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What even IS a narcissist?

Author: The Simple Bit

Category: Science

We hear the word narcissist a lot. But what does it actually mean? And are there ways of helping them?

The Simple Bits:

  • Narcissism is a disorder involving a pattern of self-centred, arrogant thinking and behaviour
  • Its proper name is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
  • We are quick to throw it around, but it takes careful diagnosis
  • There are ways of dealing with people with NPD

Narcissist. It’s a word that gets thrown around plenty in pop culture, from Tony Soprano to Regina George from Mean Girls. It’s deeply embedded in the modern vernacular of dating.

And it’s a term that often gets used to describe a certain president.

So what does it really mean? And are we a little loose with the term?

Well, to Clinical Psychologist Dr Jarrod White from The Mind Room, yes we are. “There is a difference between having narcissistic traits and being a narcissist,” he says. But there are ways of spotting a genuine narcissist, and coping strategies for dealing with them that can lessen the mental toll.

What is narcissism?

The word itself stems from the Greek mythology of Narcissus; the handsome dude who, because of his indifference and ill-treatment of others, was punished by the Gods by falling in love with his own image.

Essentially, it’s a disorder that involves a “pattern of self-centred, arrogant thinking and behaviour, a lack of empathy and consideration for other people, and an excessive need for admiration.”*

In the field of Clinical Psychology, an individual labelled as a Narcissist, or more precisely, an individual diagnosed with NPD, needs to fulfil five or more of the following criteria:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance.
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  • A belief that they are ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  • An intense need for excessive admiration.
  • A sense of entitlement – that they should get and have whatever they want.
  • A tendency to use others to achieve their own ends.
  • A lack of empathy, demonstrated through an unwillingness to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  • Envy of others, or the belief that others are envious of them.
  • Arrogant or conceited behaviour and attitudes.

You might look at the criteria and think that you know plenty of people who display some of these narcissistic traits. You might even know someone who you think has five or more of these traits. But pump the breaks – that doesn’t necessarily make them a narcissist.

So when using the word narcissist, we should really be referring to someone who is experiencing NPD that exists on an extreme end of the human experience, over a long period of time, and only a trained health professional gets to make the call.


Narcissus by Caravaggio, 1597–1599, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica


Approaching someone with NPD

“If you were ever thinking about telling a narcissist that they are a narcissist, remember that someone with NPD is extremely sensitive to criticism,” says Dr White. “Any form of criticism may leave these individuals humiliated, degraded, hollow and empty. Hardly a recipe for fostering connection and encouraging them to seek support.”

So, how do you approach someone with NPD then?

“Start by validating their feelings,” Dr White says. Encouraging them to seek help is a good idea too. “The best way to do this is to position therapy as something that can help the individual with NPD deal with the downfalls of others, rather than their own struggles,” he adds.

Set some boundaries

Finally, Dr White recommends to anyone dealing with a person with NPD to set some boundaries, to protect their own mental health. “Validating and finding the kernel of truth with an individual who has NPD can be draining,” he says. “It therefore is really important to set your own non-negotiable boundaries for the way you want to be treated, spoken to, and for your own personal time.”


Sections of this article were first published by psychology community The Mind Room. Find out more about them here.


If you or someone you know needs urgent psychological support please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or see your GP or psychologist.


*Source: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-disorders/narcissistic-personality-disorder.htm