As someone who writes relationships-focused articles that live online, I can tell you that the topic of narcissism draws a lot of clicks. Based on Google search data, hundreds of thousands of people are eager to know how to protect themselves from a narcissist or whether they’re in a relationship with one—or used to be.
And it’s easy to see the appeal of armchair-diagnosing an a-hole who has wronged you with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD): It effectively casts them as the bad actor in the story—clinically, they can’t even help themselves! Break free of them and you’re well on your way to being whole again.
For folks who are actually dealing with someone with NPD—or with narcissistic personality traits—there may be a lot of truth to that narrative. But for most, the reality lives somewhere in the middle: “They can’t all be narcissists,” Lindsay Weisner, PsyD, a therapist in New York City who has treated clients diagnosed with NPD and those affected by them, tells SELF.
Experts believe that between 1 and 6% of people in the US have NPD, and while Dr. Weisner adds that it’s difficult to get someone with severe narcissism to seek treatment or volunteer for a study, the disorder is certainly rare.
When did we, as a culture, start using the terms ‘“narcissist” and “narcissistic personality disorder” so casually and interchangeably? It’s something Dr. Weisner says she’s wondered about, too, noting that “language is always evolving.” The explosion of mental health advice across Instagram and TikTok in recent years has facilitated a widely presumed familiarity with certain jargon (see also: love bombing, gaslighting, and toxic family/friends/bosses/anyone).
In the best of circumstances, these terms can help us better understand our challenges with other people so we can grow from them. When interpreted incorrectly, however, they can misrepresent relationship dynamics and prevent us from seeing things clearly.
“I think when someone breaks your heart or treats you poorly, it can be easy to villainize them by calling them a narcissist,” Dr. Weisner says. Jennifer B. Hirsch, PsyD, a New York City–based therapist who also treats people with NPD and those close to them, says she’s experienced this with clients, and young women in particular.
“Often, what’s really happening is that they’re trying to get a relationship out of someone who doesn’t actually want to be in one,” Dr. Hirsch tells SELF. “If someone never remembers your birthday, never calls when they say they will, or always demands you split the dinner check, that person might be a jerk, but they’re not necessarily a narcissist.”
And just because a person has narcissistic traits doesn’t mean they have NPD, either, by the way. Below, Dr. Weisner and Dr. Hirsch share a few key differences between someone with NPD (or narcissistic tendencies) and a plain ol‘ selfish person.
None of this information is a substitute for an assessment by a licensed mental health professional, of course, but it might make you think twice before chalking up self-centered behaviour (which, to be clear, can also be a relationship red flag) to a personality disorder. Plus, it’ll help you sound super smart at brunch.
Selfish jerks and narcissists often seem arrogant—but their motivations are different.
As characterized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [(DSM-5)](https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32310461/#:~:text=Narcissistic personality disorder \(NPD\) is,Disorders \(DSM–5).), people diagnosed with NPD exhibit “a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.”
“Most of their stories end with them accidentally saving the day or doing something amazing, and they’re frequently expressing something that’s almost unbelievable about themselves,” Dr. Weisner says, adding that those with NPD are typically attracted to high-powered jobs and people and often have lofty goals (think vying for CEO or influencer status).
Self-centred folks are known to brag about their accomplishments too, of course, but for narcissistic people, the underlying motivation is “a need to keep their image intact in front of others,” she adds. “It’s about being seen a certain way by the world.”
In other words, it’s not that they truly believe they’re superior (as a selfish jerk might); it’s that they need you—and everyone else on the planet—to think they are.
“The theoretical understanding over time has been that most narcissists developed that way because they either had a parent who overpraised them and made them feel as if they were the sun and the moon—or they had a parent who undervalued them and narcissism became their coping skill,” Dr. Weisner explains.
A selfish jerk is more likely to bore the hell out of you.
Again, like a narcissist, a selfish jerk might be prone to braggy comments, rattling on about where they went to school, why they’re on a macrobiotic diet, and how heavy they lifted at the gym. But it’ll probably get monotonous quickly, Dr. Hirsch says. Narcissism, on the other hand, can be thrilling.
