What is narcissism?

It is a word that is used a lot more frequently than it used to be and comes up a fair bit in the sessions that I have with clients. 


Narcissism is the second-hand smoke of our time, if you stand too close to it, you are going to get sick!

- Dr Ramani Durvasula.

Narcissists have a prominent place and the word is used so much more commonly as the awareness of its existence continues to grow. The label "narcissist" is widely deployed to refer to people who appear too full of themselves and there's also a growing sense that narcissism is on the rise around the world, especially among young people, although most psychological research does not support that notion.

I believe it is just an awareness of the term and behaviour in the past that wasn’t labelled and is now being given this label, whether correctly or incorrectly. 

What may be seen as an increase in narcissism is just the inability of people to be told they are incorrect or can’t always have things their own way. A likely hangover of children being told that they can do and be anything they want without the realities of having to work for these things to happen.

Narcissism is properly viewed on a spectrum. with most people being somewhere near the middle, and a few at either extreme. 

The traits of narcissism

It’s easy to describe someone who spends a bit too much time talking about themselves or who never seems to doubt themself as a narcissist, but the trait is much more complicated than that. Narcissism isn’t about having a surplus of self-esteem but is based in insecurity and fragility in self. 

There is a hunger for appreciation or admiration, a desire to be the centre of attention, and an expectation of special treatment reflecting perceived higher status. by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, entitlement, superficiality and a tendency to manipulate and/or exploit other people.

Interestingly, research finds, some types of highly narcissistic people often readily admit to an awareness that they are more self-centred, but in others, they are oblivious to their behaviours. 

A high level of narcissism, not surprisingly then, can be damaging in romantic, family, or professional relationships.

What’s the difference between narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder?

Narcissistic personality disorder affects an estimated 1% of the population, a prevalence that hasn't changed since clinicians started measuring it. 

It is hard to get a true number as it is very unlikely that someone with NPD or severe narcissistic traits will ever seek help and get a diagnosis. 

However, the disorder is suspected when a person’s daily functioning is impaired and impacts on their daily lives. That maladapted functioning typically causes friction in relationships due to the narcissist's lack of empathy. 

It may also manifest as antagonism, the NPD narcissist views everyone else as inferior and may be intolerant of your opinions, disagreement or questioning.

People with NPD display five or more of the following traits:

  • an inflated sense of self-worth
  • constant fantasies about being better than others
  • a belief that they are more special than others/should only associate with high-status people
  • an insatiable need for flattery and admiration
  • feelings of entitlement
  • willingness to take advantage of others to get what they want
  • a lack of empathy
  • arrogance
  • feeling envious of others or that they're jealous

So, apart from NPD, what are the other types of narcissism?

Grandiose or overt narcissism 

Grandiose narcissism is probably what most people think of when they think of a narcissist. It can also be known as agentic. 

In psychology, grandiosity refers to having an unrealistic sense of superiority. Grandiose narcissism, therefore, involves overestimating one's abilities, asserting one's dominance over others, and having a generally inflated sense of self-esteem, often at the expense of others. Predatory in their seeking of vulnerability in others, highly competitive and show aggressive tendencies. 

They are likely to feel good about themselves and overestimate their emotional intelligence, which is one of the oddest things they do, as it is clearly very low.

Overt narcissists can be charming but often lack empathy. In conversations, they don't relate to people but rather aim to one-up them. This might be because they crave attention, enjoy seeing others hurt and confused, or both. 

Vulnerable or covert narcissism

This is also known as closet narcissism. 

In opposition to the grandiose narcissists, these tend to be shy and self-effacing, despite still being highly self-focused.

They can appear inhibited, manifestly distressed, hypersensitive to the evaluations of others and chronically envious. They crave people's recognition and get very defensive in the face of criticism as they harbour a deep fear or sense of not being good enough and internalise it.

Covert narcissists are often abjectly miserable and believe their suffering is worse than anyone else's. They tend to present themselves as victims and can be quick to cry or stage a crisis to gain attention. 

