“What is the difference between being selfish and being narcissistic?”

"Quantum Leap" Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©

“Quantum Leap” Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©

The spectrum between selfishness and narcissism includes being just a little selfish, very selfish, somewhat narcissistic and suffering from full-fledged Narcissistic Personality Disorder.


“Pathological narcissism is a life-long pattern of traits and behaviours which signify infatuation and obsession with one’s self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one’s gratification, dominance and ambition.”

~Sam Vaknin

A true narcissist lacks empathy for others as he or she is consumed with a drive to uphold a particular self-image in order to obtain “narcissistic supply,” that is, acclaim, fame, sexual conquests, or power, depending on the particular narcissist. Most people enjoy praise and admiration, but for narcissists, gaining praise, admiration, status, or power is their primary drive, as it is their only way to attain a sense of self.

True narcissists are extremely defensive and hostile when challenged or when feeling inferior. They generally do not apologize for treating others badly unless it suits their goals, because they lack the empathy to feel another person’s pain. Narcissists may pretend to be empathetic and kind if necessary, but like everything else they do, their behavior is designed to create a self-image that will garner narcissistic supply. In fact, the drive to feel superior is so strong that narcissists will exaggerate, lie, cheat and do whatever it takes to sustain a sense of self-importance.

It is sadly impossible for a narcissist to have a loving, mutual and equal relationship with another person, for as Vaknin puts it “the narcissist identifies being loved with being possessed, encroached upon, shackled, transformed, reduced, exploited, weakened, engulfed, digested and excreted.” Moreover, the more you admire a narcissist the more poorly you will be treated. Despite the fact that the narcissist seeks admiration, “the narcissist holds his sycophantic acolytes in contempt. He finds his fans, admirers, and followers repulsive and holds them to be inferior.” (Sam Vaknin, author of “Malignant Self-love”)


Selfish individuals tend to think of themselves first, but don’t lack empathy for others. A moderate amount of what we call “selfishness” is a positive attribute, and might be called “self-preservation,” “independence,” or being a “go-getter.”

Unlike narcissists, slightly selfish people may have a strong sense of self that is not dependent on either being admired by others or having power over others. They are capable of having equal relationships with others, particularly if they can take care of their own needs and are not overly dependent. The good thing about “selfish” people is that they will generally take care of themselves; you don’t have to. They can also be full of passion and vitality because they do things out of interest rather than out of a sense of obligation or guilt.

When dealing with selfish people, it is important to maintain some independence and to continue to pursue your own passions. Don’t expect them to take care of you. If you want to share more time together, engage and entice them rather than try to change them by complaining about the lack of attention. Of course, this will hold true with most people.

When dealing with extremely selfish people verging on narcissism, it’s best to keep your relationship light, avoid dependence of any kind, and keep your expectations realistically low to avoid the inevitable disappointments you’ll feel when you experience their lack of concern for you or other people. In essence, your expectations should match the reality of a person’s character. So enjoy the positive and protect yourself against the negative.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “My teenager is selfish and rude! How did I raise a child like this?”

Read “Narcissism Part 1 (of 5): ‘My husband is so selfish! Is he a narcissist?’ Symptoms of Narcissism.”

Read Sam Vaknin’s “Cold Empathy: The Narcissist as Predator.”

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Intrusive questions at family gatherings: “It’s none of your business!”

"Shh!" Tiger Woods by Mimi Stuart ©

“Shh!” Tiger Woods by Mimi Stuart ©

Questions about when you’ll finally get married, when you’ll get a real job, or how the divorce is going may cause you to dread family gatherings. It’s helpful to keep in mind that many relatives are truly concerned and simply want what’s best for you, but they come off seeming overly nosy.

Some might simply be trying to be considerate and to make conversation rather than intrude, while others may have more malicious intent.

Here are some ways to handle questions you’d rather avoid answering:


Steer the conversation in the direction of their lives: “Aw, that’s not so interesting. What’s going on in your life? How’s your marriage going?” Or redirect with your own uncomfortable question, “First tell me how your sex life is going.”

Try the quizzical eyebrow with a smile that says, “Can’t you think of anything else to talk about? Come on now.”

