Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity, or egotistic admiration of one’s own physical or mental attributes, that derive from arrogant pride. The term originated with Narcissus in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water.
Narcissism is a concept in psychoanalytic theory, introduced in Sigmund Freud’sOn Narcissism. The American Psychiatric Association has the classificationNarcissistic personality disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Except in the sense of primary narcissism or healthy self-love, narcissism is usually considered a problem in a person or group’s relationships with self and others. Narcissism is not the same as egocentrism.
Traits and signs:
A 2012 popular book on power-hungry narcissists suggests that narcissists typically display most, and sometimes all, of the following traits:
- An obvious self-focus in interpersonal exchanges
- Problems in sustaining satisfying relationships
- A lack of psychological awareness (see insight in psychology and psychiatry, egosyntonic)
- Difficulty with empathy
- Problems distinguishing the self from others (see narcissism and boundaries)
- Hypersensitivity to any insults or imagined insults (see criticism and narcissists, narcissistic rage and narcissistic injury)
- Vulnerability to shame rather than guilt
- Haughty body language
- Flattery towards people who admire and affirm them (narcissistic supply)
- Detesting those who do not admire them (narcissistic abuse)
- Using other people without considering the cost of doing so
- Pretending to be more important than they really are
- Bragging (subtly but persistently) and exaggerating their achievements
- Claiming to be an “expert” at many things
- Inability to view the world from the perspective of other people
- Denial of remorse and gratitude
Hotchkiss’ seven deadly sins of narcissism
Hotchkiss identified what she called the seven deadly sins of narcissism:
- Shamelessness: Shame is the feeling that lurks beneath all unhealthy narcissism, and the inability to process shame in healthy ways.
- Magical thinking: Narcissists see themselves as perfect, using distortion and illusion known as magical thinking. They also use projection to dump shame onto others.
- Arrogance: A narcissist who is feeling deflated may reinflate by diminishing, debasing, or degrading somebody else.
- Envy: A narcissist may secure a sense of superiority in the face of another person’s ability by using contempt to minimize the other person.
- Entitlement: Narcissists hold unreasonable expectations of particularly favorable treatment and automatic compliance because they consider themselves special. Failure to comply is considered an attack on their superiority, and the perpetrator is considered an “awkward” or “difficult” person. Defiance of their will is a narcissistic injury that can trigger narcissistic rage.
- Exploitation: Can take many forms but always involves the exploitation of others without regard for their feelings or interests. Often the other is in a subservient position where resistance would be difficult or even impossible. Sometimes the subservience is not so much real as assumed.
- Bad boundaries: Narcissists do not recognize that they have boundaries and that others are separate and are not extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who provide narcissistic supply to the narcissist are treated as if they are part of the narcissist and are expected to live up to those expectations. In the mind of a narcissist there is no boundary between self and other.
This is Factor 1 in the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which includes the following traits:
- Glibness/superficial charm
- Grandiose sense of self-worth
- Pathological lying
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Callous/lack of empathy
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
The term also occurs in Hotchkiss’ discussion of narcissists: “Their superficial charm can be enchanting.” For such figures, however, there is no substance behind the romantic gestures, which only serve to feed the narcissist’s own ego.
Narcissists are known as manipulative in a charming way, entrapping their victims through a façade of understanding into suspending their self-protective behaviour and lowering their personal boundaries. Closely related is the way impostors are able to make people fall in love with them to satisfy their narcissistic needs, without reciprocating in any real sense or returning their feelings.
Sexual narcissism has been described as an egocentric pattern of sexual behavior that involves an inflated sense of sexual ability and sexual entitlement. In addition, sexual narcissism is the erotic preoccupation with oneself as a superb lover through a desire to merge sexually with a mirror image of oneself. Sexual narcissism is an intimacy dysfunction in which sexual exploits are pursued, generally in the form of extramarital affairs, to overcompensate for low self-esteem and an inability to experience true intimacy. This behavioral pattern is believed to be more common in men than in women and has been tied to domestic violence in men and sexual coercion in couples. Hurlbert argues that sex is a natural biological given and therefore cannot be deemed as an addiction. He and his colleagues assert that any sexual addiction is nothing more than a misnomer for what is actually sexual narcissism or sexual compulsivity.
Narcissistic Abuse in Adult relationships
Narcissistic abuse may also occur in adult-to-adult relationships, where the narcissistic person tends to seek out a successful (independent, educated, and attractive) yet co-dependent (empathic, excessively compliant, and forgiving) partner in order to “mirror” the behavior the narcissistic person lacks (e.g., empathy). In this way a dynamic of abuser and victim is created.
Their relationships are characterized by a period of intense involvement and idealization of their partner, followed by devaluation, and a rapid discarding of the partner. At the beginning of a relationship with a narcissist, the partner is only shown the ideal self of the narcissist, which includes pseudo empathy, kindness, and charm. Once the partner has committed to the relationship (e.g., through marriage or a business partnership), the true self of the narcissist will begin to emerge. The initial narcissistic abuse begins with belittling comments and grows to contempt, ignoring behavior, adultery, sabotage, and, at times, physical abuse. At the core of a narcissist is a combination of entitlement and low self-esteem. These feelings of inadequacy are projected onto the victim. If the narcissistic person is feeling unattractive they will belittle their romantic partner’s appearance. If the narcissist makes an error, this error becomes the their partner’s fault.Narcissists also engage in insidious, manipulative abuse by giving subtle hints and comments that result in the victim questioning their own behavior and thoughts. This is termed gaslighting. Any slight criticism of the narcissistic, whether actual or perceived, often triggers narcissistic rage and full blown annihilation from the narcissistic person. This can take the form of screaming tirades or quiet sabotage (setting traps, hiding belongings, spreading rumors, etc). The discard phase can be swift and occurs once the narcissistic supply is obtained elsewhere. In romantic relationships, the narcissistic supply can be acquired by having affairs. The new partner is in the idealization phase and only witnesses the ideal self; thus once again the cycle of narcissistic abuse begins. Narcissists do not take responsibility for relationship difficulties and exhibit no feeling of remorse. Instead they believe themselves to be the victim in the relationship.