We joke about it, and may have called someone one, but what does it really mean to be a narcissist?

You may have heard that narcissists have an excessive sense of self-importance, a need for admiration, a lack of empathy, and tend to be high-conflict people. However, you may not know that narcissists often feel unlovable and ache for relationship with others.

“I was very demanding. I expected a lot from people and was easily disappointed when those expectations weren’t met. I argued a lot, made accusations and couldn’t accept any kind of praise – I always thought people were making fun of me because I thought I wasn’t lovable or good enough – I’m just not enough,” says Leonard Anders, who was diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder several years ago.

It is rare

While many people seem to act like narcissists at times, a true narcissist personality disorder is relatively rare.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, between 0.5 and 1 per cent of the general population is diagnosed with it.

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Nature and nurture play a role

The condition may be caused by a combination of environment – particularly related to parent-child relationships with excessive adoration or excessive criticism – genetics and neurobiology.

Growing up with a lack of love and warmth from his parents, and being bullied in school, Anders wanted to be liked but often felt rejected.

Getting help

He ended up feeling suicidal, after being fired from an apprenticeship.

“I was really suffering and didn’t want to suffer anymore. I wanted to handle my life better and not rub people the wrong way – that was my main problem. I suffered because people were constantly annoyed by me,” says Andres.

After years of therapy, Andres is coping with his disorder better. He has gone on to write a book about his experience and has started working with others struggling with narcissism.

He says that therapy has helped him and he is optimistic about the future.

If you are depressed and don’t know where to turn, please call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) helpline on 0800 567 567 for free telephone counselling, information, crisis intervention and referrals to resources countrywide. They are open and available seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Why we need to talk about suicide

Sources: www.sane.org and www.mayoclinic.org