Narcissism: A disorder or just Ambition?

Over the last few years I’ve noticed a lot of stories, posts and tweets about narcissism. Some informative and others written by those who stated they had been hurt by their involvement with a narcissist. In this post, I am not going to delve into stories about those who have genuinely been damaged by their involvement with narcissists. Instead, I am going to see if there is actually a positive side to behaving in this manner.

Devil’s advocate!

Narcissistic personality disorder

Apparently, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a mental health condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance. Plus, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, a tendency towards troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.

I’ve read around the topic and thought deeply about it too. There were few positives to take away. Being a narcissist is viewed negatively. Anyhow, here is my personal take on NPD and it’s symptoms.

NPD Symptoms

  • Grandiose sense of self.
  • Self absorbed.
  • Excessive need for admiration.
  • Superficial relationships.
  • Exploits others.
  • Need for control/power.
  • Lack of empathy.
  • Identity instability.
  • Difficulty with attachment and dependency.
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness and boredom.

It seems to me there must be a difference between those who have the diagnosis of NPD and those who merely exhibit a few narcissistic traits.

Nowadays we live in a world of self-absorption. Consequently, quite a number of people would probably find themselves somewhere on the NPD spectrum by displaying a few of the traits above. I suppose you could say they were exhibiting narcissistic tendencies. Which makes me think that perhaps the NPD label is being used far too often.

What if behaving a bit like a narcissist is really just down to something as simple as ambition? Wanting more for yourself and a better life? Perhaps this interpretation sounds tentative but bear with me while I ponder the younger May More.

Younger Me

Completing my A-levels and then eventually attending University was down to my desire to be free and explore life. I’d had a tricky childhood so these two objectives pushed me in a direction away from ambitious plans to get that high profile job or win a promotion. I wanted adventure and the liberty to take chances here and there.

Recently, a friend told me that she had always thought because I was clever and liked to expand my mind I would be ambitious too. She found it quite a conundrum that I wasn’t. Although, naturally self-possessed, I have never had a large ego. Nor a need for my identity to be boosted by a stressful job title and all that would entail. Don’t get me wrong, I was not lazy. I worked hard at what I chose to. But I didn’t particularly feel the urge to be a boss who had the control of a workforce. Or for people to look up to me and admire my qualities. None of this seemed important.

So, it is probable that not many of the labels from the narcissistic traits list could be hung around my neck. If I had been the type who wanted to be noticed and seen as important or had a yearning for power I may well have pushed myself harder to nail that city job.

Suddenly, the link between ambition and narcissism appears less tenuous to me.

But then again, perhaps I am so detached that I don’t recognise that in reality I am a little bit of a narcissist. Just not an ambitious one 😉

Seriously, that may also be a consideration; narcissists will hesitate to view themselves as such because of the negative connotations attached.


Let’s take a look at the word ambition.

Its roots lie in Roman politics. Candidates had to spend most of their time touring the city urging the citizens to vote for them. The Latin word for this effort was ambition. Since this activity was caused by a desire for success, honour or power, ambition eventually came to mean “the desire for honour or power.”

With this definition it is easy to see ambition and narcissism may go hand in hand. The urge to control as well as having a high regard for oneself can certainly be viewed as symptoms of NPD, and are similar to honour and power.

What about the real high flyers in business – those who work hard and quickly do well? What kind of personalty is behind some of these ‘natural’ high achievers?

The Harvard Business Review states that many high achievers possess blind ambition and, therefore, do appear to portray a costly level of narcissism. Their personality traits actually help them to succeed, but only up to a point, as it is important not to move these guys any higher in the company. Of greater concern is to recognise and halt the advance of those that are unlikely to make a good leader. After all, if a person with NPD was consistently promoted, colleagues could end up feeling as if their collective efforts were being harnessed to a single leader’s ego, rather than focussed upon the team’s shared goals. However, the Harvard Review also states some narcissists may be transformed into quality leaders via mentoring. So if you scored high on this test all is not lost.


I found it interesting that the Harvard article talks about being able to create a turnaround with some employees who show narcissistic traits. Once again this leads me to think the actual disorder is in a different league to someone who simply displays a few of the symptoms. Perhaps we need to take more care when labelling others.

Indeed, labels are such a popular commodity these days it does seem that everyone wants to fit beneath one. However, when any label is actually negative or derogatory, we should all be mindful of whether to use it when describing others. It stands to reason that while climbing the corporate ladder, an ambitious person may well fare better by being self-absorbed and overconfident. But I don’t necessarily think that means they are suffering from NPD. Maybe we should have a different umbrella term such as Narky for the great majority who enjoy rather than suffer from a couple of the NPD traits.

Finally, I think we should all look at ourselves before criticising actions of others and not be so quick to label someone a power-hungry narcissist, when really they are simply an ambitious go getter.

If you’d like to grapple with some more opinions of mine then you may find this about respect interesting.

OR something sexy?

Linked to these meme’s.

