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Narcissism or Not Narcissism? That Is the Legal Question

Jeffrey Siegel, Elisa Reiter, and Daniel Pollack


  • Narcissists in custody hearings feel entitled to win and often employ strategies to achieve that outcome.
  • Understanding the concept of narcissism and its impact on the legal process is crucial for attorneys and judges.
  • Differentiating between healthy and pathological narcissism is important in evaluating parenting. abilities, but it can be challenging to determine the best interests of the child in cases involving narcissistic parents.
Narcissism or Not Narcissism? That Is the Legal Question
Caiaimage/Martin Barraud via Getty Images

Narcissists do not just feel overly confident they will win in a custody hearing; they feel entitled to win. To counter a narcissist's divorce strategy, it is imperative to have a clear picture of who the narcissist is and be prepared with a knowledgeable, experienced, and proactive attorney.

But the word “narcissism” is rampant in family court. And what does it really mean and how can it be explained by attorneys to the advantage of their client? 

On March 15, 2023, Angela Haupt explored the real meaning of certain words, including “gaslighting” and “narcissism”—words that have “crept from the therapist’s couch into the public lexicon.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) provides traditional guidance as to symptoms that may indicate the presence of narcissistic personality disorder. Does the very use of the term “narcissist” impact on attorneys, judges, and mental health professionals in ways that introduce a predisposition to bias? From a legal perspective, we need to explore who a narcissist really is.

Aaron Pincus and Mark Lukowitsky define narcissism as a person’s ability to regulate self-esteem and manage their needs for affirmation, validation, and self-enhancement from their social environment. At first glance, this definition appears benign. After all, each of us engages in self-regulation and wants our needs to be validated by those in our orbit. Validation provides us with the opportunity to feel good about ourselves. Moving away from this basic definition, the more common understanding and use of the term narcissism is based on its pathological definition. The DSM-V defines a person with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as “exhibiting a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” They reveal in their behavior through some or all of the following:

  • grandiose sense of self-importance (exaggeration of achievement and talents with an unreasonable and unearned expectation of superior recognition);
  • fantasies of unlimited love, power, intelligence and/or success;
  • a sense of being special and that they should only associate with others who are special;
  • requirement of excessive admiration;
  • have a sense of entitlement;
  • take advantage of others to achieve their own goals;
  • have little empathy and seem unwilling to recognize the feelings of others;
  • envy others and also believe others envy them; and
  • are arrogant and disdainful of others. 

Is it possible that each person, on a given day, has the ability to engage in behaviors consistent with being a narcissist, particularly in the era of social media, where individuals strive to present perfect depictions of their families and work associations? Is there such a thing as “normal narcissism,” that should not be confused with “pathological narcissism”? Pincus and Lukowitsky report, “Most theorists suggest narcissism has both normal and pathological expressions reflecting adaptive and maladaptive personality organization, psychological needs, and regulatory mechanisms, giving rise to individual differences in managing needs for self-enhancement and validation.”

The contemporary concept of narcissism was based in psychoanalytic theory, beginning with Sigmind Freud and progressing through various revisions as psychoanalytic thought expanded. While modern authors have studied the various behavioral elements of narcissism, at its core narcissism exists on a continuum. A healthy, well-organized, and socially engaged person uses elements of narcissism to establish and maintain a healthy sense of themselves. As a result, such individuals can develop and maintain positive, healthy, and mutually supportive relationships. When a person’s earlier life experiences (childhood, early-middle-late adolescence, early adulthood) have been negative, narcissism may become a more defensive, self-protective, and at times pathological approach to dealing with the world. Arnold Rothstein’s 1984 “Fear of Humiliation” outlined how fear or experience of humiliation as a child contributes to the narcissist's need to protect themselves. If a person experienced humiliation when they were unable to live up to their parents’ expectations, they may have developed an internal sense of shame, of never being good enough. This remains true even if the humiliation was based on the parents’ own inadequacy and the parents’ need for the child to make them feel better. Consider exuberant parents on the sideline, shouting at children, coaches, and referees, who seem to need their children to be the best players on the field so that they can have bragging rights.

In order to avoid feeling bad about themselves, narcissists have developed psychological defenses, including being dependent upon their grandiosity. Narcissism is a defense, designed by nature and/or nurture. The defensive structure is designed to ward off anger, anxiety, sadness, frustration, humiliation, etc. The person sets up their defenses to protect themselves because negative feelings about oneself hurt, and people don’t like to feel hurt. 

The narcissist’s grandiosity feeds on the admiration of others and mandates an almost ritualistic demand for admiration to fuel their sense of entitlement. Sadly, the narcissist often seeks revenge against those perceived to have robbed them of their self-perceived rightful rewards. 

Mardi Horowitz wrote about the narcissist grappling with the loss of the admiration and entitlement: 

With impoverishment of interpersonal relationships, lack of creative successes, or with lack of compensatory thrill-seeking or pleasure, the narcissist cannot maintain grandiosity. Instead, he or she is more and more vulnerable to shame, panic, helplessness, or depression as life progresses without support from admiring others. With loss of cohesion in the self-concept because of lack of relationships to others . . . Envy, rage, paranoia and outrageous demands on others are common when they [the narcissist] are subjected to the stress of degradation, or simply the stress of aging and having a decline in bodily appearance and function.

