What does narcissist mean? Personality disorder and narcissism traits explained by behavioural experts

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Narcissistic personality disorder is a diagnosable mental health condition

The term narcissist is being used more and more these days, particularly to describe romantic partners it seems. But, do you actually know what a narcissist is? Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a diagnosable mental health condition which has an impact on the way an individual thinks and behaves and, in turn, this affects the lives of those around them too. 

Anyone can have NPD, and that means it can have an impact on all relationships - not just romantic ones. It can also affect parent and child connections as well as bonds between friends. It can also impact high profile people. For example, former US president Donald Trump has been described as a “deeply wounded narcissist” by a lawyer who served in the White House during his administration. Three experts have spoken to NationalWorld to explain what narcissism actually is, what traits to look out for if you think someone may have it, how it affects all areas of life and, importantly, also share their tips for how to best cope if someone in your life does have NPD. Keep reading to find out all you need to know.

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What is narcissism and what are narcissistic traits? 

Narcissism is a personality disorder characterised by an inflated sense of self-importance, a need for admiration and attention, and a lack of empathy for others. Psychologist Anna Sergent told NationalWorld that the term narcissism is often misused due to lack of understanding of what it actually is. She said: “Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a disorder and a person who experiences it displays behaviours and has feelings that they often cannot help and there is actually a lot of suffering attached to it too.” 

She said, for example, that there is a difference between someone who looks for compliments from others and someone who actually has NPD - and that this can have a negative impact on their own mental health. “Everyone likes to have approval or praise, it makes us feel good about ourselves and a constructive compliment can make our day. When it comes to narcissistic personality disorder, however, there is a disproportionate level of self concern and sometimes extreme sensitivity and response to criticism from others.” She added that narcissistic individuals can become so preoccupied with how they are viewed by others that they may believe they are not worthy of love. 

Psychologist Anna Sergent. Photo by Athene Gardner- Gatt.Psychologist Anna Sergent. Photo by Athene Gardner- Gatt.
Psychologist Anna Sergent. Photo by Athene Gardner- Gatt. | Athene Gardner- Gatt

Sergeant also said people who have narcissism may actually have a fear of being shamed and humiliated by others and, as a result, they may appear cold and hard to reach as they seek to protect themselves - and that can be detrimental to themselves and others. “A person with NPD may also feel strong envy towards others due to the conviction that they lack in some way and they may therefore fear that someone or something will expose those deficits. They may then resort to scorning, deploring or criticising someone that they actually envy to try to destroy what this person has.”

Are there different types of narcissism?

While there is only one recognised type of narcissistic personality disorder, there are different traits such as overt or grandiose, covert or vulnerable, communal and malignant narcissism, according to chartered psychologist Catherine Hallissey. She explained the differences to NationalWorld below.

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Overt or grandiose narcissism

People with overt narcissism traits have an inflated sense of self-importance. They tend to be preoccupied with their own success and believe they’re entitled to special treatment and admiration from others.

Covert or vulnerable narcissism 

People with covert narcissism tend to be insecure and hypersensitive to criticism and rejection.

Communal narcissism

People with communal narcissistic traits often have an inflated sense of moral superiority and altruism and also crave admiration for these altruistic acts.

Malignant narcissism

Malignant narcissism is characterised by a combination of grandiosity, aggression and a lack of empathy. 

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What impact can narcissism have on a family?

It is possible for any person to have narcissism, including parents. Hallissey said that narcissistic parents are overly focused on their own needs and desires which can lead to them struggling to meet the needs of their children. They may also, however, be inconsistent in their approach to parenting and may switch between overindulgence and neglect as they are unable to empathise with how their children are feeling.

Narcissistic parenting can have a significant impact on relationships with parents in childhood and adulthood and the specific effect will vary depending on the severity of the parent’s narcissism and the child’s individual experiences, Hallissey said. “Children of narcissistic parents may struggle to form close emotional bonds with their parents because their emotional needs were not met and they may therefore also struggle to open up to them. The parents’ inconsistent behaviour may also mean it’s harder for their child to trust in the relationship.” 

Catherine Hallissey, Chartered Psychologist of the Psychological Society of Ireland.Catherine Hallissey, Chartered Psychologist of the Psychological Society of Ireland.
Catherine Hallissey, Chartered Psychologist of the Psychological Society of Ireland. | Catherine Hallissey

Hallissey also believes that growing up with narcissistic parents may influence the views the child has on love and relationships as they get older. She said: “The child may have learned that their parent’s love and approval was conditional which can lead to insecurity and difficulty in trusting them. They may have also come to prioritise their parents' needs above their own which can present as people-pleasing in adulthood, seeking the approval of parents in adulthood.” She added that this can make it difficult for a child to assert their own needs and set boundaries in their relationship with their parents as an adult.

What impact can narcissism have on romantic relationships?

People with NPD tend to have abusive relationships because their personality traits make them self-motivated and lacking in empathy, according to sex and relationship therapist Rhian Kivits, and this “abusive” behaviour causes trauma and psychological damage to their partners.

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She said that narcissism can present in multiple ways in a romantic relationship. For example, a narcissistic person is unlikely to pay attention to their partner’s success while they boast about their own. “This can make their partner feel invisible and insignificant and it can also create a great deal of resentment,” she added. Due to their need for admiration, they also expect to be their partner’s top priority but are unwilling to listen to feedback as they see it as criticism. They may also appear to be extremely arrogant and vain.

Sex and relationship therapist Rhian Kivits.Sex and relationship therapist Rhian Kivits.
Sex and relationship therapist Rhian Kivits. | Rhian Kivits

As they cannot bear to express vulnerability, Kivits says that a person with NPD will also struggle to take responsibility for their mistakes or actions and instead project blame on their partner. They will also always put their own needs first which can lead to their partner becoming emotionally and physically drained. At its most extreme, she said that “they are cunning and highly manipulative” and “also use emotionally abusive behaviours like gaslighting, which makes their partners question their own reality and wonder if they are to blame for the problems in the relationship”.

People with NPD will often make choices that “hurt their partners deeply”, said Kivits. She said that some people with NPD are drawn towards addictions including drugs and alcohol or hyper-sexuality. “They also easily lie, cheat and betray their partners because their lack of empathy means they don't use the prospect of the pain they'll potentially inflict on their partner to course correct and make better choices.” 

Where does the term narcissism come from?

The term narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a young man who rejected all romantic prospects and then fell in love with his own reflection. He could not think of anything other than the love for himself, but also did not look after himself and does not eat and drink or spend time with anyone else. He then ultimately died alone as a result of his longing for the perfect image of himself as that could never be obtained in reality.

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Narcissistic personality disorder and traits explained by experts.Narcissistic personality disorder and traits explained by experts.
Narcissistic personality disorder and traits explained by experts. | NationalWorld/Mark Hall

Can narcissism be diagnosed?

Yes, narcissism can be diagnosed, but only by certain medical professionals. Advice given by mental health charity Mind states that you can only be diagnosed with a personality disorder by a mental health professional experienced in diagnosing and treating mental health problems, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. It is not possible for a GP to diagnose someone with NPD, but if a person speaks to their doctor about their mental health and they think that might have a personality disorder, they can then refer them to their local community mental health team who will be able to assess them fully.

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