What is a narcissist?

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: What is a narcissist?

Answer: The dictionary definition of a narcissist is “a person who is overly self-involved, and often vain and selfish.” It is the concept of excessive selfishness. The term “narcissism” is derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus, but the word didn’t come into being until the nineteenth century.

In Greek Mythology, Narcissus was a handsome young Greek male who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. As punishment, he was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus “lay gazing enraptured into the pool, hour after hour,” eventually changing into a flower that bears his name, the narcissus.

In psychoanalysis, Freud created the term narcissism to describe in individual who derives erotic gratification from admiration of his or her own physical or mental attributes.

Today, the term “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” is more commonly used in the field of psychology. It is a personality disorder in which people have an inflated sense of self-importance and a deep need for admiration. They believe they are superior to others, and like other personality disorders they have little regard for other people’s feelings.

This characteristic is referred to as a sense of entitlement, and is often exercised at the expense of others. But behind this mask of confidence and self-importance lies a fragile ego that is vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

When around a person with this disorder, you may find yourself feeling like you are walking on eggshells. As a result, the individual with the disorder may experience distressing feelings and behave in socially inappropriate ways, limiting their ability to function in relationships and in other areas of their life, including work or school.

The latest of revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) provides the following diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits. To diagnose narcissistic personality disorder, the following criteria must be met:

A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:

1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):

a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.

b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.


2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):

a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.

b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others‟ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain.

B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:

1. Antagonism, characterized by:

a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others; condescending toward others.

b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.

C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.

D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.

E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).

As with other personality disorders, the individual with the disorder is often unaware that the problem lies with him or her. Instead, others are often viewed as having a problem. The recommended treatment for Narcissistic personality disorder is long-term psychotherapy. But first the individual must recognize a need for help.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]

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