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The Definition of Narcissist

Narcissist is a term with several definitions, and it is such a wonderful and complex concept that it will be worth pondering the various definitions here. We will start with the dictionary definitions of narcissist, then look at the psychiatric definition of narcissist, and then we will keep on digging, because there is so much important stuff worth understanding.

The Dictionary Definitions of Narcissist

Merriam-Webster captures it pretty well by defining a narcissist as “an extremely self-centered person who has an exaggerated sense of self-importance.”

The Oxford dictionary defines a narcissist as “a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves.”

These are good definitions, highlighting the self centeredness and the need for admiration.  But there is a lot that they don’t capture. For the next level of complexity, let’s look at the psychiatric definition.

The Psychiatric Definition of Narcissist

There is certainly such a thing as being a little bit narcissistic. I will talk later about milder forms of narcissism, but the version of narcissism that is considered a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association is known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  It is a fairly pronounced version of narcissism that gets in the way of all kinds of things, including relationships.

For a diagnosis like this you need clear rules to figure out whether someone has this disorder or doesn’t. Here are the rules, some paraphrased a bit. There are nine official symptoms or descriptors, and you need to show five of them to get the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD.

  • A narcissist has an excessive sense of self-importance.

  • A narcissist is typically filled with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, or ideal love.

  • A narcissist believes that he or she is “special” and unique and should only be around other special and unique people.

  • A narcissist requires constant attention and admiration.

  • A narcissist typically has a sense of entitlement. Expects special treatment, with no sense that others have equally important needs.

  • A narcissist exploits and takes advantage of others to meet own ends.

  • A narcissist lacks empathy: Doesn’t seem to recognize the feelings or needs of others.

  • A narcissist is often envious of others, and believes others are envious of them.

  • A narcissist typically shows arrogant and haughty attitudes and behaviors

This list captures a lot of important things, especially the need for admiration, the lack of empathy, and the entitlement.  The criteria in the diagnostic manual get criticized at times for describing the surface appearance of a thing, but not really capturing the heart of what is going on underneath. That happens because it is often much easier for clinicians to agree on the observable behavior or the surface appearance of a thing, and we sometimes disagree with each other about the inner workings of the thing. Even so, I think it is really interesting and valuable to dig deeper into the concept of narcissism, to try to capture the heart of it. That is what I will be doing in the rest of this article.

A Deeper Dive Into The Meaning of Narcissist:

How Does Narcissism Actually Work?


Let me start with a couple of organizing principles that will help all the rest of this fall into place. Also, since much of my website is about human relationships, I’ll be looking at how narcissism gets in the way of closeness and relationships.

Narcissism is All About Superiority and Inferiority

Humans have a tendency to establish a pecking order. Most of us would like to be admired, would like to have some status, or at least we would like to not be looked down upon. But now try to imagine a world in which superiority and inferiority are all that matters. If I’m a narcissist, what matters more than anything is to be superior, and to have everyone see me that way. To be superior, I have to have all the qualities that people admire. I have to be more successful, more important, richer, smarter, better looking, and higher status than everyone else around. And imagine that the worst possible thing to be is ordinary. The worst possible thing is for others to look at you with disdain rather than admiration. In the world of narcissism, to be average is to be pathetic and contemptible. This is a world in which nothing matters as much as being admired, and nothing could be worse that to be looked down upon and considered ordinary.

Most of us would like to be admired, but what makes most of us different from a narcissist is that there is something most of us want more than we want admiration: We want love and we want closeness and we want connection. You can think about it this way: In our human relationships, most of us are working on a project of finding closeness and connection with other people. That closeness typically involves vulnerability, being human, and letting other people know us, including our doubts and our faults.

For a narcissist, even in their relationships to other people, they aren’t really working on the project of closeness, and certainly not closeness through vulnerability, or through our shared humanity. What a narcissist wants from other people, and even from a spouse, is admiration, attention, approval, and confirmation of their superiority. This is a world in which there are the rock stars, and then there is everyone else. This isn’t a world of fairness and equality; it is a world in which I am special and you are supposed to tell me so.

We will dig deeper into the implications of all this, but I would say that the main concept to organize your understanding of narcissism is that a narcissist is working on a project of superiority and admiration. They are not working toward a goal of equality or closeness, and certainly not of vulnerability.

