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Narcissism: Identifying Key Traits, Symptoms and Risk Factors

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In contrast to codependency tendencies, a pattern of relating to others (and self) with little or no sense of the value of one’s own needs or wants as critical or significant to fostering healthy, vibrant relationships, those with narcissistic tendencies display a pattern of relating (to others and self) in the opposite direction. They view others as extensions of themselves, their needs and wants, feelings and desires, and so on, and are totally disinterested in “partnership” relationships or concepts of “mutuality” or “reciprocity.” In fact, they may appear so detached or clueless when it comes to connecting or understanding the needs and feelings of those who love them, that they can seem like beautiful, yet lifeless and cold sculptures.

It is perhaps no surprise that the codependent and narcissist often find themselves in an irresistible yet toxic dance together in life. Whereas the codependent enters a relationship with a disowned and neglected sense of self, the narcissist counts on this to satisfy cravings for absorbing most or all attention to their needs for comfort and pleasure. Because they have little ability to empathize with another (a key trait), they appear to not “see” or treat others as separate persons with feelings and perceptions of their own. Perhaps even more significantly, they have no desire to do so, and knowingly or unknowingly view those who “empathize” as inferior and weak persons who’s will the strong and mighty easily prey upon. If you consider their three key identifying traits, why would they?

Three key defining traits

There is much misinformation on the topic of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder. Many articles of late describe a narcissist as someone “in love” with themselves, absorbed with activities that promote their success, dreams and goals, skilled at charming others, attention seeking, and so on. Though they may exhibit these traits, and be charming, charismatic, successful and goal-oriented … all of the above characteristics in and of themselves essential human traits, displayed in varying degree in the behavior of most all highly successful persons, at home and in their careers, i.e., top performers and stars, inspirational leaders, a majority of whom make vast contributions to the life of others in their community or family … they are not (necessarily) narcissists.

This extreme expression of otherwise human traits, however, speaks to a subconscious inner self-loathing, a wounded ego, a super-fragile self-esteem, and a compulsion to hoard power, attention, happiness, side effects of three key identifying (and interlocking) traits, as follows:

1. A lack of empathy for others, connected to …

2. A neediness to look down or regard others with scorn, coupled with …

3. Finding pleasure in depriving or hurting others.

They see power as a battle for who is going to derive the most pleasure from inflicting pain, either by depriving the other of something they need or want, or hurting them emotionally, mentally or physically, or all of the above.

They rule by administering rewards and punishments (pleasure and pain) accordingly, and the purpose is to keep others in line, and protect their status. In their mind, the strong can say “no” and say it often, and this tactic, among others, is used to keep the other in emo-psychological states of mind of deprivation, that is, conditioned (by thought control tactics) to “accept” double-standards in the relationship as norm.

They display a neediness to prove their strength on the basis of treating those perceived as inferior or weak with scorn or disdain (a competition of sorts, to win with displays of superiority, making others feel like losers, etc.), and dismissing their right to express pain.

Without the presence of all three interlocking traits  of — lack of empathy, regarding others with scorn, and taking pleasure in hurting others — all of which are proof of the narcissist’s superior status and the other’s inferior status — it’s not narcissism.

Defining the problem behavior pattern

The Mayo Clinic, in my opinion, offers one of the best definitions of a narcissistic personality disorder, focusing on (two of the three) key defining traits as follows [emphasis below is added]:

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

Whereas every healthy person has a inner emotion-drive to feel important and gain the admiration of others, the narcissist’s compulsive need for attention and admiration is based on an unrealistic expectation that they must feel superior and get others to buy into this illusion in order to feel worthwhile. It is this belief that keeps them dependent on others to prop them up, bolster their ego, and makes them vulnerable to any criticism, and keeps their “self-esteem” fragile.

It makes sense that they perceive any request for change as a threat or “criticism” as their mission is to find others who recognize their top-dog status. And, according to their belief system, a person of lowly status needs to be constantly reminded of their lowly status to take their place.

In case you’re wondering, a “personality disorder” is a term used by clinicians to refer to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), more specifically, to several problematic patterns of behavior that are reported to impair or limit, to some degree, the ability of the person to function in one or more key areas of life, i.e., family relationships, work, school, socially, and so on.

