If you’re interested in self-development, it’s likely that you’ve come upon some articles about narcissistic relationships. Pop-psychology is brimming with stories and personal data warning about the dangers of the many narcissists out there. A narcissist that lacks empathy doesn’t know real love, we are told, and their only intent is to cause harm, manipulate, and use people for their own gain.
The term is a familiar one within online self-help communities, a label freely applied to anyone who displays certain self-centered traits. Consequently, you might have found yourself questioning whether someone you know with an inflated sense of themselves is a narcissist, or questioning whether inherent desires or traits you have make you narcissistic.
This article won’t offer a black-or-white list of the traits to look out for in a narcissistic partner or narcissistic relationships. That’s for a clear reason — the mental health issues known as narcissist personality disorder accounts only for a small section of the population. Equally, everyone has some degree of narcissism. Yet, look online, and streams of listicles or peer reviewed studies suggest that those with “narcissistic behaviors” are all genuine narcissists, which can lead to easily affirmed confirmation bias.
So, another over-simplification won’t add much value. Instead, we’ll explore the psychology of narcissism (including healthy narcissism), to provide context before offering guidance on how to spot narcissism by understanding when this trait becomes harmful.
|Note: This article aims to offer a nuanced overview of human behavior to counteract a lot of misinformation about narcissism, and its role in relationships, for those who are looking to explore and learn more about themselves and others. Emotional abuse never has to be condoned or tolerated.|
What is a narcissist?
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a person of outstanding beauty. Even God Apollo admired his physique, which is, safe to say, quite the compliment. Despite attracting plenty of romantic attention, Narcissus consistently turned potential suitors away. One day, whilst walking past a river, he caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the water.
Spellbound and mesmerized by his appearance, Narcissus became transfixed by himself in the water’s reflection. Unable to reach the object of his desire, he died of sorrow, and in the place of his body grew a flower — now named after the myth himself.
Since the 1800s, narcissism left the realm of myth and became entwined with psychological theory. Sigmund Freud’s 1914 paper, On Narcissism: An Introduction, is arguably a defining exploration of excessive self-centredness. Flash forward to modern times, and there have been claims we’re in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. Without a doubt, social media facades, a growing culture of individualism and the lionization of high status people, and even political and social polarization have created a culture that has its fair dose of self-centeredness.
But there is a significant difference between narcissism as a personality trait, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
What is narcissistic personality disorder?
Interestingly, just 0.5 percent of the US population has NPD. The ratio between the genuine presence of NPD and the common use of the term, however, doesn’t match up.
Not only that, but the diagnosis of NPD itself is problematic. For example, some traits of NPD can be confused for low emotional intelligence, such as not taking responsibility, becoming defensive when challenged, or lacking empathy. Diagnosis depends on how someone ranks on a spectrum.
So, when someone is labeled a narcissist, it’s highly likely they’re not, but instead might be prone to certain narcissistic tendencies or traits. With that in mind, why does narcissism carry such a stigma? Why is it that this level of vanity is linked with darkness, or shadow elements?
Narcissistic traits and the dark triad of personality
In psychology, the “Dark Triad” are personality traits identified for their link to malicious or harmful behaviors. People who rank high on such traits tend to be more likely to commit crimes, are more antisocial, lack empathy or compassion for others. In other words, these aren’t the people you want to be relating to or working with.
These individual traits tend to overlap, which is why they’re linked together. The three traits are:
In this context narcissism is defined as more than simple and common self-confident behaviors. Narcissism includes pride, egoism, entitlement, grandiosity, and a lack of empathy.
Named after political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, Machiavellianism is a personality trait that indicates a certain cunningness, as well as the ability to manipulate others. They manipulate and exploit others for personal gain, and they will do what is necessary to gain or maintain power.
Considered the most dangerous, people with this trait rank low for empathy, and high for thrill-seeking and impulsivity. They also display a lack of remorse or shame and show a disregard for others without having to feel guilty.
More recently, some researchers have called for this model within narcissistic personality disorder to be expanded into a Dark Tetrad to include sadism, which is a mental health condition in which the sufferer enjoys cruelty or the suffering of others.
