The term "narcissist" literally dates back to Greek mythology. Narcissus, a son of the river god, was known for his mythical beauty and self-absorption and provides a cautionary tale that stands the test of time.
But in the past few years, the term has fallen into casual conversation, becoming a quick way to label. "Most people use the word to describe men and women who think a little too well of themselves and don't have much regard for the feelings of others," psychologist Joseph Burgo explained in Psychology Today. "It's often deployed as a put-down and in the realm of politics, an attack weapon."
The reality is much more complicated.
According to other Psychology Today experts,
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"A cross section of the narcissist's ego will reveal high levels of self-esteem, grandiosity, self-focus and self-importance. They think they are more physically attractive and intelligent than just about everyone, and would rather be admired than liked. They are enraged when told they aren't beautiful or brilliant but aren't affected much if told they are jerks."
Another part of the more complicated definition of a narcissist? The personality component is not all bad, far from it.
"We've all got a narcissistic streak within," PT explained. "Narcissism is a stable trait that varies in degree from person to person. Some aspects, including confidence and self-sufficiency, are healthy and adaptive. It is only at the extreme end of the spectrum that narcissism becomes a disorder, often because toxic levels of vanity, entitlement and ‘exploitativeness’ are on display."
Burgo used the term "Extreme Narcissist" for those who display its more toxic forms but warned that even the narcissists in the extreme category don't act alike. "They have differing personality types and different modes of shoring up a grandiose self-image," he said. "They also affect your self-esteem in different ways when they interact with you."
And that goes to the heart of the matter. It doesn't matter whether you use "narcissist" as an overarching slang term for anyone who's kind of insensitive, or are more intent on studying the ins and outs of the extreme narcissistic personality. What's important is learning ways to cope with or divert the most toxic narcissistic behaviors and reactions, whether that person is a co-worker, boss, someone you're dating, a parent or even your child.
In some cases, the toxic behavior far exceeds what an ordinary person can handle just with insight and resolve, notably children raised by one or more narcissists. "Most adult children of narcissists never get the help they need to recover and heal, because they have no idea that what they've experienced as children is unhealthy and destructive," career growth and personal success coach Kathy Caprino explained in Forbes.
Another super tough situation: people who are married or romantically involved with narcissists, particularly if they themselves are people pleasers. Such circumstances almost always require counseling or divorce to solve.
For more general coping, though, Burgo offered tips, along with five classifications for extreme narcissists. All are based on his book "The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age."
The Know-It-All Narcissist
Indicators: Always eager to give an opinion, believes she knows more than anyone else, likes to lecture, bad listener.
Coping strategy: If you can, ignore her suggestions or offer polite thanks and move on.
"A direct challenge will most likely lead her to escalate her efforts in order to prove herself as more clever or better informed," Burgo noted. "You might also try modeling humility and expressing a flexible point of view. Be open to her views without necessarily endorsing them. It also helps to have a sense of humor."
The Grandiose Narcissist
Indicators: The most familiar type; he sees himself as more important and more influential than everyone else, brags on his accomplishments, exaggerates, wants you to show envy or admiration, believes he is destined for great things.
"When charismatic and driven, his achievements may actually match his ambition and you may find yourself drawn into an admiring orbit around him," Burgo warned.
Coping strategy: Don't be drawn into the drama of competition. "Any challenge will only cause him to escalate his efforts to appear superior," Burgo said. "Be careful not to give too much: The Grandiose Narcissist won't feel grateful and will do nothing to help you unless there's something in it for him. If necessary, he will discard you without a second thought."
The Seductive Narcissist
Indicators: Manipulates you by making you feel good about yourself. "At first, she will appear to admire or even idealize you, but her ultimate goal is to make you feel the same way about her so she can use you," Burgo said. "When she has no further use for you, she'll give you the cold shoulder."
Coping strategy: It helps to be humble. "Don't be swayed by flattery or excessive admiration, as wonderful as it may feel to receive it," Burgo said. And pay attention to her callous indifference to her rivals or cast-offs if you want a glimpse into your future with her.
The Bullying Narcissist
Indicators: Builds himself up by humiliating other people. "Though he may share common traits with the Grandiose or Know-it-All Narcissist, he is more brutal about the way he asserts his superiority," Burgo noted. "He often relies on contempt to make others feel like losers, proving himself a winner in the process. He will belittle and mock you, and when he needs something from you, he may become threatening. At his most toxic, he will make you doubt yourself and your value as a human being."
Coping strategy: "As cowardly as this may sound, the best thing to do is avoid ruffling his massive ego," Burgo said. "Don't fight back in obvious ways to stand up for yourself: A direct challenge will only escalate his assault on your personality." If you don't want to bear such treatment silently (who would?), Burgo recommended putting as much distance between you two as you can manage.
The Vindictive Narcissist
Indicators: Tries to demolish you.
"While it's possible to co-exist with a Bullying Narcissist, provided you don't pose too obvious a threat, once you become the target of a Vindictive Narcissist, she will try to destroy you," Burgo warned. "You may have challenged her superior status in some way you don't even recognize."
This might take the form of talking trash about you to friends and family, trying to get you fired, and, if she's an ex-wife, trying to turn your kids against you.
Coping strategy: If at all possible, get some distance, and do it long before the damage to your psyche and your reputation has gone too far.
"More so than with the other types of Extreme Narcissist, your approach here must be legalistic," Burgo noted. "Vindictive Narcissists often know how to disguise their true nature from people other than their victims, so your survival will depend upon having hard evidence. Preserve everything, especially toxic emails, texts, and other communication. Get witness statements from any friends who may have been spectators to the behavior. If necessary, hire a lawyer."