What is a narcissist?

It’s Narcissist Friday!   

(I am aware that this blog continually attracts new readers.  With somewhere around two hundred posts on narcissism and narcissistic relationships, it can be challenging for anyone to really use this material.  The search function works very well, if you know what to ask for.  Otherwise, we will all have to wait as the blog posts are sorted and categorized in preparation for a new (and exciting!) website.  So for the next few weeks, I want to dig back into the archives to pull out some of the posts that seemed most helpful over the last few years.  Please feel free to comment.)


Unfortunately the meanings of words adapt to common usage.  A narcissist used to be someone who fit a certain psychological pattern determined by a set of established guidelines.  The American Psychiatric Association publishes a manual referred to as the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).  The DSM-4 (edition 4) used nine criteria to determine whether a person suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1.      Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

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

3.      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)

4.      Requires excessive admiration

5.      Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

6.      Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

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

8.      Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her

9.      Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

– From Wikipedia

However, psychiatrists are notoriously stingy with assigning labels to people.  What if someone has only four of these indications?  What he or she has seven, but not quite as strongly as stated?  What if three are overt but several more are covert?  And what if the patient is particularly adept at covering or compensating for these indications?

Nina Brown has written several books in which she describes people who don’t necessarily fit the technical definition of a narcissist, but who still exhibit the general pattern and hurt themselves and others.  She calls it “Destructive Narcissistic Pattern.”  I recommend her books.

Using Brown’s information and the above APA guidelines, I have put together a list of narcissistic tendencies that we can use to begin to understand these people.  Now, I don’t think it is wise or helpful to call someone a narcissist for several reasons.  First, they may enjoy it too much.  Second, if they disagree you will start an argument and you will lose (because you always lose).  Third, they will begin to consume books on narcissism either to understand themselves or to prove you wrong or both.  Fourth, others will disagree with you based on their perception of the great person to whom you are referring.  No, just keep it to yourself.  Understanding will help you, not so much them.

He or she might be narcissistic if:

  1.  He cannot bear to lose an argument.  She will change the discussion, the subject, the rules.  He will become angry, threatening, demeaning, etc.  She simply cannot be wrong unless it is someone else’s fault.
  2. She has no sense of your personal boundaries.  What’s hers is hers and what’s yours is hers.  He sits at your desk, uses your things, and may even touch you in unwelcome ways.
  3. After working with him on a project, you feel used.  She takes credit for what you do.  The more you work with him, the more you realize that he doesn’t do as much as you thought.
  4. He talks about himself all the time, yet you don’t really feel like you know him.  She never asks how you are or about things that are important to you.  It’s all about him.
  5. He is full of big stories that make him look good, but his accomplishments in other places don’t match what you see at work.  She has all kinds of great plans and her schedule is full, but you don’t often see her doing anything significant.
  6. He is often angry, especially with others who don’t do what he thinks they should.  She claims to be the victim of abuses of others, but you haven’t seen them being mean to her.
  7. His words and his behavior are quite different.  He ridicules and derides others, then does the same thing himself.  She knows unkind information about everyone, but can’t seem to remember important or simple things about them.
  8. He believes he is better than others, that no one measures up to his standards, particularly bosses and other leaders.  Yet, he never expresses this to them.  She thinks others envy her and judge her unfairly, yet she does the same thing.
  9. She expects you to notice her hair or clothing, but never comments positively on yours unless she wants you to do something for her.  He shows off his watch, his car, his wife, or something, and has no interest in yours.  His kids are the greatest at everything and he has no idea whether or not you have kids.
  10. He has no qualms about calling you at inconvenient times to ask you to do difficult or inappropriate things for him.  He shows up to help you just as the job is finishing, then acts like he was helping all along.  She is very good at volunteering for a job and then getting you or someone else to do it for her, perhaps begging off at the last minute with some lame excuse.

