In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a proud young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. He was so enchanted by his image that he couldn’t leave it, so he starved to death. Now, if he had just looked into the pool (as many of us do when we check the mirror as we go out the door in the morning), said to himself something like, “Lookin’ good, dude” and moved on, he would have been okay.
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.”
But there are those, like Narcissus, who need to see themselves as especially attractive, interesting and accomplished most of the time — whether they deserve it or not. They have Narcissistic Personality Disorder. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), this is only 6.2 percent of the U.S. population.
Let’s look at the distinction with more detail: For the sake of this discussion, I’ll contrast the characteristics of people with diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), those who are always checking their reflection in the “mirror” of other people’s admiration, with the traits of people with healthy normal narcissism (NN), those who are deservedly proud of themselves.
Remember: An important difference between the two is that NPD is an enduring, consistent pattern of self-aggrandizing attitudes and behaviors. Thoughtless, selfish behavior once in a while is just what normal people do when they are having a bad day.
At their core, those with NPD have desperately low self-esteem. It can look to others like they have egos as big as Texas, but that is only a front for the scared little person inside. Their feelings of low self-worth make them need constant reassurance, even admiration, from others.
Those with NN have healthy self-esteem. They are usually engaged in doing things that contribute to their families, jobs and communities and that give meaning to their lives. Appreciation from others feels good but they don’t need it to feel good about themselves.
Relationship with others
To ease painful insecurity, people with NPD surround themselves with people who will stroke their egos. They are always checking to make sure they have more power, more status and more control than others. Their relationships are often based on whether others are useful to them or make them look good. It’s not unusual for them to drop someone once he or she is no longer needed to forward their personal agenda. Because they need to be in control to feel safe, people with NPD manipulate partners, coworkers and those who think they are friends through cycles of approval and rejection.
Those with NN are secure within themselves. They don’t need to feel superior in order to feel “enough.” They may seek relationships with other doers but it’s because of shared excitement about what they are doing, not in order to use them. Their friendships are based in equality and are characterized by balanced give and take. They make enduring relationships of mutual acceptance and support.
Capacity for empathy
People with NPD can act caring, but only if it will further their need for the relationship. To them, sympathetic behavior is seen as a way to gain status as a “good” person in the eyes of others. If it will cost attention to issues other than their own, their show of sympathy is short-lived.
Those with NN genuinely want to be there for others. If they do talk about their charitable actions, it is to enlist more support for someone in need. Their empathy is selfless and their love is unconditional.
Relationship with success and failure
People with NPD often inflate their accomplishments and overestimate their abilities. It’s not unusual for them to take credit for others’ work. If they can’t dazzle with what they have done, they will work to look good by contrast, emphasizing what others haven’t done or have done badly. Not surprisingly, they are unwilling to talk about their failures or mistakes, fearing that it will have a negative impact on other people’s opinion of them.
When people with NN talk about an achievement, it is without embellishment and with deserved pride and appropriate humility. Unlike those with NPD, they have no need to put their efforts in contrast with the efforts of others. They are quick to give credit to others. People with NN are comfortable sharing their failures or missteps. They understand that to err is only human and that talking about their imperfections doesn’t diminish their worth.
Response to criticism
People with NPD are oversensitive to criticism and are highly reactive to any real or perceived slight. They don’t take responsibility for making a poor decision or for behaviors others find offensive. If they are held accountable for a mistake or insult, they quickly shift the blame to someone else. If that isn’t successful, they will protest that someone else made them do it.
Those with NN may not like conflict or criticism either and may avoid it if they can. But once they think about it, they are able to participate in healthy dialogue when things go wrong. They take responsibility for their missteps and are willing to make changes in their perceptions and behavior. They are able to apologize to others without feeling diminished for doing so.
Narcissistic behavior or a narcissist?
People with NN are certainly capable of moments of narcissistic behavior. Everyone is self-centered or selfish at times. Everyone has the capacity to inflate an achievement, duck responsibility or treat people badly now and then. In people with NN, such things don’t last. They quickly realize when they have been inappropriate, work to heal their relationships and move on. They see no shame in getting support from friends or help from a professional if they need it.
In contrast, true narcissists (NPD) are preoccupied with themselves most of the time. They are always looking over their shoulder, scared that someone else may be more competent, have more status, or take control away from them. Their black hole of need for admiration never gets filled. Although there is treatment, those with NPD usually don’t agree that they have a problem or truly believe relationship issues are the other person’s fault.
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