Narcissism is a set of character traits focused on establishing and maintaining a grandiose self-image.  This image is often about “the best” but can also be expressed by being the “best” at sacrificing the self or by being the “best” at being religious.  The narcissist doesn’t really have a mature adult sense of self as a reasonably good person with some flaws and many good characteristics and doesn’t have much ability to understand others in that way, either, and out of that inability, the narcissist develops a cartoon-like exaggerated version of what “goodness” or “value” must consist of.

Defending this distorted sense of self is the most important thing to a narcissist, more important than reality, love, family, and having a happy marriage.   Narcissists have more negative social interactions, are more hostile and suspicious, show more anger and aggression when given negative feedback, think of themselves as being more slighted or injured,and distort reality and the past more than non-narcissists do.(McCullough and Emmons, 2003).  They also show less empathy and ability to see another’s point of view.

Those in close relationship with a narcissist can see these characteristics, to one extent or another, but to the world, the narcissist may appear charming, caring, devoted, and philanthropic.

  • Grandiosity–He values the “best”.  He has grand and exciting plans, many of which he completes successfully.  But he scorns, criticizes, and undermines “normal” family life and activities.
  • Entitlement–His needs and wishes are more important than anyone else’s and he deserves to be satisfied no matter the cost to the family.  His rock-solid certainty about this is impossible to challenge or discuss and any attempt is viewed by the narcissist as a threat, which he will often defend against by criticizing the other person’s “selfishness”.
  • No Empathy or Sense of Humor– The Narcissist cannot put himself in “another’s shoes’ to imagine their feelings, pain, or separate interests.  He is insensitive to the feelings of others while demanding others consider his feelings above all.
  • Criticism Flows Only One Way==when challenged, criticized or simply not agreed with, the narcissist attacks, sulks, or withdraws; when others criticize him, he reacts with indifference or rage and blames others, taking no responsibility for hurting others or making mistakes.
  • Does Not Give Emotionally–The Narcissist gives flattery, presents, and promises but not understanding or genuine warmth and caring.

The narcissist has very little ability to sooth himself or recover from the slights the world offers, and consequently often finds a mate who is warm, comforting, and who gives too much without good boundaries.  Narcissism is predicted in families where the parents are  emotionally cold and in families in which the parents excessively admire the growing child; when both parental coldness and over-admiration occur, the predictive effect is stronger. (Otway and Vignoles, 2006)

Those in relationship with a narcissist feel helpless, ashamed, but mostly really crazy as they attempt to find what is true in the face of the narcissist’s distortion of reality.  When she asks for normal kindness, consideration, or attention, he reacts with childish sulking and/or vicious blame and attack.  When she asks for normal closeness he gives blame, devaluation, and criticism.  When she doesn’t admire him enough, he attacks.  When she develops her own interests, succeeds at something important to her, gets sick or pregnant or cares for small children, he sulks, blames, and attacks.

Those in relationship with a narcissist may:

  • Take Care of Others without recognizing their own needs.  They may give too much, without setting appropriate limits and boundaries, and they accept too much responsibility for the family and the marriage.
  • Avoid Conflict by taking too much responsibility for the narcissist’s mood and well-being.  They may work too hard to please and soothe the narcissist instead of setting clear, calm boundaries and limits, and being willing to leave if the narcissist escalates.
  • Accept Scornful Treatment from the narcissist without confronting demeaning comments and actions as wrong.  They may react inappropriately by attacking back or sulking.
  • Accept Shallow Offerings such as flattery, gifts, status, or promises instead of knowing that they deserve authentic emotional connection, interest, and attention.  They may be willing to enjoy the reflected glory of the narcissist instead of finding their own successes in life.
  • Believe Lies and Excuses and distortion of reality, even when there is a history of betrayal and disappointment.
  • Defend and Excuse the narcissist’s dishonest, insensitive, and exhibitionistic behavior.


Narcissists most commonly come to therapy because of a life failure such as divorce, threat of divorce, or work failure of some kind.  They also come to therapy in later life due to depression and possibly suicide attempts arising out of a sense of emptiness and loss as they see their abilities declining and are no longer able to convince themselves that they are “the best”.  They tend to be preoccupied with their own injuries and it takes a skilled therapist to engage the narcissist on his true work, which is to begin to see his narcissistic traits, to take responsibility for hurting others, to notice and experience his inner emptiness and to begin to develop more psychic structures in the self rather than parasitically using others in his life to sustain him.  Over a 3-year period, 60% of narcissists in treatment were able to achieve significant reduction in narcissism, form durable and respectful relationships, put achievement into better perspective, and to tolerate and process disillusionment (Ronnington, Gunderson, and Lyons, 1995).


McCullough, Michael and Robert Emmons.  “Narcissists as ‘victims’:  the Role of the Narcissim in Perception of Transgressions”.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(7): 885-893, 2003.

Ottway, Lorna and Vivian Vignoles. “Narcissism and Childhood Recollections: Quantative Test of Psychoanalytic Predictions”.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 32(1): 104-116, 2006.

Ronnington, E., J. Gunderson and M Lyons.  “Changes n Pathological Narcissism”.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 152:253-7, 1995.

Twenge, Jean, W. Kenneth Campbell.  “Isn’t It Fun To Get The Respect We’re Going To Deserve?:  Narcissism, Social Rejection, and Aggression.”.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(2):261-272, 2003.