After this interview I did for ELLE about whether or not social media is creating narcissists, a strange thing happened. 

A bunch of people from all over the country emailed me describing their bosses, ex’s, friends, and various family members — and everyone wanted to know the same thing, “Does X thing make them a narcissist?”

I stayed up late (i.e. past 10pm) reading and responded to those emails, but at some point I decided to get my beauty sleep and write about it instead.

So, ta-da! Here it is, everything you ever wanted or needed to know about true narcissists, how narcissism works and whether or not narcissists can ever change.

Lets start with that one friend of yours whose got all the Insta selfies, does that count?

Social media doesn’t technically create narcissists, in the same way that Vegas doesn’t technically create gamblers. 

That said, one of the top three pervasive features of narcissism is a constant need for admiration, and nothing instantaneously satisfies that need quite like a heart icon wrapped inside a talk bubble.

Tons of empirically validated studies are demonstrating distinct correlations between those who posses narcissistic traits (entitlement, superiority, self-absorption, etc.) and those who are more active, have more followers, and post more often on sites like Facebook and Instagram. 

Still, the old rule applies: correlation does not equal causation.

The truth is we all have narcissistic tendencies — on some level we all want to feel special, be admired and seem important in some way, and social media definitely strokes our natural egoic needs.

While social media is the ideal platform for narcissists, there’s a big difference between posting an eye-roll worthy amount of bathroom selfies and being a true narcissist.

According to the DSM V, less than 1% of people are diagnosed with Narcissistic Personal Disorder (though narcissists don’t typically seek treatment, so there’s that). 

True narcissism is actually much more rare than we tend to think, and when you’re with a true narcissist, there’s no mistaking it, you know.

It’s easy to judge people who post a constant stream of selfies, appear heavily self-involved and who indulge in grandiosity as narcissists, but true narcissists also display a pretty astounding lack of empathy for others.

Basically narcissists consistently give zero f—-, and not in the liberated, good way.

Another way clinicians are trained to measure narcissism is with ‘level of pervasiveness.’ Some people are really arrogant and entitled at work, but get home and are a little more down to earth, for example.

Not narcissists.

Across the board and in every context, narcissists demonstrate patterns of grandiosity, the need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.

Here are some examples of things narcissists do regularly: 

— They might cut to the front of the line because  they believe their time is more valuable and their needs are more important than others. 

— They usually want to be associated with the best of everything, and typically insist on having THE dermatologist, THE yoga instructor, THE designer, etc. 

— They basically expect people to lose their cookies when they show up to an event or a party, and are often surprised or perplexed if people don’t. 

— They may overwork their employees, disregarding the toll their demands take on others’ personal lives (I can almost hear all the 1st year law associates raising their eyebrows). 

— They’re haunted by criticism (Freud called this ‘narcissistic injury’) and actually have a pretty fragile sense of self-esteem.

In short, narcissists order a trenta sized cup of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy every single morning, after shamelessly cutting ahead of you in line.

Those are the basics, but if you want to get really specific:

The DSM V is that manual I referenced earlier; therapists and psychiatrists use it as a diagnostic guide for their patients. The DSM provides clear diagnostic criteria that must be met before someone can officially be diagnosed as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 5 or more of the following must be present and pervasive in a variety of contexts (professionally, personally etc.):

– A grandiose sense of self-importance.

– Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.

– Believes that he or she is special and can only be understood by other special or high-status people.

– Requires excessive admiration.

– Has a sense of entitlement.

– Exploits relationships for personal gain.

– Lacks empathy.

– Frequently jealous of others or thinks others are jealous of them.

– Displays arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes.

And here’s a direct quote from the DSM, “Only when these traits are inflexible, maladaptive, and persisting and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress do they constitute Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” 

Also, random side note: Narcissistic Personality Disorder is associated with substance-related disorders, especially cocaine, and Anorexia.

That’s the thing about true narcissists, they can’t ‘shut off’ their narcissism. 

People who are self-absorbed can step away from those tendencies (even if only occasionally) and open themselves up to a broader perspective, like seeing how their behavior impacts others or making more altruistically motivated choices.

So is your boss or ex-boyfriend or toxic friend always going to be a narcissist, or can people change? 

The general answer is yes they can change, and no they don’t want to.

Narcissists can absolutely grow to learn how their behavior impacts themselves and those around them, and they can also discover new ways of relating to others and engaging in healthy interpersonal reciprocity (i.e. how to be a good friend, a good boss, etc.), they just don’t want to

That’s because narcissistic behaviors are egosyntonic for narcissists, meaning their behaviors fit in with their idea of who they are, so they see no real need to change them.

If you have a narcissist in your life, you definitely to create boundaries in that relationship. Here’s how.

Katherine Schafler is an NYC-based psychotherapist, writer and speaker.  For more of her work, join her monthly newsletter, read her blog, or follow her on Instagram

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  • Katherine Schafler

    NYC-based psychotherapist, writer and speaker.

    Katherine earned her Bachelor’s degree in psychology at UC Berkeley before obtaining two Masters from Columbia University, one focused on clinical assessment and the other on psychological counseling. Additionally, she completed post-graduate training and certification at the Association for Spirituality and Psychotherapy in NYC.