What is Narcissism?

Narcissism is the word we routinely use to describe someone self-satisfied and arrogant.
But what do we really mean by the word – and are we applying it correctly?

I risk saying that EBTs suggest the Buddha saw value in good narcisism. As per Ud5.1 / SN 3.8 it is the basis for the first steps in terms of virtue:

“Having gone around in all directions with the mind,
There is surely no one found who is loved more than oneself.
“In the same way others each love themselves,
Therefore one who cares for himself should not harm another.”


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The Self is such high maintenance!

Good narcissism is usually called self confidence I think.

With metta

[quote=“gnlaera, post:1, topic:5246”]
and are we applying it correctly?
[/quote]I am not specialized in this field, so apologies if I say something absurd, but I think that clinical psychology distinguishes between narcissism and “malignant” narcissism (where it seriously affects quality-of-life), does it not?

I’ve done a little bit of writing in this area, as part of my vocation, and there can be a distinction between healthy ‘narcissism,’ and traits that rise to the level of a disorder, when these behaviors interfere with someone’s ability to function appropriately within close relationships, their work, or in social contexts. Narcissistic Personailty Disorder is a recognized DSM category, that involves the unhealthy and often toxic aspects of narcissism. See https://psychcentral.com/lib/narcissistic-personality-disorder-vs-normal-narcissism/

A great resource, in the context of our interests here, is one of Bhante Sujato’s talks:


That’s a bit misleading. All narcissism is by definition an unhealthily excessive sense of self. So there’s no such thing as good narcissism.

Now, as a personality trait this is characteristic of several personality disorders, including Antisocial Personality Disorder (i.e. psychopaths).

In addition, when narcissism is the central defining trait, it may be considered as part of its own pathology, Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Some psychologists propose a further category of Malignant Narcissism, which is essentially NPD + high levels of cruelty. Someone suffering from NPD will create suffering in others around them, and they don’t care. Someone suffering from MD actually enjoys making others suffer.

This is, however, controversial, and is not widely accepted as a distinct syndrome. The controversy is, to be clear, not about whether there are narcissists like this: clearly there are. It is about whether there is enough justification to establish a distinct set of diagnostic criteria.

The reality is that these disorders vary from person to person and are never more than an approximation. Extreme cases can manifest the worst aspects of several disorders.


In the Dirt-washer sutta AN3.100 this defilement is mentioned: “thoughts related to not wanting to be despised”. Being sensitive to criticism can also manifest as wanting to be liked. Narcissistic people have implosions when their ego collapses upon criticism, showing their ego is only a defence against a very low self worth. Their need to be liked, and need for adulation may stem from some kind of attachment disorder in their childhood (and possibly a genetic predisposition, I would have thought).

With metta

For those interested, my colleague Bill Eddy has a website devoted to high conflict people; he directs http://www.highconflictinstitute.com and gives seminars to individuals, employers, associations, and health care professionals on managing high conflict personalities. I was able to work with him on his first book, “Splitting,” which discusses NPD and BPD in the context of legal issues.

This page is a good read: http://www.highconflictinstitute.com/who-are-high-conflict-people

As I recall from Bhante’s talk, most of us encounter people with some of these traits in our work, in homelife, in the monastic life, and even in online forums… it is important, as Bhante advised, to understand these kinds of traits and disorders. We can apply Metta, and equanimity, and do our best to interact with people that we encounter with these traits, but it seems that it helps to have an understanding of these disorders and have effective ways to interact with these people, so that we are not hurt or affected, and to allow for effective management of our lives and environments when in contact with HCPs.

The moderators here at D&D already have strong BIFF skills. Here’s a vid that describes BIFF responses, for your viewing pleasure: https://youtu.be/q2kCw3VovTI


Narcissism is not something that you either have or not have, it is something that all humans have to one degree or another. People inclined towards religion are known to have much higher levels of narcissism than those who do not. And from my experience, this is very true with buddhist.

Narcissism is a pleasure in witch a person can indulge. The person takes pleasure out of thoughts that bring narcissistic pleasure. By constantly indulging in this pleasure, he develops it more and more. By giving attention to thoughts such as “I am so rich, but still a great person” or “I am such a compassionate person, much better than the average” or “I a such a good buddhist” or “I am such a hard worker” or “I am not as narcissist as those guys” etc. - narcissistic tendencies are being developed.

Develop the mind without a sign and expel the tendency to measure.
Thus overcoming measuring live appeased.”
SN 8.12

The person then goes to develop narratives about his life. “I am like this, I am this advanced, I have these good qualities, my past has been like this”. These narratives help give rise to other narcissistic thoughts from witch to take narcissistic pleasure. That is why some develop big delusions. And then these narratives become hard as granite.

