Psychology Series: What Is Narcissism?

Psychology Series: What Is Narcissism?

by Lisa Davis, May 13, 2019

Last month, we started our psychology series where we explore various ways partners, parents, and friends can be emotionally abusive. Oftentimes, most people don’t realize that they are in an abusive relationship until they leave or until they feel too trapped to end it. We want to shine a light on these common abusive practices to help people better understand their unhealthy relationships. This month, we are discussing narcissism. Many people think they can identify narcissistic tendencies in others, but they might not see it in their family members or romantic partners. This guide will help readers learn when narcissism becomes unhealthy and how to identify it.  

If you missed the first part of our series, you can read it here: What is Gaslighting?   

What Is Narcissism?

Throughout this article, we will be discussing the concept of narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Most people are at least somewhat narcissistic. We all have our egos and like to believe that we are the best. However, when this obsession with self and “superiority above all” gets out of hand, a healthy ego can turn into a serious condition that negatively affects the lives of everyone around the narcissist, and even the narcissist themselves. This is NPD.

According to the Mayo Clinic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized by:

  • An inflated sense of one’s own importance
  • An excessive need for attention or admiration
  • Troubled relationships
  • A lack of empathy for others
  • Fragile self-esteem that is vulnerable to criticism

Someone with NPD will have a significant amount of forward-facing bravado. They will go out of their way to seem like they are the best and convince others of their successes. However, this is often because they are deeply insecure with themselves. As the Mayo Clinic says:  

“People with narcissistic personality disorder may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they’re not given the special favors or admiration they believe they deserve. They may find their relationships unfulfilling, and others may not enjoy being around them.”

According to the team at PsychAlive, roughly one percent of the population has NPD. However, 75% of people who have NPD are men.

Interestingly, a study by Ohio State University found that you can identify a narcissist just by asking them. When narcissists were asked to rate on a scale of one to seven whether they identified as a narcissist, many narcissists did. However, these people did not like the idea that they might have NPD and would need to monitor or possibly change their behavior.   

Where Does the Concept of Narcissism Come From?

Narcissism stems from the ancient story of Narcissus, son of the river god Cephissus in Greek mythology. According to the myth, many people fell in love with Narcissus because of his looks, but he only pushed them away with extreme disdain and contempt.  

One day, a nymph named Echo saw Narcissus and fell in love. When she ran up to him, he pushed her away. (Echo was so disheartened that she wandered the forest, until she faded into nothing but her voice, reverberating off the trees.) Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and revenge, heard of this and wanted to punish Narcissus. When Narcissus next saw himself in a pool, he immediately fell in love with his reflection. When he realized that he could never be with the face staring back at him, he grew deeply depressed and eventually killed himself.

Psychologists first started to use the terms narcissism in approximately the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1910s that narcissism caught on as an actual personality trait, through the help of psychologists Otto Rank and Sigmund Freud. The concept of Narcissistic Personality Disorder was developed in the late 1960s and was officially recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the 1980s.  

Narcissism in the Social Media Era

Interestingly, cases of NPD are on the rise. This is partly because more people know about it and both psychological professionals and laypeople are able to recognize it, but also partly because of our media-driven culture.

Social media puts excessive pressure on people to look good and make it seem like their lives are amazing. We see the good things that happen to our friends, but not the bad. A new mom might post an adorable photo of her baby playing, but we don’t see that same baby spitting up on her three times that day. As a result, it seems like everyone is doing great, which puts pressure on some people to seem like they are keeping up and doing just as well.

The team at Learning Mind posted a great infographic on social media and narcissism. We shared one of the panels below:

social media narcissism

Several studies have tested the correlation of whether social media actually causes narcissism or leads to higher rates of NPD, but few have been able to prove a direct connection. What we do know is that social media creates a global platform for narcissists to compare themselves to others and take steps to promote their self-image.

What Does Narcissism Look Like in a Relationship?

Many people think they can identify narcissism, but they might not realize that they are in a relationship with someone whose narcissistic tendencies cross a line. Below are 10 signs that someone is a narcissist, so you can identify the behavior in your relationship or the relationships of others.

  1. They are entitled. Narcissists believe that the world belongs to them. They think they should win everything and any occurrence against them is a direct threat.
  2. They are superior. Narcissists also often think they are above the law, above authority, and above others in relationships including friends, family, and significant others.
  3. They care deeply about how they are perceived. Narcissists want everyone to see them in a positive light. They hate when they might be thought of in another way.
  4. They need to be in control. Narcissists want to control everything to make sure it goes their way. If they don’t have control, they blame others for any problems. If they do have control, they are the reason for the success.
  5. They will blame others for their problems. In order to seem superior to everyone else, narcissists will blame others whenever something goes wrong. If they miss a basketball shot, they will blame the bad lighting, the flat ball, or someone distracting them. In their eyes, they never do anything wrong or fail.
  6. They have no boundaries. Narcissists only care about themselves. They don’t care about the needs, limits, or desires of others.
  7. They lack empathy and reasoning. Narcissists don’t care how something hurts you or affects you. They only care how a situation makes them feel.
  8. They are emotionally manipulative. To get what they want, narcissists will charm you, threaten you, or guilt you. They don’t care what they have to do as long as they get what they want.
  9. They look for dirt on others. Because narcissists care so much about how they are perceived, they assume that others care just as much. As part of their emotional manipulation, narcissists will look for public ways to tear you down and threaten to use them against you.
  10. They act as if you are the narcissist. Turning the tables on a partner is a common technique used by emotional abusers. If you try to assert yourself or seek attention, they will act as if you are the problem in the relationship.

Narcissism doesn’t just manifest itself in adult relationships. Psychology Today shared an article last year on narcissistic tendencies in children, including bullying and aggressive responses.  

Learn More About Signs of Abuse and Unhealthy Relationships

At Family Resources, we believe that healthy relationship building starts when you are young. While it is never too late to develop healthy relationship habits, we have the ability to reach people in their teens and get them started on the right foot.

If you are in your late teens or early twenties, or know someone who is, consider signing up for one of our free Love Notes healthy relationship classes. Participants learn how to communicate, set boundaries, and handle money together – setting themselves up for strong relationships throughout their lives. Sign up for one of our classes today or share them with the young adults in your life.