“Narcissist!” How often do we hear this term, and how often do we stop to consider what it truly means? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) paints a very particular picture of narcissistic personality disorder. It’s marked by a pattern of grandiosity, a chronic need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Individuals need to display at least five of nine specific traits, such as an inflated sense of self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of success and power, and a sense of entitlement.
But what if we widen our perspective? What if we approach this through the lens of Internal Family Systems (IFS)? This model views our minds as a family, each with its own parts playing unique roles.
Within this inner family, there are parts, known as Exiles, carrying our vulnerable wounds, and parts, known as Protectors, dedicated to defending our vulnerabilities. Narcissistic traits can be seen as protective parts of the psyche, standing guard to shield us the best way they know how.
Consider a part with narcissistic tendencies. This part acts like a faithful guard dog, puffing us up to avoid feeling the worthlessness, shame or powerlessness we did when we were children. It’s trying to shield us from these uncomfortable feelings by making us feel special, grandiose, entitled, and powerful. While this part is doing its best to protect us, it’s essential to acknowledge that its tactics can lead to harm, affecting our relationships and hurting others. If we want to relate to others lovingly, recognizing and understanding these parts is crucial.
However, our society’s simplified narrative of good versus bad places narcissists firmly in the “bad” category. This perspective can cloud our ability to reflect on our own behaviors that might have led us into or kept us in challenging relationship dynamics.
It’s true that there are people who are so blended with their narcissistic parts that they find it difficult to take turn inward, self-reflect and feel empathy. The common belief that true narcissists can’t recognize their own narcissism holds for these individuals that meet the textbook definition of narcissism. However, the negative discourse around narcissism can make it hard for the rest of us, who might sometimes show narcissistic traits, to spot, and accept, these parts within ourselves.
Rather than seeing narcissistic tendencies as evidence of being a villain, what if we viewed them as protective parts trying to do their job? Recognizing our own narcissistic parts doesn’t make us bad—it makes us human. Embracing the IFS perspective allows us to approach our own narcissistic parts with understanding and compassion. It encourages us to see these parts for what they truly are—protectors—and to heal the wounds they’re safeguarding.
So, we're invited to pause the next time we’re quick to label a narcissistic trait within ourselves or others. Remember, it could be a part trying to shield a vulnerability. Bringing the IFS lens supports us to self-reflect with compassion so we can cultivate healthier and more loving relationships with ourselves and others.