Understanding Narcissism

If you have been living with a narcissist for some time, or have just been in a relationship with one, the impact on you can be severe and long-lasting. The same is true if one of your parents was a narcissist. Your emotional and psychological well-being takes a beating. To heal, you need to understand what you have been dealing with and perhaps still are going through.

What is a Narcissist?

A great deal of research [1] has taken place on the subject of narcissism and there has been a surge of interest in the subject in recent times. There is controversy about the term narcissism, and different psychologists use different meanings of the concept. The medical term used is narcissistic personality disorder. This is usually a word reserved for extreme narcissistic traits.

There are two types of narcissists. Firstly, there is the grandiose narcissist. Grandiose narcissism refers to individuals who are explicitly and outwardly immodest, self-promotional, self-enhancing, and entitled. They are also disagreeable and extraverted [2]. This kind of narcissist does not feel the need to cooperate with other people and wants to pursue their own interests, not those of the group. They are happy to argue their point with others. They can be enthusiastic and action-oriented. They love being the center of attention and will seek excitement.

Can you think of an example of a grandiose narcissist? They are common in the entertainment industry and in politics. Narcissists will enter the political arena purely to promote themselves rather than out of having high ideals. Such a person will have contempt for their rivals and for other people in general. They will be extremely sensitive to criticism. When things don’t go their way, the narcissist is prone to fits of rage as they feel the need to control everything around them [3]. You will see these features of celebrities described in gossip magazines and biographies. How they behave in private is different from their public persona. Notice how they can be extremely successful in life. They are often charming on the surface and physically attractive.

Then there are the vulnerable narcissists. These individuals are self-absorbed, entitled, and distrustful of others while presenting substantial, overt psychological distress and fragility [1]. There are not many famous examples of this type as they don’t feel the need to seek attention [4]. Vulnerable narcissists often choose careers in helping professions such as therapy, nursing, ministry, and teaching. They enjoy the power over others that such positions bring. I had a client who had suffered terrible abuse at the hands of a vulnerable narcissist. The man was an ordained Baptist Minister and a pillar of his community. The public and private face of such a person are completely at odds.

 The central feature of all kinds of narcissism is interpersonal antagonism [1]. They see other people as necessary only for meeting their needs and can feel in competition with everyone. This trait often leads to argumentativeness and even physical aggression. There is often substance abuse associated with narcissists such as alcoholism or heroin addiction.

Psychologists have also made a distinction between normal and pathological narcissism. Narcissism is pathological when it is extreme. These individuals can be violent toward others and cause harm. They can also severely impair their own lives and cause themselves distress [1]. This extreme behavior may lead the narcissist to seek therapy. Narcissism, like other psychological conditions, is on a continuum. Some narcissists show extreme traits, while others will only have mild features of the disorder. 

Think of the narcissist in your life in the past or present and make a list of their traits or personality features. Do many of them match the description above? If you find a lot of the traits match, then you have a narcissist on your hands. Knowledge is power. The first step in healing is to understand what you have been putting up with.

How are Narcissists Made?

There is a theory that parenting style forms narcissists [5]. Psychodynamic psychologists refer to a cold, non-validating, or dismissive parent as contributing to the development of narcissistic traits. The memoir entitled Mommie Dearest describes Joan Crawford, the famous Hollywood actress from the 1930s, like this [6].

Some theorists [7] argue against the dismissive parent theory, and state that parents who give constant praise when it is not warranted foster these narcissistic traits in their child. Narcissism can also be associated with inconsistent discipline in childhood. There needs to be much more research to prove the truth of these various theories.

Despite their arrogant surface appearance, many narcissists have chronic low self-esteem. They need to bolster their feelings of inadequacy by seeking praise from others [8]. The need for praise can be due to a critical parent in childhood.

This information is not to blame the parent. There is no blame here. They were often trying to do their best and just didn’t know any better. They may have been the victim of a narcissist themselves.

You cannot fix a narcissist but you can fix yourself with the aid of hypnotherapy.


[1] Miller, J.D., Lynam, D. R., Hyatt, C. S. and  Campbell, K., (2017) Controversies in Narcissism,  Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, vol. 13, no.1, pp. 291-315

[2] Paulhus, D.L. and Williams, K. M. (2002) The dark triad of personality: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, J. Res. Personal, vol. 36. pp. 556–63

[3] Woodward, B. (2018) Fear, Trump in the Whitehouse, London, Simon and Schuster

[4] Campbell, C. (2016) The Real Diana, London, Arcadia Books

[5] Thomaes, S., Brummelman, E., Reijntjes A., Bushman B. J. (2013). When Narcissus was a boy: origins, nature, and consequences of childhood narcissism, Child Dev. Perspect., vol. 7, pp. 22–26

[6] Crawford, C. (1978) Mommie Dearest, New York, William Morrow & Co.

[7] Millon, T., Grossman, S., Millon, C., Meagher, S., Ramnath, R. (2004) Personality Disorders in Modern Life, Hoboken, NJ, Wiley

[8] Bosson, J. K., Lakey, C. E., Campbell, W.K., Zeigler-Hill, V., Jordan, C.H., Kernis, M.H. (2008) Untangling the links between narcissism and self‐esteem: a theoretical and empirical review, Soc. Personal. Psychol. Compass, vol. 2, pp.1415–39

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