Written by Dr. Eric Perry
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I often see narcissism confused with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The terms are often used interchangeably in everyday conversations, the media and in books. It appears that the term “narcissist” has become the latest catchword to describe a multitude of behaviors including being obnoxious. I am not defending or justifying the behavior of individuals who suffer from NPD. I am merely pointing out that the term is currently overused and is being used in a very careless way.
This term is so overused that there are those who are wearing it as a badge of honor. Surprisingly, I have even come across individuals who are self-professed sufferers of NPD. They have not been properly diagnosed but yet proudly proclaim to anyone that will listen that they are a narcissist. As a mental health professional who deals with the damage inflicted by individuals who are diagnosed with NPD, this is troubling. If I were to judge the prevalence of NPD, based on the use of the word, it would suggest that at least every other person you meet suffers from NPD. Simply put, the term Narcissist, used to describe someone with NPD, has become society’s current boogeyman.
It is important to point out the difference between “regular” narcissism and NPD, which is a personality disorder. Narcissism is when a person thinks very highly of themselves and very poorly of others. They are selfish, vain, crave attention and always need to be in the spotlight. They have very little regard for other people’s feelings or thoughts. They have an exaggerated and unsubstantiated sense of self-worth. But, it is important to point out that just because you display these obnoxious traits, it does not mean you are clinically or mentally ill. Many of us in early childhood and especially in our teenage years exhibited these behaviors that can be part of the spectrum of NPD. Fortunately, the majority of us outgrow these behaviors and do not develop NPD.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a spectrum disorder where in order to be diagnosed you must exhibit 5 of 9 criteria. See my post (Are You or Someone You Know Raising a Narcissist?) where I discuss the required traits in greater detail. Essentially, a person with NPD is like a clown without full makeup on. They have no identity unless they are performing. Again, the only way that a person can be truly diagnosed as having NPD is to be diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional.
The mental health professional will look at a number of factors before making the diagnosis. One way is to look at the level of flexibility of the person’s views. An individual who is narcissistic is flexible when presented with facts that are contrary to their view of reality. They are able to adapt their view to the new reality that is presented to them. Also, they have self-awareness of their actions. They crave positive narcissistic supply such as being the center of attention. In order to achieve this, they become overly concerned with their appearance or anything that sets them apart as special. They desire to be seen as kind, beautiful and rich in order to have others be envious of them. They are aware of how they need to present themselves in order to be in the spotlight.
An individual with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) has an inflexible view of the world. If he/she is presented with evidence that is contrary to his/her view, they are not able to change. The world revolves around them and others exist only to serve them. They do not see people as separate from them. They are not able to sustain a true emotional self. They have created a false self that they present to the world as a defense mechanism to protect themselves from the world. The true self is wounded and lays hidden, imprisoned by chains of early trauma that caused them to feel unworthy and unacceptable. The individual with NPD is forever on the defense, guarding against anyone who they feel may hurt them. Any real or perceived hurt or humiliation is met by a disproportionate attack.
We all need to be mindful not to label others as narcissists. This suggests that they have a personality disorder. By labeling others unjustly, it affects the way we treat others. Perhaps the person you encountered and labeled as having NPD is simply an obnoxious self-centered individual but does not have a personality disorder. I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.
The thoughts expressed in this blog post are my own and are not meant to create a therapeutic relationship with the reader nor are they meant to be used for self-diagnosis. This write up is not all-inclusive and is meant to provoke curiosity on the subject. This blog does not replace or substitute the help of a mental health professional.
Please note, I am unable to answer your specific mental health or psychology related questions as I am not fully aware of all of the circumstances.
Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
M.A. in Clinical Psychology
B.A. in Psychology
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