How is narcissism defined in psychology? What is the difference between narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder?

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Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Narcissism" is defined in psychology as, "Excessive preoccupation with self and lack of empathy for others," according to the Encyclopedia of Psychology. Freud theorized narcissism is a normal component of infantile and childhood developmental stages that is replaced as "object love" (love for a person or idea that fulfills basic needs, e.g., a toddler's object love for the one who provides food) develops along with psychological and physical maturation. This means that narcissism appearing after puberty is considered in Freudian theory to be a psychological disorder of the personality. Therefore, while narcissism begins as a healthy part of psychological function of personality development, if harmful influences or events or interfere with normal development, narcissism carried unchecked into adolescence and adulthood presents abnormality and is considered a disorder.

The Encyclopedia of Psychology differentiates further between the narcissistic individual who is an adolescent and an individual diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. While individuals in adolescence, which is the developmental stage fulfilling the process of puberty, may have difficulty transitioning from early developmental narcissism described above to mature object love and may present personality traits that are akin to the traits presented in narcissistic personality disorder, these adolescent personality traits are not indicative of future narcissistic personality disorder in adult life. A narcissistic adolescent individual may be arrogant, self-centered and absorbed in fantasies of success and power while demanding special treatment and higher status than their peers (sometimes based upon real physical advantages and prowess, sometimes based only upon self-perceptions of dominance and physical power). Yet a paradox often exists behind the adolescent narcissism in that the individual may have deep rooted developmental insecurities about self-worth and lovability. This paradoxical complex of inferiority underlying the presentation of narcissistic personality traits may result in either vengeful counterattacks of anger and violence when challenged by someone who is not compliant or who is more powerful or it may result in social withdrawal and avoidance of situations that require growing maturity for success.

Narcissistic personality disorder may develop in narcissistic individuals (those with narcissistic personality traits during early developmental stages including adolescence) and present as extreme self-absorption, complete lack of empathy for others' situations or points of view, exaggerated sense of self-importance, manipulation and exploitation of others, aloof coolness and composure, dependence upon fantasy, inflated self-image, and dependence upon admiration, attention and deferential treatment from others (Encyclopedia Britannica). Contemporary psychological theory strongly associates narcissistic personality disorder with the presence of paradoxical secondary feelings of shame and humiliation, depression and mania, with paradoxical linkage to substance abuse disorders and anorexia nervosa (Encyclopedia of Psychology).

In Freudian theory, Freud's introduction of the idea of narcissism in "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c) responded to inquiries into Freudian psychoanalysis of neurotics, Jung's "the unity of psychic energy" (psychic: psychological), Adler's "masculine protest" in symptom-formation, and Freud's investigation of psychosis. By introducing narcissism, Freud hoped to unify an association between narcissistic sexual perversion, early narcissistic developmental stages, "libidinal cathexis of the ego," and narcissism in object-choice where the self is the object-choice. Borrowing the term from Paul Näcke, Freud first wrote of narcissism in two brief notes in 1910, then as a fuller definition in 1913 that describes narcissism as the attempt to cathect with (i.e., identify and connect with) the first love-object during the developmental stage in which sexual instincts begin to become solidified. He indicates that early cathexis occurs in infancy and ties narcissisim to ego-libido with a strong differentiation from object-libido indicating that narcissism (or the trait of self-love) is definitive in the structural composition of ego and of identity formation.


"Narcissism." Encyclopedia of Psychology. Vol. 1. Gale Cengage, 2005.

"Narcissism." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Alain de Mijolla. Vol. 2. Gale Cengage, 2005

M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, first appeared in the DSM (3rd edition) in 1980 as an extended definition of the criteria of "grandiosity complex". In the DSM-IV (and now V) it is a behavior listed under personality disorders that are pervasive (consistent) and its main and most salient characteristics are:

  • an exaggerated feeling of self importance
  • self-centered behavior
  • lack of empathy toward others
  • the abuse or exploitation of others for personal gain
  • envy
  • fantasies about power
  • a sense of entitlement
  • vulnerability of ego; need for praise
  • the idea that the sufferer is "unique" or "different; classicist behavior.

After scoring 5 out of 9 on a list of behaviors, and after assessing any co-morbidity such as borderline personality disorder and bipolar personality disorder, clinicians often go with NPD as a diagnosis.

However, the average citizen can tell, from the list of symptoms that we must have known at some point,some one or more than one person who reunites the same exact behaviors at any given point in time. For example, someone who is used to be praised, and suddenly is not,may act in a narcissistic way to get the praise back. Or, we may be going to work with someone who exploits the talents of another coworker for his or her own personal gain. For years we have been disgusted by the "all about me" people whose children are better than anybody else's. We have also experienced the occasional envious neighbor who cannot stand that new car you purchased, nor your winning of yard of the month.

ISOLATED narcissistic behaviors are commonplace; they start as early as our 2nd year of life when we truly believe that the universe circulates around us, and that we are the center of it. The behaviors continue throughout childhood, hitting a height during adolescence with the "imaginary audience" that all teenagers feel that they have, according to M.Scott Peck's book The Road Less Traveled.

Theoretically, however, the accepted notion is that all of these developmental behaviors encounter social challenges that mitigate and mold them according to how we are raised  by our parents and how our personality traits interact with the environment.

All this being said, narcissism is different from NDP in terms of the degree of severity, pervasiveness, and degree of comorbidity. Narcissistic behavior can be displayed at any given time, whereas consistency is used to determine a disorder.