These days, narcissism may truly be on the rise as a result of our culture’s obsession with social media, youth and physical appearance. Many of us are familiar with the story of Narcissus, the Greek myth about a man who falls hopelessly in love with his own reflection in a pond. The myth has a variety of endings. A popular one describes Narcissus dying from starvation and thirst because he can’t tear himself away from his own reflection. I find this particular ending to be most helpful for describing narcissistic personality disorder. At the core of NPD is an inability to receive or give love. In essence, you’re starving yourself of affection.
To be diagnosed with NPD, a person must meet five or more of the following symptoms:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance; exaggerates achievements and talents; expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements.
- A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited omnipotence, success, intelligence, beauty and ideal love.
- Believes he/she is special or unique and can only be understood by—or should only associate with—other special or high-status people or institutions.
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a strong sense of entitlement and unreasonable expectations of receiving favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her own expectations.
- Takes advantage of others to achieve his/her own goals.
- Lacks empathy and is unable and unwilling to recognize or identify others’ emotional needs and feelings.
- Envious of others and/or believes others are envious of him/her.
- Regularly behaves with arrogance.
NPD affects more men than women. It’s seen in about 7 percent of the general population and can range from mild to severe. It’s believed that both biological and psychological factors contribute to the disorder. Studies suggest that individuals with NPD are more emotionally sensitive. Psychosocial factors include childhood abuse or neglect, excessive praise for good behaviors and excessive criticism for bad behaviors as a child, overindulgence and over-evaluation by parents/peers, unpredictable and unreliable caregiving, and manipulative behaviors learned from parents/caregivers.
It’s important to recognize that individuals with NPD struggle with profound feelings of shame and a fear of rejection. They also feel emotionally threatened when criticized. They often react with intense rage, hostility and aggression to any criticism, real or imagined. Their behavior causes others to retreat or distance themselves. All of which inhibits them from having genuine and meaningful relationships.
Although NPD is treatable, many do not get treatment because they cannot acknowledge their self-destructive behaviors and thoughts. Effective treatment options include psychoanalytic-psychodynamic therapy, cognitive and behavioral therapy and group therapy. As with all therapy, building a strong and positive therapeutic relationship is key for successful treatment. When an individual with NPD develops a secure therapeutic relationship, he or she can work through his or her feelings without feeling emotionally threatened. One important therapeutic goal is to help the person develop compassion—for themselves and others—and empathy—necessary for developing meaningful relationships.
If you or a loved is struggling with NPD, consider an evaluation with a mental professional. There is hope and help out there.