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All about narcissism

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Author of the Article

Author: Ludovica Renaldi

Date of Publication: 11/03/2023

When do we usually use the word narcissism? In fact, this term describes a personality trait, a concept in psychoanalytic theory which we also characterize as a mental disorder or a social/ cultural problem. However, we often use it as a synonym for egocentrism, selfishness, vanity and conceit. So, in psychology, the term is used to describe both healthy self-love and insane self centeredness as a result of the annoyance of the sense of self.

Where does the word "narcissism" come from?

narcissism personality trait mental disorder  egocentrism, selfishness, vanity,  conceit, self-love

The word "narcissism" comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus. Specifically, Narcissus, a handsome young man, rejected the love of the nymph Echo. Therefore, as a punishment, he was destined to fall in love with his reflection in the water. Narcissus "looks at the mirror of water, hour after hour" and is finally changed into a flower that bears his name.

Healthy narcissism

The idea of healthy narcissism was first introduced by Paul Federn and gained prominence in the 1970s. What is "healthy narcissism" then? In fact, it is a positive sense of self. According to Heinz Kohut, the characteristics of healthy narcissism are:

  • Strong self-esteem

  • Empathy

  • Authentic self-concept

  • Self-respect and self-love

  • Being able to withstand criticism from others

  • Confidence in setting and pursuing goals and realizing one's hopes and dreams

  • Emotional resilience

  • Healthy pride in oneself and one's achievements

  • The ability to admire and be admired.

Pathological narcissism

Apart from the healthy narcissism, pathological narcissism exists too. According to psychologists, it isn’t hereditary, but is a personality structuring that originates in childhood.

Usually, the child who will be a narcissistic adult had a family with very high ambitions. This led them to believe they were "special" and, at the same time, ridiculed or severely blamed his fears and failures. Thus, he grew up "hungry" for recognition and praise.

narcissism personality trait mental disorder  egocentrism, selfishness, vanity,  conceit, self-love

Another possible cause of the pathological narcissism is when the relationship between parent and child is reversed. This is the case, for example, with children of ill parents, with psychiatric disorders or addiction problems. In such cases, the child cares for them, while being ashamed of them at the same time.

Still another possible cause of narcissism is when a family discourages the ambitions of children, possibly accusing them of ingratitude and selfishness. This can generate resentment as well.

How to recognize a narcissistic person?

Let's try to understand how to recognize a narcissistic person now. David Thomas suggests that narcissists show most of the following traits:

  • Concentration on self in interpersonal exchanges;

  • Lack of psychological awareness.

  • Difficulty with empathy.

  • Difficulty distinguishing self from others.

  • Exploitation of others for one's own goals.

  • Vulnerability to shame or guilt.

  • Denial of remorse and gratitude.

  • Irritation toward people who don’t admire them and adulation towards people who admire them.

  • Ostentation of one's achievements.

  • Pretense of nonexistent successes.

  • Ostentation or pretense of competence.

  • High-handedness expressed through body language.


The general treatment of narcissistic personality disorder is the same as that for all personality disorders, namely psychodynamic psychotherapy. This therapy focuses on underlying conflicts.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy may benefit patients with narcissistic personality disorder too. This is because they may have the opportunity to increase endearing mastery. Therefore, their need for praise may allow a therapist to model their behavior. However,, some patients with narcissistic personality disorder find textbook cognitive behavioral approaches too simplistic or generic for their particular needs.

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