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The A to Z Guide to Narcissism

Updated: May 7

Narcissism, a term coined from the Greek mythological figure Narcissus (pic by J.W. Waterhouse, 1903. Public domain), is a personality trait (and complex set of emotional defences). Narcissism is characterised by a need for admiration, challenged empathy, manipulative behaviour, and some level of grandiosity.


(Even covert and vulnerable narcissists, see below, have this trait at some level, even when it is subconscious and covert). Folk of any gender can develop narcissism.

 

This author sees narcissism as a complex set of defence mechanisms – trauma responses that have become embedded in the person’s psyche. Some folk can be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) if their traits are significant enough.

 

In the way this author conceptualises narcissism, I see two main categories:

1.Overt (also known as grandiose) narcissism. Your classic entitled and

overbearing narcissistic personality type. (There are other descriptors or subtypes that also fit the overt category, as follows – antagonistic narcissism, i.e. focussing on rivalry; communal narcissism, i.e. seeming altruistic and with social power; and malignant narcissism, i.e. with vindictive or sadistic tendencies). As described, narcissism is best seen as a spectrum of personality traits, and some folk lean further into a particular group of traits or trauma responses than others. These ‘overt’ individuals seem more likely to have primarily avoidant attachment styles (see ‘attachment’, below).


2. Covert narcissism. These folk tend to have lower self-esteem than overts, and a higher likelihood of experiencing anxiety and shame. (This author further sees vulnerable narcissism as a subtype of covert. Vulnerable narcissists are seemingly much closer in personality type to folk with emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD), i.e. with high levels of insecurity and hypersensitivity). Covert narcissists seem more likely to have ambivalent or disorganised attachment styles.

 

Here’s our ‘A to Z’ of narcissism, which covers some of the main terms and phrases used in this field. Here, we use the term ‘partner’, and typically mean a romantic or intimate partner, however of course the relationship can be between a parent and child, siblings, or any relational pairing, even in the workplace.

A - Admiration: At the heart of narcissism typically lies a thirst for admiration. Individuals with narcissistic traits often seek constant validation from others to affirm their self-image. Even covert narcissists, who can appear self-deprecating and humble, do gain ‘supply’ from being admired. If they aren’t able to ‘own’ the admiration in a personal capacity, as overt narcissists seemingly can, the covert narcissist will likely accrue admiration from the workplace or some other avenue, maybe charitable work, or something skill-based that they DO, rather than what or who they ARE.

 

A – Attachment: Attachment theory explores the bond between infants and caregivers, highlighting its impact on later emotional and relational development. Attachment styles describe the way we primarily interact with people relationally, and as described, are established in infancy. The four styles are –

·      Secure Attachment: We feel confident in our relationships, comfortable with intimacy, yet have a strong sense of independence. (‘I am OK, you’re OK.’)

·      Insecure Avoidant (also called Anxious-Dismissive): We’re the independent type, not too keen on getting too close or too attached. We can withdraw into ourselves easily. (‘I am OK, you’re not OK.’)

·      Insecure Ambivalent (also called Anxious-Preoccupied): More clingy emotions and behaviours . We seek validation, and fear rejection. (‘I am not OK, you’re OK.’)

·      Insecure Disorganised (also called Fearful-Avoidant): This is often associated with family dysfunction and trauma, and sees us crave closeness but be scared of getting hurt at the same time. (‘I am not OK, you’re not OK.’)

 

B - Boundary Violation: Narcissists often exhibit a disregard for personal boundaries, both their own, and those of others. They may intrude upon others' personal space or emotions without hesitation, viewing others as mere extensions of themselves. (See ‘Object Relations’).

 

C – Codependence: The author has included this term here, as narcissists are attracted to codependents like bees to honey! Originating from the field of addiction treatment, Codependence refers to a dysfunctional pattern of behaviour and thinking characterised by excessive reliance on others for validation, self-worth, and identity. Codependent individuals often prioritise others' needs and emotions over their own, to the extent that their sense of self becomes enmeshed with those of others, particularly with individuals who exhibit addictive or dysfunctional behaviours (like narcissists).

 

Melody Beattie and Pia Mellody are renowned experts in this field. This author in particular reveres the work of Pia Mellody, which is outlined in her book "Facing Codependence." She describes a range of symptoms associated with codependence, including low self-esteem, difficulty setting boundaries, people-pleasing tendencies, and a strong fear of abandonment or rejection. One can easily see why narcissists often pair up with codependents, as these traits ‘fuel’ narcissistic supply.

