Loving ourselves is key to a healthy inner life. It protects us from the adversities of destiny that sooner or later will come; and it reinforces self-esteem in the face of inclemency, failure, and misfortune.

Self-esteem is the affective component of self-perception, and the ideal setting in which the interactions we have with ourselves and others unfold.

Like many other things in life, however, excesses can make something valuable harmful. Narcissism can be placed in such a line, as an extreme position of overvaluing oneself and devaluing others.

The question we are trying to answer with this article is: can narcissism be pathological? In it we will describe the lines that draw the common spaces and the differences between healthy self-esteem and the attitude of a narcissist.

Can narcissism be pathological?

Narcissism can be understood in a popular sense and in a clinical sense . In the first case it is a term that describes an attitude of rapture towards one’s own identity, an exaggeration of the virtues available (or not) and a tendency to overestimate them. In the second case, it is a stable personality pattern, included in cluster B of the DSM-5 manual (along with borderline, histrionic and antisocial), which can affect the development of life.

The first of these meanings subsumes people who are in the normal range of the attribute (does not generate damage to themselves or others), despite being at the highest point of this range. The second of these, however, refers to a set of traits that generates substantial difficulties in living and in relationships with others. In the latter case, one can observe attitudes that not only differ from the first in a matter of degree, but also do so qualitatively.

We proceed to describe the limits of this phenomenon, pointing out the way in which its clinical aspect is expressed: narcissistic personality disorder . A reflection will also be made on its consequences for the person himself and his environment, which are the main axis on which the distinction between the “normal” and the pathological is drawn.

1. Feelings of greatness or omnipotence

Feelings of grandiosity are among the most characteristic symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder . In these cases the person perceives himself as capable of performing great deeds, despite not having objective reasons for it, to the extent that it is frequent that there are notorious failures in the attempt to achieve what they desire in a disproportionate and incongruent manner.

This feeling of omnipotence often leads to the inversion of a poor effort to achieve the objectives, since the process of evaluating the demanding situations is conditioned by the illusory perception of their own capacity (which acts to the detriment of constancy or commitment). However, these ideas never attain the intensity or quality of a delusion, which is limited to the severe manic episodes of a type I bipolar disorder.

2. Fantasies of excessive success

People with narcissistic personality disorder project the future considering that they are going to be the recipients of great successes and fortunes , and depositaries of enormous power or social transcendence. Such fantasies can also be associated with the expectation of great amorous passions with idealized people, in spite of not being appreciated in this case deliriums of erotomaniac type (irreducible conviction that one is an object of the love of a third person without evidence that can sustain it).

This fantasy often ends up contrasting with an ordinary reality, which is a source of frustration and intimate affront. This is why they have a certain tendency to accuse others of their failures, considering that the mediocrity of others would explain the incongruity between their ideal self and their real self. It has been described that this dissonance motivates a laceration of self-esteem, which would remain hidden behind the imposture of an attitude of greatness.

3. Belief that you are special or unique

Narcissists argue that they are special or unique, possessing a series of attributes that differentiate them from other individuals, who are perceived as particularly regular in their way of being and acting. This contempt may become vehement, especially when the social environment is required to act in a specific way when it is in front of it , demanding the most extreme of courtesies.

To a certain extent, it is an egocentric attitude that tends to appear during adolescence, in which we experience an inflammation of our own individuality and of the importance we assign to ourselves as agents of the social scene (imaginary audience and personal fable). This phase, which is the result of a vital period in which we deal with a rapid development (at all levels), would be maintained in those who live with this personality disorder.

4. Excessive need for admiration

The narcissist is a person who believes that he needs constant admiration, which is why lives any confrontation as unacceptable . His imperious need leads him to inquire into the opinion of others, but not because they value it, but because they wish to receive flattering words. Furthermore, they expect a solicitous disposition in the face of any demand that they might make, and they bear badly the denials of their will.

5. Sense of privilege

People with narcissistic personality disorder consider themselves worthy of all kinds of privileges , embracing ideas about the future that do not adhere to reality. Thus, they conceive that their expectations will be satisfied spontaneously without having invested an effort proportional to the achievement they expect to obtain. The prosperity that is desired for life would not be reasonable in light of the circumstances of the present or the actions that are taken to improve them.

This fact is the result of a particular way of processing information that is grounded in a state of expansiveness of one’s worth, which even extends beyond the limits of the immediate. The same phenomenon, but in an opposite sense, can be observed in people suffering from a major depressive disorder (shadowing of the future and a pessimistic attitude towards uncertain situations).

6. Exploitation of personal relationships

People with a narcissistic personality disorder have great difficulty in maintaining horizontal relationships, always looking for a positioning that provides benefits (even though it seriously harms others). In any case, they prioritize themselves in all contexts, even in cases where the incentive is tiny in contrast to the harm it does to others involved.

Narcissists take advantage of others to achieve their goals, adopting a utilitarian position in their social relations. In this sense, it is a feature similar to that observed in antisocial personality disorder, which would translate into disruptive behavior that may end up motivating isolation or rejection of the environment. In this sense, from narcissism it is very difficult to forge lasting bonds inspired by mutual trust.

7. Empathic deficit

People with narcissistic personality disorder often do not put themselves in the shoes of others, which means that they have severe problems connecting emotionally with those around them . They are very insensitive to the pain and discomfort of others, so they rarely make an effort to relieve it, even though they have the possibility of doing so at hand. This way of acting is at the base of other symptoms described in the article (such as exploitative relationships, for example).

As a consequence of its scarce empathic capacity, narcissism has been aligned from the beginning of its clinical conceptualization with psychopathy, as related phenomena. Although it’s true that most psychopaths have characteristics that are typical of narcissism (such as the overestimation of one’s personal worth, to cite one example), not all narcissists are psychopaths in essence.

8. Feelings of envy

People with narcissistic disorder experience envy in a particularly intense way, and in two possible directions. On the one hand, they tend to experience this feeling when someone close to them achieves success in any area of life , especially when they perceive that they have surpassed their achievements or merits. This conflict tends to be resolved through direct contempt and devaluation of what has been achieved by the other, and never as an incentive to increase individual effort.

On the other hand, narcissistic people often believe that they are the object of envy by others ; this implies the belief that they are imitated in the way they act, dress or live. They also tend to use envy as the argument through which to explain any criticism made of their attitude, in order to hide any responsibility for how they treat their social circle.

9. Arrogant behavior

Arrogance is the inevitable result of the confluence of symptoms described in this article. The feeling of superiority and poor empathy, two dimensions anchored in the subjective, are expressed behaviorally through arrogance and excessive pride. Arrogance is translated as arrogance and haughtiness, as well as by the inability to recognize one’s own mistakes and the habit of highlighting the defects of others.

Therefore, interactions with these individuals can severely deteriorate self-esteem and become an aversive stimulus that the environment will try to avoid.

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5.
  • Serra, J.K. (2016). The Diagnosis of Narcissism: A Relational Reading. Spanish Journal of Neuropsychiatry, 36(129), 171 – 187.