The Narcissistic Craving for Admiration and Attention

One of the striking things about a narcissist is that their desire for admiration and attention seems inexhaustible. Most of us would like a compliment or two. But in a conversation, most of us realize that bragging too much or fishing for compliments too much rubs people the wrong way. A narcissist isn’t likely to realize that they are bragging too much, or talking too much, or fishing for compliments too much. Paradoxically, their craving for admiration outweighs any awareness that it isn’t admirable to brag. They set out to impress people and tend not to realize when they are rubbing people the wrong way rather than impressing them.

Brittleness and Neediness: 

If you are so great, why do you need me to tell you so?

There is a quality to narcissism that we sometimes refer to as “brittleness.” Along with being hungry for praise, the person can actually seem kind of fragile, sensitive to criticism, offended by teasing, upset at being told they are mistaken. Think of it this way: If someone is really and truly confident, and has a really solid sense of themselves, you would think that criticism or being disagreed with wouldn’t bother them much. With a narcissist, it can seem a bit puzzling. “You seem so sure of yourself, but then you get so bothered when I disagree with you.”

What this seems to represent is that often, underneath all of that surface confidence, a narcissist seems deeply insecure. They keep needing more admiration as if to keep proving to themselves that they really are admired. People around a narcissist can often sense something that feels like an endless need for more admiration. Someone can seem both vain, and at the same time too fragile, too sensitive. They want admiration, and admiration is reassuring, but it is as if the reassurance doesn’t stick, and more is always needed. It is like they are trying to prove something that never stays proven.

Contempt for Being Ordinary or Being Human

As I noted above, most of us want to be admired, but most of us also want closeness, and we often find closeness through shared vulnerability and shared humanity. You are human and so am I and we are all in this together. What is crucially important here is that in this version of closeness, I get close to you by being human with you and by NOT being superior. I am not setting myself above you in the pecking order. A narcissist has a really hard time with this version of closeness.

For a narcissist, being vulnerable and human feels like being weak and ordinary. To the narcissist it feels as if, to have any worth on the planet, you need to be special and superior. To be weak and ordinary is to be pathetic; it’s contemptible and humiliating. To be human means being no better than anyone else, and that is simply intolerable.

Trying To Do Closeness With A Narcissist: A Complicated Proposition

As I noted, a narcissist really doesn’t do closeness through vulnerability and through our shared humanity. That can make it really hard to be married to a narcissist, or be in a family with one. Being married to a narcissist can feel like trying to be close to someone who never lets down their facade, someone who is never vulnerable.

The ideal for normal closeness is to be accurately known. I want you to understand me and “get me,” and know who I am. For most of us, this is crucially important. If you really know me, faults and all, and you still love me, it means that I am being loved for who I really am. If I won’t show you who I really am, and you just love the facade that I show the world, am I really being loved at all? So for most of us, being known is a critically important part of being loved.

A narcissist is working on a different project. They don’t want to be accurately known, faults and all. They don’t want to be human and ordinary. They want to be special and wonderful, and they want everyone to see them that way. One part of what goes wrong here is that closeness can feel hard to achieve, because it can feel hard to really know someone who only shows you their facade.

Being On A Pedestal, And Falling Off The Pedestal

Narcissist can often be very accomplished people, very talented, and even very charming. They really want others to admire them, and often they succeed at that by accomplishing admirable things, and by being charming and personally likable. So, let’s say you are dating one, and you really do admire them. It is going really well, because they like to feel special, and you see them as special; they like to be admired, and you are actually admiring them. They think you are great, because you are clearly very perceptive in the way that you see how great they are. This version of a relationship can be stable for as long as it works this way. We have something important in common in that I admire you, and you admire you as well.

But relationships also have times when my loved one frustrates me, irritates me, bugs me. And sometimes I need to tell them so. No one likes having their partner tell them how they screwed up. But this seems to go particularly badly in a relationship with a narcissist. Think of it this way: In a normal relationship, there is room for me to have faults, room for me to screw up. Remember, part of our confiding was confiding about being human, not being perfect. So, ideally, you tell me I have faults, and I tell you that you have a point, and I’ll try to work on it. In a relationship with a narcissist, this can’t happen in the same way. The foundation of the relationship is you admiring me. The foundation is that both of us put me on a pedestal. Now, if you start telling me about my faults, you have violated our deal. You were supposed to be the person admiring me, buttressing my ego. Now you are the person tearing me down.