 

C – Covert Narcissist: A covert narcissist is a type of narcissistic personality characterised by a subtler and more insidious manifestation of narcissistic traits than their ‘Overt’ contemporaries. Unlike their overt (grandiose) counterparts, who display grandiosity and seek attention openly, covert narcissists operate with greater stealth, often presenting themselves as modest or self-effacing. They tend to have lower self-esteem (than overts), and a higher likelihood of experiencing anxiety and shame.

 

Despite their outward appearance of humility, covert narcissists still harbour a deep sense of entitlement, superiority, and a need for admiration and validation. They typically manipulate others through passive-aggressive behaviour, playing the victim.

 

Covert narcissists excel at portraying themselves as martyrs and victims, garnering sympathy and support from others while subtly undermining those around them. See also Vulnerable Narcissist, below.  

D - Discard Cycle: The discard cycle in narcissism refers to a pattern of behaviour common in narcissistic relationships, where the narcissist repeatedly idealises, devalues, and then discards their partner or victim. During the idealisation stage, the narcissist showers their partner with love, affection, and admiration, portraying the other person (in their minds – the narcissist reportedly also believes this charade or process to some level!); as perfect and ideal. This can also appear as ‘hoovering’, see below – sucking the partner back in. (In the section ‘Object Relations’, we see that narcissists have trouble ‘seeing’ their partners as external objects, instead seeing them as internalised, projected versions of what they believe the person to be.) The idealisation phase is often marked by gestures of love, creating a (perceived) strong emotional bond between the narcissist and their partner.

 

In the devaluation stage, the narcissist begins to criticise, belittle, or emotionally abuse their partner, undermining their self-esteem and confidence. They typically withdraw affection. In the discard stage, the narcissist withdraws their affection and attention without warning, leaving the partner feeling confused, rejected, and emotionally shattered. The narcissist may even end the relationship abruptly. After the discard phase, the cycle often repeats itself.

D - Defensiveness: Narcissists are highly defensive individuals, prone to reacting aggressively or dismissively to perceived criticism or threats to their self-esteem.


This defensiveness shields their fragile sense of self-worth. Look out for it, when you try to share your experience, or aim to elicit empathy!

 

E - Empathy: Talking of which…. perhaps one of the most defining traits of narcissism is a profound lack of true empathy. Narcissists struggle to understand or connect with the emotions and experiences of others, viewing them solely in relation to their own needs and desires. This can be easy to spot in the language they use around others, which can be judgemental.

 

E - Entitlement: A pervasive sense of entitlement is a hallmark trait of narcissism. Narcissists typically believe they deserve special treatment and privileges without regard for the feelings or rights of others.


F - False Self: In narcissism, the false self refers to a constructed persona. This false self is an artfully curated image, designed to mask underlying feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and vulnerability. The false self - which the narcissist believes to be true, unless they’re faced with ‘mortification’, see below - shields the individual from experiencing the pain of their true emotions and insecurities, by presenting an idealised image to the world. (The kind work colleague, the loving husband or wife, the devout charity worker, the religious or spiritual church goer, etc). The false self acts as a defence mechanism against perceived threats to the individual's ego or self-esteem, such as criticism, rejection, or failure.

 

F - Fantasy: Narcissists frequently engage in grandiose fantasies of success, power, or brilliance. These fantasies serve to bolster their fragile self-esteem, and compensate for underlying feelings of inadequacy. (See also ‘shared fantasy’.) Even covert narcissist are fantastical – look out for stories, plans, goals and desires around being rich, successful, attaining comeuppance, etc. For the covert narcissist, the stories can also be around something altruistic, i.e. serving a charitable purpose, giving away money to the needy, etc, but they’re often fantastical.

 

F - Future Faking: In the context of narcissism, this refers to a manipulative tactic employed by narcissists to deceive and control their partners by making false promises or commitments about the future. Narcissists may use future faking as a means to maintain control over their targets (partners), keep them engaged in a relationship, or manipulate them into compliance. It’s a frequent ‘tool’ ‘in the moment’, to get out of a situation, or gain supply. (See below). Look out for promises of changing behaviour, getting a long-awaited pet, taking a holiday, getting married, starting a family, changing jobs, travelling together, getting things ‘back to where they used to be’, etc; or in the workplace, getting a pay-rise, or a new office, company car or promotion).

