Narcissism has become a “trendy” word in pop culture lately. I’ve seen people use it to mean “selfish,” “egotistical,” “uncaring about others,” and more. But this might make you wonder, are you a narcissist, too? Let’s cut through the stereotypes and see what that actually means.
What is narcissism?
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a mental illness. It involves an inflated sense of self-importance, a strong need for admiration, and lack of empathy for others, even if that causes problems for your life or for other people. This is different from simply “being selfish.” Most of us act selfish at some point, but we can stop doing so with a bit of self-reflection, or around people we care about. Narcissistic personality disorder is consistent across a person’s relationships.
Narcissism is not:
- Thinking you’re awesome. You can have a high opinion of yourself and treat others with love and respect.
- Thinking about yourself a lot. Most humans think about ourselves and how others perceive us often.
- Wanting attention, status, or to be liked. Most humans feel this way, too.
- Telling people what you want. That’s not narcissism, that’s a communication skill.
- Being a jerk to others. Some narcissists can be charming, funny and helpful. And most people who act like jerks aren’t narcissistic.
- Being a bad person. Narcissists are people with good and bad qualities, too.
What makes narcissism a disorder is pursuing admiration, exploiting others, or focusing on your own desires to the extent that it damages your relationships with other people.
Narcissism is a spectrum
Narcissism has become an insult in many circles, a way to say “bad person.” Most of my clients who worry that they’re narcissists are, deep down, worried that they’re bad people. But humans are complex.
It’s common to have a few narcissistic tendencies without it being a full-blown disorder. For instance, most toddlers start out self-centered, because they need a lot of attention. Teenagers may feel like their problems are more important than anyone else’s, but develop a broader perspective over time. Learning to balance your own needs with those of other people is part of growing up.
Some narcissistic traits can be neutral, or even helpful, if balanced with other strengths or used in the right way. Having a high sense of self-importance may make one person act entitled and rude – but it might give someone else the confidence to speak out against injustice. Wanting admiration can make some people put down others – but it could also motivate healthy competition and pushing yourself to grow.
It’s true that people with severe narcissism can act self-centered, exploitative, and uncaring toward others’ feelings. But their actions are what’s right or wrong; they choose to mistreat others. You, too, can choose what kind of person you wish to be, no matter if you have a diagnosis or not.
Are you a narcissist…or just anxious?
Most of my clients who ask “Am I a narcissist?” aren’t on the NPD spectrum at all. They usually have the opposite problem: their self-esteem is too low. They mistake “having positive thoughts about yourself at all” for “being a narcissist,” so they feel afraid to acknowledge their good qualities. Or they think “setting boundaries and asking for what you need” is the same as “being entitled and uncaring toward others,” so they never speak up for themselves.
If you’re worried that you might be a narcissist, first rule out whether you have anxiety or depression, because those disorders are much more common, and might cause those kinds of thoughts. Or, if someone else told you you’re a narcissist, consult a mental health professional to get a more objective opinion. And remember that diagnosis isn’t destiny: you always have the ability to grow.
The healthiest mindset is a middle ground: valuing yourself and respecting other people. You can build up yourself and build up others, too. It’s easier said than done, but with good friends and maybe some therapy, you can get there. If you’re interested in professional support to help you find that balance, drop me a line.