NPD affects people of all genders. Diagnostic criteria are universal, but traits of narcissism in women may manifest differently due to gender norms and societal expectations.

Narcissism in any form doesn’t discriminate by gender.

It affects both men and women, with higher rates of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) reported in men. But gendered manifestations of NPD do exist and they have much to do with society’s norms for men and women.

How does narcissism differ in men and women?

According to a 2021 review on gender differences in narcissism, the core diagnostic components of NPD, outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), are the same for men and women.

These include:

  • grandiosity, or inflated self-importance
  • fantasies of unlimited power, success, or love
  • need for excessive admiration
  • an unreasonable sense of entitlement
  • the belief of being better than others or on par with society’s elite
  • manipulation and exploitation
  • lack of empathy
  • envious of others, or believes others are envious
  • arrogance, haughty attitude
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Under the banner of NPD are a handful of subtypes. The two most common are:

  • Overt narcissism: defined by outwardly grandiose and attention-seeking behavior
  • Covert narcissism: less obvious narcissistic behaviors hidden behind acts of charity, excessive humbleness, and playing the victim

According to the review mentioned above, women tend to take on more covert narcissism traits while men are more likely to display overt traits.

But overt or covert, signs of narcissism can be different in women.

Christina Plejdrup, a psychologist from Hasselholm, Sweden, explains there are several areas where differences can be seen.

1. Manipulation techniques

“Females [living with NPD] might be more inclined to use relational aggression such as gossip, passive-aggressive behavior, or silent treatments,” says Plejdrup. “They may manipulate interpersonal relationships more, leveraging them for self-gain or validation.”

Women may use their physical and social charms as a way to gain power over others, infiltrate an elite group, or align themselves with people in power.

2. Attention-seeking behaviors

When it comes to attention-seeking behaviors in narcissism, Plejdrup explains that men tend to boast about their accomplishments, while women are more likely to seek admiration by emphasizing their physical appearance or playing the role of the victim.

Attention to physical appearance is common in both men and women living with NPD. They’re often well-dressed and flawlessly put together. But women living with NPD may be more likely to use their appearance to their advantage.

Similarly, some women may engage in narcissistic martyrdom, a display of excessive self-sacrifice to gain accolades and validation.

3. Parental approach

Gender differences in narcissism can be seen through parenting styles, as well. Men living with NPD may be dismissive or authoritarian as parents.

“In contrast,” says Plejdrup, “a female [living with NPD] might be overly enmeshed with her children, viewing them more as extensions of herself rather than independent beings.”

The stigma behind female narcissism

The stigma behind female narcissism is a double-edged sword.

Placing importance on your appearance as a woman doesn’t mean you live with NPD, but because of society’s fixation on looks, NPD in women may go undiagnosed.

“Stigma can indeed play a role in how NPD is viewed in women,” says Angela Ficken, a licensed clinical social worker from Boston, Massachusetts. “There may be a tendency to downplay or overlook narcissistic traits in women due to societal stereotypes and expectations.”

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Narcissism is a trait of self-love that exists on a spectrum. Moderate levels of narcissism aren’t inherently bad; it’s OK to have a healthy level of self-esteem and pride.

Extreme levels of narcissism are associated with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), the formal diagnosis behind the label “narcissist.”

NPD is a pattern of grandiosity and attention-seeking with little to no regard for the feelings of others. It’s disruptive and significantly impairs your ability to make and maintain relationships.

When a loved one lives with NPD, learning effective ways to interact with them can be challenging.

Plejdrup and Ficken recommend:

  • setting and maintaining personal boundaries
  • learning methods of de-escalation, like the grey rock method
  • increasing your knowledge about NPD and its characteristics
  • realizing that a lack of empathy in NPD may prevent significant improvements
  • giving genuine feedback and avoiding flattery
  • practicing self-care
  • seeking professional support

“…Societal expectations of women to be nurturing and selfless can make it challenging for women with NPD to seek help or for others to recognize their condition,” says Ficken. “Reducing stigma and increasing awareness of NPD in all genders is essential for early intervention and support.”

At its core, NPD is the same for all genders. It involves an inflated sense of self-importance, need for admiration, and a disregard for the emotions and welfare of other people.

How these traits of narcissism outwardly emerge can be different in women than in men. Due to societal norms and expectations, women may be more likely to express covert narcissism.

Setting boundaries, learning methods of de-escalation, and being realistic in your expectations can help you navigate interactions with women living with NPD.