 

Future faking essentially involves the narcissist painting an enticing picture of a future event, often filled with grandiose plans, dreams, and promises of commitment or change. However, the promises made during future faking are typically insincere; their sole purpose is to keep the other person emotionally invested and dependent on the narcissist.

 

G – Gaslighting: This is a manipulative tactic commonly employed by narcissists to undermine the victim's perception of reality, leading them to doubt their own thoughts, feelings, and memories. The term originates from the play and film Gaslight, where a husband manipulates his wife into believing she is losing her sanity by dimming the gaslights in their home and denying that anything has changed. In the context of narcissism, gaslighting typically involves the narcissist denying or distorting facts, minimising their own abusive behaviour, and shifting blame onto the real victim. Look out for tactics such as outright denial, trivialising the partner’s concerns, or even accusing the partner of being overly sensitive or paranoid. Gaslighting can lead to feelings of confusion, self-doubt, and emotional distress for the partner.

 

G - Grandiosity: Grandiosity typically lies at the core of narcissistic personality traits. Narcissists harbour an exaggerated sense of self-importance, believing themselves to be superior to others and deserving of special recognition. This is also typically true for covert narcissists, at some level. (Their ‘false self’ has self-importance and feels superior to others; but underneath, their true self, probably long-buried or denied, does not feel these things.) Look out for judgemental language and a sense of superiority.

 

G – Grey Rocking: This is a strategy employed by individuals dealing with narcissists to minimise conflict and emotional manipulation. It involves intentionally becoming dull, uninteresting, and emotionally unresponsive in interactions with the narcissist, essentially blending into the background like a grey rock. The goal is to make oneself less appealing or rewarding as a source of narcissistic ‘supply’, thereby reducing the narcissist's desire to engage in manipulative behaviour. By adopting a grey rock approach, individuals aim to protect themselves from the emotional toll of interacting with a narcissist; they stay neutral and detached. The tactic allows individuals to maintain a sense of autonomy and self-preservation while navigating challenging relationships with narcissistic individuals. (See also Yellow Rocking).

 

H - Healing: Breaking free from a narcissistic relationship, and therefore beginning to heal one’s self, often requires the partner to recognise the manipulative tactics employed by the narcissist, establish healthy boundaries, and prioritise their own well-being and self-esteem. It may also involve seeking support from friends, family, or a therapist to navigate the challenges of healing from the trauma of narcissistic abuse.

 

H - Hoovering: Hoovering refers to a manipulation tactic employed by narcissists to draw their victims back into a relationship or an interaction after a period of estrangement or discard. This cycle of idealisation, devaluation, and hoovering is characteristic of many narcissistic relationships. (See ‘Discard Cycle’, above.)

 

I - Inflated Ego: Narcissists possess an inflated sense of self-importance and superiority. They often exaggerate their achievements and talents while downplaying the accomplishments of others.

 

J - Jealousy: Despite their outward confidence, narcissists are often plagued by feelings of jealousy and envy towards others' success or attention. This jealousy stems from their fragile self-esteem and constant need for validation.

 

K - Kiss-Up, Kick-Down: The term appears to have originated from the business field, in America. Narcissists often employ a ‘kiss-up, kick-down’ approach in their interactions, ingratiating themselves with those in positions of power (kiss-up), while demeaning or belittling those they perceive as inferior (kick-down). Look out for comments around people’s appearance, responses, or opinions. This attitude is due to their entitlement and grandiosity.

 

L - Love bombing: This is a manipulative tactic commonly employed by narcissists and other manipulative individuals to gain control and influence over their targets. It involves showering the person with excessive affection, attention, and flattery in the early stages of a relationship, creating an intense and overwhelming experience that may seem like genuine love and adoration.

 

The aim is to make the victim feel special, valued, and emotionally invested in the relationship. The narcissist may rush the relationship forward at an accelerated pace. However they have ultimately manipulated the partner’s emotions, lowered their defences, and established a strong emotional bond, making the partner more susceptible to manipulation and exploitation. Sadly, the love bombing phase typically gives way to devaluation and manipulation.

 

Establishing healthy boundaries, maintaining a sense of self-worth and autonomy, and being cautious of excessive flattery and rapid relationship progression can help individuals guard against falling prey to love bombing. But unfortunately, partners typically notice the love bombing phase in hindsight, once they’ve been hooked in by the narcissist.

 

M - Manipulation: Narcissists are skilled manipulators, adept at exploiting others' vulnerabilities to serve their own agenda. They may use flattery, guilt-tripping, or gaslighting, see above, to control and manipulate those around them.

