Am I a Narcissist?

Three tendencies may help you decide.

Posted Sep 13, 2020

Self-examination is healthy, but when in overdrive, it may cause confusion. Human beings make mistakes. Having a selfish moment or tripping over one’s ego is normal. Yet the way in which a person handles these blunders says a lot.

The difference between mild narcissistic tendencies and full-blown narcissism is clear if a person considers three capabilities.

Before delving into the discussion, it is important to note that narcissism is both an unconscious and conscious defense mechanism. Defenses are necessary, normal, and universal. The degree to which a defense mechanism is unconsciously utilized is typically the issue.

For example, it is natural for a person to want to succeed at work. Feeling validated, recognized, and valued is invigorating. Although a tinge of narcissism may be involved, the person may remain grounded if deeper emotional abilities are at play.

For example, a person’s sincere interest in meaningful work and commitment to his or her team members may balance the need for recognition. The narcissistic tendency is tempered by more selfless capacities.

Alternatively, say a person must be the “best” at work. She throws co-workers under the bus, steals their ideas, and maneuvers into a position so she has influence over the boss. This exemplifies a powerful and overarching narcissistic drive that compels her to only think of herself.

The degree of narcissism varies drastically in the two examples. In the second, the person is compelled by her own gain, despite its impact on others, which may be a serious red flag.

Deciphering a “normal” amount of narcissism is tricky, but the absence of three abilities may indicate a problem.

The first is accountability. Sincerely owning a mistake without deflecting, rationalizing, and justifying the misstep is a strong indicator of emotional health. After owning a selfish act, a desire to examine oneself in order to understand why it happened is healthy.

For example, say Sharon believes she is alone in the office, so she leaves her office door open. Her husband calls, and during the conversation, she complains about a co-worker, Rachel. As she is exiting her office suite, she sees Rachel in the conference room immediately across the hall from her office. She realizes Rachel overheard her negative sentiments.

Although Sharon believes she had grounds to vent, she genuinely feels she made a mistake. In her mind, it is not acceptable to hurt others, intentionally or unintentionally. Sharon approaches Rachel the next day and says, “I apologize. I was out of line and acted unprofessionally. I am very sorry.”

Sharon also reflects and realizes her self-esteem is under duress due to a family conflict. Sharon understands the underlying stress may have caused her to be less conscientious. However, she refuses to use this insight as an excuse for her actions. The introspection simply helps her gain self-awareness in order to avoid this mistake in the future.

On the other hand, say Sharon feels entitled to say hurtful things despite the impact. When she interacts with Rachel the next day, she snubs her and subtly indicates she is glad Rachel overheard. Sharon exonerates herself and continues to treat Rachel negatively because she deflects ownership of the incident and projects blame onto Rachel. Sharon believes her actions are justified because, in her mind, she is the “victim,” and Rachel is “the bad guy.”

A person’s ability or inability to be fully and sincerely responsible may illuminate the extent of the narcissism he or she embodies.

Second, authentic remorse may suggest that a person has a strong conscience and is less narcissistic. The experience of emotional pain due to a person’s awareness that his or her actions negatively impact another is important. Although searing remorse is uncomfortable, it is what prevents a person from making the same mistake again. If a person is rocked to his or her core because his actions caused another person to suffer, the experience is not easily forgotten. Remorse and empathy for others continually remind a person to avoid a past mistake that inflicts pain in another.

Unfortunately, many deceptive people realize they need to appear remorseful in order to escape a consequence or to coax a person into trusting them again. In this case, a person may seem sorry; however, if he or she continues to repeat the same hurtful behavior, an underactive conscious and lack of empathy may suggest a serious streak of narcissism.

A third illuminating attribute is reparation. The motivation to repair a rupture in a relationship exemplifies a person’s drive to heal the hurt that was inflicted. Sincere emotional awareness of how one’s mistake caused pain in another combined with an authentic apology is a fantastic start, but making a solid effort to fix wrongdoing indicates a person may be selfless and empathic at his or her core.

For example, say Rick and Bella fight about Bella’s wish to accept a promotion that requires a longer commute. Rick is angry about needing to re-arrange his schedule to get the kids to their sports. Rick accuses Bella of being selfish and putting her career ahead of her kids.

After the blow-up, Rick feels awful. He realizes Bella put her professional ambitions on the back burner to start a family. He believes she deserves an opportunity to chase her dream. He feels terrible for saying hurtful things to her because she is a selfless and giving mother.

Rick finds Bella in the corner of the basement, holding her head in her hands. He sits beside her and apologizes. He communicates an awareness of how seriously his words impacted her. Pulling out his phone, he shows Bella a text exchange with several neighbors creating a carpool for the kids' sports. He reassures her that he has no issue adjusting his schedule to help the family. He tells her she is an incredible mother and person.

In this scenario, Rick displays sincere accountability, remorse, and an attempt to repair the rupture in the relationship with both his words and actions.

Alternatively, say Rick is only able to see his perspective. He continues to berate Bella for her professional ambition. Despite much discussion, Rick refuses to consider how Bella feels, and the rift in the relationship grows. Resentment and anger build. Eventually, they decide to separate.

The difference between a person who can own his or her actions, understand and communicate how they impact another, and then attempt to repair the damage may be a person who is emotionally available and far less narcissistic.  

When a person is worried about being a good person, he or she usually is. Self-reflection and self-examination often lead to insight and self-awareness, which provide a person with the tools they need to maintain close and loving relationships. Narcissism is a common defense mechanism, but a person who takes responsibility in his or her relationship, feels deep remorse, and actively works to resolve an issue should not necessarily be concerned. Sturdy self-esteem can withstand the burden of uncomfortable emotions, such as empathy, remorse, and selflessness.