In ancient Greek mythology, Narcissus, the son of a river god, was known throughout the land for his beauty. After seeing his own reflection in a pool of water, Narcissus met his end as he wasted away, enamored by his own image (“Narcissus | Britannica,” 2021). It is from this myth that we get the term, narcissism, in reference to an excessive sense of self importance and value.
In the early 1900s, Freud redefined narcissism for a clinical context. In his published works, he described narcissism as the result of an aberrant development of self-esteem. Freud went on to note that narcissistic individuals often craved the attention and love of others. Moreover, he recognized that narcissism had consistently negative consequences on an individual’s mental health (Brin, 2013).
Today, mental health professionals recognize narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as a serious condition that affects around 5% of the population. While an individual with NPD may seem self-absorbed and unempathetic, in reality, their behaviors stem from deeply ingrained insecurities (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). As it is a personality disorder, symptoms of NPD usually begin in adolescence and continue into adulthood. Some common symptoms include: an inflated sense of self importance, a desire for constant validation, thoughts of superiority, manipulative behaviors, difficulty understanding the wants and needs of others, difficulty handling criticism, and difficulty with emotional regulation (Mayo Clinic, 2017).
Like all mental health conditions, the etiology is complex. There are genetic and environmental components to its presentation. That being said, it is thought that significant rejection or overindulgence in childhood might play a role in the development of the condition (Mitra & Fluyau, 2021). As it currently stands, psychotherapy is seen as the best treatment for NPD. Additionally, traditional psychiatric medications can be used as an adjunct to treat comorbid anxiety and depression (Kacel et al., 2017).
At this point, I’d like to take a second to remind you that NPD is not a failure of moral character, but it is a psychiatric condition. Individuals struggling with NPD, often experience emotionally turbulent lives and lose most close relationships. Through love, support, and outside help, these individuals can find interpersonal success and live meaningful lives.