Is is simply a pleasure, a drug that is free and anyone can indulge in it. By constantly indulging in it, we increase our narcissism.

Thanks for bringing that sutta to attention. I think you meant to link AN 3.101.

The thought of “not wanting to be despised” is listed there as one of the “fine impurities” as opposed to moderate and gross impurities. The sutta says that the gross and moderate impurities are gotten rid of before the fine. The moderate impurities are those of wrong intention: sensuality, ill will, and harmfulness. Only the non-returner has completely gotten rid of sensuality and ill will, so clearly these fine impurities operate on a very subtle level. The sutta is also speaking of these things in the contexts of the development of the heightened mind and calm-insight. The person with NPD or full-blown narcissistic traits definitely lives with their defilements out of control.


Yes, that’s right. However there maybe individual variations in these defilements. For example narcissism could present as intense craving for adultation, aversion to the success of others in the form of the five hindrances which are quite gross defilements. It may even exceed this and become unwholesome actions in harming others.

with metta

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Aṅguttara Nikāya 3. Book of the Threes 101. The Dirt-washer


  • Is it reasonable to read “not wanting to be despised” as meaning wanting to be thought of as competent?

  • And also wanting to think of oneself as competent?


Threat to our competency as a driver of unproductive and counter-productive speech.
Harvard social psychologist Chris Argyris spent much of his career studying the factors that made for productive and counter-productive communication. A key observation was that nearly everyone studied espoused one set of values and ideas on how to communicate effectively _ (parallels to Right Speech) but when feeling threatened we tend to resort to another set of values and ideas._ A sense of competency of was one of the factors he identified as a cause for for feeling threatened. Threats to competency include events that cause me to question my own competence to handle a situation or the concern that others would question my competency." For example, “I am the presiding member of this sanga meeting, leader, dharm teacher, etc therefor I should know how to react in a certain way to this challenging situation”.

Argyris goes further to show that there are general, common patterns or forms of espoused theories and theories-in-use. In his books he shares how he worked with individuals and organizations so that their actions more closely matched their espoused theories, beliefs and values. Argyris likens the process to working with sports coach or learning a skill from a craftsman.

Using a role playing exercise with well over 30,000 organizational executives and leaders in profit and non-profit organizations, government officials, and university administrators in industrial countries world wide, Argyris and others found that less than 2% of individuals can communicate consistently with their espoused values.

Other Parallels with Buddhism:

  • There is a sense of high respect for the value of a good teacher who can show the way.

  • The process of learning is challenging and tends to involve a changes to our sense of self.

  • The learning process calls for close observation of what we actually say and what we are thinking. The use of a audio recorder is recommended so that practitioners can review and hear for themselves what they actually said vs. what they remembered they said. It can be a rigorous learning process calling for diligence!

  • As I see it one advantage of written blogs is that we can later go back and read the actual words that we wrote rather than relying on our memories which are notoriously self serving.

  • A sense of gratitude and interdependence tends to get
    developed in the practice.


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A problem that I see with most of the systems that prescribe some cure (including pharma drugs) for such blurry mental disorders is that their yardstick for assessing a person as ‘normal and healthy’ is the picture of someone who conforms to various ‘values’ and who appears to tick the right bullet-points in a list. A ‘normal’ person is assumed to be an individual who gets along with people, has ambitions and aspirations, gets married, breeds and participates in communal activities. Anyone who seems to be outside this circle is seen as an aberration - someone who has to be corrected, pitied etc. (Kafka took this theme to the fantastical with his giant, slimy insect).

This is taken for granted by such systems and their practitioners. The whole aim of the courses they concoct seems to be to get the ‘patient’ to a state where he or she can get back in the rat-race again, seeking a thousand trophies, engaging in causes and so on - thus becoming ‘normal’ again. The question whether the struggle for survival, inclusion and acceptance can be justified by what one manages to attain is not really addressed - it’s assumed to be a decree of some kind and ‘that which makes us human’.

The Dhamma is refreshing in this aspect. Subjects that are treated as taboo and gruesome by the ‘grounded’ people of society are addressed with straightforward candor and honesty. The recent thread about suicide is illustrative here. The spectre of law and jurisprudence was raised at one point in the thread. If we had the Buddha in this age and the incident with the 60 monks in Vesali had happened, he would have been hauled into a court and charged as a malevolent cultist.


Correct. I take these under the defilement of the ‘desire-to-be’ (bhava-tanha). This desire can lead to suffering. This also applies in attachment to future ambitions, wanting others to behave a certain way, wanting to control ones partner, wanting to portray a certain image to society, wanting to see oneself in certain ways/roles, feeling like one has to know all the answers/all knowing etc.

These are of course seen in every single human being, not only Narcissism. On the other hand diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic personality disorder:

DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder include these features:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

with metta

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