Two of my fellow bloggers, Jeremy Sherman and Susan Whitbourne, have been bringing much-needed nuance to the popular discussion of narcissism. I’d like to add to that conversation by pointing out some dangers that come with carelessly labeling someone a “narcissist.”
Many people suffer true pain at the hands of severely narcissistic loved ones, especially the manipulative type known as malignant narcissists. Victims of these extravagantly self-centered individuals can be so debilitated by their experiences that they are left with post-traumatic stress disorder. Being able to label an abusive parent, partner or friend a narcissist can give sufferers genuine comfort, providing a name to the source of their distress, and the distance needed to heal and move on.
The current promiscuous use of the term narcissist for every minor instance of self-absorption, however, trivializes that very real pain. Posting one too many selfies, hogging the bathroom mirror, or speaking loudly on a cellphone is not the same as compulsively lying to, insulting, or even screaming at one’s partner— all common habits of the severely narcissistic. Equating these behaviors by tagging the people who display the former as narcissists is a bit like comparing a pickpocket to an armed bank robber.
But all this indiscriminate label slinging is also a symptom of a much larger confusion: Narcissism, as many writers have pointed out, lies along a spectrum; it is not an all-or-none characteristic. Further, a certain amount of narcissism is good for us—which is why “narcissist” has never been an accepted mental health diagnosis.
Many narcissists may not have malignant narcissism or any other mental health problem; they are simply higher on the spectrum than most people. The only official mental health disorder that references narcissism at all is narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which belongs to people who fall so extremely high on the spectrum that they tip over into illness. Generally, when researchers use the term narcissist, they are not referring to malignant narcissists or people with NPD at all, but simply to people who score high on self-report measures like the narcissistic personality inventory. But we should remember that scoring high on narcissism measures is not inevitably a bad thing.
In fact, as Dr. Whitbourne has pointed out, some narcissists are healthy, productive, ambitious, and caring human beings. They rank high on a measure called autonomous narcissism. Healthy narcissism fuels our self-confidence and resilience. When we assign the narcissist label to both garden-variety jerks and the worst examples of humanity, we not only trivialize the pain of hundreds of thousands of survivors; we muddy the waters by assuming narcissism is always bad.
Hurling “narcissist” at people causes more problems than just reducing a rich psychological notion to an empty pejorative: It also makes us blind to our own potentially unhealthy narcissism.
Early in my training, my fellow students and I frequently joked about our own narcissism. We enjoyed the banter. It kept us in check. I shudder to think what would happen today if I made a playful comment about a friend’s narcissism at a dinner party; it would be similar to tossing a turd into a crowded pool. Rather than helping us become more aware, the complete stigmatizing of narcissism has made us all more likely to point fingers and condemn everyone else as egregiously self-centered. Now, only other people can be narcissistic—“Me, I would never act that way!” we whisper at parties.
Ironically, we are all remarkably self-inflated these days about being narcissism-free.
Occasionally, any of us can become lost in ourselves and oblivious to those around us, whether through being caught up in accolades or temporarily preoccupied with fears of judgment. Narcissism is not just a fixed trait. It waxes and wanes. It erupts and subsides, depending what obstacles or fears a person faces.
The biggest problem with becoming obsessed with the label “narcissist” is this: It distracts us from more immediate dangers. Countless readers ask me if there is hope for their abusive boyfriend or girlfriend, whom they fear might be a “narcissist.” My response is always the same: Narcissism is not the problem; the abuse is. Whether alcoholism, chronic pain, loneliness, or severe narcissism causes the abuse is not our immediate concern. Some lines should not be crossed no matter what drives people over them. Our priority is protecting ourselves.
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A version of this article previously appeared in the Huffington Post