According to Google Trends, usage of the term “narcissist” has been on the rise for the past ten years and often gets used as a casual insult. No one likes to be known as a narcissist, or to be called out on narcissistic behavior — even though, to a psychologist, narcissistic needs are both normal and universal. Everyone needs to be praised by parents or caregivers during childhood, and later in life, to be appreciated by their friends and significant others. This particular type of appreciation — known as validation — is essential in the development of healthy self-esteem.
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In 1914, Sigmund Freud asserted that all human infants pass through a stage of “primary narcissism,” a primitive self-centered frame of mind in which they cannot understand that other people are fully separate beings. This stage, Freud said, was just a stop on the road in the development of a normal, healthy adult. By contrast, Freud believed that narcissistic adult personalities were caused by an exaggeration of healthy narcissism. One of Freud’s successors, Karen Horney, believed that these narcissistic personalities could be caused by a particular parenting style: if parents excessively overvalued or undervalued their children, she said, they would then grow up perpetually craving abnormal amounts of praise or validation. Another, more recent theorist, Otto Kernberg, sees adult narcissism as a kind of false front, or a way of protecting oneself. He said that people with narcissistic personalities derive the validation they need from themselves as much as from others, propping themselves up artificially, which leaves them with no effective way to internally support their own self-esteem.
And not only is narcissism a normal part of human social and emotional development, but it’s also not just a unitary concept. A fair number of subcategories have been generated, which serve to shade in the nuances of narcissistic character (both normal and pathological). For instance, narcissistic personality disorder can be subdivided into positive and negative types, known as “prosocial” or “antisocial” narcissism. And the typical grandiose narcissist who has become such a familiar American trope may be overshadowing a less well-known, but equally difficult, personality type: the vulnerable narcissist.
Inherent in the current perception of narcissism is a quality of being in it for oneself, and often misusing or exploiting relationships for one’s own benefit. This best characterizes the antisocial narcissist — often, an extremely difficult, self-centered individual who expects excessive gratification from others in his or her life. By contrast, prosocial narcissists derive credit from positive accomplishments. They strive to do good deeds — often in public — and to make other people happy with them. In this way, they derive the validation that they, too, desperately need. If there are prosocial narcissists in your life, you may know them by how much fun they are to be around (and by the way they take deep satisfaction in your reaction to them). They want to be liked — sometimes, too much. They want to be known and appreciated by everyone in their lives, and their intentions are, overall, quite benign. Far from showing a lack of empathy, as in the person with traditional narcissistic personality disorder, these people use their empathy to tune in to what pleases you, and in doing so, they find validation.
By contrast, a malignant narcissist doesn’t do anything for your benefit. He or she is liable to lash out at, or attempt to destroy, other people in order to prop up his or her fragile sense of self. Kernberg first described the malignant narcissist in the late 1980s, noting that it is a blend between the narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders. These people can form long-term relationships, but their behavior is unstable, and they can become aggressive if they perceive themselves to be threatened. Internally, they are working hard to protect their grandiose self-perceptions, and can often be thin-skinned, perceiving everyday events — such as a casual remark — as attacks. People with antisocial narcissism also do not feel limited by the truth, but when they are caught in a lie, they may become angry or rageful. They view the social landscape as something like an enormous contest, and they will do anything to win it.
There’s also another, less obvious kind of narcissist to watch out for, apart from the anti-social and grandiose types: the covert, or vulnerable, narcissist. Don’t be deceived by the name, because these individuals also believe they are superior, but they keep these beliefs inside. Vulnerable narcissists are deeply self-absorbed, maintain an artificially inflated sense of themselves, and believe that they are entitled to more attention than they get. They, therefore, feel chronically victimized, as though the world has failed to recognize their brilliance or specialness. In this, the covert narcissist becomes prone to feelings of depression, even as he or she expresses powerful contempt for other people. These narcissists, too, lack empathy; they may be highly sensitive, but their sensitivity does not extend to the feelings of others.
It can be difficult to maintain your relationships with people who have narcissistic personality disorder. They will often disappoint you by prioritizing their own needs, over yours, and will not apologize for doing so. You may feel like you are struggling to gain their attention, walking on eggshells in order to avoid offending them or constantly working to avoid being blamed for the negative experiences in their lives. If so, do your best to take stock of these narcissistic traits. Being aware of these personalities, and their subtypes may help you create better boundaries between yourself and the people who embody them.