Understanding narcissistic personality disorder.
If you’ve ever been ghosted by a Tinder date, a colleague at work has taken credit for your hard work or you’ve been tempted to unfollow certain friends on social media for posting excessive selfies, you may have found yourself muttering ‘narcissist’ under your breath.
With 1,000 selfies uploaded to Instagram every 10 seconds, it can feel like we’re in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. But what exactly is a narcissist, and can we live harmoniously with these notoriously tricky people?
What is a narcissist?
Narcissism is defined as a personality disorder and named after Narcissus from Greek mythology, a handsome hunter who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water – and consequently died of thirst.
While many classic narcissistic traits also belong to people with big egos, research shows that approximately six per cent of the population has a condition called narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
‘NPD is a mental condition which is characterised by an overvalued sense of self-importance and a disregard for and lack of empathy for others,’ Says Dr Annemarie O’Connor, Clinical Psychologist and Director at themindworks, a private psychology practice in London.
How do you spot a narcissist?
In these social media savvy times, it can be hard to distinguish a full-blown narcissist from an exhibitionist, or someone who simply loves taking selfies. Research has shown that NPD is more prevalent in men than in women, but all narcissists share certain personality traits, some of which are listed below:
Narcissists tend to have a grandiose sense of self, which usually masks unconscious feelings of low self-esteem. A narcissist will routinely overestimate their abilities while simultaneously devaluing others. ‘Someone with NPD typically views themselves as special, different to others and unique,’ says O’Connor.
➡️ Disregard for the feelings of others
People with NPD often present an inflated version of themselves to the world, which they believe is better than anyone around them. Consequently, they also tend to treat others with contempt, which makes them bad friends, tricky colleagues and downright dreadful romantic partners.
➡️ A sense of entitlement
Narcissists often have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration. ‘Narcissists believe they deserve special dispensation to deviate from normal rules and expectations because they see themselves as better than others, superior and above rules that are appropriate for average, normal people,’ says O’Connor.
➡️ Fragile self-esteem
Despite the fact that people with NPD often act overconfident, their self-esteem can actually be fragile. But behind the confidence, sufferers can be extremely vulnerable to criticism and suffer from low self-esteem, which can make them particularly difficult in relationships.
➡️ Superiority complex
Feeling superior to others is another common trait. ‘They also see others as inferior to them and potential admirers. They can see others as functional and tend to use other people to their own gain, and they can be competitive,’ says O’Connor.
How to live with a narcissist
Based on the above personality traits, you’d be forgiven for wanting to give all narcissists a wide berth. This may be the best course of action for self-preservation purposes, as narcissists tend to be ruthless people. However, if it’s your boss, your spouse or a close family member, writing them off isn’t always an option.
✅ To live harmoniously with a narcissist, learn about NPD so you can protect yourself from their power games, and establish healthier boundaries.
‘People with NPD need to feel special and respected,’ says O’Connor. ‘If you disagree with them, they are likely to experience it as an unwarranted (probably through jealousy), personal attack. Phrasing and explaining that you disagree with their point/being specific and being clear that you don’t disagree with them as a person can soften the impact.
‘Their needs are likely to come before other peoples. Accept that your requirements will come second. Understand that any comments, criticism or verbal attack on you is not personal to you; it’s a way of maintaining their superiority.’
Narcissists need love too
Irrespective of their behaviour, arguably as human beings people with NPD still deserve to be treated with the same respect as the next person.
‘Narcissism represents a defence against deep-rooted insecurities and an unstable sense of self,’ says psychotherapist Mark L. Ruffalo, LCSW. ‘Usually, this is rooted in problematic object relations in early childhood which result in negativistic and ambivalent feelings about self and other.
‘Having been let down in early relationships, the narcissistic person resorts to a defence mechanism known as splitting, where self and other are seen as either entirely good or entirely bad. The person becomes entirely self-sufficient and self-absorbed; he does not need others or needs them only to fuel his sense of superiority.’
✅ If you need support for yourself or a loved one, to access mental health services in your area, visit the NHS website.
Are there any treatments for NPD?
‘The treatment of this type of condition is psychoanalytic, psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, in which the therapist interprets these unconscious processes and points them out to the patient, frequently in the context of the transference, ie, the way the patient comes to relate to the therapist,’ explains Ruffalo.
‘Relationships with narcissistic persons can be quite difficult as a result of their tendency to take advantage of others in order to satisfy their need to feel important or superior,’ he adds. ‘Encouraging the person to seek therapy with a skilled analytic therapist is paramount. Similarly, it is important for those involved in relationships with narcissistic persons to realise that the narcissist is suffering from a disorder rooted in their unconscious.’
‘Over the years, many psychological treatments have been developed to treat people with NPD with a particular focus on early life experiences and the development of relationships, and with an aim to shift current relationship dynamics, accept responsibility and tolerate perceived criticisms through learning new skills and ways of interacting and coping, such as Schema focussed therapy,’ says O’Connor.
Advice for family and friends
Living with a personality disorder can have a big effect on the person’s life, as well as their family and friends, but support is available. Try one of the following services:
- Rethink Mental Illness– an organisation committed to raising awareness and reducing the stigma of mental health with a focus on personality disorders.
- Royal College of Psychiatrists– leaflet for people with personality disorders, and their family and friends
- Time To Change– personal stories from people with personality disorders
- Sane– a national out-of-hours mental health helpline offering specialist emotional support, guidance and information to anyone affected by mental illness, including family, friends and carers.
- Young Minds– help and support for young people with mental health problems.