Symptoms of behavior pattern

The Mayo Clinic lists the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder as follows (and comments are added in parentheses to emphasize distinct difference in what drives or motivates narcissistic behaviors):

  • Believe they are better than others and proud of their narcissism (key trait — constantly seek proof of this)
  • Fantasize about power, success and attractiveness (as proof of superiority)
  • Exaggerate their achievements or talents (finding pleasure in making others feel small)
  • Expect constant praise and admiration (as proof of others’ inferiority, abject deference, etc.)
  • Believe they’re special and act accordingly (seeking acknowledgement of their higher status)
  • Fail to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings (key trait — lack of empathy; they are lost in own neediness, relating to others as possessions, extensions of self)
  • Expect others to go along with their ideas and plans (as proof of others’ subservience, solely focused on their comfort, pleasure)
  • Taking advantage of others (relate to others as sources of pleasure, like objects, possessions)
  • Express disdain for those they deem inferior (key trait — use shame, guilt, fear as tactics, etc., find pleasure in hurting others to keep them in their “place”)
  • Are jealous of others and believe others are jealous of them (perceive the world as a constant competition, that others have same “might makes right” philosophy, are fighting for status, superiority etc., as they are)
  • Have trouble keeping healthy relationships (lack emotional intelligence, which requires balancing compassion and esteem for self and others)
  • Set unrealistic goals (as outcome of unrealistic expectations of others who, according to their belief system, are supposed to “like” being treated as possessions, extensions of the narcissist)
  • Are easily hurt and rejected (due to unrealistic expectations, which keeps them dependent, needy, constantly looking for proof own entitled, superior status)
  • Have a fragile self-esteem (again due to unrealistic goals for entitled status)
  • Appear as tough-minded or unemotional (characteristic of wounded, fragile ego, as defense against emotional intimacy, closeness)

Again, the disorder is not diagnosed unless the symptoms limit or impair functioning in one or more key areas of life, and this is especially important when considering certain symptoms that a not key identifiers. A belief that one is special, fantasizes about success, or wanting others to go along” can all be very healthy traits in and of themselves. They can become unhealthy when the key identifying traits of narcissism are present.

A few additional symptoms

There are several additional symptoms, not mentioned on the list above, that are also important to note in that they explain why it is impossible to get close to a narcissist. A narcissist will:

  • They compulsively act to control the focus of another’s attention.

Speaking of unhealthy power, a narcissist seeks to control another person by getting them to surrender their focus, their efforts, their own wants, values and dreams to instead solely promote the narcissist’s happiness. They may may shame or guilt others into giving them what they want by wallowing on their “hurt” feelings, how they’ve been wronged, what they “need” to be happy (regardless that what they “want” may be harmful to both or their relationship, such as some risky sexual behavior, or making a large purchase when in debt, etc.) This is what psychologist Alfred Adler referred to “neurotic power” or using punitive tactics to subvert another’s will.

  • They are experts of masters of disguise, and can be deceitfully charming.

A person with a narcissistic personality disorder often initially shows great interest and appreciation for another, and can be charming and charismatic, however, they are experts at manipulating others in order to draw them in, lavishing them with praise and perhaps (strategically) comparing them favorably to others. They know how to make others “feel good” but their aim (pleasure) is to get others to surrender to their charm and agenda. The aim of their charm is a trap of sorts, in that this subconsciously sets up another to become increasingly focused on staying on their good side, and more and more afraid of displeasing them. An excellent recent publication, titled Divorcing a Narcissist – One Mom’s Battle, is a first hand account written by a woman who describes how she fell prey to the charming narcissist, and what red flags she ignored (even after years of psycho therapy to recover from a previous relationship with a narcissist).

  • They can be volatile when their mind game is challenged in any way.

They not only lack empathy for others, they relish and admire their ability to get out of and dismiss others’ feelings; and they view this as a strength, proof of their superior power. Thus they are experts at getting out of making any changes that would truly make another happy — or at least stop doing things that hurt their loved ones. To do so, in their view, would be a weakness, “losing” or “giving in” to the other. So at any sign of someone expressing they’ve been hurt or requesting even a minor change, they often lash out with an array of punitive tactics, to include sarcasm, all designed to shame, guilt or intimidate the other into silence. This makes it impossible for those in a relationship with them to express their feelings or yearnings and to be heard. A narcissist is adept at quickly and methodically discounting another’s wants or feelings, and even making them feel bad or doubting themselves for doing “such” a thing.

  • They demand to control the agenda of who gets to feel good versus bad – and when.

A narcissist likes to feel that they are the focus of attention and that their needs to feel important are treated as more important than others. When it serves their highest aims to feel in control of administering pain, such as to hurt and make their partner twinge with jealousy and self-doubt, they will turn on the charm to make another person feel important. Hurting others is another way of keeping the focus and attention on them, their happiness, they’re feelings. If not physically abusive, they may be addicted to using their partners or children as emotional “punching bags” just to get cheap thrill feel-goods — prop up their illusion of power.

In a recent article titled 5 Early Warning Signs You’re With a Narcissist by Dr. Craig Malkin on the Huffington Post, Dr. Malkin describes yet another five warning signs of being in a relationship with a narcissist, as follows: (1) projected feelings of insecurity; (2) emotion phobia; (3) a fragmented family story; (4) idol worship; and (5) a high need to control (as proof of status and superiority).

