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Keep in mind that the lines between what is a narcissist and what is NPD, or narcissistic personality disorder, can blur together, and to be clear, psychologists differentiate narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder.
What is a narcissist?
“A narcissist is someone who has a pathological level of narcissism,” says psychotherapist Alena Scigliano, LPC, founder of Coastal Light Counseling and Psychotherapy and author of Swimming with Sharks: Surviving Narcissistic-Infested Waters. However, notes Scigliano, narcissism is “inherently within all of us and it’s inherently healthy.” She points to the example of adolescents, who “need to have a healthy level of narcissism, so they can focus on themselves and become their own person separate from their parents.” It’s when the characteristics of narcissist behavior interfere with a person’s relationships and daily life that it becomes pathological.
What Is NPD or narcissistic personality disorder?
Conversely, narcissistic personality disorder is “the diagnosis that is prescribed within the DSM-5, which is what therapists or anyone in the field of counseling or psychology use to diagnose patients with NPD,” says Scigliano. She adds that an individual must exhibit five out of nine common narcissist traits—and to the point where they interfere with an individual’s relationships and daily life—for them to be considered to have NPD. These traits can include an inflated sense of self-importance, a persistent need for praise and admiration, and an inability or unwillingness to empathize with others.
That said, Scigliano says that what is presented in the DSM-5 about narcissistic personality disorder is limiting. “It only addresses the grandiose or overt types of narcissists,” she says, and thus leaves out information about covert narcissists (more on that later).
All that is to say, narcissism shows up in varying degrees and frequencies in a person who can likely understand some of the consequences of their self-absorbed actions, while the latter show up consistently and severely in a person who cannot recognize or take accountability for the harm they’re leaving in their wake. While there’s only one clinical diagnosis for narcissistic personality disorder in the DSM-5, there are various shades of narcissism, all of which can be problematic to encounter in a relationship.
Why should you look out for narcissists?
Narcissists are generally grandiose people with an unending need for admiration and a lack of empathy, says psychologist Danielle Forshee, PsyD. These core qualities can be most harmful in a relationship—whether it’s a platonic or romantic relationship or otherwise.
“Relationships with narcissists often involve significant difficulty with managing conflict and disagreements, and arriving at joint decisions or solutions.”—Danielle Forshee, PsyD, psychologist
“Relationships with narcissists often involve significant difficulty with managing conflict and disagreements, and arriving at joint decisions or solutions, since narcissists are unreasonable and require compliance with what they believe is correct,” says Dr. Forshee. As a result, any conversation that doesn’t align with their preexisting opinion is bound to go south—and fast. “I like to think of narcissists as doing the ‘D’s’,” says psychologist Rachel Hoffman, PhD, LCSW, chief clinical officer at mental wellness platform Real. “They deny, devalue, and get defensive.”
This also means that a relationship with a narcissist can leave you feeling insecure and unworthy. “Their defensiveness and inability to take criticism can quickly turn into gaslighting behavior that leaves you doubting yourself,” says Dr. Hoffman. And that’s precisely the goal of the narcissist—to be recognized consistently as “superior,” regardless of their actual achievements or behaviors in the relationship, says Dr. Forshee.
Over time, having your wants and needs repeatedly sidelined by a narcissist can convince you that they just aren’t as important as your partner’s wants and needs. “Your whole relationship can become centered around pleasing this person, as opposed to addressing your needs and the needs of the relationship itself,” says Dr. Forshee.
By the same token, your constant need to stroke their ego or confirm their worth can make it tough to get to know the person on a deeper level, says Dr. Forshee, restricting the relationship from ever reaching the intimacy necessary for long-term success.
Why is it often so difficult to identify the different types of narcissists?
If you’re curious to learn how to identify a narcissist, should you suspect you have one in your life, it typically won’t be without difficulty. “Many times, people can’t believe a person is that self-centered and lacking in empathy,” says therapist Lesli Doares, LMFT. “They are given the benefit of the doubt because the narcissist can act in ways that seem generous, but it’s only a ploy to keep someone connected to them or to get something specific in return.” It’s easy to latch onto those moments as “proof” that the narcissist actually cares, she adds, but cautions that this earnestness is not only false and manipulative but also unlikely to last.
