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The symptoms of narcissism can be fairly broad because the definition of the term itself is broad. Narcissism can refer either to a fairly normal or abnormal psychological condition of self-love, or a form of elitism within social groups. Narcissistic personality disorder, however, is the most popular category for which the term is used, and describes a sense of inordinate vanity or selfishness that an individual displays in social and cultural settings. It includes such basic preconceptions as a feeling of being better or more important than others, a tendency to exaggerate achievements and personal abilities, and a desire and expectation for constant praise and special treatment.
Narcissism as a form of mental illness was defined by Sigmund Freud, the noted 19th-century founder of psychoanalysis. He named it after Narcissus, a mythological youth who became obsessed with the reflection of himself that he saw in a pool of water, and, because he could not fulfill this desire, deteriorated over time. The comparison is an apt one, because symptoms, when expressed, tend to isolate individuals in two key ways. People with narcissism alienate others in social settings by demeaning them, through expressing their grandiose feelings of self-importance. Narcissistic individuals also tend to lack empathy for others and have a tendency to ignore or downplay social cues that suggest a need for sympathy or group identification with like-minded peers.
The signs of narcissism can vary, depending on how strongly the trait dominates a personality. A desire to be praised and admired is a normal trait among people and narcissists may appear normal at first when expressing such desires. The symptoms only become truly apparent when an individual begins to distort reality on a routine basis to cultivate such praise. The trend may start out by a narcissist exaggerating his or her talents and experiences, but, when this fails to have the desired effect of focusing attention on himself or herself, he or she often resorts to lying and cheating in various ways to surreptitiously enhance his or her reputation. Since the symptoms of narcissism involve psychological manipulation of others, narcissists are very socially adept and are often able to portray a likable and humble appearance in casual social settings or upon first meeting people.
The causes of narcissism can be self-perpetuating, and involve feelings of isolation and loneliness that are increased by narcissistic behavior. Because narcissists feel entitled to special treatment all the time, this leads them to exploit others to cultivate such treatment, and such exploitation inevitably involves blaming others for problems they themselves may have had a large role in causing. Narcissists become skilled at manipulating others by carefully cultivating feelings of admiration or fear. They are characteristically controlling individuals who use their social standing, authority in the workplace, or money to highlight their attractive qualities and make others look inordinately inferior.
Signs of narcissism also include unusual expressions of jealousy and trouble maintaining intimate relationships. The symptoms of narcissism can also include unexpected traits, such as routinely setting lofty goals which are unrealistic but appear visionary, or expecting to be treated as a leader with plans and goals that others should automatically follow. While narcissism cultivates personal attention and aggrandizement, narcissists are often willing to forgo the idea of trying to get people to like them if they can instead intimidate others into admiring them. Narcissists want to be at the center of all social action not as an equal among peers, but as a prodigy that others envy or fear.