You used to put me on a pedestal, admire me, and think that I’m wonderful. And I used to adore you, because you were clearly very wise and perceptive, seeing how special and wonderful I am. Now you are criticizing me, telling me how I screwed up, telling me about my qualities which really bug you. You had me on a pedestal, and now I have fallen off. But I had you on a pedestal as well. I used to think you were this wonderful admiring person, this person who really understands how special I am. Now you are this awful, critical, attacking person, telling me about my faults. One of the hardest things about a relationship involving a narcissist is that it only works well when the admiration is intact.  The relationship has a very hard time with mistakes, bad days, or criticism, because typically the narcissist can't acknowledge having a fault, so you had better not start telling them that they have one. 

Narcissists Seem To Have a Complicated Relationship With The Truth

If my main project is to be admired, and not to have my faults known, I will soon be trying hard to show people only a version of myself that they will admire. We all edit what we share with others, and most of us share our vulnerable parts mostly with people we trust. But for narcissists, they don’t want anyone to see them as human and flawed. So, they become very accustomed to only showing what other people would admire.

All of this brings up an interesting question about the truth. A narcissist is kind of like a salesman hyping a product, or a lawyer who is, of course, only presenting one side of a case. When someone does this, we often have the feeling that we are getting a sales job. We have a feeling that we are getting spun, but we don’t know exactly how much. Sometimes all the distortion is managed by selective editing, and leaving out the bad parts. Other times there may be actual lies, but what about all the areas that are open to interpretation?

There is a classic human tendency that most of us have. In our view of ourselves, we tend to see that our intentions were good, that we were trying hard, that our point of view seems quite reasonable to ourselves. Narcissism means that this tendency is taken to extreme. A narcissist wants to see their own motives as noble, and is determined that we see them that way too. They strongly believe that they aren’t mistaken or misguided, and are determined that no one see them that way. Narcissists aren’t the only people who can get into debates about who is right, who is wrong, and who is to blame, but narcissists are exceedingly unlikely to change their minds, especially if it means admitting that they are not admirable in any way.

A part of what is complicated here is the question of truth. Does a narcissist believe their own PR? If they do then they are telling the truth. Certainly there are times when a narcissist is aware that they are spinning the truth, or that they are painting too rosy a picture of themselves. There is a phenomenon known as the “false self,” in which someone is aware of presenting a perfect version of themselves to the world, and aware that it is a distortion. But the experience that the loved ones of a narcissist often have feels something like gaslighting. They are telling you that you are wrong and that your perceptions are crazy, and they stick to their guns until you doubt yourself.

Narcissist often seem to have a somewhat different relationship with the truth than the rest of us.  If I want you to really know me, then I want to share with you the real me, the truth.  And if I want you to trust me, I want you to consistently find that everything I say checks out, that I tell the truth, and you can expect that the next thing I say will be true as well.  Again, a narcissist is working on a different project.  A narcissist wants to be admired rather than accurately known, and being admired seems to have a stronger pull than being trusted.  Knowing a narcissist can feel like knowing a salesman who doesn't stop selling. Having me think what they want me to think is simply higher on their priority list than being known or trusted.  And I have to constantly remind myself that they last thing they told me may or may not be true, depending on whether it would serve their purposes of being superior and being admired. 

The Narcissistic Intolerance for Criticism

It is worth mentioning once again that some of the things that narcissists typically do are really just more extreme versions of things that most of us do. Most of us would rather be admired than criticized. If you criticize me, I may well have an explanation of why I did that thing and how it was a kind of reasonable thing to do after all. In other words, we all tend to see our own behavior as mostly reasonable, and we can generally explain it and defend it. So, if I say that narcissists will endlessly defend their own behavior, and will insist that any criticism is wrong, how does that make them different from the rest of us?

The unsatisfying answer is that it is a matter of degree. Some people who are not narcissists still have a really hard time accepting criticism. Some of that certainly has to do with what you saw growing up, and how your parents accepted or disputed criticism. What we hope couples can do is to hear criticism, try it on for size, and, when the criticism has some merit, admit that there is some truth to it. You don’t have to agree 100%, but most criticism will have some merit, and you need to be able to admit that it has some.

