How did narcissist get to be such a buzzword in our culture? Sure, in politics, on reality TV shows, all over Instagram, you see evidence of narcissistic behavior, but now the term narcissistic personality disorder is getting thrown about with abandon by the media, the general public, and even some therapists. Truth be told, I’m a little tired of it. Not because narcissism isn’t an issue worth attending to, but because of the relentless typecasting: the narcissist is nearly always portrayed as a loud, extroverted, grandiose character who sucks all the air out of the room.

Our staff started wondering: is the popular conception of narcissism too narrow? After all, we’ve all encountered people who don’t present as vain braggarts, but nonetheless regularly manage to leave us feeling invisible, or worse, eviscerated. When we dug into the research and talked with experts, we discovered that narcissism actually exists on a spectrum, and that some narcissists are hard to spot—even for therapists—because their outward behavior doesn’t fit the stereotype. This issue of the magazine explores the nuances of narcissism, both its hidden gradations and the distinctive challenges of doing therapy with people at different points on the narcissism spectrum. We look, too, at the ripple effects, especially the impact of narcissistic abuse on intimate partners. And we look to future generations, examining how parents can help their kids develop empathy, a much-needed superpower in a world that tends to reward narcissistic behavior.

In putting together this issue, we came across some thought-provoking ideas. One is the concept of “healthy narcissism,” which refers to the sense of our own specialness that helps us fulfill our needs and chase our dreams. I think it poses an interesting question: do we all need a dollop of narcissism to be our most effective selves? I know that when I’m locked in editing mode, I sometimes experience moments of elation when I feel like I must be the best at what I do, which of course isn’t true but keeps me energized and motivated to continue working at the highest level I can. I suspect something like this goes on for many therapists, too, when they’re really connecting with a client. To some extent, you have to believe you possess a special ability to help others in order to persist with challenging moments in the therapy room.

The real challenge is to keep things in balance—to recognize one’s own competence while still fully seeing and valuing others. Some people never find this balance. But others can, and do. The more therapists understand the many faces and subtleties of narcissism, the better equipped they’ll be to identify and support clients who are capable of change. Working with narcissism—or the toll it takes on others—takes grit and staying power. But as the authors in this issue demonstrate, it’s well worth the effort.


Livia Kent
Editor in Chief

Livia Kent

Livia Kent, MFA, is the editor in chief of Psychotherapy Networker. She worked for 10 years with Rich Simon as managing editor of Psychotherapy Networker, and taught writing at American University as well as for various programs around the country. As a bibliotherapist, she’s facilitated therapy groups in Washington, DC-area schools and in the DC prison system. In 2020, she was named one of Folio Magazine’s Top Women in Media “Change-Makers.” She’s the recipient of Roux Magazine‘s Editor’s Choice Award, The Ledge Magazine‘s National Fiction Award, and American University’s Myra Sklarew Award for Original Novel.