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Elizabeth Lail and Penn Badgley

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Meaning, Traits, Causes

This article includes advice and insights from Marianne Vicelich, Therapist, Relationship Expert and Author of numerous best-selling self-help books.

We all know someone who is just a little too ‘into’ themselves. One too many Instagram flexes, someone who loves to talk about themselves on a first date, these are the people we regularly associate with the meaning of narcissist. While these aren’t desirable traits, that doesn’t make the purveyor a self-centred individual. Instead, it’s more likely this person just has an over-inflated ego and heightened self-worth, which might make you unlikable but ultimately harmless.

In speaking with an expert on the narcissist meaning – therapist, relationships expert and author Marianne Vicelich – we find true egocentrics are people who have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD); a mental health condition characterised by some common factors. It’s true, that the word gets thrown around a lot nowadays, but it pays to really know what is a narcissist and how you can avoid one.

Woman staring at herself in the mirror
What is a Narcissist | Image: GaudiLab

What is a Narcissist?

Aside from being tricky to live with, those who suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) will follow familiar narcissistic behaviour. Most notably, they’re identifiable by their;

  • Lack of empathy for others
  • Inflated sense of importance
  • The deep need for excessive attention and admiration
  • Perpetually troubled relationships

But while we have been incorrectly labelling egotistical people as narcissists, the traits that characterise the personality disorder are inherent in all of us. “Narcissism fuels the confidence to take risks, like seeking a promotion or asking out an attractive stranger,” therapist, relationships expert and author Marianne Vicelich tell Man of Many. The dysfunction might be related to identity or self-direction or cause friction in relationships due to problems with empathy and intimacy. It may also arise from pathological antagonism characterised by grandiosity and attention-seeking. NPD is a pervasive disturbance in a person’s ability to manage his or her emotions, hold onto a stable sense of self and identity, and maintain healthy relationships in work, friendships and love.”

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) Definition

The meaning of narcissist is one that is inherently confusing, but it seems we now have some clarity. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorders has outlined nine key criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

The official definition for NPD includes;

  • Grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • The belief they are special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
  • Need for excessive admiration
  • Sense of entitlement
  • Interpersonally exploitative behaviour
  • Lack of empathy
  • Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of them
  • Demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviours or attitudes

Even though we now have an official guide to spotting signs of NPD, it’s not always easy to pinpoint the less empathetic among us, particularly in a romantic setting. After all, who goes on a date and asks themselves if they think the person on the other side of the table is a narcissist? “Many people who consider themselves to be excellent judges of character can have a difficulty in seeing a self-centred person for who they really are,” Vicelich says. “Their true identity may eventually reveal itself to some, but to most others, narcissists may appear driven, charismatic, ambitious, disciplined and even fun. They also display attributes of glibness, feelings of high self-worth, pathological lying, proneness to boredom and emotional unavailability. Charles Manson, Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini were all very passionate, charismatic, intelligent, successful guys who also displayed narcissistic traits.”

What Causes Narcissistic Behaviour?

For those with NPD, the traits they possess are ingrained. While it’s not fully understood how a person becomes a narcissist, there are some common background issues, many of which can be observed from early puberty. “Usually, a parent gave excessive pampering in childhood years. They might have come from a broken home, having abandonment issues that forced them to rely only on themselves,” Vicelich says. “These people have substituted the lack of love and support from a parent by overemphasising their own self-worth. NPD seems to affect more males than females.”

But even though the list of famous narcissists is headlined by dictators and cult leaders, not all those who exhibit the common traits are motivated by fame or money. It’s important to make this distinction in the dating arena. If you focus too much on the stereotype, you’ll often miss the red flags that aren’t directly related to vanity or greed. “Some narcissists may be of the communal variety and actually devote their lives to helping others,” Vicelich explains. “They are grandiosely altruistic martyrs, self-sacrificing and big-noting themselves at all times. And there are highly introverted, or vulnerable individuals. They feel they are more temperamentally sensitive than others. They react poorly to gentle criticism and need constant reassurance and their people feel superior to others and they are not necessarily satisfied with themselves as a person.”

