What exactly is a "narcissist"? I've always assumed this is just a popular way of describing an extremely egotistical person, but lately I've heard the word used as if it were some sort of technical term – as if someone could actually be diagnosed with "narcissism." I have a personal reason for asking: My spouse is very self-centered, and his behavior has hurt our relationship in many ways over the years. Now I'm wondering if he might be dealing with a serious psychological problem. What do you think?
"Narcissist" is indeed something more than a popular name for a person with a big ego. Psychologists use the term narcissism to refer to a personality disorder consisting of a pattern of traits and behaviors characterized by self-focus, lack of empathy for others, obsession with self-gratification, and a number of related attitudes. The condition can be mild, moderate, or severe to the point of expressing itself in destructive and sociopathic behaviors.
The bona fide narcissist is not simply a "selfish" person as we normally understand that term. Everything he does is self-serving. He's incapable of acknowledging personal responsibility or accountability, consistently shames and blames others for his problems, and often employs verbal or emotional abuse as a method of maintaining control in a relationship.
According to the late Dr. David Gatewood, a diagnosis of narcissism is justified when the individual in question exhibits the following four inflexible traits over a long period of time and in a wide variety of personal and social situations:
- Entitlement. The narcissist consistently expects to get without giving. He thrives on the adoration and admiration of others and will seek it out regardless of the cost to close or ongoing relationships. He believes that the world "owes him glory."
- Image-Keeping. In the mind of a narcissist, family members, loved ones, friends, and associates are simply extensions of himself. They exist solely to keep up his grandiose self-image, and they're expected to do so even at great cost to themselves. If they fail, the narcissist will consider them disloyal and may even find some way to "punish" them in return. He can't stand having his image minimized or tainted in any way by others.
- Depersonalization. People close to the narcissist are usually treated in an impersonal way, like furniture or mere accessories to the narcissist's agenda. They're supposed to support him in everything he says or does and are never allowed to have differing viewpoints or opinions of their own. The narcissist will use denial, arrogance, charm, exaggeration, or persuasion to keep himself in a "superior" position with little or no thought about how this might negatively impact those around him. He's usually extremely adept at making himself look good at the expense of others.
- Interpersonal Exploitation. The narcissist employs manipulation to get his own way. He can do this either by flattering others or by putting them down. From his perspective it really doesn't matter which strategy he uses as long it achieves the goal. Blame-shifting is common. At other times he'll highlight the weaknesses of others to keep himself in a position of power. He may even twist the pattern by playing the part of the "weak" or "vulnerable" person himself. It's all part of a scheme to maintain control by keeping others off balance.
For a more detailed discussion of this subject, we encourage you to take a look at our Counseling department's information sheet "Responding to Narcissism in a Loved One."
And if you'd like to discuss this at greater length, don't hesitate to call our counselors for a free consultation. They'd be more than happy to talk with you about your concerns person-to-person over the phone.
Responding to Narcissism in a Loved One
National Alliance on Mental Illness – 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)