Clearly, these four traits are undesirable. With all this considered, it’s not surprising narcissist relationships are to be avoided. But that doesn’t mean narcissism, in itself, is necessarily bad. To understand this, let’s explore the different types of narcissism.
The spectrum of narcissism
Firstly, there is a catch: From a certain perspective, all of us are narcissistic.
“Like any characteristic, [narcissism] exists on a spectrum. We all fall somewhere along the narcissism continuum,” writes Melody Wilding, a professor of Human Behavior at Hunter College. “In fact, a certain amount of self-centeredness is healthy. Research shows that it contributes to confidence, resilience, and ambition.”
This is a universal view amongst experts. And it makes sense: no matter how evolved or spiritually aware you are, you always view life through the lens of “you,” and that includes all the behind-the-scenes thoughts and feelings.
After all, isn’t it natural to have some level of vested interest in yourself? In other words, to have some connection to your own ego and to recognize and celebrate a sense of self worth?
Aspects of narcissism have benefits, too. Studies show that narcissism can lead to lower stress levels, more mental resilience, a desire to aim for the best in life, and less chance of depression. Not only that, but a degree of narcissism is required for healthy self-esteem and self-compassion, as well as for healthy relationships, and wellbeing.
The challenge is to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy narcissism. Psychologist Dr. Craig Malkin, the author of Rethinking Narcissism and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, explains:
Healthy narcissism is when people can enjoy feeling special just enough to give them energy, help them connect more with people and have a more compassionate, generous view of themselves. But when people become addicted to narcissism, that’s when they tip into becoming narcissists, or extreme narcissists. All that matters to these people is how they can feel special. All other considerations are set aside. Unhealthy narcissists can be argumentative, combative, hurtful and extremely entitled.
This is relevant to narcissistic relationships. Although narcissism is healthy to a degree, and we all exist in the spectrum, there is a tipping point. And while it’s possible to move along the spectrum, to higher and lower degrees. Within this spectrum, there are also different types of narcissism to be aware of.
The different types of narcissism
What comes to mind when you think of a narcissist? “We commonly say that someone is ‘narcissistic’ to mean they’re selfish, manipulative or driven by ego,” writes W Keith Campbell and Carolyn Crist, co-authors of The New Science of Narcissism. “But there’s a difference between everyday selfishness and real narcissism – and there’s a distinction between a normal personality trait and the harmful, rare personality disorder.”
There is a risk of psychological projection and ignoring the shadow of everyday selfishness if someone assumes everyone else is a narcissist, yet they’re above such behavior. Research shows all of us have the capacity to slip into self-centered states and haughty behaviors. It’s part of human nature. Most people notice when they slip up, apologize, acknowledge where they’ve gone wrong, and return to decency. True narcissists find this difficult to do.
That being said, it can even be the case that someone takes time to apologize or acknowledge their faults, not through narcissism, but low self-esteem or a lack of self-awareness. So how do you get an idea of the tipping point? When narcissistic behaviors are red flags, and signs you’re in a narcissistic relationship, and better off ending it?
Studies around narcissism have increased, especially in the last decade. To date, narcissism is defined into three different categories: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), grandiose narcissism, and vulnerable narcissism. What’s the difference?
Personality disorders and mental health explained
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
Freely labeling people “narcissistic” ultimately minimizes the genuine disorder. People with this disorder engage in extreme and dangerous behaviors that affect their own, and other’s lives. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) views people with this disorder as having a persistent and invasive sense of self-importance. They have tendencies to experience delusions of grandeur, have a deep need for constant admiration, and lack empathy.
This fits the stereotypical mold. People with grandiose narcissism are outgoing, extroverted, charismatic. They tend to place undue emphasis on appearances and look to dominate others. Unsurprisingly, a lot of leaders, CEOs, and celebrities display grandiose narcissism (I’m sure one or two immediately spring to mind), and some of these traits are desirable. However, grandiose narcissism becomes a problem when someone’s behavior starts negatively affecting others.
