Narcissus (1597–99) by Caravaggio; the man in love with his own reflection.
Narcissus (1597–99) by Caravaggio; the man in love with his own reflection.

Narcissism is a self-centered personality style characterized as having an excessive interest in one's physical appearance and an excessive pre-occupation with one's own needs, often at the expense of others.[1][2]

It is human nature to be selfish and boastful to a certain degree. There is a significant difference between healthy narcissism, being self-absorbed and difficult and having a pathological mental illness like narcissistic personality disorder.[3]


In Greek mythology, the story is told of Sisyphus, a man who believed that he could outsmart the gods. He was found guilty of hubris and condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill. Each time the boulder would near the summit, it would roll back down and Sisyphus would then be forced to repeat his task.
In Greek mythology, the story is told of Sisyphus, a man who believed that he could outsmart the gods. He was found guilty of hubris and condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill. Each time the boulder would near the summit, it would roll back down and Sisyphus would then be forced to repeat his task.

The term "narcissism" comes from a first century book (written in the year 8 AD) by the Roman poet Ovid. Metamorphoses Book III tells the mythical story of a handsome young man, Narcissus, who spurns the advances of many potential lovers. When Narcissus rejects the nymph Echo, who was cursed to only echo the sounds that others made, the gods punished Narcissus by making him fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. When Narcissus discovers that the object of his love cannot love him back, he slowly pines away and dies.[4]

The concept of excessive selfishness has been recognized throughout history. In ancient Greece, the concept was understood as hubris.

It wasn’t until the late 1800s that narcissism began to be defined in psychological terms.[5] Since that time, the term narcissism has had a significant divergence in meaning in psychology. It has been used to describe:[6]

Paul Näcke and Havelock Ellis (1889) are the first psychiatrists, independent of one-another, to use the term "narcissism" to describe a person who treats his own body in the same way in which the body of a sexual partner is ordinarily treated. Narcissism, in this context, was seen as a perversion that consumed a persons entire sexual life.[5]

Otto Rank (1911) published the first clinical paper about narcissism, linking it to vanity and self-admiration.[7][5]

Ernest Jones (1913) was the first to construe extreme narcissism, which he called the "God-complex" as a character flaw. He described people with God-complex as being aloof, self-important, overconfident, auto-erotic, inaccessible, self-admiring, and exhibitionistic, with fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience. He observed that these people had a high need for uniqueness.[8][9][10]

Sigmund Freud (1914) published his theory of narcissism in a lengthy essay titled "On Narcissism: An Introduction". Freud postulated that all humans have a level of narcissism from birth (primary narcissism), it is healthy, and in time, evolves outward as love for others. Freud had declared that narcissism was a necessary intermediate stage between auto-erotism and object-love, love for others. He also theorized that narcissism becomes a neurosis (secondary narcissism) when individuals who had reached the point of projecting their affections to others, turned their affection back on themselves. In time these individual become cut off from society and disinterested in others.[11][12][13]

Robert Waelder (1925) was the first to conceptualize narcissism as a personality trait. He described individuals who are condescending, feel superior to others, are preoccupied with admiration, and exhibit a lack of empathy. They are most apparent in their sexuality which is based on physical pleasure rather than combined with emotional intimacy.[14]

Karen Horney (1939) postulated that narcissism was on a spectrum that ranged from healthy self-esteem to a pathological state.[14]

Waelder's work and his case study have been very influential in the way narcissism and the clinical disorder Narcissistic personality disorder are defined today. His patient was a successful scientist with an attitude of superiority, an obsession with fostering self-respect, and a lack of normal feelings of guilt. The patient was aloof and independent from others, had an inability to empathize with others, and was selfish sexuality. Waelder's patient was also overly logical and analytical and valued abstract intellectual thought over the practical application of scientific knowledge.[15]

Misappropriation of the term

Increasingly over the last three decades,[16] social media, bloggers, and self-help authors have indiscriminately applied "narcissism" [17] as a label for the self-serving and for all domestic abusers.[18][19]


Freud theorized that narcissism is normal, healthy, and present from birth in all humans (primary narcissism). It evolves in time to include affection for others. Secondary narcissism, a neurosis, occurs when individuals reverse course and turn their affection back onto themselves.
Freud theorized that narcissism is normal, healthy, and present from birth in all humans (primary narcissism). It evolves in time to include affection for others. Secondary narcissism, a neurosis, occurs when individuals reverse course and turn their affection back onto themselves.