These are all narcissistic characteristics and this list can change.  Several people probably came to your mind as you read them.  As with other tests, the more of these things that are observed in a person, the more likelihood that person could be classified as a narcissist.  Basically, the narcissist is concerned about himself and not about you.  In fact, she may not even fully understand that you are a real person with a life and concerns of your own.

Again, remember that this classification is for you.  Once you understand what is happening, what kind of person you are dealing with, you will be better able to handle the frustration you find rising up in you.  Anything you learn about the narcissist is for you.


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16 responses to “What is a narcissist?

  1. 38 years married to one without understanding what was going on in him, cheated on and unceremoniously dumped – then I learned about RAD and narcissism, and as a Christian, all I can feel is compassion. Yikes- God break into his life with your presence and love! And help me to find healing to move on while your love for him lives in me.

    • Cecelia K

      What is RAD?

      • Reactive Attachment Disorder. Here’s a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reactive_attachment_disorder

        Remember that these are descriptions of symptoms or behavior. As professionals define more of what they see and as they confer with each other, these sets of characteristics are given names and definitions. RAD would be something that could produce narcissistic characteristics in adults, I suppose. Basically, this is an attempt to define the behavior and attitude seen in a child. At least that is my “non-professional” take on it.

  2. Still Reforming

    Oh yeah – definitely a pattern. I like the term Narcissistic Personality Pattern even better than Disorder, because “pattern” describes the pervasive habitual behavior. “Disorder” almost makes it sound like they can’t control it, but they can. And do.

    In addition to psychiatrists, attorneys are loathe to label. I refrained from calling my now ex- a “narcissist” to my attorneys, but I definitely talked about his pattern of controlling behavior. On one occasion, the head of the law firm lamented how people in a divorce sometimes say things like, “My wife is bipolar,” and the attorney said he always then asks his client, “Do you have a degree in psychiatry?” When the lawyer said that, I just smiled (I had not even made any observation about my husband as a narc), but in my head I thought, “No, just two decades’ worth of real world experience living with the man.”

    • Yes. The defence lawyers OR the Narcs Lawyers, are very savvy in picking up on labels. Even if you attend a Dr for Depression and Anxiety …. they can and will use it against you in court. Particularly if you are in Family Law involving Access to children, to prove you are an unfit Mother (or Father as the case may be). Best to stick to the facts rather than the labels. The Narc, however….. will NOT stick to facts, will have people who willingly write “Character References” (they are the supply who have been well groomed via his ‘nice’ acts, the Narc will tell lies to prove how awful, horrible, abusive and nasty the ‘victim’ is. The Narc will have ‘evidence’ from your Dr or Psychiatrist to prove you are mentally ill. Very hard to defend. We need to try and collect evidence. Also very hard to do but we must try.

    • If it looks like a duck….very likely it’s a duck.

  3. Another “pattern” I’ve noticed is the need for revenge. A wrong will not only be remembered, but it will be used to justify all sorts of counter-wrongs enacted in the future — sometimes even years later. I think this is a defining characteristic. We all remember hurts and wrongs done to us and may even struggle with forgiveness, but the “N” behavior is to track these wrongs as a record and excuse to do unchecked malicious damage. I see it happen again and again.

