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Why We Need to Know What Narcissism Really Means

Are you really in a relationship with a narcissist, or jumping to conclusions?

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Source: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Do you know someone who is extremely boastful, self-absorbed, and frequently takes selfies or engages in self-admiration? This is the common understanding of narcissism but it doesn't define the real problem. Yes, it is one trait listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to define the personality, but in the bigger picture of relationship damage, an individual's arrogant self-admiration, while annoying, does not usually hurt others.

I am more concerned with understanding the debilitating effects of narcissism in relationships. The primary harmful features of this condition include a lack of empathy, the inability to tune into the emotional welfare of others, and the exploitation of others for one’s own gain. This is what causes damage in love relationships, in friendships, and in the parenting of children.

Consider Donald Trump. He attracts millions of viewers as he talks about his poll numbers and how much people love him. Because many would say he is being extremely boastful, he has been called narcissistic. But, does anyone really know this? What if we found out that out of the public eye, Trump is empathic, nurturing, and loving to his family? What if he can successfully tune in to the emotional world of his loved ones? What if he asks them how they are feeling and genuinely cares? Then, by definition, he is certainly not a narcissist.

[Note: I am making neither a diagnosis nor a political statement, but simply using the example of Trump to make a point. Only his immediate friends and loved ones would have the answer to these questions. But, if you tune in to political commentaries, how many times have you heard him labeled as a narcissist?]

Let’s take the example and today's young people. Yes, they love selfies and all that social media bring them. But if these same kids are being taught to care about others, practice empathy, and listen to and respect the feelings of others, who really cares about the selfies? I care how they treat other people. I care about their moral compass, and if they are being taught to be accountable, honest, and good people. They might show some signs of entitlement but that’s part of growing up and a normal part of childhood and adolescent development. It’s a needed bit of egocentric behavior that allows them to grow into their authentic selves. We should expect it. And when a parent is aware of it, and treats a child with respect, the child eventually grows out of it. Concerned parents frequently ask me if I think their children are narcissistic.

What is really harmful, then? A person who cannot provide empathy or express love causes severe damage in parenting and relationships. If a parent believes that a roof over a child's head, food to eat, and clothes to wear represents adequate parenting, they are wrong. You can find that in an orphanage. Healthy parenting and love relationships are built on steady, intimate, emotional connection. This means a “tuning in” to the emotional welfare of loved ones and friends.

So, when we talk about narcissism, we need to look more deeply at what causes damage. We will not stop the growth of social media, but neither do I believe it causes narcissism. Most of us enjoy the instant gratification of finding and sharing information online and want to have the latest devices to keep up with our fast-paced culture. We’ve all taken a selfie or two, and, seriously, who cares? And there will always be people who are more boastful than others, and those who admire themselves a bit much. But if they aren’t hurting anyone else, who cares about that either?

Let’s spend our energy on building loving connections, learning the art of empathy, and becoming the best human beings we can be on this journey we all travel together. And if you really wonder whether you are in a relationship with a narcissist, and are confused with the definition because it is thrown around so loosely, take a moment and complete the following surveys:

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