Narcissism is not necessarily 'good' or 'bad', it depends on the contexts and outcomes being measured. In certain social contexts such as initiating social relationships, and with certain outcome variables, such as feeling good about oneself, healthy narcissism can be helpful. In other contexts, such as maintaining long-term relationships and with outcome variables, such as accurate self-knowledge, healthy narcissism can be unhelpful.[20]

Four dimensions of narcissism as a personality variable have been delineated: leadership/authority, superiority/arrogance, self-absorption/self-admiration, and exploitativeness/entitlement.[21]

Healthy levels of narcissism

Narcissism is an essential component of mature self-esteem and basic self-worth.[22][23][24] In essence, narcissistic behavior are a system of intrapersonal and interpersonal strategies devoted to protecting one's self-esteem.[25]

It has been suggested that healthy narcissism is correlated with good psychological health. Self-esteem works as a mediator between narcissism and psychological health. Therefore, because of their elevated self-esteem, deriving from self-perceptions of competence and likability, high narcissists are relatively free of worry and gloom.[26]

Destructive levels of narcissism

Narcissism, in and of itself, is a normal personality trait, however, high levels of narcissistic behavior can be damaging and self-defeating.[27] Destructive narcissism is the constant exhibition of a few of the intense characteristics usually associated with pathological Narcissistic personality disorder such as a "pervasive pattern of grandiosity", which is characterized by feelings of entitlement and superiority, arrogant or haughty behaviors, and a generalized lack of empathy and concern for others.[2] On a spectrum, destructive narcissism is more extreme than healthy narcissism but not as extreme as the pathological condition.[28]

Pathological levels of narcissism

Main article: Narcissistic personality disorder

Extremely high levels of narcissistic behavior are considered pathological. The pathological condition of narcissism is, as Freud suggested, a magnified, extreme manifestation of healthy narcissism. Freud's idea of narcissism described a pathology which manifests itself in the inability to love others, a lack of empathy, emptiness, boredom, and an unremitting need to search for power, while making the person unavailable to others.[27] The clinical theorists Kernberg, Kohut and Theodore Millon all saw pathological narcissism as a possible outcome in response to unempathic and inconsistent early childhood interactions. They suggested that narcissists try to compensate in adult relationships.[29] German psychoanalyst Karen Horney (1885–1952) also saw the narcissistic personality as a temperament trait molded by a certain kind of early environment.


Heritability studies using twins have shown that narcissistic traits, as measured by standardized tests, are often inherited. Narcissism was found to have a high heritability score (0.64) indicating that the concordance of this trait in the identical twins was significantly influenced by genetics as compared to an environmental causation. It has also been shown that there is a continuum or spectrum of narcissistic traits ranging from normal and a pathological personality.[30]

Expressions of narcissism

Sexual narcissism

Sexual narcissism has been described as an egocentric pattern of sexual behavior that involves an inflated sense of sexual ability or sexual entitlement, sometimes in the form of extramarital affairs. This can be overcompensation for low self-esteem or an inability to sustain true intimacy.[31]

While this behavioral pattern is believed to be more common in men than in women,[32][33] it occurs in both males and females who compensate for feelings of sexual inadequacy by becoming overly proud or obsessed with their masculinity or femininity.[34]

The controversial condition referred to as "sexual addiction" is believed by some experts to be sexual narcissism or sexual compulsivity rather than an addictive behavior.[35]

Parental narcissism

Main article: Narcissistic parents

Narcissistic parents can see their children as extensions of themselves and encourage the children to act in ways that support the parents' emotional and self-esteem needs.[36] Due to their vulnerability, children may be significantly affected by this behavior.[37] To meet the parents needs, the child may sacrifice their own wants and feelings.[38] A child subjected to this type of parenting may struggle in adulthood with their intimate relationships.

In extreme situations, this parenting style can result in estranged relationships with the children, coupled with feelings of resentment and in some cases, self-destructive tendencies.[36]

Workplace narcissism

* inanimate – status symbols like company cars, company-issued smartphone, or prestigious offices with window views; and
* animate – flattery and attention from colleagues and subordinates.[41]: 143 
Narcissism has been linked to a range of potential leadership problems ranging from poor motivational skills to risky decision making, and in extreme cases, white collar crime.[42] Some high-profile corporate leaders literally have only one thing on their minds: profits. Such a narrow focus actually may yield positive short-term benefits, but ultimately it drags down individual employees as well as entire companies.[43]
Subordinates may find everyday offers of support swiftly turn them into enabling sources, unless they are very careful to maintain proper boundaries.[41]: 143, 181 
Studies examining the role of personality in the rise to leadership have shown that individuals who rise to leadership positions can be described as inter-personally dominant, extroverted, and socially skilled.[42] When examining the correlation of narcissism in the rise to leadership positions, narcissists who are often inter-personally dominant, extroverted, and socially skilled, were also likely to rise to leadership but were more likely to emerge as leaders in situations where they were not known, such as in outside hires (versus internal promotions). Paradoxically, narcissism can present as characteristics that facilitate an individual's rise to leadership and ultimately lead that person under achieve or even to fail.[42]

Celebrity narcissism

Celebrity narcissism (sometimes referred to as Acquired situational narcissism) is a form of narcissism that develops in late adolescence or adulthood, brought on by wealth, fame and the other trappings of celebrity. Celebrity narcissism develops after childhood and is triggered and supported by the celebrity-obsessed society. Fans, assistants and tabloid media all play into the idea that the person really is vastly more important than other people, triggering a narcissistic problem that might have been only a tendency, or latent, and helping it to become a full-blown personality disorder. "Robert Millman says that what happens to celebrities is that they get so used to people looking at them that they stop looking back at other people."[48] In its most extreme presentation and symptoms, it is indistinguishable from narcissistic personality disorder, differing only in its late onset and its environmental support by large numbers of fans. "The lack of social norms, controls, and of people centering them makes these people believe they're invulnerable,"[49] so that the person may suffer from unstable relationships, substance abuse or erratic behaviours.

