02/28/2014 03:22 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2014

Narcissism Really Isn't Self-Love: Desperately Seeking Self...

Since narcissists seem abundant in our daily lives, it can make a real difference in your quality of life if you understand narcissism. Unfortunately, that is not always easy to do for a regular person going through normal day-to-day life -- in popular culture it gets simplified to the point of uselessness, in psychology it can seem complicated to the point of futility. Not only can the language sometimes be misleading, sometimes it just leads in the wrong direction.

One of the concepts that really makes a mess of things is the idea that narcissists love themselves to the exclusion of all others. The term that summarizes that is "self-love." The problem is that narcissism is NOT self-love.

When one follows the line of thinking that a narcissist loves herself to the point of being uninterested in loving others, one tends to conclude that the narcissist is choosing to think this way and you can get her to choose otherwise -- you can be the shining star who lights up the narcissist's heart. This leads the person on the receiving side of a relationship down all sorts of frustrating paths. It makes you think that if only you can prove yourself, then you will also be prized.

If the narcissist you're dealing with is someone in the workplace, it probably makes you feel ineffective because you can't get the narcissist's respect. It makes you try all different sorts of tactics to try to maintain the elusive attention of a narcissist so that you can feel that sense of acknowledgement you seek. It catches you in a game of trying and failing and trying again and failing -- a game you don't even realize you are in, but which many of us keep playing until we are flat-out worn down. At the bottom-line, thinking that narcissism is about self-love, tends to make the rest of us feel like we are not worthy or lovable.

The reality is that narcissism is not self-love; it is a lack of a sense of self.

A true narcissist does not seek to have you admire her because she admires herself; it is that she seeks your admiration as a way to affirm that she exists.

The reality is that a narcissist does not experience herself as superior, despite behaving as if she does. She seems superior, and as if her ideas are the only acceptable ideas, because she is not aware that you are a separate being who is not her. She has merged with you and assumes that you are part of her, and that her needs are the only needs that exist.

Our confusion about narcissism as self-love stems from the early psychological theorists and their drawing on the Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his image and could not tear his gaze away.

Rather than think of narcissism as "self-love" think of it as "lack of self, seeking others." It's not "Desperately Seeking Susan," it's "Desperately Seeking Self." Freedom from the frustration of trying to get a narcissist to consider you, respect you, or love you can be yours. Accept a narcissist for what she is, and options will open up for you.