  4. I have written here in the past about my second marriage which ended badly from a violent man whom I was with for approx 3 years. He was more than a Narcissist… he was a Sociopath and probably a Psychopath (serial abuser). Divorcing and surviving/healing through no contact (free now since 2011). However, my first marriage of 30 years ended in a nasty way too. I have struggled to put a label on his behaviour. He was a Priest (equivalent of Episcopalian) but in Australia. He cheated on me with a married woman, left me, divorced me and married her later. I have been through therapy and it is a long time ago now (he left in 1997). I am also a trained professional (retired Psychologist….. yes we all get conned….. empaths are targets). I am beginning to come to terms with his level of Narcissism too. I think I have compared the two men and been confused as the second was physically violent….. both overt and covert. I am beginning to realise that the first man in my life fits the bill as well. We have to be careful that we are not trying to tick ALL of the boxes to call them a Narc. Even in DSMIV they have to have ‘some’ of the criteria. I also think it is like a Spectrum….. on a score of 1 to 10 my second husband was a 10 (being a bad Narc). But he also fit many of the diagnostic criteria for Psycopath which is/was very scary. With my first husband and father of my 4 children, I am realising that he fits many of the things that we discuss and talk about. This has meant I have something new to deal with. He has dumped me from his life as if I never existed, never had any children with him, and never lived with him for 30 years. Attending baptisms of our grandchildren (where he was the celebrant) has been very painful. Giving away our two daughters at their wedding (last was 18/12 ago) was also very painful (at least they didn’t ask him to perform the ceremony). Why is it painful? Because he will NOT talk to me. He will NOT acknowledge me. I have tried to be friendly. Friends say it is because he feels guilty. I don’t agree. I have come to realise that he thinks it was and is his right to ‘leave a bad marriage’. It was/is his right to marry the ‘love of his life’. It was his right to have sex with her and he believed “God approved”. I know this to be true as he said so in front of the Psychologist with me).nIt was/is his right to bad mouth me to many people both clergy and lay in the church to such an extent that I had to leave. (he remained a Priest and remained in the Church). Just thinking about definition of a Narc and whether it fits or not…….Over the 30 years…
    * Wooed me quickly, proposed early. Married me young 12 months after meeting (18 he 26).
    * He talked to other women easily but never me.
    * He admitted after 13 years of marriage that he had been unfaithful by kissing a friend who had asked him to give her a baby (years before), been tempted with two other women but hadn’t acted on it (yeah right). Kissing is cheating.
    * He had a constant problem with alcohol. Both parents were alcoholics. He was passive aggressive when drunk. (Oh and sober).
    * His Dad died when he was 13 and his mother was controlling and he never defended me against her verbal and physical abuse (she hit me once when I was 6 months pregnant in front of him and our 1 yr old…. guess who got the blame as I stuck up for myself).
    * He got caught up in Porn when he belonged to a Mens Service Club and never told me…. another wife did. I had the courage to write a formal complaint to the club. (I was 27).
    * He changed jobs/careers several times…. leading to changing to clergy.
    * He confided in several women over the years about his ‘bad marriage’ and there were hints it was my fault from the women (to me).
    *Claimed I never supported him. Yeah right.
    * He had many boundary issues with women even as a Priest (from age 40). Counselling women in their homes without another person with them…. this is how he got caught be the femme fatale who was after him. Confiding his marriage problems to her (and other women I discovered).
    * He used put downs and snide remarks to me. Passive Aggressive.
    * He gave me the silent treatment often. Dealing with an argument by going for a very long run (jogging). He was a jogger all our married life. Adrenalin fix?
    * Silent treatment could last for days.
    *I often ‘shut down’ to deal with it.
    * I suffered depression and anxiety.
    * Being affectionate to my sister when he stayed there. When I came for the weekend he kissed her goodbye and not me….
    * Inappropriate with my sister when he stayed. Staying up late at night ‘counselling’ her about her past (long ago) marriage break up (her husband cheated too) and having wine outside on the patio. She told me not him. She thought it was lovely of him and so ‘helpful’. This was a year before he left. Refused to let me see drawings he had done at a workshop and getting angry when I tried to talk to him.
    * Verbally angry when I challenged him about his behaviour then shutting me out.
    * Working longer and longer hours and not being at the hospital where he worked when I tried to contact him.
    * Unexplained mileage on the car and phone calls.
    * Refusing sex or trying to do weird things.
    * Went to a job (Chaplain) age 43 where he received so many “warm fuzzies” and “ego boosters”. I was sooooo sick of hearing how ‘wonderful’ he was from Patients and families. He was HIGH on a pedestal. He loved it.
    * Different behaviour at home than in Public.
    * Allowing ‘clients’ to talk to him about their problems when we were out as a family. Lack of boundaries. Unable to deal with them. They loved him for it.
    * I tried to leave many times…. but back then…. little to no support for a Mum with 4 kids. No women’s refuges. Couldn’t go home to parents who only had 2 BR house. Funny how he left the very time all of the children had left home.
    * The problems at work were always caused by…….. others. Never him. Remembering now…. this happened in his other two careers. He left because of the other person…. usually the boss. He didn’t like being told he needed to do better, work quicker and change his work practice. He would resign.
    * Never took responsibility for his errors. In marriage amends would be made with sex. When I realised and refused…. silent treatment occurred.
    * Sent flowers to my work to say “sorry” but not verbally.
    * ‘Sorry’ behaviours….. were repeated again and again.
    * Didn’t talk to his Mother for several years at least 3 times. Longest was about 7 years. When contacting later never talked about why to her.
    * Told heaps of lies and never admitted to them. Lied all our marriage. Blamed me. Would say I didn’t remember properly.
    * Agreed to attending a marriage group several times i.e. Marriage Encounter, Enrichment. Followed principles for about 4 months then returned to old habits and argued if I pointed it out. Did this at least 3 times. Renewed Marriage vows at Church a couple of times. Last time about 2 years before he left. Quickly reverted to old behaviours.
    * Only attended one counselling session with me after the cheating. Told me via the Psychologist that “I never loved you”. “P is the love of my life”. “I was never happy with you”. “The Church says I can’t have her but the world says I can”. “I want her, not …..[my name]”. What? So all our kids were NOT conceived in Love? The therapist told him it was ADULTERY not love.
    I could go on as all these things are just flowing from the fingers. I think I need to Journal this. Oh yeah that’s right I did. My second husband (10 years later) “convinced me and helped me BURN the Journals to purge them from my life and so my kids wouldn’t find them and be hurt later” I didn’t see the power and control from him either.
    My point? OMG the ranting of a scorned woman!!! The face of Narcissisms is different for each person. I think we need to realise this. Comparing different Narcs and their behaviour may mean that we don’t understand the behaviour of someone as it “doesn’t quite fit” I have realised his Mother’s pain was the cause of her behaviour but did not excuse it. She didn’t have a chance to deal with it. My first husband did. Like my second husband….. they both chose not too. Discard and Move on.
    YES. My first husband was a Narcissist too. That’s a new thing for me to deal with….. as I stayed for 30 years. The hell of knowing ….. a confessed Christian, Minister of Religion, Husband, father of my kids….. still messes with my brain. No wonder I have found recovery difficult from the second.
    The double whammy is devastating.

