Need for praise, belief in one’s superiority, and sense of entitlement might be just a few traits you associate with narcissism.
But are these and other narcissistic traits exclusive to those who live with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)?
Not necessarily. Only when these traits become persistent over time and across situations, and distort the way you see yourself and others, might you receive the diagnosis.
In other instances, these narcissistic traits can be present to some degree in many of us. In other words, narcissism is a spectrum of personality traits.
NPD is more complex than an occasional attitude of superiority or the need to be special.
Here’s what to know about narcissistic traits, including when they might — and might not — suggest a mental health condition.
NPD involves an enduring and persistent sense of grandiosity, superiority, low empathy, and a profound need for attention and praise, among other symptoms.
The condition is one of 10 personality disorders.
These are mental health conditions that only trained mental health professionals can accurately diagnose.
A formal diagnosis is always advisable, particularly when it comes to personality disorders.
A few narcissistic traits, or “symptoms,” don’t automatically translate into a diagnosis.
Personality traits can become symptoms of personality disorders when they emerge as fixed behavior patterns that remain stable over time.
These symptoms show up in most areas of life, affecting:
- the ability to manage and express emotions
People with NPD generally don’t recognize that they have the condition, explains Elinor Greenberg, PhD, a Gestalt therapist specializing in treating personality disorders. “That would require them to acknowledge the devaluing damage they cause as largely unwarranted.”
Many people living with personality disorders don’t recognize how these characteristics affect their lives, so they may not associate the distress they experience with any specific behaviors or traits.
In fact, people with narcissistic personality often experience distress without realizing why.
Mental health professionals generally use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) to diagnose NPD and other mental health conditions.
There’s no test that can identify narcissistic personality.
The DSM-5 lists nine key narcissistic traits:
- exaggerated feelings of superiority and self-importance
- regular fantasies about personal power, intelligence, success, or attractiveness
- a firm belief in personal specialness
- a strong need for attention, praise, and admiration from other people
- entitled behavior, such as a desire for special treatment
- a habit of using manipulation tactics
- low empathy or disinterest in the emotional needs of others
- a tendency to envy others or assume others envy them
- arrogance and scorn for others
To formally diagnose NPD, a mental health professional will look for the presence of at least five narcissistic traits.
They’ll also try to determine:
- whether these traits appear in different contexts
- when they first showed up
- how they affect daily life and relationships
If narcissistic traits only appear at certain times or in specific situations, or if there are fewer than five present, a mental health professional might not diagnose NPD.
People with covert (vulnerable) narcissism usually seem quiet, humble, and shy.
This attitude creates a sharp contrast with the outward confidence and self-importance persistently projected by people with overt (grandiose) narcissism.
A person with overt narcissism might:
- draw attention to their abilities by talking up accomplishments
- frequently share how much others appreciate them
- request special treatment
- react with angry outbursts when feeling dismissed or ignored
- openly reject or treat others with contempt
Someone with covert narcissism might instead:
- seek admiration indirectly by putting their own work down, performing acts of kindness, or complimenting others to get compliments back
- spend a lot of time fantasizing about earning the recognition they feel they deserve
- expect special treatment and feel slighted when they don’t receive it
- ignore people they believe have wronged them
- hold lengthy grudges and fantasize about revenge
Mark Zaslav, PhD, a clinical psychologist in California, explains that covert narcissism often involves an exaggerated capacity to experience grievances. This might lead you to feel the constant need to step cautiously around the person, so they don’t feel mistreated or threatened.
When someone with covert narcissism feels slighted, they may not react intensely toward you, as someone with overt narcissism might.
Instead, they might make their disapproval known through gossip, silent treatment, or other manipulation tactics that aim to make you doubt yourself.
Nearly everyone shows traits of narcissism from time to time. Perhaps you have a touch of self-centeredness, an occasional tendency to exaggerate your own importance, or feel envious of that successful co-worker.
As isolated personality traits, these attitudes and behaviors don’t necessarily mean you have NPD.
What are other instances in which personality traits can arise?
- You forget to consider others when grappling with your own troubles.
- Your partner frequently spins situations to make themselves look better.
- Your youngest sibling, the “baby” of the family, expects special treatment and the lion’s share of attention from all other family members.
- Your best friend learned in childhood that using manipulation tactics was the only way they could get the affection and care they needed.
- A co-worker believes they’re special and superior because that’s what their parents always told them.
For someone who doesn’t have NPD, these narcissistic traits won’t be permanent or seen across most situations. They might come and go depending on the situation, mood, or people around them.
Narcissistic traits might show up in different ways, depending on the type of relationship.
Parents with NPD
“Narcissism involves a tendency toward self-absorption and an inability to tune in to the feelings and responses of others, so there’s some mismatch between a child’s needs and a parent’s ability to meet those needs,” Zaslav said.
