• There’s a difference between being narcissistic and having narcissistic personality disorder: the primary distinction is that NPD is a mental illness.
  • That said, narcissistic individuals and people with NPD share traits: first and foremost, they are self-centered.
  • Additionally, they are manipulative—if they see an opportunity to benefit, they will look for ways to take advantage of others.
  • Narcissists and people with the disorder also lack empathy for others, which enables their manipulative efforts.
  • Finally, narcissism is characterized by controlling and even aggressive behavior if that’s what it takes for the narcissist to get what he or she wants.
  • A mental health professional can help those with NPD to manage their symptoms and improve important areas in their life.

Many of us think we know what a narcissist is. It’s the self-absorbed, too-talkative friend; the devious step-parent; the manager breathing down my neck. While these can certainly illustrate narcissistic behavior, it’s important we distinguish the difference between someone who has narcissistic traits and someone who has a narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD.

There are people who are narcissistic but don’t have a personality disorder. These individuals display this self-absorbed, sometimes devious, and controlling behavior. Those with NPD, on the other hand, have a mental illness that is characterized by an apparent arrogance that actually masks their low self-esteem. These individuals think they are superior to others and struggle as a result of their condition in their relationships.

So, the major distinction is that those with NPD have a mental illness, while those with narcissistic traits do not have a disorder—instead, these individuals are driven by power and prestige. Remember this distinction as we delve into narcissistic behavior and traits:

1. Self-centered

First and foremost, narcissists are self-centered individuals who will only make it look like they care for others. “A narcissist is someone who does things to make themselves feel good. This may not be immediately apparent because narcissists are good at making others feel good, so those people will value the narcissist,” explains April Masini, relationship expert and author. “That generosity is not sparked by humanitarian interest. It’s sparked by a desire to gain fans and people who will fit in with the narcissist’s life.”

2.  Manipulative

Narcissists are also manipulative, always looking for new ways to take advantage of others if it benefits them. “When you first meet a narcissist, they will come on strong and make you think you are the only person in their world. Then, as time goes by, they will expect you to make THEM the center of your world, forsaking everything and everyone else in your life,” Anita Stoudmire, Licensed Professional Counselor at Thriveworks Richmond. “When it comes to praise and validation, they are a ‘black hole.’ They need constant strokes in order to feel good about themselves. They will also use belittling remarks to keep you and others in their place. They will take advantage of others for their own selfish needs.”

3. Unempathetic

These self-centered individuals also lack empathy for others. Their only concern is themselves. “An individual with narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, experiences the world as it relates to himself while lacking empathy for others. Such an individual may see the world as a movie with themselves as the main character, and all others as extras in the movie,” says Dr. Tamar Blank, Licensed Psychologist.

4. Controlling

Narcissists are also focused on exercising their control over others. “Narcissists’ agenda is control over others as a way to feel powerful, grandiose, and important,” says Shirin Peykar, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. “Their egos can be slighted very easily because of their low self-esteem. Once this happens, they are full of rage toward others who have slighted them. Covert narcissists are great at acting as the charming, innocent, calm individual who has the best of intentions, often acting as the complete opposite of who they truly are at heart in order to win your trust.”

5. Aggressive

Finally, narcissists are aggressive—they aren’t afraid to act hostilely or even violently if they have to. “Aggression is often a defense mechanism used by narcissists to deflect criticism. They’re inclined to enter fight-or-flight mode when challenged, which can either lead to a temper tantrum or passive-aggressive tendencies,” Adina Mahalli, Master Social Worker, explains.

A primary hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder (aside from the presence of a mental illness) is the inability to build or maintain real, healthy relationships with others. If an individual simply has narcissistic traits, they’re more likely to work at these relationships, change their behavior, and improve their quality of life. Those with NPD, on the other hand, will likely have to work with a mental health professional to make meaningful improvements in life.