What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

An extreme closeup of a woman's green eye

In examining, defining, and understanding the explanation to the question what is narcissistic personality disorder it is important to consider that the myth the name of this personality disorder stems from is often very misleading to answering this very question.

The term Narcissistic comes from a character in Greek mythology, called Narcissus. He saw his reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with it. Even more to the point, to accurately reflect the gravity and meaning of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and what narcissism in this context is to further explain this personality disorder, is that, more than falling in love with his reflection, Narcissus, was singularly focused on himself. He was totally absorbed with his own reflection to the negation of everything and everyone else around him.

what is narcissistic personality disorder What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Narcissus and Echo by John William Waterhouse

This is metaphorical for the way in which those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are so self-absorbed and focused on “self” that they lack empathy, compassion, and even (in most cases) an understanding or acknowledgment of others. How another person could feel in relation to their behavior, or words. How others feel invisible and very abandoned, dismissed, and devalued by those with NPD (to varying degrees). How others for the narcissist only serve as narcissistic supply which the narcissist manipulates others for and takes from others to fill up his or her empty wounded “self” such as it is.

This means that relating to a person with NPD is very much a one-way street. They manipulate, often lie, exploit, and take whatever they want from you, emotionally, and in many other ways, and give nothing back.

They can never be satisfied by all they take or added to that what you might for a time feel you are giving. Giving to a Narcissist gets very painful and exhausting and negatively affects others’ mental health. Everything, absolutely everything, for the person with NPD, subconsciously, or in some cases consciously at times, is about them – not you!

When you first meet a person with NPD you might find they are quite charming. Watch out, that charm is a verb, not a noun. They use that charm to lure you, groom you, hook you. And at first, they will want to know everything about, seeming so giving, seeming like they care so very much and seeming like they are great listeners. Really, this is their manipulating and hooking you to win you over. It is also their way of learning more and more about you so they know where they can best play you, hook you, hurt you, and for a time, get the reactions from you in certain areas that they want. They truly do just want what they want and nothing more. They use, among many other deceptive and duplicitous tools and methods, lying, aggrandizing about themselves to others and gaslighting others.nd this confuses people so much that they end up enduring often extreme abuse over long periods of time because “averagely healthy people” until they have been in the meat-grinder of a Narcissist can’t imagine that anyone could be quite the way they are. They are cruel. Many are even evil.
Gaslighting involves manipulating others by psychological means into questioning their own sanity. This is done by the Narcissist in many ways. Most common is by an unrelenting, distant, cold, emotional, (they will claim) “logical” conclusion about whatever is being discussed wherein they are projecting out their issues on to others in ways that confuse others and get them to doubt their own reality.

According to Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaslighting “Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted or spun [or twisted and distorted] , selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and even their own sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.”

“The term [Gaslighting] owes its origin to the play Gas Light and its film adaptations, after which it was coined popularly. The term has been used in [psychiatric and psychological] clinical and research literature.”

NPD is a personality disorder that leaves each person diagnosed with it (to varying degrees) with a distorted self-image. Due to an intrapsychic injury in early childhood development, healthy emotional development has arrested by 2 years of age but according to Heinz Kohut  (2000) the necessary childhood developmental process, if not arrested, can go on up to 3 or 4 years of age. This arrest in what would otherwise be healthy on-going healthy development of a young child to learn to distinguish ‘I’ from ‘other’ and go on to successfully grow through the separation-individuation stage of early childhood development.

“The Narcissistic phase of childhood development is generally considered to occur at about the age of 2 and may go until the age of 3 to 4. This phase is notable for the child developing an ego and sense of “I” according to Heinz Kohut (2000). This sense of “I” is without boundaries and neural development of associations about “I” and “You” beyond a primitive level (Johnson:1994). The brain is undergoing enormous changes during these years and the child is taking on massive strides in all forms of cognition, hand-eye co-ordination, logic formation and its Limbic or emotional brain centres (Doidge:2007).”

“Everyone will note this Narcissistic phase as where the child starts to say with authority “mine!!”, and “me”, and they become egocentric or relate to the whole world as being about them. In a sense it is all about them in this phase, and this is healthy. The child must develop a strong sense of self before it can relax that sense of “I” to be less demanding and infallible, and more realising of their truly dependent state. The child must then become aware of the need for a “we” or social engagement with others as a way of being in life.”

“The Oedipal phase of childhood is not the same as the Narcissistic phase but comes in the midst of this evolving sense of self for the child, and is a period that lasts in the range of 2 to 5 years of age. Once the child has an “I” then the child starts to have impulses and desires, feelings and motivations from this new sense of “I”. The parents as love objects start to take on new constellations in the child’s internal universe and the relationship includes both parents in a primary focus for the first time in a way that reveals some universal base instincts that all humans possess.”

“These two distinct but overlapping phases of childhood development are universally seen as so important to navigate by both parents and the child that the key myths of Narcissus and Oedipus were evolved to contain the wisdom and dynamics of these childhood rites of passage. The myths are psychological truths in the language of their day(Jung:1990) and activate our collective unconscious as eternal mythic truths that span cultural and social boundaries.”

How Early Childhood Oedipal Narcissistic Development Affects Later Adult Intimacy and Relationships by Richard Boyd.