Particularly in the beginning of a relationship with a narcissist, there’s typically a lot of love-bombing, says Dr. Hoffman: “They’ll give you compliments and inflate your ego, so you take it and internalize that they’re making you feel good or loved, but really it’s just a manipulation tactic to ensure that you choose to date them.”
Narcissist traits can also be cloaked by the narcissist’s preoccupation with ideal love, says Dr. Forshee. And in service of that ultimate goal, “they’ll usually be very adept at showing you only the parts of themselves they want you to see—like success, power, brilliance, or beauty.”
And even if you catch on to the narcissistic pattern, it can be tough to escape it. “When a narcissist feels like they might be losing you, they’ll revert to their earlier ways and try to make you feel really good about yourself again through love-bombing,” says Dr. Hoffman. “But again, it’s always all about them in the end, making this nothing more than an emotional roller coaster.”
What are the different types of narcissists?
While, again, the DSM-5 does not distinguish among types of narcissistic personality disorder, narcissism can certainly present in different ways. Dr. Hoffman and Scigliano see these types of narcissists as fitting into two overarching categories, overt and covert narcissists.
“Overt narcissists are the people whom you can tell are narcissists from a mile away,” Dr. Hoffman says. “They’re super into themselves, super competitive, and super arrogant, and when you talk to them, the conversation only moves forward if it’s about them.” These are the same folks who don’t ever think to ask you a question about yourself.
By contrast, the covert types of narcissists are less easily identifiable. “These people typically have very low self-esteem or a deep fear of never being ‘enough,’ which ends up manifesting as narcissism because they refuse to accept any criticism about themselves,” says Dr. Hoffman. “Essentially, they already have such low self-esteem, they don’t know where to place any new criticism, so they’d rather walk away from a situation where they may be at fault, rather than be seen as having messed up.”
Each of these two categories can be divided into a few further types of narcissists, outlined below.
Overt types of narcissists
1. The toxic narcissist
There’s a range of toxic narcissism, and none of it is good. A toxic narcissist “continually causes drama in others’ lives at the very least and causes pain and destruction at the very worst,” says clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD.
If you happen to have a friend who constantly demands all of your time and attention—and doesn’t respond well when you don’t meet those demands—you may be dealing with a toxic narcissist. Likewise, if someone in your life has caused more extreme issues, like gotten you fired from your job, physically abused you, or led to the end of a relationship, they may be a toxic narcissist as well.
One particular type of toxic narcissist is the psychopathic narcissist, who will embody some of the unstable, aggressive qualities of psychopathy. This person will often be violent and show no remorse for their behavior. “Serial killers largely make up this type of narcissist,” says Dr. Mayer. Scigliano also refers to this type of narcissist as malignant narcissists, and what makes them so dangerous is that “they want to do harm to other people or take pleasure out of doing harm to others,” she says.
2. The exhibitionist narcissist
The exhibitionist narcissist is very obvious about their self-interest. “This is the narcissist who lets everyone around them know that they are narcissistic,” says Dr. Mayer, adding that this person takes advantage of other people and is often haughty and arrogant. They’re also blatant about their self-centered behavior. “They need to be in the spotlight and get uncomfortable when they’re not,” says psychotherapist Alisa Ruby Bash, PsyD, LMFT.
3. The bullying narcissist
This person combines two terrible traits: bullying and self-absorption. Bullying narcissists build themselves up by trashing other people, Dr. Mayer says. They’re often fixated on winning and will mock or threaten others to get their way. They ultimately get joy from making other people feel bad, small, or unworthy. This is different from a “regular” bully who tends to put people down for social gain, whereas a bullying narcissist does it for personal motivation.
While Scigliano agrees that bullying narcissists fall under the overt category of narcissism, she also says that they can also be covert narcissists—particularly if their tendencies fly under the radar.
