What Exactly is Narcissism?

What is Narcissism?

The key to understanding narcissism lies in the myth its name comes from.

Narcissus falls in love with an image, a reflection of himself.

While the common understanding of narcissism is being in love with oneself, the reality of narcissism is being in love with an idealized image of oneself.

Naricissus Gazing at Himself
Naricissus Gazing at His Image

Narcissists have an extremely unstable sense of self, ultimately caused by not-good-enough parenting. Feelings of worthlessness, shame, and inadequacy reside deep in the true self, resulting in a sort of self-hatred that is too painful to be consciously experienced.

This causes a rejection of the authentic self, and an emphasis on their persona, the public perception of themselves. Narcissists spend lots of energy building up this public perception and co-opt others into giving it admiration & approval.

We all have personas and we don’t show all of our cards all of the time. With narcissists, this is unconscious & taken to an extreme; they seem to really identify with the image they carefully project. Fidelity to the authentic self is sacrificed.

The narcissist is therefore someone who, like Narcissus, has lost himself in an illusion.

Narcissism on a Spectrum

Narcissism is a ‘spectrum’ condition, which becomes a serious disorder at the higher end of the spectrum. It is believed that everyone is, to some extent, narcissistic. There is even some belief in ‘healthy narcissism’, a contradiction in terms, since healthy self-love is acceptance and love of the true self, and narcissism is a rejection of the true self.

A measure of narcissism could be the distance separating the individual from their true feelings. The greater the gap between the real self and the false self, the greater the narcissism.

Psychiatrist Alexander Lowen, author of Narcissism: Denial of the True Self, distinguishes five types of narcissistic disorder, which are, in increasing order of narcissism:

1. The ‘Phallic-Narcissistic character’ (male) or the ‘hysterical character’ (female) who are seductive men and women.
2. The ‘Narcissistic character’ who is grandiose, and may in fact be highly successful, and lacks empathy.
3. The ‘Borderline personality’ whose grandiosity is less overt, or even covert, but in fact even greater than that of the ‘Narcissistic character’.
4. The ‘Psychopathic personality’ who can act out in anti-social and criminal ways without any guilt or remorse.
5. The ‘Paranoid personality’ who, at least occasionally, confuses fact and fantasy.

According to Dr Lowen, the four following aspects increase with the severity of narcissism: grandiosity, lack of feeling, lack of sense of self, and lack of contact with reality.
Lowen, Alexander (2012-08-21). Narcissism: Denial of the True Self (p. 14). Touchstone. Kindle Edition.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) implies that the narcissism has resulted in a personality disorder.

The definition of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder is still the subject of debate within the psychiatric sphere, and has recently seen its definition revised in the fifth and latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association (DSM -5).

As we write, the NPD is listed amongst ‘other specific personality disorders’ by the World Health Organization, and is not further defined (link).

A pdf table by the American Psychiatric Association, comparing the criteria for personality disorders in DSM IV and DSM V can be downloaded here

Here’s an extract showing how the criteria for the NPD compare:

DSM-IV CriteriaDSM-5 Criteria – Revised June 2011
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. 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).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
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).

See also:

Causes of Narcissism

There is currently no consensus on what causes narcissism.

Narcissism may come from a need to compensate, or over-compensate, for a perceived flawed self. The perceived flaw can be linked either to a physical ailment, or a personality trait, which the child perceives as the core reason for feeling rejected or being neglected.

But the perceived flaw can also extend to the child’s whole personality or self.

The child therefore believes that they are not acceptable as they are. The only way out is to become someone else. In other words, if a child feels unloved for who they are, they will try to change to become loveable.

The resulting ‘loveable’ self is a fake, an illusion the narcissist may lose himself into.

Arrested Development >> Conditioning >> Coping Mechanism >> Defense mehanism

Some psychiatrists believe that narcissism is the result of an arrested development that maintains the child in the ‘omnipotent’ stage of development when the child is solely focused on his needs and expects the external world to cater to them.

Other possible causes of narcissism are:

Projected narcissism from the parent/caregiver

  • The child is taught that they are special, superior to others, and believes it.
  • When experience highlights the gap between the child’s belief and reality, the child may become disconnected from reality and sink into the narcissistic illusion.

Projected shame from the parent/caregiver

  • The child is treated as if they had reasons to be ashamed of themselves, which results in them being ashamed of who they are.
  • The induced shame pushes the child to hide the shameful self behind a false self.

