It's often hard to explain the extent of narcissistic abuse because the word narcissism is often equated with simple self-centeredness. Recognizing the difference will avoid a lot of unnecessary pain and agony. Though self-centeredness and even conceitedness is part of narcissism, being a narcissist is much more than that. Being a narcissist involves living in a distorted reality where the rules of "normal" do not apply. They effectively live in a bubble where true communication and intimacy is futile.
In contrast, the run of the mill self-centered person is indeed capable of being in a fulfilling relationship to the extent that mutually acceptable behaviors can be negotiated. They are open to this type of negotiation, and there is a certain kind of give and take in the relationship. It may not be a truly 50/50 relationship but it definitely isn't the one-way street the narcissistic relationship is, where one partner does all the taking and the other does all the giving. Also self-centered people can be consistent and reliable, which is definitely not a trait of the narcissist. Up front and self-centered is one thing, but narcissistic, cunning and manipulative is entirely different.
Being in the spotlight, like celebrities are, can certainly breed conceitedness bordering on narcissism, but a true narcissist was created in childhood. Though there might be a genetic or epigenetic component, invariably there was a type of child abuse that impeded healthy bonding. In childhood the narcissist was either the answer to a mother's emotional hunger, and over-indulged by being treated as mother's little prince, or the child was neglected and severely criticized for not living up to the parent's expectations. Either extreme, will cause a child to not feel safe to transition out of the self-centered stage of about 7 years old.
That's why you hear narcissists being described as a two year old having a temper tantrum, whereas a healthy self-centered person is capable of rationalizing. As adults, narcissists can fly into a vindictive narcissistic rage if they are questioned instead of receiving immediate compliance with their demands, just like any two year old would. There are many more immature behaviors associated with narcissism, such as poor impulse control. People around them may roll their eyes at them, but frequently won't question them to keep the peace. That in fact is part of the problem: the narcissist doesn't respect healthy boundaries and instead "acts out," but is never held accountable.
We've all felt manipulated by our children at times, and consistent boundaries teaches a child to respect others' needs and feelings. Since the narcissist has never been taught how to respect other people's needs and feelings, by experiencing appropriate consequences to bad behavior, they never learn a healthy give and take. They value you for what they can get out of you, and employ splitting which is viewing people as all good or all bad. You will see a certain unfairness in that some people are seen as all good and some people are seen as all bad. Within a romantic relationship they will use this same splitting mechanism as a defense strategy, by cycling though love and hate at the drop of a hat. This is why you see narcissist referred to as two-faced or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Because they become masters at manipulation to get what they want, they can be the most charming people you've ever met. Also, since they've been mommy's darling (in the case of over-indulgence), they have honed the skill of seduction from a very young age. Combine that with the fact that they repeatedly have short-term relationships that never evolve out of the infatuation phase, and you know they have practiced the art of seduction many times over without ever developing true intimacy. One of the best known examples of such a narcissist, who continued to be tied to his mother with a proverbial emotional umbilical cord was Frank Lloyd Wright. As Linda Martinez-Lewi, PhD writes:
The narcissistic mother does not make a distinction that he is separate from her. She possesses him like an indispensable object. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother referred to her son as her Prince. This is the classic role of the chosen narcissistic son. The enmeshed son is flattered by this form of adoration and feels an enhanced ego as a result of his mother’s extraordinary attentions. Beneath the surface in the unconscious the narcissistic son despises his mother for harnessing him to her. Another byproduct of this use of the son as an object of adoration and psychological imprisonment is the narcissist’s hatred of women in general which originates from their fear of women. Much of this comes from the primal narcissistic mother’s pulling the puppet strings of her son’s life. He has become her creation.
Martinez-Lewi also states that Narcissistic personalities are not inclined to change, since they believe they are perfect and live in a delusional bubble. She cautions you to take a long look at the (narcissistic) person with whom you are planning to share your life. Recognize that as a co-dependent who grew up with a narcissistic parent yourself, you may be drawn to a narcissist like a magnet. The common bond of childhood damage and the familiarity you find in this kind of dysfunctional relationship, makes for a toxic attachment where you feel immensely connected but also immensely drained of your own life-force.
Narcissists are addicted to constant attention and cannot be alone. Like a drug addict on the verge of going cold turkey, they live in a constant state of depletion looking for new sources of narcissistic supply/attention. They consequently have very little energy to invest in an existing relationship. Old sources of supply are maliciously degraded or shelved for future use, and the narcissist lives in a constant turmoil and chaos of his own making.