Ambition & Narcissism

15 thoughts on “Narcissism: A disorder or just Ambition?”

  1. The “silent treatment” (also known as stonewalling) is something that was/is used against me.

    The emotional feelings can lead into the body being affected physically, and is not something I recommend to anyone…

  2. I have encountered narcissists in my professional and personal lives over the last decades. The narcissists I have had to deal with for any length of time seemed to me to have permanent, not situational, challenges, including a family member that I have observed.
    Al Bernstein has an excellent book about aberrant behavior pathologies, “Emotional Vampires”, which covers both narcissist and bullies (which have a substantial personality overlap). The chapter on narcissists is the least encouraging chapter in the book. Basically you have 2 strategies for dealing with a narcissist; (1) co-exist, and manipulate them via a mixture of flattery and obeisance (they love sycophants) (2) walk away.
    Confronting them seldom works unless they make a really big mistake.

  3. Your view ad a reflective observer made this an interesting read. Some aspects are present in most of us. NPD/Gaslighting and other associations with clinical psychiatric diagnosis are very different to ‘ Facebook Fabulous attention seeking ‘ compared to the much darker qualities inherently ingrained in some. Thankfully it is not true that NPD is rife, I think social media, dating shows (MAF, love island etc) are showcasing how that behaviour actually presents itself. The cameras catch the very well disguised genuine traits.

    Swirly 🌻

    1. Hey Swirly – lovely to see u – Yes i sat back in the observer seat for this one – and looked at the traits and the obsession people have with labels rather than delve into the emotional folds of the topic lol
      May x

  4. I tried to take the quiz but got frustrated halfway through because the questions we too black and white. I wish it were so easy to decide if someone suffers from a mental illness or not…
    But I do agree that sometimes we label other incorrectly, based on our own moral compass. Interestingly enough, lack of empathy is the trait that most use as a shield when choosing their labels….

  5. I totally agree that you cannot label people, much less generalize people. Each being has its own idiosyncrasy, its own set of rules, its lights and its shadows; and normally we move along an axis in life, with two extremes or poles, and throughout life we feel comfortable, at different points on that axis.

    From the point of view of Gestalt Psychotherapy, and following the wisdom of the Enneagram, behind every narcissist there is a great philanthropist, so no, we cannot rush to hang a label on anyone, under penalty of falling into prejudice.

    An excellent article, May More, that gives to chat over a nice cup of tea or coffee.

    Love Rafael.

  6. Brilliant post, May, and like barefoot, I love that you take the route of devil’s advocate.

    “I think we should all look at ourselves before criticising actions of others”
    This absolutely goes for everything, not only for calling someone a narcissist. I think ambition is never a good thing, even when that goes hand in hand with some of the narcissistic symptoms. I also think we all can look at the symptoms and nod at one or two of them, knowing we might at times ‘test positive’ for them. It’s when a narcissistic person becomes harmful to those close to them, when I draw the line…

    ~ Marie xox

    1. I agree – which is why i choose to steer clear from people’s personal experiences as – to be honest – there are lots out there

  7. In any case, it is better to be able to correctly assess both yourself and those around you. Everything else is a disconnection from reality.
    And by the way, the situation when a girl could not correctly assess her appearance was amusingly played in the film “I Feel Pretty” 2018 у. True, before that, she hit her head hard.

  8. If you do not possess a bit of a narcistic trait you will be relegated to mediocrity. Seeing your potential, and striving to achieve it, is often seen as narcissitic by those unwilling to leave the comfort of the couch. Ironically, the “woke” culture is largely driven by narcissisms (self importance) and a generation of kids who have grown to believe they have an enlightened insight that all others should abide by. Kind of narcissitic… I do not see narcissism as all bad. I believe you need to embrace it to be the best you can be. At the same time there is a difference between a bit of narcissism and being an A-Hole… Great post May!

  9. May – you discuss this so well. Having read your post (because it wasn’t a topic I’d ever mulled over) I think you’re right “possessing some traits” is often causing people to be “labelled” as narcissistic – and again I agree with your opinion that it’s a label that gets a bad rap.
    Ambition or focused drive is to be admired, but I pity the person who is led by that at the expense of forming interpersonal relationships. As a cancerian: family / relationships / getting along with people are high on my list of priorities so that sort of life sounds empty to me.
    You’ve argued this really well and I’m on board with the conclusions you’ve drawn.

  10. May, I love it when you play devils’ advocate!

    I can actually see where you’re coming from in this post. I know my experiences… P (with an official label) wasn’t ambitious with himself, not in the traditional way, but he was ambitious enough to keep me, at any cost. And it worked for a long time until he got it very badly wrong and my own ambition (for our children) took over.

    Really thought provoking, thank you for sharing! N xx

    1. Thanks for reading barefoot. I just like to look at things from different angles – but yes I do understand what you are saying about him being ambitious to keep you – at any cost. I decided to steer away from personal experiences in this post – but am very aware of the damage real narcissists can do to others. xx

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