Use humor

If you show that you feel uncomfortable or upset, you simply draw attention to yourself and to the specific topic. Humor is a great way to deflect prying questions. If asked about something awkward, keep a positive, light-hearted attitude.

For instance, if someone asks about your divorce status or financial situation, try to be witty:

“Every time I find Mr. Right, my husband scares him away.”
“Love is grand; divorce is a hundred grand.” ~Shinichi Suzuki

Be up front

If you know that someone is going to ask you when you are finally going to have children or some other unwelcome question, you might approach that person first in private, and say something like, “I know you want us to have children, but we haven’t made that decision yet. Let’s not bring it up at dinner.” Try not to get upset or defensive; that only peaks other people’s curiosity.


As a last resort, if you can’t handle questions made with malicious intent, avoid them all together by avoiding the people who insist on asking them.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen (reposted from 2011)

Read “Inquisitive Parent: ‘My dad asks too many questions. Why is he so nosy?’”

Read “Setting Boundaries.”

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“I feel overwhelmed thinking about my family visiting next week.”

"Awating Good Fortune"—Phil Mickelson by Mimi Stuart ©

“Awating Good Fortune”—Phil Mickelson by Mimi Stuart ©

When facing a family visit, people often have ambivalent feelings, wanting to make everyone happy, yet dreading the work and potential personal conflicts that loom ahead.


You may feel obligated to put everyone up at your house and prepare all the meals because you think that’s what is expected of you. While giving to others can be deeply fulfilling, it’s best to give at a level where you can do so wholeheartedly and lovingly rather than resentfully. You don’t want to slip into martyrdom.

Instead of succumbing to what you think is expected, decide what you are willing to do and state so up front.

If, for example, you are happy to prepare one meal, graciously invite everyone for that meal. “I invite you all for dinner on Friday night. On Saturday, we can go out,” or “You’re on your own.” “You can pick up your favorite breakfast groceries at the store down the street.”

People like to know what is expected in the way of itinerary, sleeping arrangements, kids’ rules, differing holiday traditions, and dogs. If you clarify expectations and don’t promise too much, you can be giving without becoming exasperated and resentful. When you communicate clearly ahead of time, people are less likely to be disappointed because they understand the game plan and your expectations.

Saying “No.”

If your relatives or friends tend to ignore your requests, hints, and desires, or are generally unpleasant, then there’s no need to accommodate them with meals or housing, unless you are willing and able to live up to Mother Theresa’s philosophy: “People are generally irrational, unreasonable and selfish. Love them anyway.”

You can say “no” while still communicating warm-heartedly. For example, “That’s not a good weekend for us to have visitors. We would love to see you though if you come into town. Call us and we’ll meet for coffee/a drink/lunch.”

by Dr. Alison Poulsen (reposted from 2011)

Read “The courage to say ‘No’: ‘I wish I hadn’t said ‘Yes,’ I just don’t have the time!’”

Read “Overfunctioning and underfunctioning: ‘If I don’t take care of things, nothing will ever get done.’”

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Becoming more whole: Discovering and developing your disowned selves

"Lungta Windhorse" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Lungta Windhorse” by Mimi Stuart ©

As we grow up, we develop different parts of our personality as a reaction to our environment. Inborn personality traits, our culture and our family, all influence this normal, healthy development of the personality.

Specific life circumstances cause certain aspects of our personality to be strengthened. As a result, most people become a bit one-sided, for example, they become overly accommodating, self-absorbed, withdrawn, outgoing, responsible, free, strict, permissive, type A, unmotivated, and the like.

When we develop certain parts of our personality, we tend to so at the expense of other parts. As we mature, we may encounter problems at work, in relationships, or with our children, who like to challenge these overly developed parts of our personality. Moreover, we often draw into our lives people with opposing qualities. Often our children or partner may trigger us and polarize from us into the opposite trait . For example, if one person is hard-working and always busy, another family member may unconsciously recoil and become overtly relaxed, even lazy.

Developing those disowned “selves” can help us become more whole and balanced, which tends to diminish polarizing relationship dynamics.

Ways to figure out your disowned selves:

1. Think about one or two people who really bother you, characters in a movie that you find despicable, or the traits of people that drive you crazy.

2. Write down these attributes that you can’t stand. For instance, greed, cruelty, manipulation, irresponsibility, spinelessness, lack of imagination, laziness. Pick one or two traits that really get under your skin and to which you have the strongest emotional reaction.

