• Though both narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and being narcissistic are centered around self-infatuation, there are crucial differences in severity, pervasiveness, and duration.
  • NPD is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance; these people often lose friends and family due to their self-obsession but are able to replace them quickly due to their grandiosity.
  • People with NPD run hot and cold—they can be kind one moment and cruel the next, leaving their target confused and anxious.
  • Others are narcissistic, but they don’t have NPD; these individuals are self-centered or attention-seeking, often due to insecurities that stem from their childhood.
  • Both people with NPD and people who are simply self-centered can improve their lives by taking notice of their narcissism, working with a professional, and/or learning to better relate to others and manage emotions.

We deem an individual “narcissistic” when they’re overly self-centered, they make every conversation about them, and they make selfish decisions. But many of us don’t realize that there is a personality disorder characterized by overblown self-importance called narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

So, what’s the difference between having narcissistic tendencies and having narcissistic personality disorder? Key differentiators include severity, pervasiveness, and duration. Let’s first understand what signifies NPD and then we’ll cover narcissism as a personality trait.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

NPD is a condition characterized by inflated self-esteem, with the individual seeking attention and admiration. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, lists specific narcissistic personality disorder diagnostic criteria including symptoms like high self-importance, lack of empathy, and a grandiose sense of entitlement. To meet the criteria for NPD (and other personality disorders), the aforementioned symptoms must have been persistent since young adulthood and affect multiple areas of the person’s life. 

Mary Joye, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, helps to paint the picture of an individual with NPD: “Many people with narcissistic personality disorder lack the insight to see that they have NPD and they don’t seek counseling. They suffer the consequences of losing friends, family, spouses, and partners, but they are very adept at adapting and finding new ones. It is when they get older that they may have trouble as their grandiose nature wears everyone around them down. They cannot stand to be alone and people tend to leave them alone later in life. The very things they do to keep people attached to them are the things that make people detach.”

Joye goes on to explain two common behaviors of people with NPD:

  • They utilize intermittent reinforcement: These individuals run hot and cold. “They are kind and then they’re not kind. They love-bomb and then they withhold affection. They do it with a calculated and insidious cycle that isn’t noticeable immediately,” Joye explains. “They leave the target in a constant cycle of self-doubt and anxiety. It’s like emotional gambling when you’re hooked on one of these people.”
  • They target people with codependent tendencies: People with NPD also target people with codependent tendencies — or those who become reliant on another, tend to the other’s needs, and lose their sense of independence — as well as those who are considered to be “too nice.” Joye explains: “They will use flattery, love-bombing, and any type of tool to get you in their snare.”

The good news is that when NPD is identified and diagnosed by a professional, it is treatable. The most common form of treatment is talk therapy, in which a counselor will help the individual to relate to the people around them, improve their relationships, and better understand their emotions.

Narcissistic Tendencies

Narcissism is also a personality trait. Instead of having a full-blown disorder, some people simply have narcissistic tendencies, in that they are self-centered and have a big ego.

“Someone who is narcissistic may be selfish in some area of their life but not disordered. An example would be if someone was very vain about their body and constantly obsessing about their looks and seeking approval for their appearance. This may not be NPD. This may just stem from some childhood or adolescent insecurity,” says Joye. It is also important to note that adolescents have a propensity for narcissism, which is developmentally appropriate. Keep this in mind if you notice narcissistic behavior in kids and teens. 

Those who are narcissistic also often feel some level of empathy for others and treat the people in their lives with kindness: “A narcissistic person will probably have some empathy and kindness in other areas of life. They don’t use or exploit others maliciously. Being self-absorbed in some area of life doesn’t mean you’re narcissistic in all areas. It takes some healthy narcissism to achieve higher goals. However, if that person walks over and harms other people on their way to achievement they may be disordered,” Joye concludes.

Living with NPD or Narcissistic Tendencies

There are crucial differences between having NPD and being narcissistic. Fortunately, though, both people with the disorder and those with narcissistic tendencies can find help.

As we mentioned above, people with NPD can seek treatment and live well with the help of a mental health provider. Talk therapy often proves effective in helping people with NPD to find greater success in personal and professional areas of life. Those who are narcissistic (but do not have a disorder) can also find greater happiness in life through special treatment from a mental health professional who can help them recognize their tendencies and make necessary changes.