The Infamous Dirty Word: Narcissist

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Narcissism is essentially the state of being egotistical, self-focused, and vain. Research shows that you can actually just ask people if they think they are a narcissist and their answer lines up pretty well with reality. That’s because they are proud of themselves. You can ask them directly because they don’t see narcissism as a negative quality—they believe they are superior to other people and are fine with saying that publicly.

What many people don’t realize is that true narcissism is a deep-rooted defense mechanism against feelings of inferiority. The person portrays a mask of arrogant superiority in an attempt to convince everyone that they are a special snowflake, but, inside, the person feels very insecure about their self-worth. This makes the person hypersensitive to minor slights that someone with healthy narcissism would not even notice.

The Fragile Ego of a Narcissist

Someone with an unhealthy level of narcissism is easily hurt by the actions and words of others, takes any form of disagreement as a serious criticism to their self-worth, and responds by devaluing and abusing anyone with an opposing opinion. The hypersensitivity to criticism is a hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and often leads to volatile relationships and environments, as the narcissist seeks constant validation and admiration.

The Misuse of the Term “Narcissist”

The term “narcissist” is exploited today. It’s thrown around and used to describe anyone who has confidence in their position or themselves. However, there is a stark difference between healthy self-confidence and narcissistic behavior. Healthy narcissism is a normal and necessary part of self-esteem. It helps us love and care for ourselves, pursue our goals, and protect our interests. Normal narcissism causes us to love and care for ourselves, do things that are in our genuine self-interest, and is associated with authentic self-respect.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Narcissism

We all have a little narcissism; it’s normal and healthy. Healthy narcissism is relatively impervious to the minor slights and setbacks that we all experience as we go through life. It allows individuals to maintain self-respect and confidence without the need to belittle others or seek constant validation. In contrast, unhealthy narcissism, or NPD, involves a fragile ego that is easily threatened and requires constant reinforcement of superiority.

The Controversial Diagnosis of NPD

Narcissistic personality disorder is a controversial diagnosis and is undergoing further change, but it is nonetheless interesting. Someone with NPD is grandiose (sometimes only in fantasy), lacks empathy, and needs admiration from others. This disorder is typically diagnosed based on the presence of at least five of the following characteristics:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance and exaggerates achievements and talents.
  • Dreams of unlimited power, success, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  • Lacks empathy for the feelings and needs of others.
  • Requires excessive admiration.
  • Believes 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).
  • Exploits and takes advantage of others to achieve personal ends.
  • Envies others or believes others are envious of him or her.
  • Has “an attitude” of arrogance or acts that way.

Narcissism as a Defense Mechanism

The person with NPD uses these behaviors as a shield against their deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. By projecting an image of superiority, they attempt to hide their vulnerabilities not just from the world, but from themselves. This defense mechanism, however, is inherently unstable. The constant need for validation and the fragile sense of self-worth mean that the narcissist’s world can easily crumble in the face of real or perceived criticism.


Understanding narcissism requires looking beyond surface behaviors and recognizing the underlying insecurities driving these actions. It’s crucial to distinguish between healthy self-confidence and narcissism. Not everyone who is confident is a narcissist; misusing terms like “narcissist” to describe confident people dilutes their meaning and can stigmatize healthy traits.

Unhealthy narcissism, or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), involves excessive admiration and a grandiose sense of self-importance, often masking deep-seated insecurities. Individuals with NPD exhibit behaviors such as exploiting others, lacking empathy, and craving constant validation, which can lead to destructive patterns. Differentiating between healthy and unhealthy narcissism allows us to address the challenges posed by NPD more effectively and support those struggling with it in finding healthier ways to cope with their insecurities. By recognizing these distinctions, we can support a more nuanced understanding of narcissism, promote mental halth, and ensure that terms retain their intended meaning and impact.

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