'Narcissistic' is one of those words we throw around these days, like 'depressed' (as in, 'I'm so depressed my football team lost') or 'phobia' (as in, 'I have this huge phobia of spiders'). Often, because these words have become part of the common vernacular, and we see them in various media all the time, it's easy to misuse them - mistaking being disappointed with depressed, or slightly nervous with genuinely phobic.
We often hear people described as narcissistic, without necessarily understanding what that means, especially in a psychological context. The most useful way to get to grips with something like narcissism is to understand that there are certain 'personality types', including narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive, histrionic, avoidant, passive-aggressive, and so on. That doesn't mean we all fit into neat little boxes, but that these types describe certain traits, or characteristics, which we all have to a greater or lesser extent.
Psychologists talk about personality disorders when someone strongly exhibits characteristics of one or more of these types, to such an extent that it affects their whole personality (not just their mood, as in a 'mood disorder' like depression or anxiety) and typically makes life very difficult for them and the people around them. And one of the defining characteristics of someone who is very narcissistic is that if they are your friend, colleague, family member or partner, they are likely to cause you all sorts of problems - probably with very little awareness of how selfish or hurtful they are being.
When someone is narcissistic, they tend to be extremely self-focused, viewing the world and the people they encounter as being there to serve their needs. They will probably have strong beliefs of entitlement - to special treatment ('The rules don't apply to me'), attention, flattery and recognition of their unique skills, knowledge or personal qualities. Narcissistic people also have a black and white view of the world and how things should be, with a strong belief that they are always right and that bad things in their life are other people's fault or responsibility, not theirs.
Again, it's important to remember that we all have some of these traits and beliefs - it's how strongly those beliefs are held that's key. When these beliefs are deeply and rigidly held, then someone might be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Because people with NPD tend to be ruthless and single-minded about getting what they want, we see these individuals at the top of a number of professions, such as banking, politics, law, professional sports, music, acting and reality TV (if we can call that a profession!).
It's tough to be in a relationship with a narcissistic person, because they tend to be very perfectionistic, critical and occasionally cruel. Because empathy is not their strong suit, they just don't get why or how they have hurt someone, and will tend to fly into a rage when challenged or criticised. If any of this sounds like someone close to you, they may need help in learning to relate to others in a more compassionate, less self-serving way. Therapy can help with that, if they can be persuaded to come along, which is often challenging. People with these characteristics usually end up in therapy because people - an angry boss or partner on the verge of leaving - have pressurised them to do so.
The most important thing is to understand why they are acting in baffling and sometimes hurtful ways - and remember that it's definitely not your fault. Knowledge is power, so read up on narcissism and develop strategies for protecting yourself and maintaining healthy boundaries. A good place to start is Psychology Today, which has lots of helpful blog posts on all aspects of narcissism.
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