3. Now comes the hard part: Figure out what that quality would be if it were not so extreme, but a much milder, more reasonable version of that quality.

For example, a reasonable and mild dose of the following negative characteristics transform into a subsequent positive quality:

• greed » self-preservation
• cruelty » self-empowerment or the ability to assert boundaries
• manipulation » diplomacy
• irresponsibility » fun and spontaneity
• uptight » responsible
• spineless » kind or easy-going
• lack of imagination » following the rules

4. Verify the disowned self/selves by asking yourself whether having that quality would have helped you in your life thus far. For instance, if you loathe spinelessness, would you have benefited in your relationships or at work by being a bit more easy-going and understanding? If you can’t stand controlling people, would the ability to lead and direct people have improved past challenges?

The Development of the Disowned Selves 

Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone furthered Jung’s notion of “the shadow” with the notion of “disowned selves.” They write,

Disowned selves are energy patterns that have been partially or totally excluded from our lives. They can range from being angelically spiritual, creative, and mystical to being lustful, selfish, and even demonic. Our disowned selves can be detected by the intense, often uncharacteristic emotional reaction we have to others.

The disowned self is an energy pattern that has been punished every time it has emerged. These punishments might have been subtle – a raised eyebrow, the withdrawal of attention, a “that’s rather unattractive, don’t you think?” – or they may have been powerful punishments such as beatings or public humiliation. Whatever the nature of these repressive environmental forces, the result is the same: A set of energy patterns is deemed totally unacceptable and is, therefore, repressed but not totally destroyed. These energy patterns live on in our unconscious. 

In Jungian terms, our disowned selves are a part of our shadow. When we see them reflected in others – when we see someone unashamedly living out an energy pattern similar to one we have disowned – we feel this disowned pattern resonate within ourselves. However, this pattern has been associated with pain and punishment in the past, so we want it to go away as soon as possible.

In order to quiet our internal discomfort we must rid ourselves of the corresponding external stimulus. We must kill off the person who is so audaciously living out our disowned self, whether we do it literally – as in a Jack-the-Ripper-style murder or symbolically – such as sitting in judgment of someone.

by Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone

Developing your disowned selves

Developing your disowned selves is usually best accomplished in stages, and not at the expense of your primary self. The ultimate goal is to have a choice as to how to interact rather than to react involuntarily.

For instance, if you want to become more self-empowered, don’t feel you must give up being accommodating. First of all, the change won’t stick, because you won’t feel comfortable swinging to the opposite and you probably won’t be effective at such a dramatic change. More importantly, you need to be able to choose what’s appropriate from both personality traits for any given situation. You need to develop your new personality trait of self-assertiveness while maintaining your ability to be accommodating when you so choose.

To develop a disowned personality trait, it helps to think of a person who embodies the trait you want to develop in a way that you find attractive and you think feasible for you to adopt. Practice emulating that person’s tone of voice and manner. Get feedback from someone close to you. Imagine situations that are likely to come up in your life and prepare for them ahead of time. In time and with practice you will gain more choice in how to deal with challenging situations, and thus more wholeness and balance in your life.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Recommended book: Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone’s “Embracing Our Selves.”

Read “The Persona and the Shadow: ‘I’ve always been accommodating, but at times I find myself saying very mean things.’”

Read “Inner Struggle: ‘I’m tired of giving in.’”

Read “Overfunctioning and underfunctioning: ‘If I don’t take care of things, nothing will ever get done.’”

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“He is a Narcissist, But He Accuses Me of Manipulating Him. Am I?” by Guest Author Sam Vaknin

"Feline" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Feline” by Mimi Stuart ©


All told, there are three ways to manipulate the narcissist:

(1) To withhold narcissistic supply from him until he comes, hat in hand, begging for more and then you can name your price and dictate terms;

(2) To constitute yourself as a reliable source of high-grade supply and thereby foster in the narcissist dependence and adherence to your minutest needs and wishes;

(3) To take active part in buttressing and upholding the narcissist’s grandiose fantasies, to collude in a shared psychosis and thus render him amenable to your wishes and priorities as long as they seamlessly conform to his delusional narrative.

