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.