Well wait, are they?
Am I a Narcissist?
What even is a Narcissist?
Let’s start with the origin story, just for a bit of context. In Greek Mythology, Narcissus is a hunter known specifically for his beauty. He attracted many potential love interests, but always rejected them. After a series of not-so-important-for-the-sake-of-this-conversation events, Narcissus was lured to a lake and became quite enraptured by his own reflection. He wasn’t aware that he was looking at his own reflection, as mirrors at that time were uncommon. Unable to stop looking, he eventually burned away due to passion, and turned into a flower.
So, what does this have to do with Narcissism? Well, only a bit, which we’ll get into in a minute, but the part of the story to keep in mind is where Narcissus is so enraptured by his reflection that he can do, and in essence see, nothing else. This creates the passion that ends his life.
So, with this in mind, let’s look at the actual diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder together:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance.
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that they are “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement (i.e. – unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations).
- Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e. – takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends).
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
I think we could all name someone (including ourselves) with one or two of these traits, but here’s the thing – to be diagnosed, you have to have at least five of these traits. Anyone can have narcissistic traits at any given time – that does not make them a narcissist.
And there’s a problem with labeling an individual trait, behavior, or even just assumptions about psychiatric diagnoses.
When we label people, situations, memes, and the like with terms like bipolar, OCD, or narcissistic, we’re actually taking away from what it actually means to be bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, or narcissistic. These terms get so normalized and overused within our language, that the actual meanings behind these labels can become lost. Having bipolar disorder isn’t just having mood swings, OCD isn’t just wanting things to be clean or orderly, and Narcissism isn’t just being mean or even necessarily abusive.
It also can affect accountability, the urge to find help, or even someone’s self-understanding.
It’s absolutely wonderful that more people are going to therapy, learning about themselves, and doing a lot of the inner work, but we want to make sure we aren’t diagnosing others based on limited information. Saying “she is a narcissist” is different from saying “she has narcissistic traits”.
It’s much more effective to call traits what they are: rude, inconsiderate, selfish, dangerous, abusive, etc, etc, etc. These words have clearer definitions and meanings to the general public. If you call someone selfish, they’re more likely to know what that means as compared to telling them they’re being a narcissist. And, if you’ve called someone a narcissist, did you even know what that meant at the time?
Well, now that you have a bit more information, let’s take it a step further: how do these traits and these behaviors even happen?
Heinz Kohut, a psychoanalyst, believed that narcissistic traits are actually normal for children. Multiple psychologists have stated that being egocentric is very typical for little ones as they try to explore and understand the world, and their place in it. The tricky part is that we’re meant to outgrow this behavior – sometimes we do, to an extent, and sometimes we don’t, to an extent. That extent can vary depending on your circumstances and experiences.
Kohut, for example, believed that narcissistic traits can linger if a child did not develop a healthy level of self-esteem, and therefore, they look for external evidence of being good enough or having worth. As this child ages, when they receive responses that imply (from their perspective) that they aren’t good enough, they may feel inclined to lash out or express behaviors that are defensive.
This is in no way a justification for poor behavior, but it is an explanation for your own information as you navigate the people in your life. If there are people in your social circle behaving in any way that feels uncomfortable, unwarranted, abusive, or unsupportive, it can be helpful to turn your focus inward and decide how you want or need to respond to protect yourself.
There’s nothing wrong with protecting yourself from other people’s stuff, and we want to make sure that we’re holding ourselves and others accountable, while also navigating the world effectively.
Simply labeling the behavior as narcissistic doesn’t solve your problem, but some reflection might help you identify how to move forward – What does their behavior mean for you? Do you need firmer boundaries? Is this someone you want in your life? In what ways have you permitted this behavior or reinforced it? Could having your own therapy help you to better understand why someone’s behavior is impacting you?
In time, this reflective process can help you build a stronger relationship with yourself, stronger relationships with others, create more peace in your life, and allow you to have a functioning radar for behavior that doesn’t work for you.
So, to wrap up, here’s an important question: does labeling the behavior actually protect you? If not, what does?