“When a narcissist is shining their light on you, it can make you feel like a rock star. They’re often a little too complimentary at first,” Dr. Weisner says. “They can even seem like the perfect partner, parent, or friend—the only thing is, there’s a subconscious manipulative quality to it.”
The positive attention they’re giving you isn’t really about you at all; it’s about making a good impression so that you’ll stick around and supply them with their lifeblood: praise and admiration.
A real-life example: A run-of-the-mill jerk might not show up to your birthday party because they’re angry at you and don’t really care if others think they’re mean for ditching you. But a person with NPD would likely show up, give you the biggest gift, and come off as a wonderful partner to everyone in attendance—and then privately say hurtful things when nobody’s looking.
Many narcissists have an ingrained need to put other people down in order to feel better about themselves, “and that’s the part that gets revealed more slowly,” explains Dr. Weisner. Eventually you might start feeling like you’re walking on eggshells—a sign you might be dealing with narcissistic traits or NPD. “Ultimately these are people that you either feel fantastic around or a little frightened.” This brings us to our next point.
A narcissist takes your lack of worship as an attack, and they’ll respond in kind.
Attempting to match a selfish jerk’s patterns (you stop texting them back, say) or failing to adequately agree with how talented they are may mildly irritate them—or they might not even notice.
They’re out for themselves, and what you’re doing doesn’t typically have an enormous effect on that, says Dr. Hirsch. But for a narcissist, these are major triggers that can motivate aggressive and abusive behaviour.
“A narcissist is going to try to make you feel all the yucky, unsure, insecure feelings they have on the inside,” according to Dr. Hirsch. If you question their accomplishments or criticize them in any way, even if it’s productive, they take it as a challenge to their self-image.
They may perceive your successes, too, as a threat: Let’s say you’re going out in a new outfit that makes you feel amazing and it shows, causing them—consciously or subconsciously—to fear that you’ll outshine them. Suddenly it’s “you dress too cheaply, or you spent way too much money and racked up credit card debt,” Dr. Hirsch says.
“When you start thinking, ‘Wow, maybe I really do spend too much or too little,’ you’ve entered what’s called projective identification.”
Essentially, they’re projecting their inner self-hatred onto you in such a sneaky way that you internalize it and feel bad about yourself (so they can feel better)—a form of manipulation that can signify emotional abuse.
A selfish jerk is more likely to respect your boundaries.
Dr. Hirsch and Dr. Weisner say that true narcissists will often react negatively to your boundaries with aggressive behavior, such as insults and argumentativeness, or pressure to accommodate their request.
“That typically happens when it feels insulting or aggressive (to them) that you have boundaries that don’t align with their ability to project a certain image of themselves,” Dr. Hirsch says. (Because, again, they care deeply about how others perceive them.)
For example, let’s say your partner gets upset because you were talking to an attractive coworker. A non-narcissist may feel jealous in this situation because they’re worried you don’t like them as much as they thought.
Someone with NPD, on the other hand, might be more focused on the fact that you did it in front of mutual friends, and they think it makes them look weak. If you set a boundary by explaining that they can’t tell you who you can and can’t talk to you, they may lash out and insist that you yield to them—their attempt to regain control of their self-image.
This type of boundary-pushing is not only manipulative, it’s also another sign of emotional abuse. If any of the above narcissistic traits sound all too familiar and/or you’re experiencing other hallmarks of an abusive relationship—or someone you love is—Dr. Hirsch and Dr. Weisner advise reaching out for guidance from a neutral third party.
For example, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline or open an online chat with a trained advocate who can help you identify abusive behaviours and point you toward additional resources, should you need them.
While both Dr. Hirsch and Dr. Weisner say it’s not impossible to have a relationship with someone who has narcissistic tendencies—if they’re willing and able to work on them, that is—abuse is never okay, whether it’s coming from a selfish jerk, someone with NPD, or anyone in between.
Ultimately, both therapists agree that when it comes to the other person, labels and diagnoses are less important than your own feelings about whether it’s best for you to keep working on the relationship or to end it and seek out people who treat you right.
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