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What Is and Isn’t Narcissism: 3 Key Identifiers, 2 of 5

7036943137441490_iy1YR1LM_bMany 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 a narcissist may exhibit these traits, and be charming, charismatic, successful and goal-oriented … let’s get real.

These characteristics, in and of themselves, are also essential human traits and, in varying degrees, describe behaviors of healthy persons who are driven to succeed in their careers at work or home, some of whom may be top performers and stars, inspirational leaders, to include those who’ve made vast contributions to the life of others in their community or family … most of whom are not (necessarily) narcissists.

Part 1 presented three foundational understandings for those who work or live with NPD clients to consider so they may identify action-based solutions that restore balance and have a healing effect on individuals and relationships.

There are key considerations, and key identifiers to look for before using the narcissism label.

First, we must not lose sight of what are potentially healthy human traits, and seek to identify the differences between healthy versus narcissistic expressions of these traits, as well as healthy differences among human beings in general. For a variety of reasons, for example, it’s an undeniable fact that some persons are more driven with a consuming passion to fulfill their dreams or a calling, more so than others. A person may be absorbed in achieving success, realizing their dreams and goal-oriented; even if they’re leaning toward being workaholics, however, this type of self-absorption does not warrant the label.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s children, for example, describe her as a parent as absorbed with political affairs, and not involved in their upbringing. She was highly criticized for her passion or calling, yet worked tirelessly to serve the disadvantaged, and made a lasting difference in the lives of the poor, and those who were discriminated against, immigrants, black-Americans, and women, and their right to careers, higher education. As a husband, Dr. King, Jr. failed his wife (and likely other family members or followers) through his infidelity, however, he dedicated his life, with relentless courage and sacrifice, so that all races may one day partake of the “American dream.”

It would defy all reason to describe Roosevelt or Dr. King’s charisma, determination to succeed, and self-absorption with their work as narcissism.

While workaholism may not be healthy, the point is that: not all persons with excessive drives to work or fulfill their dream or make a difference are narcissists! It’s likely not even most.

In short, we need to consider how certain cultural forces work together overall (i.e., mainstream media, publications, entertainment, and other industries, such as porn, etc.) to pathologize the “softer” strengths of human beings. It’s safe to say that narcissism is not about being charming, consumed with looking “pretty” or glamorous per se. Neither is it a desire for wanting to be considered beautiful or brilliant, or letting others know what makes them happy or unhappy. After all, what healthy person doesn’t want to be admired or highly thought of? This is connected to healthy human needs to matter. It’s only narcissism given the presence of other factors.

Secondly, it is helpful to consider the cultural contexts in which we live, more specifically, that as a whole we’re conditioned to be judgmental. It’s helpful to build awareness of a learned tendency many of us have to quickly judge, to be harsh or fault-finding, to criticize or negatively label ourselves or others, or both. This toxic habit should concern us; after all, most healing work in therapy is to some degree concerned with the impact of learned critical voices in our heads and breaking free from their ability to take over and imprison our minds. Indeed, the npd behaviors that most push their loved ones away may be ones focused on fault-finding and tearing down the self-worth of others. 

Conceivably, it’s the practice of labeling that needs to be “judged,” then banished. According to relationship experts, Drs. Gay and Katie Hendricks, partners in couple relationships say the biggest complaint and “killer” of relationships is criticism. Unlike big issues of betrayal, sex, money, and so on, criticism spreads slowly to drain the life and energy from a relationship. Among other negative effects, it breeds resentment, chips away at friendship, and diminishes the connection between partners.

In sum, criticism prevents us from seeing the value of different traits others bring to our relationship, and learning how to relate collaboratively instead of getting stuck in polarized, competitive positions of who’s right or wrong. For example, if you look closely, you may find that persons who are overall action-oriented, love organization, and planning tend to be “judgmental” of those who love to prefer to live in the moment, labeling them as “passive” or “unmotivated” etc.; in turn, those who prefer a more easy going, go with the flow approach to life tend to “judge” those who are action-oriented as, “demanding,” “out of control” or “workaholics,” and so on.