Related: Considering Seeing a Therapist? Here’s How to Get a Mental Health Plan

Man beside his partner in bed looking at his phone
Narcissist Traits | Image: Nadya Lukic

Narcissist Traits

It’s an interesting disorder that can be altruistically confusing. On one hand, they can be magnetic and highly skilled at attracting people. Their charm can be seductive, their charisma can light up a room, and their confidence can be comforting, which is why so many people fall into the trap of dating them. “Narcissists are smart, which is why they are so skilled at getting what they want. These traits draw us in for good reason,” Vicelich says. “The seductive traits are the ones that block our ability to detect red flags. They play into our vulnerabilities and egos, and we end up being pulled so deep in.”

So, if you are wondering if you are dating a narcissist, you’re in luck. We asked Vicelich for advice on uncovering the real situation at play and she gave us a full rundown.

Here is a list of the traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder to look for.

1. Lack of Empathy

A lack of empathy may be the key defining characteristic of a narcissistic person. “It is the inability to identify with or recognise the experiences and feelings of other people. Everything is about them and belongs to them,” Vicelich says. “They smoothly overstep the personal boundaries of others, mistreating, devaluing, and humiliating to bend others to their desires.”

From a basic perspective, a narcissist does not care or understand how other people feel and rarely considers other people’s feelings in their actions or words. This can manifest itself in physical or verbal ways. For example, a narcissist will often say cruel things in an offhanded manner, remaining oblivious to the pain they cause with their words. “It is not unusual for them to launch into a one-way discussion about what they are doing, without any regard or even inquiring about how the other person feels,” Vicelich explains. “They become highly impatient or even annoyed when other people share their problems.”

2. Manipulative

Another weapon in the arsenal, manipulation is a major sign that you could be dating a narcissist. The ability to twist the situation to better suit their narrative is a poignant personality trait that all egotistical people possess. It can be exhausting for those in the relationship. “When a person is so skilfully manipulative, you may find yourself falling into their trap and remaining relatively unaware it is happening,” Vicelich explains. “Years later you will connect the dots, the manipulation is clear as day, but we often miss it. Narcissists are masters at getting what they want, and because they have no empathy, they may not care what it costs to someone else. They deviously use manipulation as a tool to get their most essential needs met, which are typically attention, validation, and status.”

3. Projection

A clear cut sign you are dating someone with NPD is the psychological trick known as projection. A self-absorbed person will accuse someone else of doing what they are doing or will call out their flaws and fears in someone else; more often than not, the person who is cheating accuses his partner of cheating. “Projection is a defence or an unconscious pattern that occurs when the person feels psychologically threatened. The narcissistic ego is always monitoring the world for threats and often finds them. Then they quickly blame other people for their deficits,” Vicelich says.

“Projecting is frustrating because your partner is actually accusing you of doing things you aren’t actually doing. These projections are not just about cheating and betrayal, they can be about the narcissist’s own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. They are likely to be accusing you of what they are doing or feeling.”

4. Emotionally Cold

It’s not a huge surprise, but those with NPD are continually shallow with their emotions, meaning they don’t do well with emotions. “To be with an emotionally cold partner often means not being comforted, sometimes during the most difficult days in our lives,” the relationships expert explains. “The emotionally cold or distant trait rears its head during arguments when one person is experiencing and expressing significant emotion and the narcissistic person just checks out and does not respond – or does in a cold manner. The emotional coldness can be confusing for you and may result in attempts to jump through hoops to generate warmth and connection with your partner.”

5. Gaslighting

This is a term that has been gathering pace over the past few years, and people are suddenly realising the link to narcissism. From a historical perspective, the term arose from the 1930s play Gas Light, where a husband, in an attempt to drive his wife crazy, keeps turning down the gas-powered lights in the house. When the wife asks why he is dimming the lights, he denies it and says they are no dimmer. Over time, she finds herself going mad.

“Gaslighting qualifies as a form of emotional abuse that involves denying a person’s experience and making statements, such as ‘that never happened’ or ‘you are too sensitive,” Vicelich says. The gaslighter uses techniques such as withholding or stonewalling, contradicting, or diversion, when you bring up something that concerns you and your partner turns it into something you said years before or deflects it and describes it as a conspiracy. They also minimise your feelings and deny events that definitely occurred. The damage of gaslighting is that it is confusing, isolating, and often results in you questioning your own reality. You may find yourself constantly apologising and no longer as relaxed and joyful as you once were.”