The irony is that narcissists, who consider themselves worldly, discerning, knowledgeable, shrewd, erudite, and astute – are actually more gullible than the average person. This is because they are fake. Their self is false, their life a confabulation, their reality test gone. They live in a fantasy land all their own in which they are the center of the universe, admired, feared, held in awe, and respected for their omnipotence and omniscience.

Narcissists are prone to magical thinking. They hold themselves immune to the consequences of their actions (or inaction) and, therefore, beyond punishment and the laws of Man. Narcissists are easily persuaded to assume unreasonable risks and expect miracles to happen. They often find themselves on the receiving end of investment scams, for instance.

Narcissists feel entitled to money, power, and honors incommensurate with their accomplishments or toil. The world, or God, or the nation, or society, or their families, co-workers, employers, even neighbors owe them a trouble-free, exalted, and luxurious existence. They are rudely shocked when they are penalized for their misconduct or when their fantasies remain just that.

The narcissist believes that he is destined to greatness – or at least the easy life. He wakes up every morning fully ready for a fortuitous stroke of luck. That explains the narcissist’s reckless behaviors and his lazed lack of self-discipline. It also explains why is so easily duped.

By playing on the narcissist’s grandiosity and paranoia, it is possible to deceive and manipulate him effortlessly. Just offer him Narcissistic Supply – admiration, affirmation, adulation – and he is yours. Harp on his insecurities and his persecutory delusions – and he is likely to trust only you and cling to you for dear life. Both paranoia and grandiosity impair the narcissist’s reality test and lead to the erection of complex and wasteful defences against non-existent threats.

Narcissists attract abuse. Haughty, exploitative, demanding, insensitive, and quarrelsome – they tend to draw opprobrium and provoke anger and even hatred. Sorely lacking in interpersonal skills, devoid of empathy, and steeped in irksome grandiose fantasies – they invariably fail to mitigate the irritation and revolt that they induce in others.

Successful narcissists are frequently targeted by stalkers and erotomaniacs – usually mentally ill people who develop a fixation of a sexual and emotional nature on the narcissist. When inevitably rebuffed, they become vindictive and even violent.

Less prominent narcissists end up sharing life with co-dependents and inverted narcissists.

The narcissist’s situation is exacerbated by the fact that, often, the narcissist himself is an abuser. Like the boy who cried “wolf”, people do not believe that the perpetrator of egregious deeds can himself fall prey to maltreatment. They tend to ignore and discard the narcissist’s cries for help and disbelieve his protestations.

The narcissist reacts to abuse as would any other victim. Traumatized, he goes through the phases of denial, helplessness, rage, depression, and acceptance. But, the narcissist’s reactions are amplified by his shattered sense of omnipotence. Abuse breeds humiliation. To the narcissist, helplessness is a novel experience.

The narcissistic defence mechanisms and their behavioural manifestations – diffuse rage, idealization and devaluation, exploitation – are useless when confronted with a determined, vindictive, or delusional stalker. That the narcissist is flattered by the attention he receives from the abuser, renders him more vulnerable to the former’s manipulation.

Nor can the narcissist come to terms with his need for help or acknowledge that wrongful behaviour on his part may have contributed somehow to the situation. His self-image as an infallible, mighty, all-knowing person, far superior to others, won’t let him admit to shortfalls or mistakes.

As the abuse progresses, the narcissist feels increasingly cornered. His conflicting emotional needs – to preserve the integrity of his grandiose False Self even as he seeks much needed support – place an unbearable strain on the precarious balance of his immature personality. Decompensation (the disintegration of the narcissist’s defence mechanisms) leads to acting out and, if the abuse is protracted, to withdrawal and even to psychotic micro-episodes.

Abusive acts in themselves are rarely dangerous. Not so the reactions to abuse – above all, the overwhelming sense of violation and humiliation. When asked how is the narcissist likely to react to continued mistreatment, I wrote this in one of my Pathological Narcissism FAQs:

“The initial reaction of the narcissist to a perceived humiliation is a conscious rejection of the humiliating input. The narcissist tries to ignore it, talk it out of existence, or belittle its importance. If this crude mechanism of cognitive dissonance fails, the narcissist resorts to denial and repression of the humiliating material. He “forgets” all about it, gets it out of his mind and, when reminded of it, denies it.

