The difference between Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

The term ‘narcissism’ tends to be overworked these days and is often used to describe someone who is self-centred or ‘obnoxious’ but it’s important to remember there is a difference between someone having narcissist tendencies and someone who has a pathological diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality disorder (NPD). 

So when does a ‘self-centred’ and obnoxious’ person cross the line and has Narcissistic Personality Disorder? 

Narcissism is having an excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance. They are selfish, vain, attention seeking, think highly of them self and have little regard for other people’s feelings.  This sounds like a typical teenager to me but just because they display obnoxious traits does not mean they are clinically ill and most teenagers grow out of these behaviours and don’t develop NPD.  What’s interesting though is only 3 per cent of people over 65 years old have NPD whilst 20 percent of people in their 20’s have NPD.  It appears due to social media’s influence where people are portraying an exaggerated sense of self, people are looking to reinforce this idea in the ‘real world’ and unhealthy narcissism may continue to increase.

Here is an example of a person with narcissistic traits that may not be have NPD:

  • A friend has recently started constantly talking about herself and how many likes and ‘friends’ she has on Facebook and is making comments about her she is more popular and better than her friends because they don’t have as many as her. However, after her friends told her that she was being self-centred and inconsiderate of other people’s feelings she apologised and was able to continue her positive relationship with her friends. 

As you can see this person may be showing narcissistic behaviour however this doesn’t mean that she has NPD.  A person with NDP needs a formal diagnosis by a mental health professional and the person must meet the criteria established by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).  According to DSM-5, to be diagnosed with NPD, one must exhibit 5 of these 9 traits throughout their lives and in different areas of their lives.

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance. Will exaggerate achievements and talents and 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
  4. Requires excessive admiration
  5. Has a sense of entitlement
  6. Is interpersonally exploitive
  7. Lacks empathy
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviours and attitudes

The main difference between demonstrating narcissistic behaviour and a pathological narcissist is the behaviours are chronic and severe with NPD.  A pathological narcissist will use narcissistic strategies to exploit relationships and reinforce a false sense of superiority as they think the world revolves around them, others exist only to serve them, they are above the law, tell frequent lies, exaggerate accomplishments, have a constant need for gratification, enjoy instigating and spreading negative emotions.  They don’t have a true emotional self as they have created a false sense of self to protect them from perceived harm due to humiliation.

The causes of NPD usually have to do with childhood experiences where the child experienced a lack of stimuli or love or there was excessive behaviour usually by the parent, for example, a parent goes over the top in trying to meet the needs of the child. 

For those of you who work or live with narcissists they can test your patience levels but a person with narcissistic tendencies can change for the better if they have self-awareness and are tired of performing the false persona they portray to people.  The problems associated with narcissism have different levels and sometimes it’s just the way the person is or if more serious then they may have NPD and will need get support from a mental health professional. 

For those of you who want a short synopsis of the difference between narcissistic tendencies verses NPD then here is a nice explanation for you to watch.  

Written by: Kimberley Aguet Virtual Psychologist Counsellor