If Someone Calls You a Narcissist, Does That Mean You Are?

Are we really qualified to diagnose each other?

I wrote a story about my journey toward healing since being estranged from my youngest daughter. A reader responded, insinuating that I am clueless, suggesting, “For your future self-development, I advise you look into Narcissistic personality disorder, but you probably won’t see the relevance.”

Wow. Nice.

After reading that, I spent a very painful 24 hours worrying that maybe I am a narcissist. I analyzed all the times I was selfish, arrogant, self-important and craved the approval of others. Maybe I have been making a fool of myself my whole life and didn’t even know it. Maybe even wondering if I am a narcissist is proof that I am!

I have to admit, I went a little crazy all because someone who doesn’t know me decided to diagnose me as a narcissist.

The label “narcissist” is thrown around a lot lately. On any given day you can find dozens of articles about living with a narcissist, surviving a narcissist, having a narcissistic parent, dating a narcissist, the trauma of being a victim of a narcissist. It seems like narcissism is as common as pennies in parking lots.

Many of the estranged daughters who have read my stories believe their mothers are narcissists, so it follows in their minds that I must be one, too. Maybe I am one of the many narcissists that are walking around loose, wreaking havoc wherever they go. It’s possible, right?

I finally decided I had tortured myself long enough and took my reader’s advice and researched Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). What I found out reassured me that I am on the right path to self-development and it does not involve dealing with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I have a lot of other demons, shame being my principle one, but NPD is not one of them.

What the psychologists say

A quick google search for NPD or narcissism will give you millions of hits. If you took this to it’s natural conclusion, you would think that there are gazillions of narcissists walking around among us, and we are all plagued by at least one in our lives.

But here are some interesting facts for perspective. Figures that I found estimate that 0.5% of the population in the US has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That’s 1 in 200. If we do the math, that means less than 200,000 people. And 75% of those are men. 20% of people in the military have NPD and 17% of first year medical students, as well. (1) Also, according to research on NPD, Americans in their 20s are three times more likely to have experienced NPD than people over age 60. (2)

If NPD is rare, why does it seem like it’s everywhere? One possibility, according to Ronald E Riggio Ph.D. is that “we are simply more attuned to narcissistic behavior in others, and we are quick to label. This creates a sense that there is a ‘narcissism epidemic’.” (3)

Anytime someone does something we don’t like, it is easy enough to label them as a narcissist. Any selfish act, thoughtless act, or decision that doesn’t take others’ needs into consideration can be labeled narcissism. The thing is, narcissism runs the gamut from a healthy sense of our selves and our needs, to occasional selfishness, to pathological behavior that destroys our relationships and wreaks havoc in the lives of those around us.

So how do we tell if we, or someone we know, is really a pathological narcissist?

According to the American Psychological Association, Narcissistic Personality Disorder as listed in their official book Diagnosis and Statistics of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM 5) as a “Cluster B” personality disorder, comprising “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration and lack of empathy.” (4)

The Mayo Clinic reports that “Cluster B personality disorders are characterized by dramatic, overly emotional or unpredictable thinking or behavior.” (5)

Following is a list of the character traits of a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder as listed on the Mayo Clinic website.

Narcissistic personality disorder

  • Belief that you’re special and more important than others
  • Fantasies about power, success and attractiveness
  • Failure to recognize others’ needs and feelings
  • Exaggeration of achievements or talents
  • Expectation of constant praise and admiration
  • Arrogance
  • Unreasonable expectations of favors and advantages, often taking advantage of others
  • Envy of others or belief that others envy you

As humans we naturally desire to be admired and appreciated. Sometimes we run roughshod over others as we attempt to get our needs met. When we are insensitive to others and put ourselves first, we are indulging in narcissism. And none of us have avoided hurting others with our selfish behavior at one time or another.

But there is a big difference between occasional narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

According to Tanya Peisley, in an article on the Sane Australia website, “Our level of narcissism can vary over time, between situations and life events. It’s important to remember that the major distinction between narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is that narcissism is not a mental illness or personality disorder.” (5)

Most of us have displayed behavior that looks like narcissism. To a degree, narcissism is healthy. Learning to speak up for ourselves and get our needs and wants met is important to our survival. It is when it slides down the scale to pathological that it becomes maladaptive.

While it may suit our purposes to accuse someone of being a narcissist, we are not qualified to diagnose NPD as a pathology. A person who is self-absorbed, insensitive and vain may appear to be a narcissist, when in reality they are simply exhibiting traits of common narcissism and do not suffer a psychological disorder. Selfish jerks are everywhere, but they aren’t necessarily pathological.

“If you’re worried that you might be a narcissist, you probably are not one.”

Nicole Spector, in an article titled, “How to Identify a Narcissist” says, “We all have some narcissistic qualities, which run along a spectrum. There’s a radical difference, though, between having narcissistic qualities (e.g., being self-centered) and being a full-fledged narcissist.”

She goes on to say, “If you’re worried that you might be a narcissist, you probably are not one. Narcissists generally lack the kind of empathetic self-reflection that might make them wonder if they have a personality disorder.”

Whew! So there’s the words I needed. Maybe wondering if I might be a narcissist is not a sign that I am one!

I admit I do need a lot of approval from others and am sensitive to criticism. But I am working on that and I am getting better. I am able to self-reflect, I am able to take responsibility for my mistakes (and the ways my choices hurt those around me), and I have a great capacity for compassion and empathy.

Just to be sure, I asked my therapist if she thought I was a narcissist and she laughed as she said “No.” She and I have been working together for three years, so I think if I had NPD she would know.

At the same time, I know that it has taken me a long time to own some of my mistakes because it has been so painful to see how my choices have hurt others. But my therapist confirmed that I am on the right path and that I have made great progress in looking at myself without the rose colored glasses. It’s hard to see yourself in your naked imperfection, but I am working on that.

From the Mayo Clinic: “In some cases, you may not realize that you have a personality disorder because your way of thinking and behaving seems natural to you. And you may blame others for the challenges you face.”

Fortunately, I have been able to avoid slipping into neurosis that prevents me from being able to self-reflect and self-correct. I don’t blame others for my problems, and when I do, I catch myself and see that I am trying to avoid the discomfort of facing my own shortcomings. I know that for me, when I slip into narcissism, it is a defense mechanism to cover the pain of feeling like I am not enough. But it is not a diagnosis.

So, I would say to the reader who diagnosed me, thank you for sending me down this road of inquiry. I know that I have a long way to go toward healing all the wounds that cause me to behave in ways that I later regret, but Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not on the list of things I have to deal with. Garden variety narcissism is what I am working on here. Just like the rest of us.

Human learning to be human. Writing in hopes of getting there.

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