Rejection of the true self by the parent/caregiver

  • The child is not permitted to become themselves for reasons ranging from the parent’s fear of separation and abandonment to the parent’s envy, to the parent’s intolerance for anything else than whom they want the child to be, etc.
  • The child is penalized for ‘bad’ behavior, or dissent, and rewarded for ‘good’ behavior, or compliance.
  • This can result in a false self and narcissism.

Emotional trauma in early childhood

  • Abuse, abandonment, or neglect, results in a disconnection with emotions of the true self.
  • Since suffering is caused by the overwhelming emotions of the true self, cutting away from it is seen as a way to stop the pain.
  • The true self is abandoned for a false, non-emotional self, and doesn’t have a chance to continue developing (frozen inner child).

What all these causes have in common is a rejection, or denial, of one’s emotions in response to external factors that make these emotions either overwhelming, unacceptable, damaging, or even dangerous or life-threatening.

The rejection or numbing of these emotions may lead to an unemotional self, or false self, which appears to be the hallmark of narcissism.

So we may conclude from this that it is not events or circumstances that cause the narcissistic disorder, but the denial of the emotions generated by these events or circumstances.

This is key to understanding how to prevent, or break free from, narcissistic disorders.

Characteristics of Narcissists

Narcissists, i.e., individuals who are at the higher end of the narcissistic spectrum, appear to be in love with themselves, but are in reality in love with an idealized image of themselves.

They hide their hated ‘flawed’ self behind a mask of confidence and self-love. Their greatest fear is to be unmasked. They fear exposure to the truth like vampires fear daylight.

They live in constant fear and will do anything they can to protect their image.

Their common characteristics are:

  • Extreme selfishness or self-obsession. It’s all about them.
  • Grandiosity and sense of entitlement. This can be overt (theatrical) or covert (fake humility).
  • Lack of empathy. In their mind, if they don’t feel it, nor can we.
  • Envy. They need to have more than us.
  • Vengefulness. They never forget an affront and need to get even, or one up.
  • Extreme sensitivity to criticism. They cannot take responsibility for anything wrong.

As a result, narcissists:

  • Are lying, manipulative, exploitative, and controlling. They will say or do anything to serve their needs and protect their image. And they will avoid being caught by getting others to do the dirty job for them.
  • Lack morals. Answer to another set of morals, e.g., ‘God’, to justify to themselves anything they do, good or bad.
  • Lack of respect for others’ boundaries and humanity. See others as objects rather than beings.
  • Project their flaws and responsibilities onto others.
  • Need admiration, praise, and validation of their image or false self.
  • Reward obedience and reverence. Penalize dissent and criticism.

Tactics of Narcissists


  • The extraordinary confidence of the extravert (or overt) narcissist, in spite of being a mask, generates fascination amongst their audience. They can be very charismatic, and people notice them when they walk into a room.
  • Some are truly outrageous but get away with things most people couldn’t get away with. They have a sixth sense of what will be acceptable and when. But not all narcissists have this ability to create an entrancing public persona.
  • Some will in fact pass as very modest. However, they all know how to seduce other people, whether it is with their looks, sex appeal, charm, humor, intelligence, wit, power, etc.
  • While most people attract others (or not) by being themselves, the narcissist’s seduction is calculated, tailored to its audience, and usually has a specific objective.

Luring (Baiting v1)

  • Narcissists make promises (usually empty) in order to entice others to be at their service. For example, the promises of inheritance may never come.
  • Their promises are like bait dangling in front of their victim.

Triggering (Baiting v2)

  • They will get to their victim by acting abusively.
  • They know exactly what to do to get others into an emotional state.
  • The triggered victim loses control to the benefit of the narcissist who gains it.

Reactive Abuse (Baiting v3)

  • Sometimes, the victim will rightfully “lose it” and lash out at the narcissist after being played like this. You can only take so much.
  • The narcissist then points to the victim’s reaction to being abused as evidence that the victim is the real problem.
  • The narcissist then plays the victim card for the sake of any onlookers who witness the reaction they provoked with their outrageous behavior. This isolates the victim & destroys their reputation.