It’s also not narcissism when a person is skilled at or confident in their ability to influence others or seeks to take the lead. These are abilities good leaders seek to cultivate! In contrast to mainstream definitions that define “power” as an ability to subvert another’s will, top psychological theorists of the 20th century made clear distinction between healthy versus “neurotic” power. For example, Dr. Alfred Adler described the desire for power as a healthy core drive of human beings, a motivating force of our behaviors around the clock, ideally, toward healthy ways of mattering socially in relation to self and others. He also identified as a type of “neurotic lust for power” to dominate, which he attributed to persons whose healthy needs for power were blocked in childhood.

Nothing is more natural and human than to want to “influence” certain others in our lives, to “move” them to cooperate, to want to make us happy, to value our dreams and wants, to act in loving, thoughtful and caring ways toward us, etc. We so often forget this, especially in couple relationships, when we throw around the “controlling” word when a partner complains of not feeling emotionally connected, valued, etc.

Additionally, special attention needs to be given to how we are socialized with certain gendered expectations that promote codependency (thus, indirectly narcissism as well), for example, we’re socialized to expect that the women in our lives, mothers, wives, sisters, etc., “prove” that they are “good women” on the basis of remaining “silent” and not bothering their husbands, in particular, with their “wants and needs” and “sensitivities”; men and women have been socialized to expect (demand) women stay focused on (keep their “place”?) making others happy, and not expecting anything in return (to avoid being labeled “selfish” or “controlling”). This of course describes how women are socialized into  codependency, especially in their relationships with their husbands or boyfriends, to be the “givers” of attention and love, and expect men to be the takers.

Conceivably, men and women alike are much more likely to label a woman a “narcissist” or “needy” (and more rarely a man) on the basis of actions that appear she’s seeking to feel loved, admired, recognized for her contributions at work or home. (There are also gender differences for women with npd versus men; this topic is reserved for upcoming post).

It is healthy for all human beings, male and female, to love and value themselves; to want to matter and feel they contribute in meaningful ways; to feel free (rather than fear being labeled) to express their wants or dislikes; to feel heard and understood; to seek the attention of others, and yes admiration. It’s healthy for loved ones to know what makes us happy or unhappy; what makes us feel loved or unloved, etc. And it’s healthy for us to want loved ones to support our efforts in realizing our dreams.

If you’re human, regardless of gender, economic status or age, from the moment you were born, and could cry out, you sought to see who cares enough to understand what you want and to wipe away your tears; you yearned to influence others to love or to give you what you want, what makes you happy — from the first breath, and throughout your life.

And these hardwired yearnings are emotional needs (not wants) akin to physical needs for oxygen. This means that, alhough they may be ignored or denied (which is cruel), they cannot be changed or altered.

(Conceivably, there is no drive more powerful than the dance of love. And, while the infant and child “need” love from others for healthy development, a healthy adult in mature stages of development yearns to bring love and meaningfully contribute to others and life, to experience fulfillment and self-actualization.)

And, lastly, for a diagnosis of npd the symptoms must be causing significant distress and impairment in one or more key areas of life.

In short, the word narcissist is too casually used and in many cases misused. When a person with narcissistic tendencies or npd expresses the above traits, however, there are key differences, mainly three!

These three key identifying (and interlocking) traits are as follows:

1. A callous lack of empathy for others

This is more than a lack or inability to empathize; they view others who empathize as weak and inferior. In fact, there are signs that they “have” some ability to empathize, for example, when they want to charm, ensnare or impress others. They view their ability to dismiss or “not feel” the other’s pain as evidence of their strength and superiority, a sense of entitlement. In their mind, ideal rulers maintain status by keeping others in their place, that means in emotional pain, by refusing to sympathize, have compassion or give in to other’s wants and needs, etc. Instead, because they mistrust others, they “see” their requests as evidence of attempting to control them, and thus use what others say they want, feel or don’t want as information on how “avoid the other’s power traps,” or “get them before they get you,” etc.

They lack the ability to feel truly and genuinely happy for others, or to celebrate another’s success, and often feel resentful when their “victims” are getting positive attention. They miss out on the pleasure healthy persons derive in genuinely loving or liking to make others happy … for the sole purpose of celebrating in other’s success, wanting others to get what they want, etc.

