While some narcissists may be compensating for underlying low self-esteem, for others their inflated views of themselves are not an unconscious, anxious compensation for anything: they really believe in their own superiority.
Much has been written about narcissistic personalities in recent years. And there’s been a near explosion of information on these personality types since the editors of the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-5) decided to drop Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as a distinct, official category. Perhaps that’s because there are too many folks who know all too well how painful it is to live or deal with a narcissist and are hungry for information about the condition — regardless of whether certain powers that be have chosen not to formally recognize it as a mental disorder.
The term narcissism is derived from the mythical character Narcissus, who, as the ancient Greek story goes, was a strikingly handsome and gifted young man who was clearly aware of what he had going for him. Narcissus was not at all phased by the relentless amorous advances of a nymph who fancied him. Rather, he fell head over heels in love with his own reflection as he gazed upon it in a pool of water. Narcissus, it seemed, found all he’d ever dreamed of in perfect complement to himself in himself. Narcissism, therefore, is not the healthy love of self that leads to adaptive self protection and care, but rather the abnormal and unhealthily haughty perception of oneself as such an idol that one has no real need for anyone else.
Classical psychological paradigms conceptualized narcissistic individuals as necessarily insecure individuals who unconsciously compensate for their underlying low self-esteem with their braggadocio. Today we know that although there are indeed some “neurotic” narcissists for whom such a definition might largely apply, there are many more vain and self centered folks who not only aren’t lacking in self-esteem but also really believe in their greatness and superiority through and through. Such individuals are far more character disordered than they are neurotic, and their inflated views of themselves are not an unconscious, anxious compensation for anything. (Several more articles explore this distinction between neurosis and character disorders.) Truly believing they’re nature’s gift to the world, character impaired narcissists can be a monumental challenge to deal with, work with, and, especially, to live with.
With all the information available these days about narcissism and narcissistic personalities, chances are you’ve also heard the term “malignant narcissism.” But exactly what the term means and why a certain kind of narcissism warrants such a special descriptor is not very clear to many. While it’s hard to imagine any kind of narcissism that’s completely “benign,” it’s worth understanding why the particular brand of narcissism professionals call “malignant” is cause for grave concern whenever it’s present to any significant degree in an someone’s character.
Narcissism is a common feature during our early stages of growth. But most of us eventually grow to develop a healthier balance of perspective with respect to our self interest and self regard versus our regard for and need of others. When a person enters adulthood retaining the narcissistic tendencies they had as a child, there’s bound to be trouble in their relationships. Narcissism is always unhealthy or pathological self love. It becomes particularly “malignant” — malevolent, dangerous, virulent, incurable — when it goes beyond vanity, excessive self focus, and conceit to outright disregard for and disdain of others. Malignant narcissists not only see themselves as superior to others but believe in their superiority to the degree that they view others as relatively worthless, expendable, and justifiably exploitable. This type of narcissism is a defining characteristic of psychopathy/sociopathy and is rooted in a deficient capacity for empathy. It’s almost impossible for a person with such shallow feelings and such haughtiness to form the kind of conscience that has any of the qualities we typically associate with a humane attitude, which is why most researchers and theorists on the topic of psychopathy view psychopaths as individuals devoid of conscience. (To learn more about psychopathy and sociopathy, see my other articles on the subjects, including , as well as my books In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], and The Judas Syndrome [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]).
For now, the DSM-V wants us to see narcissism as a dimension of personality that’s present to varying degrees in a wide variety of personality styles. Both the extent to which the trait is present in someone’s character and how rooted it is as an incapacity for empathy can make all the difference in what we can expect from them in relationships. I’ll be having much more to say about narcissism in the coming weeks.
I’ll be particularly interested in comments from readers. Because ours is the age of permissiveness and especially “entitlement,” narcissism has flourished, and just about everyone has a story to tell about dealing with a narcissist. When it comes to understanding the narcissistic character, there are probably no better teachers than those who’ve lived, worked, or dealt with someone whose love of self was toxic.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by