What is Narcissism?

The term narcissism is related to Greek mythology and the story of Narcissus.

Narcissus was handsome, arrogant, and self-involved-and in love with his own image. He couldn’t tear himself away from his reflection in a pool of water, and ultimately his self-love consumed him. He died gazing at himself in the water. In everyday usage, narcissism refers to someone who is arrogantly self-absorbed. Self-love, on the other hand, has come to mean a healthy love of oneself that does not preclude the ability to love others.

But, what is the psychological definition of narcissism-and, more specifically, maternal narcissism? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) describes narcissism as a personality disorder classified by the nine traits listed below. Narcissism is a spectrum disorder, which means it exists on a continuum ranging from a few narcissistic traits to the full-blown personality disorder. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that there are approximately 1.5 million American women with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. While NPD is rare, non-clinical narcissism is a pervasive problem. In truth, we all have some of these traits. It is perfectly normal to have some of the traits at the low end of the spectrum. However, the further along the spectrum of narcissism, the more problems are encountered.

Here are the nine traits of narcissism as listed in the DSM: Will I Ever Be Good Enough?, expounds on these traits and gives examples of how they play out in maternal behavior and the mother-daughter dynamic. The narcissistic personality…

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance ( e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  • 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, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
  • Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e. takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
  • Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  • Shows arrogance, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2000. p. 717

Each of these nine traits is exhibited through feelings and behaviors that say, “It’s all about me” and “you’re not good enough.” There is a lack of empathy and an inability to show love. The narcissistic person appears to have a superficial emotional life, and their world is image-oriented, concerned with how things look to others.

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