Covert types of narcissists
1. The closet narcissist
Often trickier to spot than other types of narcissists, “a closet narcissist is one who doesn’t inflict their personality upon others or society but firmly believes in the characteristics of narcissism,” says Dr. Mayer. Closet narcissistic behavior examples can include feeling entitled, constantly needing other people to admire them, being preoccupied with success, being jealous of other people, and lacking empathy for others.
“They’re more codependent,” says Dr. Bash. “They often try to pretend that they’re really selfless, but like to associate themselves with someone that they admire and ride their coattails.”
2. The seducer narcissist
This type of narcissist relies most heavily on love-bombing to get the attention that they so desperately crave from others. The seducer will “make you feel great about yourself just to ‘win’ you over as a sexual or love conquest,” says Dr. Mayer. They will often seem to admire or fawn over you, only to write you off once they no longer have a use for you.
3. The vulnerable narcissist
This type of narcissist’s obsession with self manifests more directly as an assumption that everyone is always out to get them. Like a classic narcissist, they can’t accept criticism, but in this case, it’s because their warped sense of reality makes them feel as if they’re always being victimized and life has always been uniquely unfair to them. “But no matter how much empathy they might receive from a partner, it’s never enough,” clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, previously told Well+Good.
Among the variations of narcissist types, Scigliano refrains from using the term “vulnerable narcissist.” “When a lot of people hear the word ‘vulnerable,’ they might think of vulnerable populations, or they think, ‘Oh, this is someone I need to take care of’—and that to me is where the risk is,” she says. Rather than think of pathological narcissists as vulnerable, she prefers to think of them as sharks. “We accept sharks as they are, we don’t expect them to change, and if there’s a shark in the water, we stay out of the water because they can be dangerous,” she says. “So, if we start thinking about narcissists that way, people will stop getting so hurt by narcissists because what perpetuates the cycle of narcissistic abuse is people hoping they’ll change.”
What are traits exhibited by different types of narcissists?
According to Scigliano, both overt and covert narcissists have many traits in common, save for a few differences. Both are typically “antagonistic, argumentative, conflictual, contemptuous, and struggle to regulate their emotions,” she says. They can also be “entitled, egocentric, highly reactive, and manipulative, selfish, and, sometimes, tyrannical.”
Also, she adds, they are empathy atypical, which means that they aren’t devoid of empathy but, rather, exhibit a different kind of empathy. “Let’s say their kid is getting picked on. It’ll seem like they have empathy for their kid because they can seem really upset,” she says. “But what I believe is that they see their child as an extension of them—as with their other family members—and what is really happening is that they’re empathizing with themselves.”
What an overt narcissist might have that covert types do not is charm, charisma, and an outgoing nature that is often exemplified by extroverts, says Scigliano. Interestingly enough, she adds that “overt or grandiose narcissists are typically extroverts that gain a lot of energy from being around other people.” Conversely, “the more covert narcissists are often more introverted.”
What is the most dangerous type of narcissist?
Ultimately, it’s not good to have any type of narcissist in your life, if you can help it, says Doares. But among the types of narcissists, the malignant ones may be the most dangerous to engage with. “Other kinds of narcissists aren’t going to go out of their way to hurt somebody—they’re just obsessed with themselves,” says Dr. Bash. “But a toxic narcissist may actually set out to hurt someone.” This element of bad intention can make a relationship with a toxic narcissist particularly damaging to your psyche and sense of self.
If, for any reason, you feel the desire or have a need to stay in a relationship with any type of narcissist—perhaps they are a family member or the parent of your child—Dr. Hoffman has an important word of caution: Do not forget who you are outside of the relationship. “What so often happens with people in relationships with narcissists is that they become a corpse of themselves, as they become laser-focused on constantly pleasing their partner,” she says. “The best thing you could possibly do for yourself in this situation is to create a life for yourself outside of your partner.” That means consciously engaging in hobbies you love and seeing friends and family members who lift you up, she adds. “This way, you can grow and maintain your sense of confidence and identity.”