Their manipulative behaviours are exhibited as passive-aggressive. They also tend to struggle with anxiety and or depression.

Malignant narcissism 

Just like the name implies, they are manipulative and malicious. They show signs of sadism and aggression and are the most severe type of narcissists.

More closely connected to overt than covert narcissism, the malignant narcissist may have many common traits of narcissism, along with traits of antisocial personality disorder.

Often mistaken for psychopaths and sociopaths, due to their aggressive, hostile, paranoia, sadistic and dehumanising behaviour toward those around them. This type of person will hurt you physically, emotionally, financially, and sexually and not bat an eyelash or have any remorse.

Not only do they lack empathy, but they get pleasure from seeing people writhe in pain and discomfort and have spent their lives perfecting the craft of becoming better narcissists.

They are more prone to substance abuse/addiction

Subtypes of narcissism that you may be aware of fall into three main categories.


People with seductive narcissism understand the power of flattery, making someone crave positive attention. They’ll freely shower targets with compliments and gifts in order to get the admiration they desire. When they’re not getting enough praise from someone for their acts, they have no problem dropping that person and moving on to a new target.


A common trait between many types of narcissists is a gap between the way they view themself and how they behave. 

People with communal narcissistic traits perceive themselves as highly generous and altruistic but behave in the opposite way.

They can become outraged when they witness injustice or see someone being mistreated, they don’t apply that same view to their own behaviour.


Competitiveness is a personality trait that’s associated with many narcissistic types, but it’s especially noticeable with antagonistic narcissists. 

A low level of trust in others creates a tendency to see the people around them as rivals, arguing frequently with others and treating most social interactions as a competition.

Sexual narcissism

The sexual narcissist feels entitled to have their sexual needs met. They have a self-centred view of sex and tend to not be skilled at emotional intimacy and therefore are not very interested in their partner's needs. They frequently overestimate their skills in the bedroom because they are not very tuned into their partners. Yet, they need and expect a lot of praise for their performance in bed.

They can react angrily to sexual rejection. They expect sex in return for gifts or nice gestures and will pressure, trick, or manipulate you into having sex with them. They feel entitled to get sex elsewhere if you do not meet their sexual requirements and blame you for them doing so.

Exhibitionist narcissism

The need for constant attention is like a bottomless pit for these people. They think they are better than others physically and intellectually. They look down on others, even their friends and family. They are very status conscious and materialistic. They think they are very special and have an enormous need to be admired all the time.

Hypervigilant narcissism

These types of narcissists tend to be highly sensitive to the body language, facial reactions, tone, and reactions of others. They tend to take things personally and be hypersensitive to criticism. They are prone to feeling shame or humiliation and can be self-effacing. They are likely to direct toward others and prefer not to be the centre of attention.

As mentioned, narcissism exists on a spectrum. 

Showing traits that could classify you as a grandiose, vulnerable or a malignant narcissist doesn't necessarily mean you have a mental health disorder. In small amounts, it may even give you a healthy edge in getting ahead in the world. And this is termed as...

Healthy narcissism

Yes, healthy narcissism exists. 

Each person has a bit of healthy narcissism within them and will feel proud of their accomplishments and will want to share those accomplishments with others because it makes them feel good. Healthy narcissism is also the ability to feel a sense of entitlement and knowing that you belong in certain spaces and deserve good things. These feelings, though, are in line with reality. 

To big yourself up is very positive and can lead you to achieve in many areas of life.

In the next piece, I will discuss why it can be difficult to identify a narcissist and why people stay in narcissistic relationships and the type of person a narcissist has a tendency to go for.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, EN8 9SH
Written by Cheshunt Counselling
Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, EN8 9SH

John's approach is a fusion of Coaching, Counselling, Psychology & NLP and will help you to understand yourself, others and what you need to do to attract what you want in your life, something healthy and fulfilling.

John Kenny is a Relationship Coach, Author, Speaker, Podcast Host and Documentary Maker and helps people to live their best lives!

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