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Someone recently asked me, ‘What is a Narcissist’? Oh wow, that is a loaded question and I find it impossible to respond with a sentence or two. Investigation has led me to numerous theories on the narcissist; and finding a simple answer to explain only leads to concepts that are increasingly complex and continuing to grow.

I can not write about narcissistic abuse before exploring and explaining what I’ve learned about narcissism and how it operates. I’m going to adapt a question that Rob Bell utilized as a title of one of his books. What do we talk about when we talk about…narcissism? Rob was actually talking about God and the expectations, beliefs and history attached to that name. Narcissism has similar baggage and when stripping back its negative reputation, I found a fascinating discovery, its contribution to the foundation of self.

Narcissism is psychic energy and its interest toward self; a vital component in an early developmental stage that contributes to the establishment, process and unification of a sense of self.

Narcissism is a part of our psychological makeup and is intimately linked to self-identification and personality formation. The problem with narcissism is when a devastating influence occurs during the early developmental process leaving instability in the personality. Maladaptive instincts are born with pathological narcissism becoming integrated as part of the individual’s character and acting as a defense mechanism against connection. The narcissistic personality is the disruption to the process by which a healthy and stable self is formed.

Healthy narcissism operates as a drive to feel special. Healthy narcissism self-investment acts in moderation and has the capacity to adapt a realistic appraisal of one’s own strengths and limitations; while simultaneously coupled with empathy toward the other.

Pathological narcissism isn’t self-love or a reflection on an individual need; it is the whole of the individual’s psychic energy permanently turned inward with an inability to refocus it externally or put it in the experience of another.

While I suspect the narcissist’s subconscious engagement with the world is a quest to stabilize their distorted personality through projection of the darkest parts of themselves – a futile attempt to bring themselves an integrated sense of self; it does not minimize the chaos and pain they cause to those that are closest to them. Pathological narcissism is devastating, costly and for some deadly. It affects individuals, families and the broader context of community in profoundly negative ways.

Next time you hear someone utilizing the term narcissist, this might not be an accusation as much as it is an explanation of their experience.

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