"Narcissist" has become a buzzword we love to toss around—inspiring a frenzy of articles, blog posts, online quizzes, and memes. Also a swarm of accusations. Nearly everybody thinks they know one. There is the image-obsessed friend who is in love with their own reflection, the arrogant boss who gloats over their own ideas, and the two-timing ex. But, do you really know a narcissist or have you been using it as a catchall phrase for someone has a moderate dose of these tendencies.

A personality disorder that exists on a spectrum, extreme narcissism hosts a maze of trickery that transcends your run-of-the-mill self-absorption. If you lean in too closely, a narcissist becomes an energy vampire, making a circus of your life—the kind that causes you to perform acrobatics in order to please them.

The most common traits that narcissists possess are dismissiveness, entitlement, and grandiosity—including blatant defiance of your boundaries, jealousy and resentment when someone else captures the spotlight, and outrageous expectations for how their needs should be met—while grasping for anyone to cloak them in validation, of course.

So, if you suspect you have a narcissist in your circle, or might be in a one-sided relationship with one—whether or not the dynamic feels toxic—read on. We talked to the experts to unbox what narcissism really is—the charm, the gaslighting, the seduction, the injury, and the twisted truth, as well as how to deal with a narcissistic person.

So, common misconceptions aside, what is a narcissist really?

Defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy," a hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is an extreme religiosity to an individual's sense of entitlement, self-importance and uniqueness.

It's their needs that matter. They take self-absorption to a high altitude, convinced that they are so rare that few are capable of understanding them. In other words, their feet are seldom on the ground. The disorder can manifest in the form of wild ambition, coupled with success, or swing the other direction, in which they may become melodramatic or believe they're always the victim.

"When you're talking about a true narcissist, this is someone who exaggerates their self-perception and deems themselves as being superior in some way. And while it can appear quite alluring at first, you won't find the kind of consideration and regard for other people that you might expect from the average individual. They may come across as charming, kind and extremely likable initially, but behind it is someone who is seeking to get their needs met," says Dr. Judy Ho, PhD, clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, and author of Stop Self Sabotage. "And you will see that darker part of them the minute you are unwilling to meet their needs."

Dr. Lena Derhally, licensed psychotherapist and author of My Daddy is a Hero: How Chris Watts Went from Family Man to Family Killer says that the key to understanding narcissism is quite simple. "Extreme narcissism is not being cranky with your spouse and having low empathy for them one day, or even every now and then, because you're stressed. Everybody does that. It's more so this behavior that touches all areas of a person's life, shaped by a lack of empathy and desire to truly understand the needs of others."

With narcissism, there is a spectrum, and everyone falls somewhere.

One of the most common misconceptions about narcissism, aside from the assumption that it's primarily identifiable by instances of extreme self-absorption, is that a person either is or isn't. Psychologically speaking, narcissism is a personality trait that every human being occupies to some extent. Everyone you know lands somewhere along the narcissism spectrum, and interestingly, research shows that a moderate amount of self-centeredness and confidence is healthy—lending an engine of ambition and resilience to one's functionality and goals.

But nearly any personality trait, when driven to the extreme, can become pathological and sick. This is when the behavior is so egregious that it becomes diagnosable as NPD, which only makes up about 1 percent of the population. This deeply ingrained, inescapable pattern pervades extreme delusions of grandeur, jealousy, and power struggle, particularly in the realm of relationships. Incidents of cruelty and violence are often involved.

So let's say you have a character in your life who breezes (or torpedoes) through their days—both good and bad—with a haughty air about them, and a chronic dismissal of your feelings. You could be fraternizing with a person who has NPD, but it is much more likely that the accused is someone who is simply positioned on the higher end on the narcissism spectrum. This is typically referred to by mental health professionals as a person with "strong narcissistic traits," and though it isn't necessarily someone whose personality is entirely void of empathy, their persistent narcissistic habits and patterns can still wreak havoc on their life—and yours.

Let's zoom in on the personality traits of someone with high narcissism.

A narcissist charges through life as though everything they embody—from their ideas to their problems—is a higher priority than yours. Your life just isn't as relevant or interesting to them, and you'll know this by how they constantly steer the conversation right back to their own narratives.

They love bathing in themselves—their accolades, dramas, ideas, and even victimhood. In fact, you may know every detail of their life—from the glory to the gore, but they may barely know your highlights. "You might hear the language of, 'Nobody does it like I can...' or, in cases where the narcissist is wallowing in their troubles, it could be, 'Nobody understands what I'm dealing with...' or they may remind you over and over of how strong they are," says Dr. Ho.

They don't believe in boundaries.

Boundaries? You won't be needing those. "Narcissists see other people as pawns to get to where they want to go. They may never admit it, but they are the most important person in the room and everyone else is just an object to manipulate or a place to dump their problems. So your boundaries mean nothing to them," says Dr. Ho.

When they want something, they expect automatic concession—whatever the day, the hour, or the circumstances. And if you deny them what they want? That's like stomping on an ant pile—because another person's connections, empathy, resources and time are their right to dominate.

If you assert yourself, prepare to encounter their wrath. In fact, it may blow up in a puff of smoke, leaving you confused as to how you suddenly became the bad guy. "When you give a narcissist any kind of critical feedback whatsoever, even in the gentlest way, they bite back extremely hard, acting as though you attacked them or wronged them," says Dr. Ho.

The type to launch smear campaigns or call upon humiliation tactics, Dr. Ho says narcissists who are the highest on the spectrum can be downright cruel when challenged—growing violently insulted and offended, easily and often. "A narcissist will often imagine that other people are belittling them or trying to harm them, even if the person is simply trying to set a small boundary or give constructive criticism during a business meeting. They often react with rage or a defiant counterattack. And it can get ugly," she says.

Dr. Derhally adds that 'perceived' is the key word within this dynamic. "Oftentimes what they think is an attack isn't even an insult whatsoever, but an accidental challenge to their ego. This extremely angry overreaction is called narcissistic rage."

Admiration, praise and validation—those make up a concoction that is their literal lifeblood. "The minute you compliment them, it intoxicates them so much that they will almost pry for more validation," says Dr. Ho. "So if you say to them, 'Oh, you're so funny!' they will keep working on that, wanting more and more of the praise. But the same sort of applies to when they get comfortable with you and bring all of their negativity to you. They love for you to validate or enable whatever brings them attention and confirms their uniqueness, even if negative.”

Read the full story here: These Are the Telltale Traits of a Narcissist


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