 

M – Mortification: This refers to the experience of intense shame, humiliation, or wounded pride that occurs when a narcissist's inflated self-image is challenged. It occurs when events or feedback expose the narcissist's vulnerabilities, flaws, or failures, contradicting their grandiose self-image.


Their false self is revealed to be just that, and this is crushing for the narcissist. This can be genuinely catastrophic for them, especially for vulnerable narcissists, and will likely cause intense emotional reactivity and possibly extreme behaviours as they come face to face with their true self, or whatever fragments are left of it.

 

N - Narcissistic Supply: Narcissistic supply refers to the attention, admiration, validation, and other forms of emotional sustenance that narcissists crave to maintain their fragile self-esteem and sense of superiority. Narcissists have an insatiable need for narcissistic supply, as it is essential for bolstering their self-image. Narcissistic supply can take various forms, including praise, admiration, attention, flattery, sympathy, and envy. It can be derived from interpersonal relationships, social interactions, achievements, material possessions, or even online interactions on social media platforms.

 

The pursuit of narcissistic supply drives much of the narcissist's behaviour and interactions, shaping their relationships and social dynamics. Without supply, narcissists may experience feelings of emptiness.

 

N – No Contact: In the context of dealing with narcissism, this refers to a deliberate strategy where an individual chooses to sever all communication and interaction with a narcissistic person or a toxic individual. This decision is typically made to protect one's emotional well-being and establish healthy boundaries in the face of persistent manipulation or toxicity. One can also go ‘low contact’ with a narcissist, which means reducing contact to the bare minimum and being very boundaried with what we share, and what ‘supply’ is given.

 

O - Object Relations: This is a psychological theory that explores how individuals develop relationships based on internalised representations of themselves and others, known as ‘objects’. These objects represent significant figures from early childhood, such as parents or caregivers, and influence our interpersonal dynamics throughout life. Narcissists have trouble ‘seeing’ their partners as external objects; instead seeing them as internal ‘avatars’, as the (self-aware-narcissist) expert in personality disorders, Sam Vaknin, states. These avatars are internalised, projected versions of what the individual believes the partner to be, as opposed to how and what the person is like in real life; flawed, human and real. Remember, narcissists view others as mere extensions of themselves. Narcissists often objectify others, viewing them as instruments for gratifying their own needs.

 

O – Overt Narcissist: An overt (or grandiose) narcissist typically has a personality characterised by grandiosity, attention-seeking behaviour and an overt display of superiority. Unlike covert narcissists who operate with more subtlety, overt narcissists boldly assert their sense of self-importance and generally seek constant admiration and validation from others. They often exhibit a grandiose sense of entitlement, believing they are inherently superior to those around them.

 

Overt narcissists may boast about their achievements, talents, or possessions in an attempt to garner attention and admiration. They may dominate conversations (monologuing), interrupting others to ensure they remain the centre of attention.

 

Overt narcissists typically have a profound lack of empathy, yet can be charismatic and charming, making them adept at manipulating others to serve their own needs.

 

P - Projection: Narcissists frequently engage in projection, attributing their own negative traits or behaviours to others as a means of deflecting criticism and preserving their self-image. Look out for criticisms of others’ performance or looks.

 

Q - Quid Pro Quo: This is a Latin term that translates to ‘something for something’; an exchange or agreement in which one party provides something of value to another in return for something else. Narcissists often view relationships as transactional.

 

R - Rage: Narcissistic rage is a volatile and explosive reaction to perceived threats to their self-esteem or superiority. This rage can manifest as verbal attacks, physical violence, or passive-aggressive behaviour.

 

S – Shared Fantasy: The shared fantasy in narcissism refers to a psychological state in which both parties become enmeshed in a distorted and idealised version of reality created by the narcissist. In this shared fantasy, the narcissist projects an image of themselves as perfect, flawless, and alluring, while simultaneously idealising their partner as the perfect match or soul-mate. The partner, in turn, becomes deeply invested in this idealised version of the relationship, often overlooking or rationalising any red flags or negative behaviours. In toxic family relationships, there can be entire ‘shared fantasy’ family relationships, whereby everyone has ‘bought’ into the fantastical scenario.

 

For the partner or victim, the shared fantasy can be intoxicating and addictive, offering a sense of belonging and security. However, it is ultimately a façade built on deception and manipulation.

 

Breaking free from the shared fantasy is often a challenging and painful process, requiring the partner to reclaim their sense of self-worth and agency. It involves recognising the manipulative tactics employed by the narcissist, establishing boundaries, and ultimately breaking free from the cycle of idealisation and devaluation. See ‘healing’, above.

