Some people believe that we are becoming a narcissistic nation, but they rarely include themselves in those statistics. Clinically, narcissism is one of the diagnoses in DSM-5, a category that includes a variety of behaviors revolving around the key symptoms of extreme self-centeredness. Short of qualifying for a diagnosis, however, many people exhibit moderate, even healthy forms of narcissism that help them adapt to some of life’s stresses and strains. For example, being concerned about your appearance may help you stay healthy by motivating you to work out to look fit.
We can think of narcissism as occurring in degrees, from the adaptive, healthy, variety to the pathological form that interferes with your happiness and ability to succeed in your life tasks. Although you need to be formally assessed by a mental health professional to determine with some certainty that your narcissism is leaning toward the maladaptive form, these ten cues can give you a start by helping you honestly and objectively evaluate your own extreme self-centeredness by checking off the number of these behaviors you think you show.
1. You never met a mirror you didn’t look at. The original definition of narcissism stems from Narcissus, the myth of the youth from ancient Greece who fell in love with his own reflection in the water only to drown in the process. We now have plenty of mirrors to help us scrutinize, if not become entranced, with our own reflection. People high on narcissistic tendencies find it difficult to pass by an opportunity to check out their appearance at every occasion. They may not drown by falling into the water, but their preoccupation with the way they look could lead to serious trouble if they’re busy looking at themselves in the rear view car mirror instead of watching for oncoming traffic. Not only checking out your appearance frequently, but spending more than a few minutes to make sure your hair is in place and there’s nothing in your teeth from your last meal could be a sign that you’re more than a little narcissistic.
2. You spend an inordinate amount of time and money on your appearance. The commercial and retail world preys on the weakness of narcissists to look their best. Advertisements for cosmetics, clothing, jewelry, and other accoutrements of vanity are particularly compelling to people high in narcissistic tendencies. People high in narcissism don’t just succumb to these attempts to exploit their needs to be as glamorous as possible; others can easily spot them based on their appearance alone. Simine Vazire and colleagues, back in 2008, showed that observers correctly labeled people high in narcissistic tendencies by rating them as more likely to wear expensive, flashy clothing, take time to look organized and need, and, for women, to wear makeup and show cleavage. The internal drive of narcissists clearly translates into observable behavior that others can readily spot.
3. Your phone camera is full of selfies. Taking self-portraits, or “selfies,” is becoming an increasingly popular trend. Some people use these pictures in an exhibitionistic manner. displaying parts of their bodies in various states of undress. This behavior may reflect a certain degree of narcissism particularly when the camera unshy lose sight of the fact that not everyone of their friends is particularly interested in how you look in a swimsuit or other revealing outfit. Short of using social media to look sexy and cool, however, people with narcissistic tendencies assume that everyone in their circle truly cares about everything they’re eating, drinking, watching on TV or streaming video, or downloading to iTunes. If you’re looking to evaluate your narcissistic behavior, you could count the number of selfies compared to number of pictures of other people (or pets) which ideally would be less than 50%.
4. When you post on social media, you constantly check to see how many “likes” or “retweets” you accumulate. Having shared your most recent selfie, you now keep your finger poised over the refresh button to see how many people have instantly shown their approval by liking, commenting, or retweeting. If you don’t get instant reaction, you feel sulky and annoyed. You can only be happy when you get validation from others in your social network. Going one step further, you may not even see the need to give positive feedback to others when they post their own photos or status updates. After all, you’re the one with the interesting life and pictures to prove it, so why should you bother to acknowledge the supposed accomplishments of others? Count the number of times you give positive to feedback to others, compared to the amount of time you seek your own, and this can give you insight into your own narcissistic online behavior.
5. Your behavior irritates others, but you don’t realize it or care. Everyone has a tendency to make the fundamental attribution error in which they blame others for their rude, careless, or exploitative behavior but excuse themselves for the very same behavior. However, most people try to curb these tendencies by recognizing the situational causes that might cause others to be less than perfect. They also have an appreciation for social norms and the need to respect the rights of others. Score yourself as high in narcissism if you are unable to overcome this tendency and instead engage constantly in behaviors that exploit or are abusive to others. For example, public cell phone users who engage in loud conversations when it’s clear that others are trying to work or relax, are showing a narcissistic disregard for those in their immediate vicinity. Similarly, shoving ahead in line at the checkout counter because you’re in a hurry shows a disrespect for your fellow shoppers who themselves may have someplace important to go.
