie 2”), linguistics consultant Paul Frommer (“Avatar”), Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (2007-2015), computer engineer and Internet co-inventor Leonard Kleinrock and right-wing insurrectionist Roger Stone.
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