Scigliano adds that with all the types of narcissists, the best way to cope with them is to first set strong boundaries—and stick with them. “This is the number one way to cope with having a narcissist in your life,” she says. She adds that if a conflict arises, she recommends sticking to the objective facts—“avoid sharing your emotions because they can use those against you.” Finally, she says to maintain a healthy level of wariness around the narcissist, but not to the point it can cause you undue stress.
Can you tell a narcissist they are a narcissist?
Short answer? Probably not. While there’s a chance that someone with narcissistic tendencies can acknowledge the gravity of their actions and perhaps even commit to acting differently in the future, a true narcissist is not going to accept feedback that is a reflection of anything other than their own greatness, says Dr. Forshee.
In this way, telling a narcissist that they’re a narcissist is almost always futile. “Even as a therapist, to be transparent, I find it very hard to work with narcissists, so it’s tough for me to see how someone untrained would get a narcissist to change their ways by alerting them to the fact that they’re a narcissist,” says Dr. Hoffman.
Not to mention, doing so could create some serious backlash, in some cases. “Be prepared for some type of war in response to criticism, whether it be the silent manipulative and coercive-control type of war, or outright disdain wrought with counterattacks, and possibly rage,” says Dr. Forshee.
What is the root cause of narcissism?
No one cause can be proposed as the sole explanation of something as complex as narcissism. But experts point to several reasons for it. For one, people can be born with certain personalities that are predisposed to being less empathic and socially aware, according to Scigliano. This can often happen when a child is raised within a certain environment that engenders a focus on self.
Commonly, a narcissistic person is often a product of a narcissistic parent. “If a child is raised by a narcissist, then they’re being repeatedly failed empathetically by their parent and hurt over and over and over,” she says. “That leads them to not be able to develop a healthy attachment to their parents but also a healthy sense of who they are—as result, they become really insecure and their sense of self is really fragile.” Scigliano uses the analogy of a glass orb to describe a narcissist’s sense of self. “Because it’s so fragile, they wrap it in bubblewrap over the years to try and protect it from being broken—and the bubblewrap is a combination of defense mechanisms and offense tactics,” she says.
Does narcissism run in families?
In the case of narcissistic personality disorder, as with any personality disorder, there could certainly be a genetic component. “It also might not be the case that a parent has narcissistic personality disorder, but it’s possible that they have a different personality disorder, which could still make it more likely that a kid has narcissistic personality disorder,” says Dr. Hoffman.
In the case of narcissism and narcissistic tendencies, it’s also possible for someone to learn or pick up these behaviors in response to childhood trauma. “Someone who never felt like they never got enough attention or affirmation or praise when they were younger can develop a need for excessive praise when they get older,” says Dr. Hoffman. And in other family dynamics, it’s possible that a person grew up witnessing narcissistic behavior in a caretaker or sibling and saw this behavior rewarded with additional praise, leading them to pick up this narcissistic streak themselves, she adds.
Can a narcissist be a good person?
Psychologists often identify something called “healthy narcissism” in the context of early childhood development—largely referring to the process of “individuation” in children around two to three years old, says Dr. Hoffman. “Kids this age start to learn that what they do has an impact on the people around them, and they begin to test this out,” she says. “So, you’ll tell them not to touch something, and they do it anyway on purpose. And honestly, what they’re doing is developing their own perception of self and self-esteem, which therapists sometimes say is a healthy dose of narcissism.”
But when we’re talking about narcissism in adults, and particularly narcissistic personality disorder, it’s not typically healthy or good. “This happens when, again, there’s such an inflated view of the self that you’re not able to process and respect the needs, wants, and feelings of others,” says Dr. Hoffman.
This lack of empathy in narcissists is what makes their behaviors so inherently hurtful, whether they’re “trying” to be hurtful or not. “Narcissists are wounded individuals,” says Dr. Forshee, “and they can be very treatment-resistant, too, because of the superiority complex and lack of insight into the areas where they could stand to grow.”