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Excessive preoccupation with self and lack of empathy for others.

Narcissism is the personality trait that features an exaggerated sense of the person's own importance and abilities. People with this trait believe themselves to be uniquely gifted and commonly engage in fantasies of fabulous success, power, or fame. Arrogant and egotistical, narcissistics are often snobs, defining themselves by their ability to associate with (or purchase the services of) the "best" people. They expect special treatment and concessions from others. Paradoxically, these individuals are generally insecure and have low self-esteem. They require considerable admiration from others and find it difficult to cope with criticism. Adversity or criticism may cause the narcissistic person to either counterattack in anger or withdraw socially. Because narcissistic individuals cannot cope with setbacks or failure, they often avoid risks and situations in which defeat is a possibility.

Another common characteristic of narcissistic individuals is envy and the expectation that others are envious as well. The self-aggrandizement and self-absorption of narcissistic individuals is accompanied by a pronounced lack of interest in and empathy for others. They expect people to be devoted to them but have no impulse to reciprocate, being unable to identify with the feelings of others or anticipate their needs. Narcissistic people often enter into relationships based on what other people can do for them.

During adolescence, when the individual is making the transition from childhood to adulthood, many demonstrate aspects of narcissism. These traits, related to the adolescent's need to develop his or her own sense of self, do not necessarily develop into the disorder that psychologists have studied for decades, known as narcissistic personality disorder. In 1898, Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) was the first psychologist to address narcissism in a published work. Sigmund Freud claimed that sexual perversion is linked to the narcissistic substitution of the self for one's mother as the primary love object in infancy. In 1933, psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) described the "phallic-narcissistic" personality type in terms that foreshadow the present-day definition: self-assured, arrogant, and disdainful. In 1969, Theodore Milton specified five criteria for narcissistic personality disorder in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III): (1) inflated self-image; (2) exploitative; (3) cognitive expansiveness;(4) insouciant temperament; and (5) deficient social conscience.

The person with narcissistic personality disorder experiences a powerful need to be admired and seems consumed with his or her own interests and feelings. Individuals with this disorder have little or no empathy for others and an inflated sense of their own importance and of the significance of their achievements. It is common for persons with this disorder to compare themselves to famous people of achievement and to express surprise when others do not share or voice the same perception. They feel entitled to great praise, attention, and deferential treatment by others, and have difficulty understanding or acknowledging the needs of others. They envy others and imagine that others are envious of them. The person with narcissistic personality disorder has no patience with others, and quickly strays from situations where he or she is not the center of attention and conversation. According to DSM-IV, narcissistic personality disorder affects less than 1% of the general population. Of those, between half and three-fourths are male.

Secondary features of narcissistic personality disorder include feelings of shame or humiliation, depression, and mania. Narcissistic personality disorder has also been linked to anorexia nervosa, substance-related disorders (especially cocaine abuse), and other personality disorders.

Further Reading

Masterson, James F. The Emerging Self: A Developmental, Self, and Object Relations Approach to the Treatment of the Closet Narcissistic Disorder. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1993.

Sandler, Joseph, Ethel Spector Person, and Peter Fonagy, eds. Freud's "On Narcissism—an Introduction." New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

Westen, Drew. Self and Society: Narcissism, Collectivism, and the Development of Morals. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Ibn Bajjah (Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn-Yahya ibn-al-Saʼigh, c.1106–38) Biography to Perception: cultural differences