The lesser-known form, vulnerable narcissism, or “covert” narcissism, relates to people with extremely fragile egos — those who are hypersensitive and avoidant. Data shows that people with vulnerable narcissism are often more passive-aggressive than those with grandiose narcissism. Narcissists of this type are highly neurotic. But rather than lash out, people with vulnerable narcissism tend to hold on to resentment and feelings of injustice. This trait can still damage relationships, as it can create emotional neediness and feelings of entitlement.
Writing honestly, I’ve reflected on how my spells of mental illness were incredibly self-centered. This fuelled a feeling of the world being against me with depression, and led to me ruminating over what others think about me with anxiety, as well as becoming concerned about ridicule through paranoia and psychosis (I often felt “I” was the center of the universe).
There’s a lot of room for compassion for my past self, and others who struggle. But it takes a sense of humility to acknowledge a lot of these issues are self-centered at their core. For example, in Lost Connections, Johan Harri notes that one of the best ways to shift depression is to serve others rather than fall into traps of rumination and self-focus.
Echoism: a common trait within narcissistic relationships
Hopefully, by now you have a clearer understanding of the nature of narcissism. This gives a much better perspective and context to assess a potential narcissistic relationship. From the above, we can distill some common red flags:
- A sense of entitlement or excessive self-centredness
- A lack of empathy
- In need of constant praise of affirmation
- Shows a lack of remorse or accountability having caused pain or upset
- Demeans, condescends, or attempts to control
- Manipulative behaviour
To understand the dynamic of dating a narcissist, let’s return to Greek mythology. The story of Narcissus ends with him self-absorbed, staring starry-eyed into his own reflection. But there was another character in the story, a nymph named Echo, who fell madly in love with Narcissus.
She followed him, and sensing a presence, Narcissus called “who’s there?” She responded “who’s there,” before eventually presenting herself, only to be rejected. Heartbroken, all that remained of her was the echo.
Why is this relevant? Echoism is the term given to people who shy away from attention, believing the less room they take up, the better. Those with echoism have a tendency for self-blame. “People who struggle with echoism wind up in relationships with extremely narcissistic partners and friends,” writes Malkin, “they end up feeling stuck in those relationships.”
When it comes to narcissistic relationships, this is something to be vigilant for. Those who tend to shrink are often drawn towards those who take up a lot of space, making them susceptible to forming bonds with those who will take advantage or dominate. This dynamic is also the reason it’s unlikely for two narcissists to be in a relationship. It’s hard to be good partners with someone if you both need to be the star.
When dating a narcissist, or at least someone with high levels of narcissism, you can expect pushback if you find your voice and set boundaries. Someone who is used to dominating others may become defensive, dismissive, or even aggressive when facing some resistance. This in itself is a red flag of undesirable behavior, and often a glimpse behind facades.
Dealing with a narcissist
Ultimately, it’s less important to “diagnose” other people than it is to have a clear understanding of your needs, and what you desire from relationships. It’s sometimes easier to maintain relationships out of convenience and to tolerate unkind or harmful behaviors.
Instead, consider the purpose of this exploration — are you in a relationship with someone who doesn’t respect you? Or consider your needs? This is where self-honesty is required to see through facades or illusions and accept this person as they are. Are they displaying these traits consistently? Or are they prone to spells of human selfishness, from time to time? Do they take accountability?
It’s just as important to get an understanding of what you need and desire, as it is to “work out” the other person. Getting a clearer, more nuanced perspective on narcissism helps, as it promotes compassion and understanding for narcissistic traits, leaving more room for acceptance in relationships. Not only that, it allows you to see these traits within, leading to greater understanding and compassion.
Before you go
Building self-esteem, which, ironically, requires a dose of healthy narcissism, can be the tonic to set necessary boundaries, make tough decisions or set yourself up with the possibility of achieving unlimited success.
Label or no label, often the best way to deal with a potential narcissist is to know what you tolerate, what you don’t. And, when behavior crosses the line, rather than condemn or attempt to control the other person, the most powerful action is to say “enough is enough.” Although we don’t officially provide medical advice, sometimes it makes the most sense to try to find good partners elsewhere, and send those unhealthy narcissists off to seek professional help.