It’s a word that you hear a lot these days: Narcissist. You’ll often hear it, particularly when someone is experiencing relationship difficulties or a breakup, but it can also be used in familial, work, and other relationships. Narcissism is complicated and can be difficult for people on the outside of a relationship to see it. It is important that we clarify what this word actually means and then how you can differentiate them from people who are just more self-centered.
What Actually Is A Narcissist?
For the last few years, the term narcissist has become very popular and is often used to describe people who trend towards being more egotistical. Often, it is thrown out during the fall-out of a relationship or when two people conflict.
So what actually is a narcissist?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a narcissistic person is one who (1):
- Is extremely self-centered with an exaggerated sense of self-importance: marked by or characteristic of excessive admiration or infatuation with oneself.
- Displays or is marked by excessive concern for one’s own physical appearance.
They provide synonyms such as egotistical, egocentric, self-absorbed, and selfish or self-seeking. (1)
The term doesn’t actually refer to what people use it for today: Someone who emotionally manipulates others to get what they want. So what is the truth behind the meaning of the word?
Narcissism Isn’t Inherently Bad
Today, calling someone a narcissist is worse than any four-letter-word you can use. This is because the term is often used to describe people who are more self-centered or have a big ego.
Here’s the thing: We all have narcissistic qualities. We all get caught up in our own lives and go through periods of time where we are so absorbed by our own problems that we don’t see other people. In fact, a certain amount of narcissism can be a good thing.
Healthy narcissism, known as autonomous narcissism, helps bolster our self-confidence and resilience. (2, 3) What has happened here is we have gotten narcissism (both healthy and someone who is simply a self-centered jerk) with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)?
According to the Mayo Clinic, NPD is:
“a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.” (4)
Psychologists can’t diagnose someone with general “narcissism”, because it is not a real condition. NPD, however, is. (5)
Signs and Symptoms of NPD
The signs of NPD go far beyond someone who posts an excessive number of selfies on their Instagram. The Mayo Clinic lists these as signs and symptoms of NPD (4):
- Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
- Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerate achievements and talents
- Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty, or the perfect mate.
- Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people.
- Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
- Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations.
- Take advantage of others to get what they want.
- Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Be envious of others and believe others envy them
- Behave arrogantly or haughtily, coming across as conceited, boastful, and pretentious
- Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office
These people do not handle any criticism well at all. Any situation that they think they are being criticized in any way, they will (4):
- Become impatient or angry when they don’t receive special treatment
- Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted
- React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior
- Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior
- Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change
- Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection
- Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability, and humiliation
How A Narcissist Appears Like A “Good Person” To Others
They appear charming and lovely to others, but to those they are close with they will turn toxic, quickly. These are the people who will use emotional manipulation to both tears you down and build you up at the same time, and make it hard for you to leave.
Typically, narcissists are very charming. They can win people over quickly and easily. They do small favors for people, help them with various things (moving, paying for the coffees at work, etc.). This makes people think they are really kind people. When the person being abused then comes forward, no one believes them. “I know that guy,” they say to themselves. “He’s so nice; there’s no way he’s like that. They must be lying!”
This is how the malignant narcissist gets away with mistreating their victims. Victims can be their children, other family members, friendships, or romantic partners.
How To Overcome Malignant Narcissism
These people will need professional help to overcome this problem. The issue is getting them to agree to therapy. While some people with NPD consciously attempt to manipulate others for their own benefit, for many others, this is subconscious. They don’t know they have NPD, and because of their inability to take criticism, getting them to see that they have a problem is extraordinarily challenging. (6)
The Problem With Throwing Around the Term “Narcissist”
Now that you know the difference between narcissism or narcissistic behavior and NPD, you can see where the problem lies with slapping the label “narcissist” on anyone who has wronged you or acted selfishly towards you.
You see, by calling people narcissists who truly aren’t, it belittles those who have actually suffered abuse from true, manipulative narcissists. It also automatically makes the word negative, when in reality, it is not.