6. You feel you deserve special treatment. A strong sense of entitlement is a defining characteristic of some forms of narcissism. Every once in a while, most people like to be pampered or given extra attention. If you’re high in narcissism, though, you don’t see this extra attention as an occasional benefit or enjoyable treat. Instead, you enter into ordinary transactions with the expectation that you will be granted the favor, special offer, or even servitude due to someone with special status. When visiting someone’s home, whether for a meal or an overnight stay, you don’t offer to help with the dishes, clean your room, mop up the water that’s dripped from the shower to the bathroom floor, or perhaps even give your host a small token of appreciation.
7. You see the people in your life as an extension of yourself. Because you’re so preoccupied with the image you project onto others, a natural follow-up is that you regard your romantic partner, children, parents, and close friends as objects that could potentially either (a) embarrass you or (b) make you look even better. Therefore, you become excessively critical of the people you’re with if you don’t feel their appearance complements your own. If you feel that you’re being judged by the company you keep, then you’ll go out of your way to be surrounded by a posse of equally superior associates.
8. Your sense of rivalry is easily aroused. As shown in point #7, people high in narcissism want the others near them to reflect glory back onto themselves. However, narcissism can take on a competitive form. Mitja Back and associates (2013) found that people whose narcissism causes problems in their relationships with others constantly view even their closest relationship partners as rivals. Their low self-esteem (“vulnerable” narcissism) causes them to distrust others, and they become vengeful when someone crosses or outdoes them. If you find it hard to accept the successes of others because you feel this threatens your own standing in the world, this may be a sign that you’re high on this particular narcissistic tendency.
9. Your writing is full of “I” statements. Read over some emails you’ve recently written or personal statements you’ve had to write. How many sentences begin with “I”? You may know, objectively, that such writing isn’t ideal, but still you find it difficult to compose a piece of writing that deals with yourself or your experiences that contains a majority of such “I” statements. Even your social media updates may suffer from these excessively egocentric writing. On Facebook, do you overshare? You may even report on the achievements of a friend, relative, or colleague but still do so in a narcissistic manner. For example, you’re at a school- or activity-related even with your child, but instead of focusing on what the child is doing, you instead complain about how much time you’ve had to spend there that’s taken away from your “me” time. Alternatively, your status update brags about something your child or other relative has done, but you use that update to reflect favorably on what a good mother, friend, lover, etc. you are, which then goes back to #7, above.
10. You don’t mind criticizing others, but you become infuriated when you receive suggestions for improvement. Seeing others as extensions of yourself, expecting special treatment, and engaging in behavior that violates the rights of others all become the basis for your lashing out when things don’t go the way you want. However, should a romantic partner, friend, colleague, or child come back at you by pointing out where your own behavior falls short, and you can’t contain your rage and indignation. For instance, you typically show up 10 minutes late for lunch with friends or colleagues, forget other people’s birthdays, and yell at people who get in your way when you’re in a hurry, Now someone calls you on it, and you can’t believe that anyone could be so impossibly hurtful or rude. Even if the comment was intended to be constructive or was offered in a kindly and diplomatic way, you feel that it’s caused irreparable damage to your relationship, and that’s the end of that.
If you’ve honestly been scoring yourself, you should have a sense of where on the narcissism continuum your behavior places you. A little bit of narcissism doesn’t have to doom you to a life of frustration, thwarted ambition, and failed relationships, and may even be beneficial by protecting you from some of life’s inevitable disappointments. However, if your behavior places you high on the narcissism dimension, this list of ten characteristics should also point the way for you to change.
Personality disorders are defined as enduring characteristics that make up the fabric of an individual’s way of relating to others and the world. Fortunately, once you identify those that don’t quite reach the level of being diagnosable, you can start to tackle changing them and in the process, achieve a more solid and resilient sense of self.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Back, M. D., Küfner, A. P., Dufner, M., Gerlach, T. M., Rauthmann, J. F., & Denissen, J. A. (2013). Narcissistic admiration and rivalry: Disentangling the bright and dark sides of narcissism. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 105(6), 1013-1037. doi:10.1037/a0034431
Vazire, S., Naumann, L. P., Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2008). Portrait of a narcissist: Manifestations of narcissism in physical appearance. Journal Of Research In Personality, 42(6), 1439-1447. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2008.06.007
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