“Narcissism.” The word is a mainstay in modern day cultural lexicon, and rooted in the fictional character Narcissus, from a myth by first century Roman poet Ovid about a man who was cursed by the gods and made to fall in love with his own reflection.
These days, the term “narcissism” is thrown around quite a lot. People in the public and private eye are frequently labeled as “narcissists.” This is hugely problematic, as far as I’m concerned, because in reality, real narcissism is quite rare—and let’s be thankful for that.
In fact, according to Psychology Today, only about 1% of the population are TRUE narcissists. What does “true narcissist” mean exactly? And what do we do if we know someone who is either a true narcissist or simply exhibits narcissistic traits and tendencies? Let’s discuss.
What Is Narcissism (And How It Differs From Someone Who Simply Has Narcissistic Traits)
Mayo Clinic describes narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as “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.”
- Appear self-absorbed, arrogant, snobby, controlling, selfish, and insensitive
- Expect special favors and have a strong sense of entitlement
- Frequently manipulate and take advantage of others
- Try to have the best of everything (e.g., cars, homes, dining experiences, clothing, partners, fame, etc.)
- Are secretly envious of others and expect people to be envious of them
- Beneath their superficial bravado, actually have very fragile self-esteem and struggle with shame, insecurity, and humiliation
- Are prone to flying into destructive anger and revenge (“narcissistic rage”) when they feel ridiculed or rejected
- Tend to have an increased risk of other problems including depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, drug and alcohol misuse, and extreme occupational and interpersonal conflict
NPD is one of ten clinically recognized personality disorders described in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), along with antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive personality disorder, and others.
Please notice the implication here: narcissism is an extremely rare, clinically recognizable mental health disorder, NOT a character flaw. Only licensed mental health professionals such as psychologists or psychiatrists can diagnose someone with NPD—so the claim that your partner/parent/in-law/coworker is a narcissist, absent any medical diagnosis, is almost certainly incorrect.
Yes, someone you know might exhibit narcissistic traits or tendencies, such as controlling or manipulative behavior (e.g., gaslighting), selfishness, or decreased empathy. And there’s no doubt that these traits can be incredibly painful and difficult to deal with. But this doesn’t necessarily mean this person you know is actually a narcissist, and in the same way that it’s offensive and hurtful to call someone a “schizo” or accuse them of being “OCD”, it’s equally offensive and hurtful to call someone a narcissist, simply because they exhibit some of the traits inherent to the genuine disorder.
Strategies for Dealing With Someone Who Has Narcissistic Tendencies
As it is, true narcissists require intensive, long-term psychotherapy and medication to manage their behaviors, improve their coping skills, and heal their interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, people with NPD are highly unlikely to seek therapy, often because they don’t think anything is wrong or don’t care about the way their behaviors affect others.
People who exhibit narcissistic traits can benefit from psychotherapy, too. They may even respond better to counseling and may be more likely to seek professional help in the first place, although this remains highly individual.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean things are hopeless for you if you have a loved one who has NPD or exhibits narcissistic behaviors. But it does mean you’ll need to employ some useful tactics to protect your own well-being. So, whether your partner, parent, family member, or friend exhibits narcissistic tendencies, here are some things you can do that might help:
- Engage in the ongoing practice of acceptance. Understand that you cannot change them.
- Remember that what they say about you and how they treat you is a reflection on them, not you. Know that you are not responsible for their words, feelings, nor actions.
- Get a support system. Lean on other family members, friends, or a counselor who can help you cope and give you the confidence, love, and kind words you need and deserve.
- Set clear boundaries (e.g., “No insults or name-calling”). Let the person know what the consequences will be if your boundaries are crossed (e.g., you will leave the conversation). Finally, be sure to follow through on these consequences.
- Consider trying the “grey rock” technique by keeping your interactions with this person factual, unemotional, and brief. If they see your responses as “uninteresting” or realize they can’t get a rise out of you, the person might decrease or stop their harmful style of interaction (Note: there are possible risks to this technique, including driving an escalation in abusive behaviors, so be mindful if exploring this method.)
- Know when to cut off contact or step away (e.g., if abusive behaviors are escalating or if your safety is at risk). Do what is necessary to prepare yourself for this transition and keep yourself and your children safe.
Finally, if you know someone who truly has NPD, be sure to meet with a licensed mental health counselor—even if they don’t. NPD is a life-long, intense, and challenging condition, and loved ones of people with narcissism can greatly benefit from professional guidance.
Is Someone In Your Life a Narcissist?
If you need help dealing with someone in your life exhibiting narcissistic behaviors or NPD, contact Couples Thrive at 954-654-9609 to schedule an appointment today.