Horowitz adds, “Talented, wealthy or exceptionally good-looking persons with [extreme narcissism] often can exhibit such charisma that they take on new relationships as old relationships fracture and perish. Social climbing may be an essential feature and they may cling to others whom they can use for positive reflection.” This is an allusion to the myth of Narcissus, ever admiring his own reflection. Horowitz concludes that the narcissist may discard or depreciate a person when the other person is no longer of use to them.

Confusion arises in descriptive terminology. Often, persons with an exaggerated sense of their importance are outgoing, socially engaging, articulate, and energetic, and according to Eric Russ, Jonathan Shedler, Rebekah Bradley, and Drew Westen can have good adaptive (social) functioning and use their narcissistic features as a motivation to succeed. Said differently, these people can motivate a group, engage with employees, share a business philosophy, and generate successful belief and energy to strive and reach common goals. Such individuals engage others with their charisma. So, how can the label “narcissist” impact a child custody evaluation or a divorce? How the narcissistic person came to be that way is functionally irrelevant to the court, but it is (or should be) relevant for the evaluator. When a suit affecting the parent child relationship is before the court, the judge wants to know what the problem is, and how to remedy it—for the child’s best interest. There is a limited amount of time to assess and evaluate, and rarely enough to clinically understand how the narcissistic defense structure came to be. Often, there is just enough time to determine that narcissism is reflected in one or both parents’ behavioral patterns. Does the mere presence of such behavioral patterns mean that the person should have access to or possession of their children restricted in some way.

Some points to keep in mind: 

  1. In the legal process, we compare and contrast the different sides of a case to determine the winner. We present the different sides to the bench or jury depending on the jurisdiction in which the case is pending. 
  2. In a legal or custody comparison, documents and behaviors are reviewed, compared, and contrasted—mostly contrasted. Picking a winner can’t really be accomplished if both sides are equal (good or bad). 
  3. Therefore, evaluators and attorneys ask questions to assess how one parent may be different or better than the other. Personality characteristics impact the ability to parent, but do such characteristics really make one parent better suited to meet the best interests of the children? Let’s remember too that while an ad litem or amicus attorney is appointed to act as the arm of the court, such court appointed counsel are charged with providing the judge with the children’s desires, not necessarily what is in the children’s best interests.
  4. The healthy narcissist responds in certain ways given the dynamics of the situation, the grandiose narcissist responds in the same way in every situation, and the depressed narcissist responds as best they can, just trying to keep their head above water. Shy, inadequate, or covert narcissists see themselves as failures, ever searching for the rewards they need but always coming up short and being angry at themselves and those around them.
  5. Evaluators and judges ask and encourage people to tell them the truth, to be honest and forthcoming. We are often shocked by the narcissist’s use of a never-ending stream of superlatives about themselves and castigations about the other person. But why? We asked them the question and they told us their version of the truth. The other parent may seize upon this question to be less than honest and report partial truths (or absolute lies) about the other in hopes of making themselves look better.

With such a fragile sense of self, the individual who has been diagnosed with NPD creates a bunker mentality fortified against external humiliation and internal shame. So, consider the dynamic of parental humility. A divorce is filed with one parent claiming superior parenting skills and attributes contrasted with the other parent’s multiple mistakes, errors, omissions, bad acts, poor judgment, etc. Often, allegations are made by one or both parents that certain claims are grounded in lies, deceit, theft, sexual misconduct, or colored by impaired recollection due to a mental health issue, illicit drug use, or alcoholism. What’s the issue? Evaluators and courts do not often have the benefit of a mental health professional’s formal diagnosis of a parent as suffering from NPD. Instead, evaluators and courts simply have descriptive phrases and recollections presented by litigants and by the vying litigants’ respective collateral witnesses.

Temporary orders are negotiated, or a brief hearing establishes some short-term rules and boundaries in the context of cases involving children. A corollary of temporary orders is often the entry of an order for a Child Custody Evaluation (CCE). As a result of temporary orders before the CCE begins, the applecart has been upset, the rules are changed, and the roles expanded or diminished. Emotional adjustment, physical adjustment, less or more time at work, daycare, huge expenses, and simply proximity to the children are often subject to massive change. 

The mere fact that someone attempts to overstate their abilities in court and/or in a CCE may not be indicative of narcissism. Indeed, one’s attorney may have advised that neither the CCE nor court is a forum for humility. Rather, they may have advised their client to “talk your abilities up” or “put yourself in the best light.”

Is the answer to who is the better parent a setup, a launching pad, or the truth perhaps mixed with a bit of gloating or exaggeration? Attorneys warn their clients not to use the words “always” or “never,” yet evaluators frequently hear those very qualifiers. Managing the internal strivings for the healthier narcissist is relatively easy because the humility feeds into the parent’s fantasy that this will make the evaluator like them better than the other parent. Narcissistic parents view themselves as superior because they say they are. Narcissists will spin anything they have done to attempt to convince a third party that their behavior is “better or best.” Should a narcissist admit that something he or she has done is less than superior, such an admission would be perceived by the narcissist as documenting external humiliation. Unless the narcissist has convinced themselves that a certain fact can help them, they cannot allow an admission against interest to trigger their shame.

The takeaway: Divorcing a narcissist is onerous, but not impossible.