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The Difference Between Narcissism & Narcissistic Personality Disorder

The Difference Between Narcissism & Narcissistic Personality Disorder

People throw around the term “narcissism” all the time. And that’s not surprising, in an age where our technology (e.g., social networks and social media) reinforce narcissistic behaviors through social comparisons.

What can get confusing is understanding the difference between a personality trait — narcissism — and a full-blown personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder. Let’s dive into understand the similarities and differences between these two related psychological concepts.

Some narcissism — called healthy or normal narcissism — can be perfectly normal and good in a person’s life. As Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. notes in this excellent resource about normal and abnormal narcissism:

That quick check in the mirror is normal, healthy narcissism. Feeling good about oneself, talking about it, even bragging now and then, isn’t pathological. Indeed, it is essential to a positive self-esteem. As comedian Will Rogers once said, “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.”

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Narcissistic personality disorder, on the other hand, is an enduring, maladaptive pattern of thoughts and behaviors that occurs in two or more of the following areas:

  • Thinking
  • Emotion
  • Interactions with others
  • Impulse control

This pattern of behavior and thoughts is inflexible and significantly impacts the person’s life in ways that cause the person distress. It’s not enough for the behaviors to cause problems in other people’s lives. It has to cause the person who has the disorder some distress and upset as well.

This pattern can be traced back to the person’s teenage years or childhood. It’s not a temporary problem caused by events in the person’s life, nor is it a part of another mental disorder.

In narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), this pattern of thoughts and behaviors includes the following primary symptoms:

  • An overwhelming grandiose sense of self
  • Has constant fantasies of unlimited success and power
  • Can only be understood by others who are as special and as unique as they are
  • Requires constant admiration, because of their fragile self-esteem
  • Has an unrealistic sense of entitlement, expects others to cater to their needs and wishes
  • Exploits others to get what they want
  • Lacks empathy for others
  • Focuses on envy, as either the target of others’ envy, or believes are envious of them
  • Displays constant arrogant attitudes and behaviors

For a person to be diagnosed with NPD, they need to meet five or more of the above symptoms on a regular basis. Many people refer to someone with these symptoms as being a “narcissist” — implying the person would likely meet the criteria for NPD. This can also be known as “malignant narcissism.”

Healthy Narcissism

The good news is that you can have a healthy, non-dysfunctional amount of narcissism. Sometimes we call folks with such narcissism as having good self-confidence, or good self-esteem. But it’s often combined with an acknowledgment of their limits, security in knowing their own strengths and weaknesses, strong, empathetic relationships with others, and understanding that a person can learn from their mistakes in life.

Even healthy narcissism can sometimes fall into dysfunctional narcissistic behavior. The key is that most people who take the rare narcissistic behavior to an extreme realize they’ve done so. In most cases, they also feel some regret and recognize the error made. People with healthy narcissism seek to repair relationships when they’ve inadvertently hurt others.

Contrast this to NPD. A person with untreated NPD often has little regard for other people’s feelings, or how the person’s behaviors may hurt others. They generally lack the empathy and compassion to put themselves in another person’s shoes or situation. While some people with narcissistic personality disorder may recognize their failings, they often don’t feel the need to do anything about them. Instead, they believe that others should adapt to their needs.

Want to learn more about these differences?

Check out the full article: Narcissistic Personality Disorder vs. Normal Narcissism

The Difference Between Narcissism & Narcissistic Personality Disorder

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). The Difference Between Narcissism & Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Dec 2018 (Originally: 11 Dec 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 11 Dec 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.