Defining and Dealing With Narcissism

From TikTok to politics, our culture is saturated with the terms “narcissist” and “narcissism” more than ever. It seems like if anyone anywhere behaves in a way that can be even remotely perceived as selfish, somebody declares them a narcissist. The truth is we can all be pretty selfish at times, and it’s pretty dangerous to throw the “narcissist” term around without a professional diagnosis. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)  is real. It’s in the DSM-V. It’s actually pretty rare, estimated by the National Institute of Mental Health to afflict only 0.5-5% of adults in the US.

Knowing that it’s highly unlikely, though not impossible, for you or someone in your life to legitimately have NPD, it’s important to be careful about how you use language around the topic. You or someone in your life may be exhibiting narcissistic personality traits that negatively impact your life, without having NPD. General rule: not all selfishness is narcissism, but all narcissistic traits come from a place of self-centered thinking. That said, with or without NPD, narcissistic behaviors can be devastating to families, romantic relationships and friendships, and basic quality of life.

What to Know About Narcissism

What Is Narcissism?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is one of 10 personality disorders in the DSM-V, characterized by a list of pathological personality traits that seriously inhibit a person’s ability to maintain a functional social life, family life,  and/or work life. The top 5 signs of narcissism are:

  1. An inflated sense of self
  2. A constant need for attention
  3. Self-centeredness
  4. Lack of empathy
  5. Preoccupation with power and success

Keep in mind that we’re human, so we can occasionally exhibit one or more of the above signs without being a narcissist. The key word to remember is pathological. A true narcissist cannot help but exhibit most or all of these signs at all times. A true narcissist lives in a delusion of sorts, really believing that they are special, that they deserve to be considered of a higher status than others, that they should only associate with other high-status people, and that they are worthy of constant attention and praise, that any criticism is an unwarranted attack, that their abilities and achievements surpass others, that they are entitled to exploit people for their own gain, that others envy them or should envy them, and that they deserve special treatment.

They’ll do whatever it takes: lie, manipulate, exaggerate, downplay, self-aggrandize, anything to accomplish what they want, without respect for how those around them feel. If they apologize for their actions, it’s not because they feel sorry but because they recognize that an “apology” is the only way to get the other person to do what they want. They believe, they know, that they are better than others and are entitled to success, leading them to feel depressed when others disagree or when they don’t get their way. NPD is almost always associated with an inflated sense of entitlement and a total lack of empathy for others.

That lack of empathy, especially, is what makes this mental health condition so detrimental to healthy relationships. Without the ability to understand and honor other people’s feelings, a narcissist can only see a relationship as a source of attention, praise, service, etc.

What Is the Root Cause of Narcissism?

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes many mental disorders, but there are some theories about contributing factors. Common life experiences among those diagnosed with NPD are childhood abuse or trauma, receiving excessive praise early in life, growing up in an environment without any external validation, growing up with extremely indulgent parents, or growing up with unreliable parents. But not everyone who experiences these things early in life develops NPD, so ultimately, that’s an unknown.

However, there are a few problems at the root of all narcissistic behaviors that, whether a person has NPD or just struggles with self-centeredness, can help us understand why they behave the way they do.

  • Lack of Self-esteem. Someone who feels the constant need to be their own “hype man” is likely struggling to believe in their own worth. When someone exaggerates how good they are at something, habitually reminds people of their accomplishments, or carries themselves in a haughty or superior way, try to look deeper. They may not be truly narcissistic in nature, but rather struggling with their mental health in a way that damages their self-esteem.
  • Fear of being alone. Again, if someone is always trying to prove how great they are, what if they don’t actually think they’re that great? What if they’re afraid that if people don’t see their value, they’ll be abandoned or shunned? That could come from past trauma or low self-esteem. 
  • Shame. We talk a lot about shame at TheHopeLine because it’s a pervasive and convincing voice telling many of us that we are less than. Deep down, someone who presents as a narcissist may believe they are nothing like what they claim in public. Deep down, they may even understand that their behaviors are hurtful, and the voice of shame tells them they will never be anything but a mean, selfish loser. Shame says, “I am bad,” instead of “I did something bad, but I can do better next time.” It becomes a vicious cycle that someone needs help breaking out of.