It is okay – and actually beneficial – for you to be a little bit “narcissistic” sometimes. In fact, there are many people who are confident and enjoy the spotlight who are still genuine, empathetic people. It helps them be more driven and higher-achieving. A bit of healthy narcissism helps you to be a more confident, self-assured person. (2)
Labeling others negatively as “narcissists” also makes us blind to our own narcissistic tendencies, because let’s be honest here – we all have them, from time to time.
A true malignant narcissist – the one who lacks empathy and makes their victims’ lives miserable while charming the rest of the world – are the ones you should reserve that title for. (5)
Just because someone cheated on you doesn’t make them a narcissist. Just because someone said something mean about you doesn’t make them a narcissist. Are they a jerk? Yes. Self-centered? Likely. Someone who slowly, over time, belittles you, tears away at your self-esteem, then stops at nothing to “burn you to the ground” (metaphorically) when you finally call them out on their behavior? I’m going to say that chances are, no.
How To Spot A True Malignant Narcissist
While we have already gone over the signs and symptoms of NPD, I want to give you some actionable things to watch out for in your personal relationships. Now, keep in mind that these things don’t necessarily mean this person has NPD. What they do mean is that this is a toxic person who will not change. You should probably cut ties with this person, walk away, and never look back.
1. Emotional Hot-Potato
In his book Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin calls the game narcissists play “emotional hot-potato”. This is evident when you try to bring something up to that person that has been bothering you. They immediately become defensive and heap the blame back on you. They will continue to do this until they have made you feel guilty. For a true narcissist, any problems you have in your relationship will always be your fault, and they will work hard (consciously or not) to make sure you feel that way. (6)
They also play this game by withdrawing then attacking. You make a demand, they withdraw or refuse to acknowledge it, angering you and making you push further. Then they may switch into “attack mode”, where they will eventually make you feel like you were the bad guy because you made the demand in the first place. (6)
2. Highly Vindictive
A malignant narcissist will never meet in the middle, compromise, or agree to settle differences. They will lie and do whatever they have to do to make themselves come out with all the marbles and you with nothing. They will attempt to position themselves as the victim and are very good and getting people to believe them. This is largely because they believe in their own lies so heavily. Dr. Joseph Burgo writes in his book The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists In An All-About-Me World:
“Because of his distorted, defensive relationship to reality, the Extreme Narcissist often believes the lies he tells, both to himself and other people. He doesn’t see himself as a liar but rather as an embittered defender of the ‘truth’ as he has come to see it.” (6)
3. Win-At-All-Costs Mentality
Once you have finally called this person out on their behavior and you are no longer giving in to their manipulation, they will stop at nothing to bring you down. They don’t care how many other bridges they have to burn to do it, either. Remember, they only see interpersonal relationships as a means to get something or to have control over something. They don’t actually care for the “friendship” and have no problems losing people if it means getting what they think they deserve. (6)
Watch How They Respond In Conflict
The thing that makes a true narcissist hard to spot outside of just someone who is highly selfish or self-seeking is in times of conflict. Conflict – when you make a reasonable demand (“I wish you’d help out a little more around the house”), do anything that they perceive as criticism – will cause their true self to emerge. Regardless of whether or not they are a true malignant narcissist, anyone who tears you down in conflict is not someone you want to be associated with. (6)
A person with whom you are afraid to bring up problems or anxieties is not someone you want to be with. Someone who makes you feel insecure, nervous, stupid, or like you are always the bad guy, is not someone you want to be with.
Do your best to extract yourself from that person’s emotional grip. Reach out to others if you need help, and make sure you take necessary steps to heal from that trauma. One thing is for sure: Once you have freed yourself from that person’s manipulative trap, don’t ever agree to go back. No matter how much they tell you they’ve changed, they likely haven’t, and you should steer clear of them forever.
- “Narcissistic.” Merriam.
- “The Healthy Side of Narcissism.” Psychology Today. Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. January 24, 2012.
- “Narcissistic personality disorder.” Mayo Clinic.
- “Why We Need to Stop Throwing the “Narcissist” Label Around.” Psychology Today. Craig Malkin Ph.D. April 12, 2015.
- “4 Behaviors That Unmask a Hidden Narcissist.” Psychology Today. Peg Streep. January 20, 2016.