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Narcissism & Narcissistic Personality Disorder. What is the Difference?

narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder. What is the difference?

“Narcissism” and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

What is the difference ? 

Narcissism, Narcissist, Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Despite the recent popularity of these terms, there are some distinct differences between someone who has narcissistic traits and someone who may actually have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). 

Even though a person should only be officially diagnosed by a licensed clinical psychologist trained in personality theories and experience with working with them directly, many lay people may find it useful to better understand this disorder as well as how to distinguish between the two.

What are the key pivot points of Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

  • Does this person have Object Constancy and do they easily go into Splitting? 

For example: when this person is upset with you by something you did, do they still maintain their positive emotional tie to you, or do they act as if they suddenly hate you? Do they quickly view others (and themselves), as either being perfect and admirable, or worthless pieces of garbage? 

Someone who does not have NPD is more likely to be able to recognize that even though they are annoyed with someone, they can still maintain their thoughts that this is someone they care about, and do not suddenly view them as “all bad”, even if they are upset with them at this moment.

  • Can this person self-regulate and self-soothe (especially when narcissistically injured) ? 

People who suffer from NPD tend to have tremendous difficulty self-soothing when they are upset, and self-regulating their emotions without immediately having to act them out in some way. For example, they may feel the need when they are angry to immediately send a nasty email,  threatening to sue someone, as they feel this will make them feel better, more powerful, and “teach the other person a lesson”. 

Someone who does not have NPD, is more likely to be able to tolerate negative emotions without immediately acting them out in some way, and will be better able to think through their actions and their possible long-term consequences, even if they feel tempted to do the same thing. This can also be an issue for other personality disorders as well.

  • What is their core Need and core Fear? 

People who suffer from NPD have an underlying need for constant admiration and positive attention. If they are an “exhibitionist narcissist”, they often want positive attention reflecting how perfect and special they are.  Whereas a “closet (or covert) narcissist” may want to hear the thing they are attached to being praised (like their children for example). 

Their underlying fear is to feel worthless, not special, inferior, or humiliated. 

People with other personality disorders, like Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) for example, are usually much more focused on fears of abandonment, then the need to be praised or admired. 

Paying attention to this underlying emotional motivation can be extremely useful in better understanding what disorder someone may be suffering from.

  • Can they internally self-regulate their self-esteem ?  Or is their self-esteem completely based on external feedback? 

People with NPD tend to base almost all of their self-esteem on getting positive external feedback from the people and situations around them. Unfortunately, when the feedback is negative, this leaves them extremely vulnerable to suddenly feeling like a worthless piece of garbage the moment they are embarrassed, degraded, disrespected, or otherwise insulted. Someone without NPD may feel hurt by negative external feedback, but they would not shift from feeling perfect and worthy of admiration to suddenly feeling like complete garbage simply because someone said something upsetting about them.

  • Does the person take responsibility for his/her behavior? 

Most people who suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder tend to avoid taking responsibility for anything negative at all costs!   While most people do not like admitting to their mistakes or apologizing, this tends to be particularly painful and experienced as a huge narcissistic injury for someone with NPD. 

Admitting to mistakes causes most people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder tremendous humiliation, and shame, and likely leading to them spiraling into feeling completely worthless. Hence, they tend to avoid this if at all possible.

Common misconceptions about Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

There are many misconceptions that people have about NPD and/or stereotypes about people with the disorder, here are a few:

•Lying does not mean someone has NPD, and not all people with NPD lie.

•Cheating in relationships does not mean a person has NPD. There are people with NPD who cheat, and many people with NPD who do not cheat.

•Not all people with NPD are “terrible” parents. While there are many people with NPD who treat their children badly, not all people with disorder do.

•Not all people with NPD are obvious about the way they want attention and may not come across as “histrionic” or outwardly appear to be seeking constant positive attention.

•Someone who has unstable self-esteem, difficulty self-regulating, and lack of object constancy may not have NPD, and may instead have Borderline Personality Disorder, or another personality disorder.

•Even though many people with NPD do not seek treatment and/or improve, some do come to therapy and do make improvements in the areas they are struggling.

Key Point: 

Even though only a psychotherapist working directly with a person can officially diagnose a person as having a personality disorder, it can still be incredibly useful to learn more about the differences between narcissistic behavior, and the actual Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 

Many people are called “narcissists” who may not actually meet the criteria for the disorder in the DSM-5  or have the underlying emotional motivations of the disorder. 

On the other hand, the more a person knows about the disorder, the easier it can be to recognize some of the common pivot points between someone being a “narcissist” and someone having Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Shawna Freshwater, PhD

Shawna Freshwater, PhD

Hi, I am Dr. Shawna Freshwater, a PhD licensed Clinical Psychologist, Neuropsychologist, and Holistic Practitioner. ** I provide Psychotherapy, Coaching, Healing, Diagnostic testing & Mental Health Check-ups. ** I meet the needs of my patients and clients that are confidential and convenient to their schedule. ** I offer Remote / Online secure interactive video conferencing to USA residents and International clients. ** I also provide Concierge services at your home, office, or private location of your choice if you reside in South Florida Major Cities. ***Please see my website for more information about my credentials and areas of expertise. Thank you. Dr. Freshwater

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