Collective narcissism

Main article: Collective narcissism

Collective narcissism is a type of narcissism where an individual has an inflated self-love of their own group.[50] While the classic definition of narcissism focuses on the individual, collective narcissism asserts that one can have a similar excessively high opinion of a group, and that a group can function as a narcissistic entity.[50] Collective narcissism is related to ethnocentrism; however, ethnocentrism primarily focuses on self-centeredness at an ethnic or cultural level, while collective narcissism is extended to any type of ingroup beyond just cultures and ethnicities.[50][51]

Normalization of narcissistic behaviors

Studies have shown that individuals who score high on narcissism scales (self-sufficiency, vanity, leadership, and admiration demand) posted selfies to social media sites more than individuals who exhibit low narcissism scores. Men posting selfies had higher narcissism scores than women.[52]
Studies have shown that individuals who score high on narcissism scales (self-sufficiency, vanity, leadership, and admiration demand) posted selfies to social media sites more than individuals who exhibit low narcissism scores. Men posting selfies had higher narcissism scores than women.[52]

Some critics contend that the American populace has become increasingly narcissistic since the end of World War II.[53][54][55][56] People compete mightily for attention. In social situations they tend to steer the conversation away from others and toward themselves. The profusion of popular literature about "listening" and "managing those who talk constantly about themselves" suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life.[57] This claim is substantiated by the growth of "reality TV" programs,[53] the growth of an online culture in which digital media, social media and the desire for fame are generating a "new era of public narcissism."[58]

Also supporting the contention that American culture has become more narcissistic is an analysis of US popular song lyrics between 1987 and 2007. This found a growth in the use of first-person singular pronouns, reflecting a greater focus on the self, and also of references to antisocial behavior; during the same period, there was a diminution of words reflecting a focus on others, positive emotions, and social interactions.[59][60] Similar patterns of change in cultural production are observable in other Western states. A linguistic analysis of the largest circulation Norwegian newspaper found that the use of self-focused and individualistic terms increased in frequency by 69 per cent between 1984 and 2005 while collectivist terms declined by 32 per cent.[61] References to narcissism and self-esteem in American popular print media have experienced vast inflation since the late 1980s.[60] Between 1987 and 2007 direct mentions of self-esteem in leading US newspapers and magazines increased by 4,540 per cent while narcissism, which had been almost non-existent in the press during the 1970s, was referred to over 5,000 times between 2002 and 2007.[60]

One study looked at differences in advertising products between an individualistic culture, America, and a collectivist one, South Korea. In American magazine advertisements, it found, there was a greater tendency to stress the distinctiveness and uniqueness of the person; conversely the South Korean ones stressed the importance of social conformity and harmony.[61] This observation holds true for a cross-cultural analysis across a wide range of cultural outputs where individualistic national cultures produce more individualistic cultural products and collectivist national cultures produce more collectivist national products; these cultural effects were greater than the effects of individual differences within national cultures.[61]

Narcissism and evolution

Narcissism plays a role in evolution through the process of assortative mating or the non-random choice of a partner for purposes of procreation.

Humans mate assortatively regarding age, IQ, height, weight, nationality, educational and occupational level, physical and personality characteristics, and family relatedness.[62] In the "self seeking like" hypothesis, individuals unconsciously look for a "mirror image" of themselves in others, seeking criteria of beauty or reproductive fitness in the context of self-reference. Alvarez et al. found that facial resemblance between couples was a strong driving force among the mechanisms of assortative mating: human couples resemble each other significantly more than would be expected from random pair formation.[63] Since facial characteristics are known to be inherited, the "self seeking like" mechanism may enhance reproduction between genetically similar mates, favoring the stabilization of genes supporting social behavior, with no kin relationship among them.


There has been an increased interest in narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) in the last 10 years. There are areas of substantial debate that surround the subject including:

This extent of the controversy was on public display in 2010-2013 when the committee on personality disorders for the 5th Edition (2013) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recommended the removal of Narcissistic Personality from the manual. A contentious three year debate unfolded in the clinical community with one of the sharpest critics being professor John Gunderson, MD, the person who led the DSM personality disorders committee for the 4th edition of the manual.[65]

See also


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Further reading

  • Blackburn, Simon, Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014)
  • Twenge, Jean M.; Campbell, W., Keith The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (2009)
  • Hotchkiss, Sandy; Masterson, James F., Why Is It Always About You? : The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism (2003)
  • Brown, Nina W., Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown-up's Guide to Getting over Narcissistic Parents (2008)
  • McFarlin, Dean, Where Egos Dare: The Untold Truth About Narcissistic Leaders – And How to Survive Them (2002)
  • Brown, Nina W., The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern (1998)
  • Golomb, Elan, Trapped in the Mirror – Adult Children of Narcissists in their Struggle for Self (1995)