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Narcissism has gained popularity in our culture.

This can be both helpful and harmful.

It is helpful to have a more thorough understanding of what it is, how it has developed and what can be done to develop more healthy ways to manage it.

It can be harmful if used to label others without sufficient understanding or if done in a thoughtless or careless manner.

So, what is the definition of narcissism?

Narcissism Defined

Narcissism is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, a need for excessive admiration, and the belief that they are unique and deserving of special treatment.

A narcissist can be charming, engaging, exciting, and alluring. They can also act arrogant, aggressive, reactive, dismissive, selfish, and cold. It is easy to be drawn to their warm and charming side, while you can be left confused, hurt and alone by their darker side.

Narcissists have an under-developed sense of self that impacts how they experience others, the world and themselves. They think and behave differently as a result. Also, the severity of narcissism varies. While some people will have few mild traits, others will have more traits or symptoms with greater intensity.

Understanding where narcissism comes from is complex, however, it appears to be a combination of biological temperament, early social interactions, and the impact of those interactions upon the individual. One study found evidence that avoidance (strong reaction to negative stimuli) and approach (strong reaction to positive stimuli) temperaments can lead to the development of narcissism.

Parenting style can also play a role. For example, studies show that parents who are overindulgent towards their children, as well as parents who are cold and unsupportive of their children can be factors in the development of narcissistic traits.

Narcissistic Vulnerability & Shame

On the outside, narcissists can appear strong, in charge and confident, however, this is a façade to cover the underlying vulnerability they feel. Their self-esteem and self-worth are quite fragile as they struggle with feelings of emptiness, powerlessness, and fear of abandonment.

In an effort to manage the extreme discomfort of their vulnerability they crave power and control over themselves, others and their environment. This can often be done in ways that are hurtful and sometimes cruel to the people around them. As they feel more vulnerable, they defend themselves more, but they have no regard for the hurtful impact this has on others.

Underneath it all, there is a deep feeling of shame rooted in a sense of inadequacy. Almost always, this is unconscious, and they develop strategies to deal with this that are some of the hallmark traits of narcissism.

Narcissism Traits

Arrogance – to compensate for feeling inadequate and inferior, they present an attitude of superiority. They are often arrogant, critical, and put others down in an effort to raise themselves up.

Superiority Complex – to soothe their underlying feeling of shame and not feeling “good enough” they swing to the other end of the spectrum by portraying themselves as the best, smartest, richest, and most talented. And then they want you to acknowledge and praise them accordingly.

Entitlement – they convince themselves they are superior therefore deserving of special treatment. They believe the typical rules that apply to others, do not apply to them.

Lack of Empathy – the ability to respond emotionally and sensitively is impaired in a narcissist. It can be difficult to impossible to put themselves in “someone else’s shoes” to have understanding and compassion for another person’s experience, especially a partner. Relationships are transactional to them – it is about getting their needs met rather than responding to a partner’s feelings. Relationships are used for self-enhancement and are not reciprocal.

Lack of Boundaries – for a narcissist, you exist to meet their needs. You are an extension of them. Therefore, they will be creative and persistent in getting you to agree to their demands and to meet their needs. This sheds light on why narcissists are experienced as selfish.

Narcissistic Defenses

In an effort to manage underlying vulnerabilities, people experiencing narcissism will use a variety of strategies that make relationships difficult. They don’t do this because they are monsters; they do it to cope with deep unconscious psychological pain.

Being in a relationship with someone who experiencing narcissism can be challenging. To learn more about the defences that can be used, read our next article Am I in a Narcissistic Relationship?