For some reason (I will leave that to you, dear reader), the term “narcissist” has been used a lot recently in the media and in personal conversations. Sometimes people even use the term “textbook narcissist” to describe a well-known public figure. Since I am both a psychologist and columnist, I thought I would share with you the actual textbook definition of narcissist—then you can see how it may or may not apply.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (I will use NPD for the sake of brevity in this article) is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, most recently in its 5th Edition (DSM-V). The DSM-V contains no particular mysteries, though the actual use of it to diagnose really ought to be left in the hands of those with experience and expertise. What I will show you today is what the actual criteria are like to make a diagnosis of NPD.
For a personality disorder of any kind to be diagnosed, the impairments in personality must be significant both within the self and in interpersonal relationships. Those traits must be relatively stable over time—in other words, they must represent a pattern of behavior that has stayed the same over time and across situations. The traits or symptoms can also not be better understood as normal for that person’s stage of life. For example, some narcissistic traits might be more normal if the person is a young child who hasn’t developed the ability to see the perspective of others.
Now to the criteria. The impairments in self-functioning should be one of the following. Either the person is egocentric or they set goals only in terms of self-benefit or personal gratification. An egocentric person derives self-esteem from personal gain, pleasure, or power. This kind of person would likely brag a great deal about how wealthy they are, or how many women they have “scored” with, or how much more intelligent or stronger they are than others. They would also be motivated to succeed only for personal gratification. They would struggle to perform duties for the “public good” because they only see the world in terms of what they get out of it.
The impairments in interpersonal functioning would be someone who shows either a lack of empathy or a lack of mutually intimate relationships, or both. They show a lack of remorse after hurting others and a lack of concern for the needs and feelings of others. They also lack the capacity to have mutually intimate relationships. Instead, they see relationships in terms of dominance, control, and intimidation. For both these reasons, people showing the symptoms of NPD tend to have difficulty staying married.
Another primary cluster of traits is that of antagonism. A person with NPD is manipulative. They lie frequently and use charm, seduction, or ingratiation (flattery) to get what they want from others. They misrepresent themselves in ways that make them look richer, more powerful, or more intelligent than they actually are. People with NPD show a callousness towards the feelings of others. Because of this they often name-call or bully others to get what they want. They exhibit persistent hostile and angry feelings toward others. They respond in vengeful ways to even the minutest slights or insults. Because the narcissist only sees the world through their own self-importance, they cannot bear mockery in any form and often respond with large-scale retaliation for the slightest of insults.
The final group of traits for NPD is disinhibition. Disinhibition just means that they are not able to restrain their own desires or actions. The first symptom of this is irresponsibility. They do not honor their financial obligations and have a lack of respect for keeping promises. For example, they might make big promises to show how great and powerful they are but care little about fulfilling those agreements.
The person with NPD is impulsive, acting on whatever they feel in the moment. They are often unable to restrain urges and act on whatever they think or feel without considering outcomes or making plans. They are also high risk-takers. They engage in risky behaviors that can be potentially self-damaging, without regard for the consequences. They are easily bored and have little concern for their own limitations.
So, there it is, the actual textbook definition of narcissism. In my own work as a psychologist, I have worked with people like this before, though they rarely ever seek treatment because they don’t ever see themselves as having problems—it’s everyone else! Beware of going into business with people with these kinds of traits and do not let them lead your organization. They will lie, manipulate, bully, and act in impulsive ways that will be destructive to themselves and to the organizations they lead. And for heaven’s sake, don’t get into a relationship with them! Wrong!