“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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