But these are usually merely stopgap measures. The disturbing data is bound to impinge on the narcissist’s tormented consciousness. Once aware of its re-emergence, the narcissist uses fantasy to counteract and counterbalance it. He imagines all the horrible things that he would have done (or will do) to the sources of his frustration.

It is through fantasy that the narcissist seeks to redeem his pride and dignity and to re-establish his damaged sense of uniqueness and grandiosity. Paradoxically, the narcissist does not mind being humiliated if this were to make him more unique or to draw more attention to his person.

For instance: if the injustice involved in the process of humiliation is unprecedented, or if the humiliating acts or words place the narcissist in a unique position, or if they transform him into a public figure – the narcissist tries to encourage such behaviours and to elicit them from others.

In this case, he fantasises how he defiantly demeans and debases his opponents by forcing them to behave even more barbarously than before, so that their unjust conduct is universally recognised as such and condemned and the narcissist is publicly vindicated and his self-respect restored. In short: martyrdom is as good a method of obtaining Narcissist Supply as any.

Fantasy, though, has its limits and once reached, the narcissist is likely to experience waves of self-hatred and self-loathing, the outcomes of helplessness and of realising the depths of his dependence on Narcissistic Supply. These feelings culminate in severe self-directed aggression: depression, destructive, self-defeating behaviours or suicidal ideation.

These self-negating reactions, inevitably and naturally, terrify the narcissist. He tries to project them on to his environment. He may decompensate by developing obsessive-compulsive traits or by going through a psychotic microepisode.

At this stage, the narcissist is suddenly besieged by disturbing, uncontrollable violent thoughts. He develops ritualistic reactions to them: a sequence of motions, an act, or obsessive counter-thoughts. Or he might visualise his aggression, or experience auditory hallucinations. Humiliation affects the narcissist this deeply.

Luckily, the process is entirely reversible once Narcissistic Supply is resumed. Almost immediately, the narcissist swings from one pole to another, from being humiliated to being elated, from being put down to being reinstated, from being at the bottom of his own, imagined, pit to occupying the top of his own, imagined, hill.”


by Guest Author Sam Vaknin, the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East, as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction.

He is the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician and served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.

Visit Sam’s Web site.

Read Guest Author Sam Vaknin’s: “Inner Voices, False Narratives, Narcissism, and Codependence.”

Read “I try so hard to make her happy.”

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“He promised me we’d spend time just the two of us together last night. Instead, he zoned out for two hours playing games. I tried to be as understanding as possible but felt stood up.”

"Tiffanys" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Tiffanys” by Mimi Stuart ©

When someone has promised to spend time with you but plays video games instead, don’t wait around for two hours and try to be understanding. While it is rarely effective to complain or get angry, it can be constructive to speak up when someone is disrespectful. You could remind him neutrally or even playfully, “Hey, I’m here. You said you wanted to do something fun… Well?”

If he doesn’t stop playing his game, then it is time for you to do something for yourself, on your own or with friends. Don’t wait around to be there at his convenience. Go to the movies, meet friends or go for a walk. Otherwise he will continue to take you for granted, and you will become resentful and less desirable.

While it would be quite easy for you to coerce him into stopping the game and doing something with you, he would feel irritated and would not truly desire and appreciate the time he does spend with you. No one likes to be manipulated.

So don’t be controlling. Yet you don’t want to stand by while he plays video games. Say, “have a good time, ssee you later,” and leave. You are less likely to become bitter if you do something you enjoy on your terms. If you stand by and do nothing, you give him all of the power in the relationship.

When he realizes you’re no longer there waiting for his attention, he will either regret ignoring you and avoid doing it in the future, or he won’t care, in which case, this may be the first step on your road to a more fulfilling life and possibly a new relationship.

If a pattern of disregard seems to be emerging, then you may want to sit down with him and state your needs and desires without being controlling. Explain that he is free to do what he wants. However, you want to be with someone who wants to spend some time together and who appreciates being with you. Let him know that you’re reconsidering if you are right for each other. If he doesn’t seem to care, then it’s time to move on.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “I end up arguing with him because he’s usually too busy working to talk.”

Read “Spending Time Together as a Couple.”

Watch “Seven keys to a great relationship.”

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