Doing this is really hard for a narcissist. Here’s why. If my self concept includes the idea that I am human, and I have faults, then if you tell me I have one more fault, I won’t love it, but there is room for that in my view of myself. A narcissist has crafted a self concept in which they are special and admirable. They believe in an exaggerated version of all of their good qualities. And it is almost like they have psychically split off all of their bad qualities, put them in a box, and denied them. There is no room in this world view for being flawed, ordinary, or human. If I start telling them they have faults, it is like I am challenging the whole premise of how wonderful and special they are.

If I criticize my loved one, I don’t need them to agree with me 100%. If they say that I am partly right, that I may have a point, that feels like they are taking in my feedback and granting that it has some validity. What is more typical of a narcissist is that they have to make all criticism entirely wrong, every time. There will be endless debates about who is right and who is really to blame. And eventually I will learn that criticizing you is just a pointless and exhausting business, and I will learn to stop doing it. And at that point it becomes very hard to productively talk about anything.

Empathy, and Failures of Empathy

Empathy is incredibly important in the workings of human relationships, and in what makes a good relationship go well.  It has long been noted that with narcissists, their empathy for others is almost entirely missing.  Much has been written about why this might be.  Some those theories assume that narcissism develops in a situation where you didn’t get much empathy from your parents, where they sent you endless signals that what mattered was status and not empathy.  And once I have come to feel that my experience is more important than yours, why would I take a lot of trouble trying to understand exactly what your experience is?  After all, you are one of the supporting characters in a play that is really all about me.  Your story isn't that important here. 

I have much more to say about empathy in my article on A Definition of Empathy.  Reading that article might be helpful if you are trying to understand some of the implications of being in a relationship with a narcissist.  In that article, as you read about the crucial role that empathy plays in relationships and in closeness, simply imagine what a relationship must feel like without those things. 

Narcissism Usually Isn’t All Or Nothing

As you know, most human qualities aren’t all or nothing; most human qualities happen along a continuum from a little to a lot. In this article so far I have mostly been talking as if narcissism is simply a thing that some people have and other people don’t. And I realize that using the term “narcissist” reinforces that. Narcissists are those bad people; all the rest of us are the good people, and we are nothing like that. It definitely makes it easier to write about when I say, “here is the category. Here is what it looks like to be in that category.”

In reality it is more accurate to think of narcissism as a long continuum with a million shades of gray, and we are all on the continuum somewhere. Yes, some people are quite extreme, and we will call them narcissists. But who among us doesn’t want to be admired? Most all of us would like some attention. Most of us are at least somewhat trapped inside our own point of view. Most of us would like to look good, and to have other people think well of us. Most of us would rather not be criticized, and if you are criticizing me, I can probably make a case that you are at least partly wrong. Most of us could stand to work on our empathy, and on putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.  Most of us are selfish, at least sometimes. 

Very few of us have Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  But most of us have some narcissistic bits in there somewhere.  Or, to put it differently, at our best, most of us seem fairly empathetic and not very selfish.  At our worst, most of us seem more selfish and less noble.  If I am worn out, beat up, and in a bad mood, I will be more focused on myself. I will be more aware of my own needs and less focused on yours. I’ll seem less kind, less capable of empathy. So, at my worst I will look considerably more narcissistic than I do at my best. So, the qualities that we associate with narcissism aren’t just something that bad people have and the rest of us don’t.  Most of us have bits and pieces of these qualities, at least to some degree.  And those qualities aren’t even constant over time. We do better on some days than others. Some people do have extremes of narcissism that are unlikely to change. But for the rest of us, if we find some shades of narcissism in ourselves, we can try to become more aware of them, and we can try to change. Narcissism isn’t just a description of those bad people over there. These qualities are part of the human condition, and if you find some of them in yourself, you aren’t hopeless.

In writing this article I am drawing on much that I have read and studied about narcissism over the years. The best book that I know of about narcissism is "Humanizing the Narcissistic Style," by Stephen Johnson, Ph.D.”  It is written for therapists.  Unfortunately I don't currently have a great book on narcissism written for lay people.

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