Victim card

  • Another amazing skill of the narcissist is their ability to pass themselves as a victim, especially when one of their victims is trying to expose them.
  • They turn tables and manage to convince others that they are being unfairly treated.
  • Narcissists, male or female, can cry on demand and be very convincing, to the extent that the victim themselves sometimes doubt their perception of reality (see Gaslighting).
  • Narcissistic parents, and mothers, in particular, use this very efficiently against their own children.
  • The victim card enables the narcissist to control their ‘flying monkeys’; for example, a mother complaining about a child to her spouse will incite the spouse to punish the child.


  • In the movie Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) a husband drives his wife to the verge of insanity by making her believe that she is making things up.
  • This refers to the narcissist’s unique talent for denying facts in such a way that their victim will truly doubt themselves and their sanity.
  • This tactic is part of the narcissist’s covert tactics arsenal.
  • It is close to passive-aggressive behavior (where the narcissist acts aggressively but denies their actions and passes them as jokes or friendly gestures).
  • Gaslighting sometimes manifests itself through the narcissist’s extraordinary talent for rewriting history. Gaslighting is only one expression of the narcissist’s mastery of deceit.

Flying Monkeys

  • The term ‘flying monkey’ refers to anyone being manipulated into doing the work of the narcissist.
  • This may be the narcissist’s dirty work (which makes their attacks untraceable) but also, more simply, retrieving information for the narcissist, or delivering a message from them.
  • This term comes from another film: The Wizard of Oz (V. Fleming, G. Cukor, et al., 1939). In the film, the Wicked Witch of the West sends her flying monkeys after Dorothy and her friends.


  • This refers to the narcissist’s way of ‘dividing to rule’.
  • The narcissist ensures that they are always involved or aware of the communications between others (3-way communication rather than direct communication).
  • They will usually try to be the information relay, which enables them to distort the information being passed and create misunderstandings between third parties.
  • This is the narcissist’s most powerful weapon.
  • Narcissistic parents excel in using this tactic to divide their children between themselves, or sometimes between a child and the other parent.

Creating rivalries and jealousies

  • Also, in the ‘divide to conquer and rule’ category, the narcissist reigns by acting unfairly.
  • They give favors in front of others, which results in everyone competing for the narcissist’s approval and favors.


  • Narcissists will make people feel lacking and inadequate, which keeps them in the driver’s seat.
  • They have a flair for people’s insecurities and will use this talent to make others feel inferior, obedient, and desperately willing to prove their worth to the narcissist.


  • Silent treatment or neglect will keep the narcissist in control.
  • They play hard to get, make their victim feel undeserving, or sulk until they come back to them apologizing.
  • Abandonment is in fact what narcissists fear the most for themselves.

Relationship With a Narcissist

The relationship with a narcissist tends to be a one-way relationship, where we give, and they receive.

Many complain that they gave for years, hoping that one day it would be their turn. But that day never came. It may never be our turn. Many of us, who have been exposed to narcissists, call them ’emotional vampires’ or ’emotional black holes’. We CAN NOT ‘fix’ a narcissist, unless they really want to be fixed, which, according to some, is highly unlikely.

Most people would advise not to stay in a relationship with a narcissist.

Cutting all communications with a narcissist, in particular, a mother is known as going No Contact (NC).

This however may not be possible, for example, if the narcissist is a colleague in a job we like, or if there are too many implications in going NC, such as cutting ourselves from our entire family. So, the solution is either to reduce contact (known as Low Contact or LC), at least momentarily or to learn to deal with the narcissist.

Forewarned is forearmed, so the trick is to observe the narcissist(s) and learn to identify their abusive behavior and manipulations but WITHOUT EVER CONFRONTING THEM! In fact, this is an essential ‘rule’ to observe, for our own good. Here’s a set of rules to observe in a relationship with a narcissist.

3 Rules for Relating with Narcissists

Rule #1: Never Confront the Narcissist

If a narcissist feels attacked or under threat, they will unleash hell.

This is not in anyone’s interest and will achieve nothing good. The narcissist is in denial, and any confrontation only results in the denial increasing.

They cannot see what we can, and they will punish us for making them feel bad about themselves.

Rule #2: Do Not Play Their Game

If the narcissist throws their ball at us, we just let it fall. They have devoted their mind to getting really good at their game, but it is ultimately unreal and uninteresting to a healthy person.

They play a game in which they make and adapt the rules to their advantage, so we have no chance of ‘winning’ or even getting any pleasure from playing.