It’s easy to hate on someone whose narcissistic behaviors are harmful or annoying, but refusing to consider their feelings would be a narcissistic choice on your part. While you do not have to cross your own boundaries to try and fix them or continue to allow them to hurt you, having a sense of what may be underneath a person’s perceived self-centeredness means that you’re capable of empathy. Your capacity for empathy will be crucial as you try to move toward healing, so be careful not to silence it out of anger or pain.

How to Treat Narcissism

In the end, people with NPD often cause a lot of problems for themselves. Their beliefs and behaviors hurt people, and eventually that takes a toll on work and life. NPD patients can end up with other symptoms like depression because life isn’t going the way they hoped or because people steer clear, leaving them isolated, and even under-employed at times. NPD can lead a person to commit abuse or other crimes as well, further alienating them from loved ones and society at large.

The first step in treating narcissism is diagnosis. If you or someone you know exhibits signs of true NPD, it’s time to make an appointment with a mental health professional. A doctor can test for personality disorders, and the good news is that once an official diagnosis is confirmed, NPD is treatable. Unfortunately, people with NPD may not want to acknowledge such a diagnosis or seek treatment, but those who do can often live a much healthier life. Medication, therapy, and other special treatments can help a narcissist to understand the flaws in their thinking, recognize narcissistic behaviors, and improve their relationships with others.

Even if you or someone you know exhibits narcissistic traits that don’t seem to be true NPD, speaking with a mental health professional is a good idea. Self-centered behaviors can be a sign that something else is up with your mental health, and rather than hiding from the truth or shaming yourself, asking for help is the best way to get you to a place of feeling healthy and free. Basic self-care like 8 hours of sleep, daily exercise, and proper nutrition are a great start for getting yourself mentally healthy, but talking with a licensed therapist can lead to real changes in your thought patterns and ability to process things.

How Do You Deal With a Narcissist

First and foremost, be careful using the term narcissist. A true narcissist will not accept that term if you confront them with it, and often a narcissist declares anyone who challenges them or goes against their wishes a narcissist in return. If you suspect a family member or a loved one is a narcissist, the person you need to worry about is you, not them. Ask yourself, “What can I do to make my life feel more healthy despite their behavior?”

Develop a support system—trusted friends and family, licensed therapist, etc. If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, does that person’s behavior lead them to abuse you emotionally, physically, financially, or otherwise? In that case, talk to someone about creating a safe escape plan, as it may be time to draw the boundary of removing yourself from the relationship or the home. If you don’t wish to break the relationship or contact, establish firm boundaries around behaviors you will and will not accept. We have lots of resources on establishing healthy boundaries, and we encourage you to check those out. Finally, take care of yourself. Dealing with a narcissist, whether they are diagnosed with NPD or simply stuck in their own world, is exhausting. Your feelings have been ignored, dismissed, manipulated, or hurt time and again. You must now take charge of making sure you give yourself the care this narcissistic person can’t and won’t. The only behavior you can change is your own.

There Is Hope

Whether you’re worried that you’re the narcissist or you’re dealing with the pain of having one in your life, please know that your situation is not hopeless. For those with narcissistic tendencies, acknowledging the problem and seeking help can yield amazing results. For those struggling to protect their boundaries and live a full life despite a narcissist’s behavior, peace is possible.

Jesus’ message is about love, and it is for everyone. He loves the narcissist, and He loves the narcissist’s hurting loved ones. One thing His love doesn’t do is shame. Though His message does speak against selfishness and self-centered behavior, He never condemns sickness. In fact, He begs the weary and the sick to find peace in Him and to trust that healing is possible. He “came to heal every affliction,” including personality disorders and broken hearts, and though that doesn't mean that a diagnosed personality disorder will simply disappear, it can certainly mean that with love and hope, a more healthy life can be in your future. If you want to know more about how you can pursue that healing, please reach out to one of our Hope Coaches today or check out other resources we have at TheHopeLine.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a legitimate mental health issue. Here are tell-tale signs to help you decide if your partner is a narcissist.

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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