Narcissist or Just Self-Centered? 4 Ways to Tell

... including the one core difference.

Posted Sep 23, 2015

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Jim takes what he wants at a dinner party without thinking whether there is enough left for everyone else. He marches ahead of his date when they enter a restaurant. He tells endless stories about his work accomplishments and childhood experiences on a first date.

Question: Is Jim self-centered or narcissistic?

Many professionals think of narcissism, like many other mental-health issues on a continuum. And while truly narcissistic people are certainly self-centered, are self-centered people truly narcissistic? Not necessarily.

Here are 4 major indicators:

1. Focus on self.

Surely, by definition self-centered people are, well, self-centered. Research tells us that those children who were put on a pedestal, who were their parents' whole world, or who didn’t receive enough discipline and structure can easily become narcissistic.

That being said, there is a spectrum: Only children, for example, usually have much attention lavished on them, just because of family dynamics. They can often seem more self-centered than most others because they did not have to deal with the sharing, and the seeming unfairness, that siblings often experience. Without other sibling distractions, their brains are wired to think in terms of their own needs and wants. Just how much their parents actually spoiled them, or enabled them to feel entitled, affects how self-centered they actually become.

At this point in the analysis—the quality of focus on self—narcissists and self-centered people are about even.

2. Empathy.

Here is the first fork in the road where the two groups start to diverge. Imagine that Jim’s date calls him on his tendency to march ahead, or his wife says something about his hogging all the shrimp: If he is self-centered, he is likely to genuinely feel remorseful, and might earnestly change his behavior and habits in the future. But if Jim is more in the narcissistic range he is likely to dismiss his date’s or wife’s comments, or get angry because they actually criticized him. Or he may go through the motions of accommodating, not because he is really sorry, but to score points with his date or wife or to repair his image with the guests. Does it change his behavior overall? No. 

Self-centered people can be empathic. Narcissists may fake it, but still essentially see others as pawns in their egocentric universe—and fail to make real changes.

3. Grandiosity.

Self-centered people crave attention from others, and can reliably find a way to talk about themselves when they begin to feel neglected and unimportant. In conversations, they may talk too much about themselves, but they can also actually listen to others.

The fine line here is the degree to which narcissists seek not only attention but also don't listen to others or only listen to pounce on opportunities to turn the conversation toward themselves and their accomplishments. Where self-centered people essentially say, "Notice me!" narcissists say, "Notice how special and wonderful I am—and you’re not!"

4. Breaking rules.

Last fork in the road. Self-centered people have clear moral values: I don’t cut in line, I don’t cheat on my partner. Again, empathy is present. Narcissists feel special; rules don’t apply to them. They rationalize why it’s OK to cut in line or cheat on a partner, and will then actually blame others for their own actions as a way of thwarting criticism.

What's Next?

How well do these divergent traits apply to you, those close to you (or those who are not)?

If you feel you yourself have become overly self-centered and want to change what may be some childhood hardwiring to become more inclusive and sensitive. A shift requires changing habits with intention. Start by looking at your patterns. Use someone close to you as a coach or sounding board to help you catch yourself from falling into those routine behaviors, and make deliberate efforts to be more emotionally generous.

If it's about those close to you, the best thing to do is speak up, point out what bothers you and why—without scolding—and see what they say and do. Or show them this article. Self-centered people may be curious and take it seriously. As for the narcissists? They'll probably never read it.