  5. Oh dear that was a lot to write. Must have PUSHED A HUGE BUTTON Dave.

  6. Sandra

    Hello, Everyone,
    The behaviors are done compulsively and consistantly. And this compulsive and consistancy is seen by the N as another grand achievement of theirs.

    I was counseled once by my N on how I should adopt this consistancy of theirs for myself. (Oh, ha!)

    Best regards

    • Yes Sandra….. I guess that is made clear from my ranting above. The Narc does do these behaviours compulsively and consistently. They see it as their right and a great achievement. “Having the courage to have an affair and leave” …. seen as a positive and courageous…. rather than the problem that it really is. It is part of what does our head in. But Hey…. that’s part of the gas lighting…. to make us look crazy, feel crazy and be labelled by everyone else as crazy. Fortunately God knows the truth. That is what we have to hold on to. God knows the truth.

  7. Overheard one co-worker say to another, “you’re a gentle person, and that’s rare.” Both these co-workers are serious Christians. The other day, came across a Scripture (Psalms i think) that starts out something like, how the heathen rage. And a light-bulb came on. Narcs or not, seems like the unthankful spirits of unregenerate people are oftentimes carping about one thing or another. Ugh! But i must remember, wasn’t too long ago, i was hissy-fitting along with them. Oh, but for the Grace of the Lord…

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