Narcissistic Personality Disorder: How to Recognize Narcissism and Protect Your Mental Health

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

The label of "narcissist" comes from a Greek myth about the hunter named Narcissus who was so proud of his own physical attractiveness that he showed great disdain for anyone who loved him. According to this myth, Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution, decided that Narcissus was a tad too arrogant for her liking. The story goes that Nemesis enticed Narcissus to a pool of water where he saw his own reflection and fell in love with it. Not understanding that this was his own reflection, Narcissus pined for the beautiful being he saw before him. But alas, his reflection could not return love. Narcissus ends up dying next to the reflecting pool, unable to separate himself from his own image.

Nowadays we use the term, "narcissistic" to describe someone who is arrogant and full of him or herself. But there can be more to this type of personality than just a big ego. Some individuals meet the criteria for a psychiatric label of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

The problem is that people who might be diagnosed with this type of personality disorder are not usually clamoring to receive help for their disorder. In fact, it is usually the family member, spouse, co-worker, or employee of the narcissist who is eager to seek out therapy. The individual who has a narcissistic personality rarely perceives the damage they leave in their wake.

Yet many people who come into contact with a narcissist may feel bullied or even victimized. It is my opinion that if you suffer from depression, being around someone with narcissistic tendencies can be psychologically toxic and can contribute to a worsening of your symptoms. In this post we are going to discuss how to identify a narcissist and protect your mental wellness.

I am sure we have all had an encounter with someone having a narcissistic personality. When I was in graduate school I had a teacher who was almost mythical in his poor treatment of students. When his name was spoken, there was an audible gasp of horror that one might end up in his class. Older students would describe the situation in this way, "You don't want to be in his class, he will make you cry."

I was not too happy to find that one semester I would have him for my instructor after all the tales I had heard.

When we finally had our first class some of my fellow classmates were enraptured by this teacher's presence and physical attractiveness, describing him as a "beautiful man."

This awe soon turned to fear and even loathing when we saw his delight in causing public humiliation.

He would selectively choose one or two students per class to grill by asking questions until they ran out of answers. When they sat there silently he would launch into a tirade while the victim of his abuse would be desperate in hiding any reaction. In the end someone always cried. He would respond by telling us all that he was going to take us to the children's cancer ward because, "there is something to cry about." He gave us tests that everyone was certain to fail. This instructor was quite often late for his own class, giving no apology or explanation. And the content of his instruction was frequently full of personal stories of his own achievements.

At the end of the semester we were given student surveys to fill out about our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the instructor and the class. What caught me off guard immediately was the fact that one of our fellow classmates was distributing and collecting the surveys. Without the instructor in the room most of us agreed that we would definitely let the administration know about our horrible experience.

Yet the classmate who was giving out the surveys was exceptionally quiet about the matter.

Later, we would find that this classmate was having sexual relations with the instructor. It seemed to be his reputation for singling out female students each semester to have sex with and then leave them broken hearted as he dumped them for someone new. I wondered how this professor was getting away with all this. Near the end of my schooling I confronted one of the older faculty members.

I asked her how such a man could still be teaching. In a hushed tone I was told, "I know. We have been trying to get rid of him for years. But he has tenure and everyone is afraid to confront him."

Unfortunately this is what happens in many situations involving a narcissist. Some will be charmed and manipulated and some will simply decide it is too much trouble to stand up to such an individual.

The person who has a narcissistic personality may frequently be in a position of power either in the workplace or in their relationships. If you do a Google search about narcissistic personality disorder you will find many websites written by [people who feel victimized] by such an individual.

For example there are websites for:

It seems there is no shortage of pathological narcissism in our culture and many people are weary of the emotional damage it can cause. Do not mistake narcissism for self-confidence or self-esteem. People with healthy self-esteem will have little desire to manipulate or control others. One of the ways to keep your mental health intact is to recognize the signs of this personality disorder so that you can understand what you may be dealing with. If you suspect that you have a loved one with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you can encourage psychotherapy but don't be surprised if they refuse. In the end it may be you who will need therapy in order to find ways to cope with having a narcissist in your life.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) the following are the psychiatric criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

The individual must have at least five of these characteristics to be diagnosed with NPD.

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance. They routinely overestimate their abilities and inflate their accomplishments, often appearing boastful and pretentious.

  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

  • Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions.)

  • Requires excessive admiration.

  • Has a sense of entitlement (Unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).

  • Is interpersonally exploitive (Uses others for their own gain).

  • Lacks empathy and is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.

  • Is often envious of others and believes that others are envious of him or her.

  • Shows arrogant, haughty, behaviors or attitudes.

In addition there may be other clues that the person you are dealing with is a narcissist:

  • The narcissist can be charming to the outside world.

They are like the Eddie Haskells (remember the TV show Leave-It-To-Beaver?) of the school yard or work place. The narcissist knows the right people to schmooze and suck up to so that they maintain a certain image. Yet behind the scenes they may be bullies to those who they deem as threats to the image they wish to project to others. They will also frequently bully people who they feel are inferior or vulnerable.

  • The narcissist needs followers.

You will often see some sort of co-dependent relationship between the narcissist and people who feed this person's ego. In the workplace you usually see a narcissist with a "sidekick" who the narcissist views as an extension of him or herself. In a romantic relationship the co-dependent spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend may experience emotional or even physical abuse from their narcissistic partner.

  • The narcissist uses relationships for their own gain.

The narcissist will be your friend or your partner as long as you keep feeding them praise or agree to be subordinate. But the minute you develop any independence or have a different perspective than the narcissist, you may either get the cold shoulder or find yourself the victim of rage or vindictive behavior. The narcissist does not understand the meaning of "give and take" within a relationship.

  • Narcissists are notorious name droppers.

They like to be associated with institutions or people they feel will give them more prestige. They will insist upon you knowing of these associations such as alluding to lunches with the CEO or president of the company or having special contacts.

  • The narcissist develops a false sense of self through mirroring.

The narcissist will eagerly take credit for other's innovations and will promote them as their own ideas. Most of their ideas or ways of behaving come from others they deem as an authority figure or someone with status. What you see on the outside is behavior learned through mimicry. As one victim of a narcissist explains: "The Narcissist must have a mirror to reflect his image or he cannot exist. This is why he can never be alone and must always have supply."

  • The narcissist usually lacks the awareness that they are causing harm.

One thing you may never hear from a true narcissist is an apology. Lacking empathy and understanding of other's feelings, the narcissist will usually not take responsibility for their actions. They may even display pride or a sense of entitlement in being able to control other people. The narcissist believes that the general rules for everyone else do not apply to them and this includes common courtesy and respect for others.

Public exposure may be the only way that an extreme narcissist will "get" that their manipulation and mistreatment of others is unacceptable.

We would like to hear from you. Do you have a narcissist in your life? How are you coping? Tell us your story. It may help someone else who is struggling with this same situation.

If you suspect that you are being adversely affected by someone having narcissistic personality disorder, there is help and support. Here are some links to information and support.

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."