Risk factors in childhood

Narcissisistic personality disorder is rare, though overall certain “tendencies” in this direction are common, and it affects more men than women. This makes sense, considering that the symptoms are a result of conditioning that leads children, boys in particular, to believe that vulnerability is a weakness and unacceptable for “real” men, and thus many boys lose their ability to empathize with others and care about their feelings, simply because these traits that are widely associated with “weakness,” inferior status, children and women and so on. (Similarly, codependency tendencies are far more prevalent in women; again, this makes sense as women, from the time they are girls, are socialized to feel selfish about not putting others’ feelings and wants above theirs, and so on.) Although the cause of the disorder isn’t known, many researchers attribute the condition to early experiences in childhood, such as excessive overindulgence (often a codependent mother). According to the Mayo Clinic other risk factors in childhood include:

  • Learning manipulative behaviors from one or both parents
  • Excessive parental praise or overindulgence
  • Parental disdain for emotions of fear and other human emotional needs for warmth, tenderness
  • Lack of affection and praise in childhood
  • Unpredictable or unreliable caregiving from parents

It is widely accepted that narcissistic personality disorder (and tendencies) exist 0n a continuum ranging from hurtful tendencies to extreme expressions of the disorder.

Summarizing points

None of the symptoms, in isolation, proves one is a narcissist. The three key symptoms however work in tandem. They are part of a narcissist’s favorite game, and that is honing their skills in manipulating others for their own gain, more specifically, to serve their needs to feel superior. Characteristic of a fragile ego and self-esteem, narcissists compulsively seek to make others feel so worthless, and so confused and doubting themselves, that they are continually at a loss and surrender. This feeds the narcissist’s illusion of power, which they perceive as proof of their superiority, having skills to coerce, deceive and, or cajole others into surrendering their personal wishes — perhaps even value system — to please the narcissist.

Many sex addicts and other addicts have symptoms of narcissist personality disorder, a façade of superiority over others that masks deep-seated self-loathing, lack of connection to genuine self-esteem, which would require them to see self and others as human beings. They are wounded, and many of their wounds are self-inflicted by their own unrealistic expectations, a “neediness” to look down on others in order to feel okay, worthwhile. They are mostly interested in getting their ego (sensory) needs met, and thus can only relate superficially to others (or self) in relationships. Others are “important” to the extent that they can make them look and feel good — otherwise, watch out. They are experts at scrutinizing others, to cut them down to size with their judgmental attitude, strong opinions, in order to enforce their will and agenda.

Narcissism can be thought of as a compulsion to hoard power of making choices, attention and happiness in relationships, and a neediness that measures their own self-worth on the basis of limiting other’s ability to find fulfillment and happiness in the relationship.

The similarities between narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder are many. They have “a lot in common,” according to Dr. Stanton Samenow, author of Inside the Criminal Mind. It makes sense that they seek to hurt, one-up or make others feel small. They have a belief system that tells them they are entitled to do so, and thus they are constantly on guard to avoid feeling their greatest fear (feeling inadequate, inferior, vulnerable in any way). It’s not surprising therefore that they will intentionally attack others’ sense of self-worth, either openly or passive aggressively. This is a learned coping strategy (protective defense) that helps them lower their anxiety (core intimacy fears of inadequacy, rejection, etc.), and they live in fear of others of trying to take over their perceived entitlement to superior status.

A person with narcissistic personality disorder doesn’t just “love” themselves, have “confidence” and or need a lot of attention; they regard others as possessions or objects for their comfort and pleasure, not unlike master and slave relationship. In some cases the scornful actions stem from their belief that they’re doing others a favor by including them in any way in their life, to include giving tongue lashings. They are prone have their own “idols” to whom they bow, and simultaneously act with scorn toward those they deem as inferior, weak – all the while thinking they are doing them a “favor” when they lash out.

A narcissist’s confidence is more conceit, pretentious, arrogant, and underneath their haughty acts lies a very fragile self-esteem, sense of shame, loneliness and inadequacy. They act entitled and belittle or look down on those they perceive as inferior to make themselves appear superior and help themselves feel important. If they do not receive special treatment, they can get impatient or even enraged, and receiving even the mildest of criticisms falls in that category. They expend a lot of energy on protecting their façade of superiority, and gather around them the best of everything to stand out, to include “trophy” people.

So if you see at minimum three key symptoms listed above, either in yourself or your partner, pause and reflect deeply on what you value, how you yearn to show up in life, and consider getting help. (If it’s not you, and more descriptive of a partner, past or present, give yourself the gift of looking into, and getting help for likely codependency tendencies.) With treatment, once a narcissist is serious enough to want to break through the biggest barrier — and that is to truly see their behaviors are damaging not just to the other but also to themselves  — and thus, they desire to change, they can find their way to connecting to their human capacity to empathically connect to self and others, to their insecurities, and to their own deep yearnings as human beings to develop their capacity for genuinely loving, healthy relationships.

Narcissism: Identifying Key Traits, Symptoms and Risk Factors

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2015). Narcissism: Identifying Key Traits, Symptoms and Risk Factors. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Sep 2015
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