We may continue to fall into some traps for a while though, as they are really cunning sometimes. Especially if it’s our mother, who knows us, or rather the ‘old conditioned us’, very well.

Never wrestle with a pig. Because you’ll get dirty. Plus, the pig likes it.

Ross Rosenberg

Rule #3: Do Not Give Anything Away

Or rather, only give away what is safe to give away. This may sound like we are playing a game of poker with the narcissist. But we shouldn’t play it that way. We just won’t stay at the poker table and bluff, and instead, we’ll leave the table and interact with them in another way.

We can still be our loving selves without being controlled by them. We can be in control of ourselves and share control of the relationship. We can give what we want to give, not what they want us to give.

The narcissist will lose interest if we don’t feed them with reactions to their actions, and they will find another source of supply. They may then interact with us in a different, less abusive way. But they may also lose any interest in dealing with us if all they ever wanted was us as a narcissistic supply.

Of course, we must be ready to accept that the narcissist might abandon us if we don’t feed them what they want. Is it worth having such a relationship? Don’t we deserve better?

Narcissistic Supply

Narcissistic supply is feedback from other people which props up the narcissist’s false self – the image they present to the world.

Narcissists need narcissistic supply like addicts need their drugs.

Narcissistic supply comes mainly from praise, admiration, perceived envy, etc… But any emotion will do.

In fact, inflicting pain, triggering anger, etc., also feed the emotionally deprived narcissist. They love power and control over other people. Narcissists feel empty and need external supplies to fill their void. Children are an ideal source of supply for the narcissist.

Narcissistic Dance

Narcissists need others to exist. Others serve the purpose of reflecting back to them their false self.

Narcissists often team up with one or several co-narcissists or codependents. They enter what is known as the narcissistic dance, a kind of yin and yang relationship between the giver and the taker.

The giver needs to supply as much as the taker needs to receive.

Narcissistic Injury

A bruise to the ego of the narcissist is called a ‘narcissistic injury’.

Any dent in the armor of the narcissist is perceived as life-threatening. As narcissists tend to see everything in black and white, we are either friends or foes.

If we ‘injure’ the narcissist, we become an enemy who needs to be punished and neutralized.

Narcissistic Rage

One of the main means of defense of the narcissist is to intimidate.

Occasionally, this can be expressed as an explosion of abuse by the narcissist. Narcissistic rage is generally triggered by criticism (real or perceived), anything that the narcissist perceives as an attack on his ego, any threat of exposure to the false self, or frustration over a lack of power and control over people or events.

Watch here what may, or may not be, a narcissistic rage (skip to 4 min 30 sec from start of video). Whether or not this is narcissistic rage, you get the idea – somebody gets challenged and goes on the offensive.

Ian’s Take

I have not found any other source than my observation to support this, but it is my belief that narcissism is a dynamic condition. Its evolution is subject to a dialectic between the ego and the external world.

I believe that, while narcissism originates in childhood, it develops during adolescence and continues to evolve in adulthood. It increases with the right circumstances (ego successes and failures) and can spiral into extreme forms including megalomania when meeting strong responses from the outside world.

For example, a traumatized child who was (or felt) abandoned emotionally, and who lacked selfless nurturing love, may develop narcissistic traits and build a strong false self. If the false self meets real or perceived success in the outside world, it will be reinforced. This will encourage the “host” (the ego) to invest more energy into the false self to the detriment of the real (shameful, inadequate) self.

The unconscious actor forgets he is acting or, rather, he prefers his role to reality. So, he privileges acting over being. He sinks deeper into his fictitious role with every applause and ends up losing himself almost totally. An act is not reality and is disconnected from the real feelings that make us human beings. So, emotions like empathy disappear. Calculations replace true feelings.

The fully blown narcissist is as close to a machine as the robots we see depicted in science fiction. A robot cannot cry (but may try if he’s Robin Williams). A robot has knowledge of what Humans experience but doesn’t experience what they do. He knows but doesn’t really know. So, he can do terrible things. He is programmed to follow the scripted program that animates him. The robot has no soul.

The narcissist who has lost himself into an image, a reflection, a fabrication, has an ego disconnected from his soul, his true self. But the true self never dies. There is conflict. A conflict that the narcissist tries to run away from. It is not the dog chasing his tail, it is the tail chasing the dog.

He can never stop running. He can never feel safe. He is truly and eternally miserable.

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