They do not understand the concept of “sharing” power or “partnership”; though they may be skilled in “using” these words to emotionally manipulate and deceive.

2. A neediness to look down or regard others with scorn to feel worthwhile

From the perspective of a narcissist, all relationships have two tiers at any given time — the positions of top dog and underdog — and since the underdog is viewed as always seeing to be the top dog, the person in the high status person must be on constant alert to maintain their position as top dog. An npd feels they cannot rest; life to them is like a perpetual game of the “king of the hill” that little boys play, except in adulthood (especially for couples) it can have a lifetime of terrible repercussions for key relationships. Their neediness to prove their superior status is evidenced by a hypervigilant “neediness” for excessive admiration, and preoccupation with how favorably they’re see or how well they are doing in the eyes of others. by treating others as possessions or objects for their comfort and pleasure — and getting others to “accept” inferiority as their lot at all times.

Their wounded-ego and super-fragile self-esteem displays a constant “neediness” to be recognized as superior, to hoard the attention or comfort, to feel entitled to preferential treatment, and to suck up any energy of love or comfort for themselves. They tend to get angry or pout when attention is on someone else. They routinely boast of their abilities or inflate their accomplishments in a manner that devalues the contribution of others, i.e., may insensitively boast of health, money or a love relationship to someone who is sick, out of a job or just divorced. Or they may harshly devalue someone who just receive praise or recognition.

They are not only preoccupied with what they do, they expect others to only be preoccupied with them — and may show contempt or impatience when the other talks of their success, problems or concerns.

3. Taking pleasure in hurting or depriving others of their needs, wants.

An NPD views power as a competition of who is going to derive the most pleasure from  inflicting pain, i.e., hurting others before they hurt you, etc., either by depriving the other from something they really want or emotionally need, or hurting them with actions or words, emotionally and mentally or physically, or all of the above. It’s a mind game, and the purpose of inflicting pain is to keep the others believing that their own worth, feelings or needs, in comparison, are of little or no value — something that targets a human being’s hardwired drive to matter.

They feel entitled to rule by accordingly administering rewards and punishments (pleasure and pain), and the purpose is always to keep others in line, focused on the npds “needs” (neediness). The strong can say “no” and say it often, and this is a tactic, among others, to willfully keep their prey in deprived emo-psychological states of mind, trained (by thought control tactics) to “accept” double-standards in the relationship as norm, on the basis of “proof” of their own “inferior” status, the narcissist’s status as “superior” and “infallible” head.

They exhibit this “neediness” to prove they’re superior worth on the basis of cruel competitive displays of strength, preferential treatment of others, talent, money, etc., and appear clueless if confronted or criticized for any mistreatment at which point they may deny their actions were cruel, accuse others of being weak or sensitive, etc. They take pride and see their ability to not be moved by other’s hurt or pain as evidence of their superiority and strength, and the other’s inferiority and weakness. This explains why they find pleasure in hurting or treating those considered inferior or weak with scorn or disdain (a competition of sorts, to win with displays of superiority, making others feel like losers, etc.).

Sadly, articles with misleading information have contributed to an epidemic of labeling as “narcissistic” certain otherwise healthy human behaviors taken out of context, such as human drives (needs, not wants) to matter, to feel important to those they love, to feel heard or understood, to make contributions that make a difference, and so on.

Without the presence of all three interlocking traits of — lack of empathy; and compulsive neediness to look down or prove superiority; and taking pleasure in hurting or treating others with scorn or disdain — it’s not narcissism.

In Part 1 of this series, we described working or engaging the npd client as a balancing act.

The super- fragility of a person with an npd client’s self-esteem speaks to a subconscious inner self- and other-loathing, a wounded ego, and unrealistic expectations that drive them to compulsively prove their worth on the basis of hoarding power, attention, pleasure.

In Part 3, understanding the mindset or worldview of narcissism, as well as the mindset of codependency, without which narcissism cannot exist.

What Is and Isn’t Narcissism: 3 Key Identifiers, 2 of 5

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. (2017). What Is and Isn’t Narcissism: 3 Key Identifiers, 2 of 5. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Dec 2017
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