 

S - Superiority: Narcissists generally harbour an exaggerated sense of superiority and entitlement, believing themselves to be inherently better than others in various aspects of life. This is because deep down, due to childhood dysfunctional relationships and even abuse in some cases, they feel ‘less than’ and unworthy, and had to create a sense of entitlement to ‘protect’ themselves from insecurity and family dysfunction, growing up.

 

T - Triangulation: Triangulation involves manipulating relationships by pitting individuals against each other to maintain control and reinforce the narcissist’s own superiority. There’s often an aspect of the psychological model, Karpman’s Drama Triangle, when the three people in the scenario are forced to play a victim, rescuer or persecutor role. This is very common in families, and narcissistic parents may use siblings as the other two ‘players’.

 

U - Unconscious Trauma Responses: Beneath the surface of narcissistic behaviours lie unconscious motivations that are rooted in deep-seated feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and shame. Narcissists always have attachment wounds. (See ‘Attachment’, above).

 

Narcissists always have insecure attachments, i.e. difficulties in managing emotions, forming close connections, and coping with stress. It seems more unlikely to this author that a person who is securely attached, i.e. has a positive internal working model of themselves and others, has good emotional resilience and self esteem, would fall prey to a narcissist’s talons and tricks. Although the ‘love bombing’ phrase is extremely compelling. (Hence why narcissists and codependepents make ‘successful’ pairings, both feeding each other’s somewhat dysfuctional needs, as codependensts are typically insecurely attached, with underlying insecurities and a need for external validation, which the narcissist gives via love bombing and idealising; see above.)

 

V - Vulnerability: Despite their outward façade, narcissists are typically deeply vulnerable individuals, masking their insecurities beneath layers of insecurity and arrogance.

 

V – Vulnerable Narcissist: this phrase refers to an individual who exhibits traits of covert narcissism but also displays a sense of introversion, insecurity, fragility, and hypersensitivity. This author does see vulnerable narcissism as a subtype of covert narcissism. There’s usually fear of rejection or criticism, despite an outward facade of confidence. Narcissism expert Sam Vaknin, mentioned above, maintains that vulnerable narcissists display pronounced levels of emotional sensitivity and self-doubt, and may be prone to mood swings, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, which are personality traits that closely match those of an individual with emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD, or Borderline). Hence, vulnerable narcissists can behave in ways that are emotionally unstable.

 

W - Wounded Ego: At the core of narcissism lies a wounded ego, fragile and easily bruised by criticism or rejection. It was likely caused in infancy by either enmeshment by a parent, often the maternal figure (i.e. when a caregiver fails to establish healthy boundaries with the infant, blurring the lines between the caregiver's identity and the child's identity; the child is then made to feel responsible for the caregiver's emotional needs); or because of harsh parenting, i.e. criticism, rejection and punishment. A defensive sense of superiority or entitlement can develop as a coping mechanism.

 

X - eXploitation: Narcissists often exploit others for personal gain without remorse or empathy, viewing them as tools to be used and discarded at will.

 

Y - Yellow Rocking: This is not such a widely recognised term in the context of narcissism as Grey Rocking, see above. Think of it like Grey Rocking, but with less obvious detachment! The individual who is using the method can still detach from the narcissist’s actions and words, so the 'arrows' and barbs don't land and wound the partner, but appears more engaged and civil – it is useful for situations when the partner needs to be in contact with the narcissist, i.e. in custody disputes, or other legal matters. To ‘yellow rock’, one must stay calm and composed, refuse to be drawn into game-plays and triggering conversations, yet can be more conversational, for example asking questions about neutral areas of conversation where the narcissist cannot manipulate or exploit the partner’s emotions. The goal is to subtly alter the course of the conversation while maintaining control and appearing civil. BUT…. Employing these tools can make one feel somewhat narcissistic one’s self, as we are essentially being inauthentic.

 

Z - Zero-sum Game: Narcissists often view interpersonal relationships as zero-sum games, where any success or validation gained by others is perceived as a direct threat to their own sense of superiority, something which they are forced to rectify behaviourally.


Thanks for reading! If you are affected by a narcissistic person, please seek the support of support groups, ‘safe’ and nurturing friends and family members, therapists and anyone who can support you in the journey of healing yourself and even disentangling from a narcissistic relationship.


Written by Kathy Carter.

 

 

 

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