Not Every Person With Narcissistic Traits Has Narcissistic Personality Disorder
When we encounter people who are self-centered, self-confident, entitled, or mean, we might be quick to label them as narcissists without fully understanding the implications of the term. I often hear people question whether they themselves are narcissists because they were raised by a narcissistic parent, boast about accomplishments, or at times seek validation or attention from others.
It's important to highlight that if you are concerned about being a narcissist, then you likely are not one—because true pathological narcissists see nothing wrong with themselves and would never question their behaviors. Let's talk about the difference between healthy narcissism, narcissistic traits, and pathological narcissism—aka narcissistic personality disorder.
What is narcissistic personality disorder?
People with narcissistic personality disorder act on selfishness and frequently behave in ways that dismiss the feelings of others, including those close to them like family, friends, and romantic partners. They lack empathy and pursue control over others by utilizing tactics such as manipulation, lying, gaslighting, and bullying.
According to the DSM 5, a person with narcissistic personality disorder demonstrates a pattern of grandiosity (acting as though they are significantly better than others), a need for admiration, and pervasive lack of empathy present in various relationships and contexts. While there are many signs of a narcissist, a person must meet at least five of the criteria listed below to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder:
- Grandiosity (an inflated sense of self; achievements and talents are exaggerated or lied about), and they expect special treatment from others despite how poorly they treat others.
- Preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, and attractiveness.
- Operate upon the belief that they are unique and superior and should only be associated with other high-status people and institutions.
- They are exploitative of their relationships, and they take advantage of others for personal gain.
- Have an excessive need for admiration from others.
- They have no empathy for the hurt that they have caused others, resulting in continued and repeat behaviors (sometimes generic apologies) for the purpose of continuing to hold on to their victims. They are unwilling to empathize and identify with the wants and needs of other people.
- They are entitled and expect that others treat them specially (despite the harm they have caused others) and have unreasonable expectations of how others should treat them. There is an expectation that others will obey them and fall in line with their vision of themselves.
- Significantly envious of others and believe that people are envious of them.
- Arrogant, demeaning, and belittle others via verbal abuse and mental manipulation.
People oftentimes throw the term "narcissist" around without much awareness of its clinical meaning. It is possible for a person to demonstrate narcissistic traits without having a narcissistic personality disorder, and there is such a thing as healthy narcissism.
What is healthy narcissism?
Each person has a bit of healthy narcissism within them: This is the ability to have healthy self-esteem along with entitlement without being completely devoid of empathy and emotion. A person with healthy narcissism will feel proud of their accomplishments and will want to share those accomplishments with others because it makes them feel good. Healthy narcissism is also the ability to feel a sense of entitlement and knowing that you belong in certain spaces and deserve good things. These feelings, though, are usually in line with reality. (Here's more on the difference between narcissism and confidence.) Those with healthy narcissism demonstrate a level of self-awareness, insight, and empathy that a person with narcissistic personality disorder does not possess.
The difference between having narcissistic traits and narcissistic personality disorder:
1. Frequency and intensity of narcissistic traits.
What separates healthy narcissism, people who have narcissistic traits, and people with narcissistic personality disorder (pathological narcissists) are the frequency, intensity, and impairment in their relationships, as well as the insight and awareness of how their behaviors affect others. While most people may engage in self-centered behaviors, these behaviors don't typically last for long periods of time. A person with narcissistic personality disorder genuinely struggles with being happy for others; they dismiss someone's accomplishments and fully believe they are better than those around them. A pathological narcissist will demonstrate self-centeredness in all aspects of their life, which ultimately leads to destructive behaviors in their relationships.
2. Selfish behavior is temporary, not constant.
It's very common for most people to demonstrate narcissistic behaviors: It's normal to want to take photos of yourself when you're feeling good, share something you are proud of, or want to be the center of attention at times. You may even have moments when you demonstrate selfishness and may find yourself being mean to someone you care about, especially when you are upset.
The key word is moments. These behaviors come and go and do not last very long, nor do they have significant impairments in your relationships. With narcissistic personality disorder, these behaviors are pervasive, severe, and are evident in that person's history of social and emotional relationships. They strive to be the center of attention and are ongoingly mean to others at the expense of someone else's feelings. They struggle with sustaining healthy, deep, and meaningful relationships.
3. Healthy response to accountability.
If a person with a healthy level of narcissism were to be held accountable for having hurt someone, they would demonstrate the ability to be self-aware, reflect, have a mutually satisfying conversation, and take ownership of their behaviors. They conduct themselves in a way that demonstrates repair and integrity because they are able to experience a deep empathy for others and how they may have affected them.
However, those with pathological narcissism may become rageful, angry, and will start to gaslight others when they are being held accountable for their actions. Only when they are at risk of losing the relationship will they resort to feigning empathy and love-bombing. Their behaviors will be confusing and dramatic. (Here's more on what a narcissist does at the end of a relationship.) Those with narcissistic personality disorder will demonstrate pervasive dysfunction in their romantic relationships and friendships and lack the ability to demonstrate sustained change long term.
4. Response to cheating.
Another behavior common among people with narcissistic personality disorder is chronic infidelity. This isn't to say that a person who has cheated automatically has narcissistic personality disorder. While cheating does demonstrate a level of selfishness and low empathy, a narcissistic person will demonstrate chronic cheating, will accuse you of cheating, and will have the ability to have multiple lives without any empathy for your feelings. Further, those with narcissistic personality disorder are able to feign an apology with no real sustained changed behavior and will love-bomb you until they are able to get you back.
A person without NPD who cheats will demonstrate genuine remorse followed by changed behavior and active efforts to heal themselves and the relationship. They do not love-bomb or pay lip service; rather, they are able to demonstrate a sense of self-awareness that can lead to repairing the relationship.
The bottom line.
A person's patterns in relationships, their level of empathy, their capacity for change, and their self-awareness are good starting points for identifying the difference between narcissistic traits and pathological narcissism.
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Alyssa "Lia" Mancao, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and certified cognitive therapist with nine years of experience treating depression, anxiety, trauma, issues with self-esteem, body image, and the inner child. She received her bachelor's degree in sociology and social work from California Polytechnic State University, Pomona and her master's degree in social work from the University of Southern California's Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She has provided clinical treatment for children, adolescents, adults, and families in outpatient and residential settings, including with the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinic at Harbor-UCLA, the Child and Family Guidance Center, Counseling4Kids, and in private practice.
She regularly shares insights and wisdom on her popular Instagram platform @alyssamariewellness, where she has over 66,000 followers.