Stop Pretending Narcissism Isn't a Disease

Health Features Personality Disorder
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Stop Pretending Narcissism Isn't a Disease

For some reason within the past year, narcissist, (like gaslighting) has become a buzzword—and one that is used inaccurately.

There’s a difference between being narcissistic and having narcissistic personality disorder (Your teenage niece’s Snapchat obsession is probably not narcissistic personality disorder). Psychology Today, for example, encourages that occasional narcissism is healthy. Nothing is wrong with taking a little pride in yourself. Lacking the ability to empathize with or consider other people, however, disparages and destroys relationships of every genre.

What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

The DSM-5 defines narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as the combination of:

1. Impairments in personality functioning (identity and self-direction) and interpersonal functioning (intimacy or empathy).

2. Pathological antagonism, grandiosity or attention seeking.

Which are

3. “Relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.”

4. “Not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.”

5. Not solely related to substance abuse or a general medical condition.

Most of these symptoms exist in people during developmental stages—scientists believe narcissism may be bred in response to a conflict in interpersonal development, such as childhood trauma, learned manipulative behavior or overindulgence. Like other psychological disorders, however, NPD is factored by genetics. Research shows that clinical narcissists lack gray matter in the left anterior insula, the part of the brain that controls emotion and empathy. About one percent of the general population has NPD—by the way, it’s more prevalent in men.

NPD can also coexist with other disorders, such as depression or anxiety, and clinical narcissists are more likely to develop addiction (note area 5 in the DSM-V’s diagnosis).

Traits of a Narcissist

The easiest symptom of NPD to recognize is a heightened sense of entitlement and self-importance. Narcissists believe they deserve special treatment and are offended when they’re treated like a normal person (narcissists are highly sensitive—treating a narcissist the way that person treats you will not end well).

In addition to their sense of entitlement, narcissists are highly manipulative, and their lack of empathy prevents them from realizing their demands are unreasonable. Narcissists cannot fathom personal guilt or blame, and will convince themselves—and others that someone else is responsible for their actions. On the other hand, no matter the role played, narcissists assert they deserve the credit for success.

Image is critical to narcissists, as they rely on illusion to perpetuate the values they desire most. Social media in particular is a tool narcissists manipulate to promote their superiority. As for tangible strategies, narcissists are incredibly materialistic and boast collections or valuable items. They can “collect” people, too—partners, friends and even children can be used as trophies or extensions of the narcissist.

That’s not to say narcissists lack positive traits. They’re charismatic and can make fantastic leaders. Narcissists don’t dawdle on major decisions and are more likely to take risks—when you believe you can do no wrong, there’s no reason to hesitate. This makes narcissists more susceptible to professional or financial success.

Dealing with a Narcissist

There is no cure for NPD (that is, if the narcissist wants to change), as much of its symptoms are personality traits. Therapy and extensive discourse can help narcissists look beyond themselves, although this change takes time. If NPD coexists with depression or anxiety, psychiatrists can prescribe an antidepressant.

Tackling narcissism is a collaborative effort that requires patience and honesty. Narcissists don’t respond to criticism well, and being told that their mindset is dangerous will be seen as an attack. Those who are closest to the narcissist will have to exhibit more assertion as well. While it’s easiest to give in to the narcissist, doing so supports the narcissist’s sense of self-importance and omniscience. It’s important to set boundaries with a narcissist. Otherwise, saying no will only become a bigger challenge.

Photo by Brad.K, CC BY 2.0

Sarra Sedghi is the assistant editor of Paste’s food and science sections.