Parents with NPD may:
- single out one child as special and assign a lower status to other children
- alternate between praising children excessively and shaming them when they make a mistake
- ignore or treat with contempt children’s needs for affection, validation, and emotional support
They might also criticize or devalue children who make choices that don’t align with this perception, such as if the child:
- pursues an “insignificant” career
- wears “unstylish” clothing
- dates someone the parent dislikes
For example, while many mothers might feel some envy for a daughter’s youth and attractiveness, a mother with NPD might point out “flaws” or criticize her daughter to feel superior.
It’s not uncommon for parents to see children as a “second chance” to experience life the way they planned for themselves. Many parents feel some regret, even disapproval, when children choose paths that veer from what they envisioned.
Parents who don’t have NPD, however, might eventually accept a child’s right to make their own decisions. They might not reject their children entirely or look for ways to sabotage their plans.
Partners with NPD
In the beginning of your relationship, a partner with NPD might seem utterly devoted. Maybe they:
- say they love you right away
- gush over how wonderful you are
- tell you they’ve never met anyone like you
In short, they treat you as special and worthy of their attention and make every effort to charm you — until you do something that upsets them.
People with NPD might also:
- angle for compliments when you don’t offer them
- insult you and then say they were joking
- need regular validation of their attractiveness or talents in bed
- show little interest in offering you attention and support
- mock you when you make a mistake
Someone with NPD won’t act this way once in a while or only toward you. You’ll notice similar patterns in most of their interactions and conversations with other people.
On the other hand, someone struggling to build healthy self-esteem might need ongoing approval from people they trust.
A partner who seems insecure without frequent reassurances or compliments doesn’t necessarily have NPD.
Narcissistic traits can also show up when you try to end a relationship.
When you call it quits with a partner who doesn’t want to break up, they might try to get you back by:
- asking their friends to talk with you
- calling you with excuses to meet
- showing up with fancy gifts
- messaging you constantly, alternating between “You’re the one” and “You won’t find anyone better”
Plenty of people behave similarly when they don’t want to lose someone they love.
Here’s how to tell the difference: If you tell them they’re upsetting you and they apologize and back off, they likely don’t have NPD.
Comparing NPD and narcissism in relationships
Your partner gets home from work just as you’re heading out. You explain you’ve made plans to meet a friend.
“But I’m here now. Wait until you hear about my day. I opened two new accounts in an hour! Honestly, my sales talents are wasted there.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing more later,” you say, “but right now I’ve got to go.”
Their attitude immediately shifts. “Who cares? Don’t they have other friends? I’m your partner. I’m more important. You’re supposed to put me first.”
“I’ll be back soon, and then we’ll have the whole night together,” you remind them.
“Maybe I won’t be here when you get back. Why should I wait around when you don’t have time for me?” They huff off.
A partner with NPD might value the attention and support you provide while choosing to ignore your needs. This response can certainly suggest NPD, particularly when it happens again and again.
But what if you return home to find your partner apologetic?
“I shouldn’t have reacted that way,” they say. “I really wanted to tell you about my day, and when you left right away, I felt like you didn’t care.”
People with untreated NPD generally won’t show a similar level of self-awareness.
In either case, it’s important to remember that only a specialized mental health professional can provide an accurate personality disorder diagnosis.
Healthy narcissism helps you recognize and value your worth. You can even consider it a type of self-love.
With healthy narcissism, you recognize attributes that make you special and unique, but you don’t assume these traits mean you matter more than others.
Healthy narcissism could involve:
- telling yourself “I deserve better” after being passed over twice for a promotion you worked hard to earn
- wanting recognition when you do a job well
- taking pride in the fact that your loved ones trust you and come to you for support
- recognizing and appreciating your own intelligence and creativity
Taking pride in your talents, accomplishments, and appearance can be empowering.
In fact, healthy narcissism can help protect you from distress by boosting your resilience or ability to weather whatever life tosses your way.
Feeling confident in your own abilities and sense of self can help you remember that no matter what mistakes you make or challenges you face, you still have value and are worthy of respect and positive regard.
Most people show one or more narcissistic traits once in a while in specific situations.
When this is the case, it’s absolutely possible to develop awareness and work to address these behaviors so they don’t become disruptive.
For people with NPD, developing this awareness might be more challenging, but it is possible with the help of a mental health professional.
Becoming self-aware about narcissistic traits might be easier when you:
- acknowledge the effects of your behavior
- work to understand the feelings and needs of others
- explore new, healthier methods of getting your needs met
You can change in many aspects, whether you have a few narcissistic traits or NPD. You can’t force this change, though, so it generally won’t happen unless you become willing to make the effort.