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What is Narcissism: Understanding this Personality Disorder

By: Gina Valencia

This is the first post in a series on narcissism, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and narcissistic abuse and recovery. Each month we will take a deep dive look at these topics, as well as attempt to decipher the actions and impact of narcissistic abuse.

The term ‘narcissist’ has been tossed around so flippantly lately in our culture that its seriousness can be dangerously overlooked. A narcissist can be described as someone so wrapped up in himself that he fails to connect to people in a deep and meaningful way; someone who feels so privileged and has such grandiose views of themselves, they cannot fathom anyone else outshining them.

But are these descriptions enough to be alarming?

When that narcissist’s lack of connections lead to hurtful actions and a lack of empathy, yes.

When that narcissist feels so threatened that he resorts to exploiting another human being, yes.

What is narcissism?

Narcissism has been defined as being extremely arrogant and having egotistical self-love. However, in psychology, narcissism goes beyond vanity and self-centeredness. It is a personality disorder with “common traits in narcissistic people that may contribute to aggression [such as] feeling entitled, being image-conscious and fearing humiliation,” according to a 2021 post. Narcissism increases the chances of a person engaging in violent behavior, lying, having unrealistic expectations of themselves and others as well as an exaggerated need for attention and admiration, and little to no empathy.

For years, psychologists have debated on how to organize these personality traits into a valid disorder that has been included—then removed, then back—in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the handbook used by American clinicians and psychiatrists to help diagnose a psychiatric illness. Due to specific traits which constitute narcissism, psychologists have categorized it as a spectrum of personality disorders, or NPD Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Who is a narcissist?

The word itself comes from the Greek mythology character, Narcissus. So enchanted was he the first time he saw his reflection in a pool of water, that he could not tear himself away, becoming so obsessed, that he wasted away by the side of the pool of water and died. Such obsession with self is partly how one can describe a narcissist, however the damage a narcissist can wreak on their victim is anything but a myth.

The danger here lies when dealing with a narcissist. How can we tell when we are engaging with one?

It’s normal and expected for us to have some preoccupation with our own lives, and for the most part, we can recognize when we may have neglected some parts of our life and need a more balanced approach. On the contrary, a narcissist can’t even begin to imagine thinking about anyone else! Can’t you see how busy and important they are?! How selfish of you to even ask them to consider your silly little problems!

What though differentiates a narcissist from someone who is just full of themselves? The clues are in the narcissist’s upbringing. Just as many who bully were once bullied, a narcissist devalues and disposes of relationships because of the deep shame and disgrace they were made to feel growing up. Do they know they are behaving in a way that can hurt others? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s an almost unconscious way of treating others, pulled from their own experiences.

The narcissist’s emotionally imbalanced upbringing leads him to question his own beliefs and thoughts, as his guardian constantly dismissed the narcissist’s feelings and opinions. This leads to the narcissist being unable to become completely independent of his guardian as he is unsure of what he believes, thinks, feels. Without an assurance of respect from their guardian, the narcissist doesn’t learn proper and healthy empathy. Not having a firm foundation of who they are as an individual, the narcissist meanders through life with crippled self-esteem, a false sense of self, and little confidence of who they are.

To compensate for their perceived shameful vulnerability and inauthenticity, the narcissist ‘wears a mask’ to identify himself opposite of how he feels deep inside. To the degree the narcissist feels shame, they will fill the void with pride and praise for themselves. To mask their inauthenticity, the narcissist will inflate their self-importance.

Their exaggerated ways of being are the disguises that hide the contempt and buried pain they live with. But when they become interested in someone, the narcissist will pull all the stops to get the person to love them back. The narcissist will shower that person with so much admiration, or ‘lovebomb’ them, they will never see the motives behind such affection.

This is the beginning of narcissistic abuse.

Next month, we investigate the relationship with the narcissist.


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