Narcissists – we all know one. In this image-obsessed world of influencers and Insta baddies, narcissism seems to be on the rise. You’ve likely encountered a narcissist before, whether it was at school, work or socially. You may have even dated one. But, what do we actually mean by narcissism and what constitutes a narcissistic personality?  

Typically, when we refer to a narcissist we mean a self-centred and insecure person who uses the people around them for their own advantage. However, narcissism can also refer to a personality disorder, known as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It’s important to note that those with narcissistic traits aren’t necessarily diagnosable with NPD; one is behavioural and the other is pathological. NPD is a legitimate mental health condition that requires diagnosis by a mental health professional – narcissists are normally just egotistical dicks.

So, how can you tell the difference?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

As the name suggests, NPD is a personality disorder. Personality disorders are stable maladaptive patterns of behaviour. The American Psychological Association classifies a personality disorder as someone who struggles with at least two of the following four areas: cognitive (thought patterns), affective (emotional patterns), interpersonal (patterns of relating to others), and impulse-control-based.

NPD is characterised by an inflated sense of self-worth. Narcissistic personality disordered people believe that they are superior to others, often surrounding themselves with people who will boost their egos. However, this grandiosity masks an incredibly fragile self-esteem. As such, people with NPD are caught between simultaneously feeling superior and feeling insecure around others. People with NPD are vulnerable to the slightest criticism, and will often lash out at anyone who suggests that they are wrong.

People with NPD are often apt at forming relationships, whether that be social, professional or romantic. This is because they are charming and personable, and will seek out co-dependent individuals that they can take advantage of. The issue arises from maintaining these relationships long-term. They will run hot and cold with people – treating someone with kindness one day and cruelty the next. Due to their self-obsessive and toxic behaviour, people with NPD will often end up losing friends and family. However, they are able to replace these relationships quickly, and as such have a continual cycle of burning through people.

Despite their self-obsession, people with NPD do not function well. They alienate friends and family and as such come to feel socially isolated and depressed. Those with NPD struggle to feel and experience empathy, which exacerbates this issue further. This is difficult as generally people with NPD do not want to think anything is wrong.

If this sounds like you, or someone you know, then please reach out for help. Start by visiting your GP, or even talking to a close friend or family member. There is no shame in having a mental health issue or personality disorder, and there are support services available. For NPD, the recommended treatment is typically counselling or cognitive therapy. Medication may also be an option, depending on whether the person is struggling with other mental health issues, such as depression or generalised anxiety. 


Alongside NPD, narcissism can also be a personality trait. Narcissists are people who have narcissistic tendencies, rather than a personality disorder. Being self-absorbed in some area of life doesn’t mean you’re narcissistic in all areas. Narcissism often stems from childhood insecurities or personal trauma.

An important distinction between the two is that NPD is an enduring, consistent pattern of narcissistic and self-aggrandising attitudes. In contrast, a narcissist is more likely a person with an inflated ego who engages, at times, in selfish and manipulative behaviour. Another key difference between NPD and narcissists is the ability to feel empathy. Those who are narcissistic often feel some level of empathy for others and treat the people in their life with kindness – they don’t simply use or exploit others maliciously.

Common traits of a narcissistic individual include a tendency to be attention-seeking and self-centred, manipulative, dismissive, selfish, and requiring constant praise and attention. Someone who is narcissistic will exhibit these traits in areas of their life but this will not be disordered. We all exhibit these traits at one point or another, so it’s better to be understanding than rush to judgement.

Both people with NPD and people who are simply a little narcissistic can improve their lives by taking notice of their narcissism, working with a professional, and/or learning to better relate to others and manage emotions. You can suggest that they reach out for professional help, but you can’t make them do it. Narcissistic people are toxic and manipulative, and are often unwilling to change, or even recognise, their behaviour. Treat people with empathy and compassion, but don’t give too much of yourself. Remember, at the end of the day, it’s their responsibility, not yours.

By Roshanah Masilamani