6. Never Takes Responsibility

Being in a relationship is a partnership, there should be given and take in every aspect. Part of this means accepting when you are wrong and taking things as they come, two things narcissists generally struggle with. “They are master deflectors and try to avoid the blame with lying, cheating, and everything in-between. They will make up complex excuses and rationalise anything,” Vicelich says.

“When someone never takes responsibility for anything, words, actions, feelings – it is challenging if not an impossible way to maintain a relationship. Even pre-school aged children are asked to take responsibility for a broken crayon or toys left out. It is not too much to ask a person to take ownership. Since they are unable to distinguish the boundary between responsibility and blame, narcissists attempt to avoid both. Genuine acceptance of responsibility is very unlikely to be issued by someone with NPD and you can wear yourself out by waiting for it.”

7. Controlling

The term ‘control freak’ gets thrown around a lot, but it’s a key trait. What makes the situation even more frustrating is that often the narcissist is controlling you while remaining completely disinterested in the other aspects of your life. Like many other traits, the other person in a relationship can mistake control for affection. It’s natural to want to be involved in your partner’s life, but it’s not healthy to dictate it.

“Control is often a part of abuse dynamics in relationships, the control culminates to the point where a person feels like they cannot move without asking for permission, and the narcissist uses control to isolate the person,” Vicelich says. “The most common manifestations of this relationship control are a partner monitoring your whereabouts at all times, checking your emails and text messages, criticising your appearance, and making nearly all important decisions, with little regard for your opinion.”

8. Grandiose

“Grandiosity is a pattern in which a person tends to exaggerate accomplishments, talents, connections, and experiences. They do not have to be real experiences, grandiose people tend to maintain over-the-top fantasy worlds,” Vicelich says. “Grandiosity can also be manifested by a sense of self-importance – a belief that their existence is bigger and more important than anyone else’s and certainly more important than yours. “

In the case of famous narcissists like Stalin and Hitler, the purveyor may already be in a position of power. They may hold a leadership role, be famous, or have accumulated wealth. “The grandiosity is a permanent fixture and they will repeatedly boast about their accomplishments, their possessions, and their experiences,” the author says. “Grandiosity is seductive and can turn your partner into something ‘larger than life,’ so that when things are going well, it can feel perfect.”

9. Infidelity

Sadly, the culmination of the previous eight signs will inevitably lead to a final, or habitual act of betrayal; they will cheat. “Their need for admiration and novelty is so vast that they are wired to be unfaithful – affairs are typically characterised by excitement, flattery, and superficial grandiosity,” Vicelich says. “They may keep a steady relationship with you, and cultivate other needs outside the relationship.”

Related: What is a Simp? We explain the true meaning of the word with advice from an expert.

Woman ignoring her date
How to Break Up with a Narcissist | Image: Dean Drobot

How to Break Up with a Narcissist

If this list has hit a little too close to home and you’re starting to realise your relationship might not be as perfect as you once thought, it’s time to have a discussion, with your partner and with yourself. A big reason why you are dating a narcissist is your own self-worth. Those with NPD will find people who struggle with confidence, manipulating the situation to make you feel helpless and worthless without them. The first step in overcoming the issue is reminding yourself that you deserve better.

Just as narcissists move in familiar patterns, so too do victims. It pays to strengthen your relationships with empathetic friends, building a solid support network with your close relationships. Talk it out with your partner and consider therapy. Most of all, you shouldn’t be wary of love.

“After an experience with a narcissist, you may learn to look at the less charismatic, but far kinder people who may be less obvious,” Vicelich says. “Be aware of your vulnerabilities and start looking for the qualities that make for a better long term partner – compassion, kindness, respect, and empathy – rather than the qualities of charisma and charm.”

Marianne Vicelich is a self-love therapist, relationship coach and the author of twelve published self-help books. Her latest book DESTRUCTION explores the need to re-evaluate draining relationships with partners, colleagues, bosses, family members and friendships.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder FAQs

What is a narcissist?

A narcissist is a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves.

What are the 9 traits of a narcissist?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the nine traits of a narcissist are; grandiose sense of self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love, belief they’re special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions, need for excessive admiration sense of entitlement, interpersonally exploitative behaviour, lack of empathy envy of others or a belief that others are envious of them, and demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviours or attitudes.

Can a narcissist love you?

A narcissist can disassociate from painful feelings and self soothe to protect themselves from hurt. This may, in turn, push away feelings of love that they may feel for someone.

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