You went on a few dates with a guy who talked about himself incessantly and didn’t ask a single question about you.
Clearly a narcissist.
Your coworker is constantly telling you that your way is wrong. She always seems to have her own agenda, and kisses up to your supervisor, while putting others down. All. The. Time.Clearly a narcissist.
Your childhood friend only talks about his own problems, and always needs help with something. Anytime you need help, he suddenly disappears.
Clearly a narcissist.
A friend of a friend is known as the one-upper, as in she’s constantly in competition mode. Whatever you’ve done, she’s done it better, faster and with more ease. Oh, and she’s always running late and rarely apologizes.
Clearly a narcissist.
Your college roommate was cocky and rude, and always treated his girlfriends like crap.
Clearly a narcissist.
These are all examples of irritating and awful qualities and actions. But narcissists they don’t automatically make. For instance, in some cases there could be plausible explanations — like your date was super nervous and tends to babble when he’s nervous, said Rebecca Nichols, LPC, a psychotherapist specializing in relationship issues throughout the life cycle, including dating, marriage and divorce.
“Narcissism is having a moment,” she said. “It has become trendy to define perceived self-centered or selfish behavior as narcissism.” One reason is that it’s a quick, easy way to explain bad behavior, or someone who can’t see your point of view, she said.
Of course, people also throw around all kinds of psychological terms and diagnoses — such as PTSD and OCD — “lightly and inaccurately,” said Natalie Rothstein, LPC, a psychotherapist practicing in the Chicagoland area whose specialties include anxiety, depression, grief and loss, attachment issues, relationship issues and eating disorders. So it’s not surprising we throw around narcissist, too.
While someone can have narcissistic traits, being a narcissist is a very different thing — and it tends to create confusion and leads us to leap to conclusions. A true-blue narcissist is someone who has narcissistic personality disorder, Nichols said. “I think what’s important to realize about narcissism is that it’s not just behavior but a personality characteristic, more of a way of looking at the whole world.”
According to Nichols and Rothstein, people with narcissistic personality disorder have these traits, which they demonstrate in all contexts (not just at work, for instance):
- Lack empathy and don’t care about others’ feelings
- Have grandiose thoughts about themselves (e.g., might exaggerate their achievements or talents)
- Have an entitled point of view
- Don’t take responsibility or ownership of their actions; they think that nothing is ever their fault, which results in a string of bad relationships and/or work experiences
- Believe they’re superior to others
- Desire admiration from others and constant attention, making conversations or topics all about themselves
- Strive for power
- Manipulate situations to work in their favor, regardless of how this affects others.
Some signs aren’t as obvious. For instance, people with narcissistic personality disorder have unreasonable expectations, Nichols said. “In relationships, you will find that you can never quite satisfy them or make them happy.” They demand perfection from others and from their experiences. They “are miserable when things don’t go the way they believe.” They also believe people should act the way they want them to and think is correct.
Nichols often sees narcissism in the dating world. “I think because clients can be vulnerable they can be more susceptible to falling for or overlooking narcissism.” For instance, Nichols worked with one client who fell into a whirlwind romance with a guy she met online. He was attentive and available. He wanted to see her all the time and showered her with texts and gifts. Everything was great until a few months later. He didn’t like a political comment she’d made at a party with his friends. She apologized profusely. But he wouldn’t let it go, saying things like: “I don’t understand how you could be so stupid to say that. You made me look bad in front of everyone.” Then he became very cold and critical (e.g., criticizing her for being overly sensitive). Eventually, he completely stopped responding to any communication.
As Nichols underscored, “It was the classic pattern of idealize, put down and then discard” that true narcissists create.
Rothstein’s clients who’ve dated people with narcissistic traits “find themselves feeling manipulated and feeling like everything is always their fault.” They also tend to “lose touch of their own self-worth and their viewpoint in situations,” she said.
There’s actually great variability in people who have narcissistic personality disorder. According to this piece in The American Journal of Psychiatry, individuals also may be steeped in self-loathing, socially isolated, unable to maintain steady employment and prone to antisocial activities. They may be thin-skinned, shy and hypersensitive to others’ evaluations of them. But, like the more known presentation of narcissistic personality disorder, these individuals are still “extraordinarily self-absorbed.”
For instance, here’s an example from the same article:
“Mr. C” is a 29-year-old single man with a history of insulin-dependent diabetes who presents to an outpatient clinic for treatment of dysthymia and social phobia. He has held a series of low-level jobs that “have not worked out,” and he currently works part-time doing data entry. Mr. C described his mood as chronically “miserable.” Socially isolated and easily slighted, he has no interests, takes pleasure in nothing, and routinely wonders “whether life is worth living.” When feeling down, he often “forgets” to administer his insulin, resulting in multiple hospitalizations for hyperglycemia. He constantly compares himself with others, feeling envious and resentful, and describes himself as deficient and defective. At the same time, he resents that others fail to recognize all he has to offer. At times he engages in fantasies of his employer publicly acknowledging his special talents and promoting him; at other times, he has fantasies of humiliating his boss with a display of superior knowledge.”
We tend to use narcissist as a synonym for self-centered, and while narcissists are indeed self-centered, they’re also so much more. When we throw terms around, we dilute them. “It trivializes the real pain and difficulty of being in a relationship or being raised by a person with narcissistic personality disorder,” Nichols said.
Unless an individual with narcissistic personality disorder has a deep commitment to change, someone else’s behavior won’t affect them. In other words, “You can’t care enough or support a narcissist into changing their behavior — that has to come from within them,” she said.