The Narcissism Spectrum: Where do you Want to be?

  • 7 min read

Many of us have been harmed by a true narcissistic. I’m not talking about a little mistake or misunderstanding here and there.

I’m talking about being used as an emotional punching bag. Being manipulated and maligned. Being accused of the things, when it fact it’s they that are doing these things. Destroying your reputation. Being told that you are crazy and bad so many times that you start to believe it

This person is charming in public, and a nightmare in private.

Living with a person who displays this Jekyll and Hyde behavior can make even a well-balanced happy person lose their zest for life and turn anxious, deflated.

But wait, you begin to think. Maybe it’s not me Maybe it’s narcissism. Maybe that other person has this nasty disorder I’ve heard of.

You may be right. There’s a ton of psychological data revealing the rise of this trait and the disorder since the 1960s and especially since the 1980s. Some studies even indicate that it’s a straight up epidemic in the English-speaking world.

Okay, so now what are you going to do?

It’s hard to imagining a more vexing, contradictory and important psychological topic than narcissism.

But before you join one of the many online forums and start getting all fired up about how devilish narcissists are, let’s see what this really is.

I’ve been there. Trying to figure out how to recover from the soul crushing pain of being in intimate relationship with this type of person. During this time, reading the work of Craig Malkin, Psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School -was a game changer for me.

Malkin’s book “Rethinking Narcissism. — The Bad — and Surprising Good about Feeling Special” he defines narcissism not as something purely negative, but as the “normal pervasive human tendency to want to feel special,” Folks surveyed who are higher in this trait score as happier and more successful. This isn’t just in the English-speaking world. Survey scores indicate that this holds true in places like China as well.

His work measures narcissistic traits on a continuum from1–10, rather than as something a person simply has or does not have. This spectrum isn’t simply a spectrum of bad to worse.

Those of us that are overly empathic are also not termed the healthiest on this scale

In my view, this leaves us empaths with something important to learn. I’ll get to this later in this post.

In Malkin’s work, those people exhibiting traits near 10 on the scale are suffering from full blown narcissistic personality disorder. These folks are NOT healthy. They display what he calls the “three Es.”These are

  1. Empathy Deficit
  2. Exploitative
  3. Entitlement to special treatment and accolades they haven’t earned.

These are the “true narcissists,” as opposed to folks that are just high in narcissistic traits. If you’re wondering if the person you’re with is just a bit self centered and open to negotiation, or whether they have a real problem that’s also sucking the life out of you, these are the qualities to be watching for.

It’s not so much the fact that these folks feel special that’s the problem. These folks are DEPENDENT on feeling special. Their need to be seen and special leads them to habitually negate the needs and feelings of others. That’s why they resort to dark tactics to get access to this supply

Think of the behavior of a heroin addict that steals from their own family members to get the drug. These folks are ruthless in ensuring their access to what they want. and don’t at all mind hurting others in the process.

Yikes! So does this mean that the less narcissism you have the better? Nope. Those who are close to 1 also have some serious issues

Malkin terms folks lower than 5 on the scale “echoists.” Remember the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus? Echo was the nymph who fell in love with the gorgeous demi-god Narcissus. She was doomed to have no voice of her own and could only repeat whatever he said.

Folks low on the narcissism spectrum are vulnerable to feeling worthless and impotent. If they aren’t being recognized as worthy by others, they are prone to feel anxious and depressed. Many on the lower end of the spectrum can’t even accept special attention by loved ones when it’s their birthday, or when they are sick

So, where do you want to be on the spectrum? In the middle, of course. You want to know that you matter, and that you are a little bit special. But you also want to be flexible enough to adjust to other peoples’ needs as well.

But what about the first problem I mentioned. If your partner is treating your poorly? Well when you look at narcissism as a trait rather than a disorder you have more options for how to respond. You may be able to negotiate changes in their behavior.

But if it’s someone who is very high in narcissistic traits it will be their way or the highway. They’ll make you pay for even bringing changes up. That’s when you know you need to protect yourself, and to leave if at all possible.

So, what’s the big lesson here?

My take is that since narcissism isn’t harmful in small doses those of us that are empaths need to develop a bit more of this trait. We need to recognize our good qualities. We need to see where we are special and a gift.

Don’t worry that you’re going to develop the dark traits of the triple Es. if you are over on the echoists side of the spectrum there is virtually zero chance that your personality will change so dramatically that you’ll end up on the unhealthy side of extreme narcissism.

Case in point, Dr Malkin considers himself to be a recovered “echoist,” after being raised by a highly narcissistic mom and having the felt sense that he needed to be perfect with her.

Another reason to up your self esteem and sense of being special is that there’s a magnetic pull between those that are on the extreme sides of this polarity. It’s called the toxic dance between empaths and narcissists.

Many researchers and practitioners have noted that those who are on the far end of a narcissism-empath spectrum gravitate to each other like magnets.


As we know these relationships can start off really strong, but they get painful and traumatic really fast. That means the sensitive and caring souls end up wasting their energy serving narcissistic.

This is just not good on so many levels.

If you are an empath, or what Malkin calls an echoist, you’ll do well to remind yourself of all the ways you are special and amazing.

Here’s my recommendation for a helpful practice: each night before you go to bed write down 10 qualities that you appreciate about yourself. Things you do well. Qualities you posses that are admirable. When you wake up in the morning, read this list before you start your day.

This will get you in the habit of being more self-loving.

So stop worrying about whether you or your partner is a narcissist and get yourself further towards the middle of the spectrum.

Healthy narcissism. That’s the happy place.

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