Human beings are born with limited capacity for any regulating of emotions. Therefore, bonding, nurturing, and attuned mirroring are of the utmost importance in early childhood development and any disturbance in this process can result in the seeds being planted for the formation of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in adulthood.

This leaves the person diagnosed with NPD with unstable and intense emotions, extremely preoccupied with vanity, power and an aggrandized personal adequacy that they view as special and better than everyone else. This is a result of not only the narcissists’ distorted self-image (due to arrested emotional development) but is also due to the many maladaptive defense mechanisms employed by those who go on to be diagnosed as NPD, from early childhood on. People with NPD lack empathy, (most are incapable of empathy at all) and they have an exaggerated sense of superiority. NPD is closely associated with egocentrism – a personality characteristic in which people see themselves and their interests and opinions as the only ones that really matter. The only ones that are right. And, in fact, ones that are superior to everyone else’s. This is the nature of the overcompensation in NPD so much of which sees narcissists exaggerate their ability, knowledge, skills, etc, in order to make others feel self-doubt and bad enough about themselves. This is how the narcissist steals your energy, your personality, your virtues, your kindness, and all that you try to give to him or her only to filter it in a distorted way and in ways that they perceive as being wounding to them because they believe you are being cold, distancing, and cruel – a projection of what the narcissist gives others to react to. When you react, you are then blamed and crucified for what you felt only in reaction to what the narcissist said or did that he or she will then deny to leave you holding the bag, so to speak.

People with NPD are not interested in the feelings of others – (most are unaware of this but some are very aware of this and admit this) they lack empathy; they are unable to feel or appreciate feelings which are not their own. They do not love people, they use people. They exploit people. They lie to people. They are emotional vampires and often appear at first as wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The following must be present for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder to be made according to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Psychiatry (DSM):

  • The patient’s idea and importance of self is exaggerated
  • Fantasies about beauty, success and power over-dominate the patient’s thoughts
  • Patients think they are special, and relate only to other “special” people
  • They need to be admired all the time
  • They believe they are entitled to most things
  • They manipulate and take advantage of other people
  • They lack empathy – the ability to feel and recognize the feelings of and needs of others
  • They envy other people
  • Their behavior comes over as haughty or arrogant.

Meeting 5 of the above 9 criteria of traits of NPD qualifies as enough of these traits to be diagnosed with NPD.

NPD is a very difficult reality that most with it live with, without awareness of or much insight into. However, there are some people with NPD who are quite aware, and do intellectually understand themselves and have an intellectual only – not emotional – understanding of some of what others have told them and experience from them. They do not, however, have the capacity to feel that or emotionally understand that, so at the end of the day, their lack of empathy is staggering and painful to others and very pervasive.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not really about “self love” as is often thought by many. That is more the expression of the roots of Narcissism in the Myth of Narcissus. However, since anyone diagnosed with NPD has a distorted sense of self, there is not a love for self at all. In fact, there is often a disdainful hatred for self and others deep inside and often within the subconscious of narcissists. Clearly then, the narcissist often doesn’t know self or hates him or self  – projects that out on to anyone who gets close to them – who represents narcissistic supply to them – but with the accompanying shame of those very painful (though often not felt feelings) the narcissist overcompensates for a lack of self-love and an inability to have any empathy for him or herself just as they lack this with others. It is therefore, more accurate to see one of the key features of NPD as being about self-absorption rather than self-love. People diagnosed with NPD are all about this self-absorption and totally always focused on trying to avoid the dark abyss that they know is inside (however they know it or whatever they might call it). Some narcissists are aware of this and call it an empty black place inside that they describe (many clients have described this to me) as a place they aren’t sure they understand much about but as a place inside they come to be aware they cannot even begin to feel because it is too much, to scary, too painful and as I work to help clients with this, they often react quite explosively, initially, to working to break down the complex and very inflexible defense mechanisms that they have built up to not go there. It is the inability of most people with NPD “to go there” that leads them to have to take what they cannot create inside from others in a predatory way.

People with NPD often do not have an awareness of the predatory reality of the way they treat people to serve their own self-absorbed concerns, needs, wants, and avoidance of pain inside. They simply do not have the ability to reference any feelings of others outside of their self-absorbed focus. Most have no conscious idea or reference point for how their taking from others or lying to others or cheating on others traumatically effects others emotionally and psychologically – so much so, that loved ones, and adult children of those with NPD need their own recovery processes.

Click here to read my blog about 10 Ways to Protect Yourself From a Narcissist

A.J. Mahari lives in Ontario, Canada. She is an Author, Speaker, Counselor, Life Coach, BPD/Loved Ones Coach, NPD/Loved Ones Coach, Mental Health Coach, and Self-Improvement Coach. She has been described by many as an insightful and astute student of life’s ups and downs. A.J. is a Mental Health Professional. A.J. writes from her own life experience, education and over 20 years of experience working with clients with Personality Disorders or the Loved Ones of those with them. You can purchase any of A.J.'s 35+ Ebooks or Written and Narrated 45+ Audio Programs or work with her as a your Counselor or Life Coach. She is a sexual abuse survivor and recovered from Borderline Personality Disorder many years ago. She is also an adult living with (“high functioning”) Asperger's Syndrome.

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