What Narcissism Really Means

Self-love gone too far.

By Jenn Rose Smith
picking out outfit, mirror, getting dressed

In Greek mythology, a beautiful young man caught sight of his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to break his gaze away from himself, Narcissus stared at his own reflection until he died. With selfie deaths on the rise (yes, it’s an actual thing), this ancient parable might be worth revisiting. We’ve heard a lot in the past few years about narcissism and millennials, and the prevailing thought seems to be that our entire generation is plagued with the condition. But what does narcissism really mean? When does caring about your own image actually cross the line?

We decided to seek answers from an expert, so we sat down with Sandy Hotchkiss, PsyD, LCSW. She’s been a psychotherapist for over 30 years and also happens to be the author of the popular book Why Is It Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of NarcissismShe has a doctoral degree in psychoanalysis and has dedicated much of her career to helping people deal with the narcissists in their lives. Sandy set us straight on what the condition really means, and how to identify people in our lives who might be showing signs of narcissism.

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What defines narcissism? Do you feel the term is often misused?

It’s not so much misused as it is used so broadly that it loses clarity. Clinically, it’s defined in many different ways, depending on the clinician’s theoretical orientation. In any case, narcissism exists on a spectrum that ranges from healthy or normal, to a problematic personality “style,” to a full-blown mental disorder that interferes with mature functioning, especially in relationships. I like to say that narcissism is in the eye of the beholder, which often reveals as much about the person making the observation as it does about the person being observed. It’s neither useful nor appropriate for non-clinicians to “diagnose” another person as a narcissist. That said, it is useful to understand our own “buttons” (why we have particular reactions) and what is going on beneath the surface when elements of narcissism are recognized as present. 

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There’s a lot of dialogue happening about social media and it’s impact on the millennial generation. Are we truly a generation of narcissists? Do you think narcissism is on the rise in our culture? Or has social media just made a pre-existing condition more visible?

I don’t think recent generations are necessarily any more narcissistic than the Baby Boomers, who inspired a 1976 book called The Culture of Narcissism. As for social media, it allows people to connect more broadly but simultaneously more shallowly, creating a sense of quasi-community that is nonetheless isolating, essentially leaving us alone with ourselves. The electronic world does not encourage problem-solving, nor the development of such attributes as patience, courtesy, and humility that sustain healthy relationships. Narcissistic values thrive in this environment and, at worst, become idealized. 

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What are the unique challenges of being in a relationship (romantic or platonic) with a narcissistic individual? Is it even do-able?

Whether it’s do-able depends on one’s level of tolerance for narcissistic traits and behaviors, whether mutual idealization can be sustained in the face of aggravating reality, and the level of actual reciprocity in the relationship. Deeply narcissistic individuals tend to be interpersonally exploitive, non-empathic, and boundary-less — meaning they treat others as extensions of themselves and are prone to toxic defense maneuvers that protect their underlying fragility.

A better question might be, why would anyone want to?

Are there tell-tale signs of narcissism? How can we tell if we (or someone we know) might be a narcissist?

Yes, there are definitely some hallmarks you can look for. See below for six classic signs of narcissism.

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1. Shamelessness

The narcissist is incapable of regulating shame, which in healthier people is experienced as guilt, a powerful regulator of bad behavior. Unable to convert a sense of “I am bad” to “I did something bad,” the narcissist resorts to characteristic ways of deflecting the intolerable feeling of shame—never saying “I’m sorry,” blaming others, projecting one’s own bad self onto others, scapegoating, bullying. 

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2. Magical Thinking

Dwelling inside the narcissist is an omnipotent toddler who believes, “If I will it, it will be so.”  Such people embed themselves in a fantasy world of their own creation that reflects their desperate need to be seen as superior and special in order to cope with their resolutely denied fears of inadequacy or incompetence. Arrogance and unreality are telltale signs.

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3. Envy

Unlike jealousy, which conveys, “I want what you have,” envy has a far more pernicious quality.  Envy manifests as, “What you have diminishes me, and if I feel diminished, I will take you down to pump myself back up.”  The envy the narcissist feels is often expressed as contempt, which is pretty much just another word for hatred.

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4. Entitlement

Because narcissists need to feel special, they also expect to get what they want as if it were owed, not earned.  There is an imperiousness to this expectation; it is held as a conviction, not subject to anyone else’s conflicting claims. 

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5. Absence of Empathy/Exploitation

Empathy is a developmental accomplishment that occurs only after a person can recognize others as separate. Prior to that, it is All About Me, and significant objects (other people) are treated as extensions of self, with no respect for their own autonomy. The narcissist reveals this underlying deformity as a tendency toward exploitation, without awareness or conscience. The sense of reciprocity, of giving in exchange for taking, is also missing. 

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6. Bad Boundaries

A hallmark of narcissism is the absence of interpersonal boundaries. When you enter the world of the narcissist, your separateness does not exist for that person. You may experience intrusions, engulfment, a loss of your sense of self. Those who have been groomed by a parent or significant other to resonate with this sort of invasiveness are at the most risk of entrapment and harm.

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Once someone has identified themselves as a narcissist, what can they do to correct their behavior?

True narcissists seldom identify as such. In fact, denial makes them more likely to see narcissism in others than in themselves. If and when they do seek help, it is usually to restore a sense of emotional equilibrium rather than to struggle with self-awareness and change. If they seek help at all, it is generally because they have suffered some narcissistic injury, a blow to their defensively-inflated sense of self. Their profound shame sensitivity prevents them from moving from depression to remorse. If a new source of narcissistic gratification restores equilibrium, their motivation for treatment may dissolve. 

That said, identifying one’s own narcissism is a sign of emotional health and maturity. If you can admit to yourself and affected others that your unkindness, competitiveness, selfishness, arrogance, or emotional distancing has been harmful, you have taken the first step toward repair. And relational repair, conducted genuinely and with mutual respect for each individual’s separate autonomy and value, is something that a pathological narcissist is unlikely ever to attempt, let alone achieve.