Every so often, a mental health topic will become so popular that it begins to lose a little bit of its meaning, and it seems like narcissism has joined that list. From TikTok to headlines, anecdotes about how to tell if you’re married to a narcissist and accusations that celebrities are narcissists are all over popular media. With that, the stigma surrounding narcissistic behaviors has gotten more and more negative, making it almost impossible to engage with this subject without shame coming into play.
If there’s one thing shame doesn’t like, it’s the truth! And the truth is that Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), just like all other mental health diagnoses, is a neutral mental health condition meant to help us understand ourselves, not an assessment of a person’s character or a predictor of their entire future. The truth is that NPD is rare and that the number of folks our culture has deemed to be “narcissists” are actually just displaying narcissistic tendencies. The truth is that nobody goes through life without being a little narcissistic from time to time.
The truth is that the shaming we often see in conversations about narcissism may actually make us afraid of being honest with ourselves about when we’re being a little narcissistic. The truth is that it’s actually a little bit narcissistic to be convinced that narcissistic behaviors mean you’re a bad person, and you’re not a bad person, so you’re never narcissistic. The truth is that the more shame we pump into conversations about narcissism, the more narcissistically obsessed we are becoming with not being called narcissists… So let's take a moment to admit that we’re not perfect and look at our own behavior.
Behaviors That Can Be Considered “Narcissistic”
Maybe someone’s called you a narcissist, or maybe you’ve seen a bunch of TikToks about how awful or toxic narcissists are, and you’re worried you might be one. There’s so much content out there that it can be hard to figure out how to know if you’re a narcissist.
Remember that there is a difference between having some narcissistic traits and being diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. You can display a lot of the following behaviors without meeting the criteria for a diagnosis, and you should always consult with a medical professional before using the label of NPD. If you think that you or someone you love may be displaying signs of narcissism, keep reading for common behaviors and tips.
- Lying and exaggerating. You twist the truth in order to get people to think, feel, or believe a certain way.
- Love bombing. You are known for occasionally showering people with above-and-beyond attention and affection. This can seem like a great thing, but it can actually be a sign that you’re trying to control how they feel about you, especially if you do it to distract them from being upset with you.
- Constant need for praise. You get uncomfortable or even angry when people don’t go out of their way to tell you you’re amazing or did something well. You never feel like you’re given enough credit, even after someone does acknowledge your contributions.
- Breaking rules and boundaries. If you’ve engaged in repeated infidelity, often shared information that you were asked to keep confidential, constantly cheat on schoolwork, or disobey policies you don’t like, it could be that you feel you’re above the rules.
- Spreading negative emotions. If you’re always gossiping at school or work, it could be a sign that you find a sense of control in instigating or stirring up drama.
- Feeling like the world owes you something. This trait is also called having a disproportionate “sense of entitlement,” or feeling offended when you don’t receive special treatment.
- Thinking other people’s feelings are wrong or stupid. It’s one thing to feel differently than someone else, but to think less of someone because of their feelings, or to believe that they’re wrong to feel a certain way, is a narcissistic point of view.
- Having a different “persona” in public than you do in private, or treating people differently behind closed doors than you would in front of others. Do you yell at your girlfriend when you’re alone in the car together but act affectionately when you’re hanging out with friends? Do you berate your parents or siblings at home but brag about your awesome family in public?
- Habitually blaming others or circumstances when things go wrong and never taking responsibility for your own mistakes.
- Struggling with addiction and thinking change is impossible, refusing to seek help, or blaming someone else for your struggle.
All of these behaviors come from the same place: “The reality for both the overt and covert narcissist is that they have a fragile sense of self.” When you’re acting from a place of narcissism, it’s likely that poor self-esteem is at the root of the problem, which is another reason that honest self-assessment and compassion are going to be a much more effective path forward than shame.
Tips for Cultivating a Realistic Sense of Self
Remember that seeing some narcissistic tendencies in yourself is very different from being officially diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, so be careful about how you proceed once you identify with some of these ideas. The ultimate issue with narcissism is that it keeps you from being able to see yourself for who you truly are because you’re too busy seeing yourself as the best, the worst, the prettiest, the ugliest, the nicest, the meanest, etc. To beat it, you need to cultivate self-esteem. You need to learn who you really are and that it’s okay to have some flaws because we all do. Try out some of these ideas to set yourself up for growth:
1. Be honest with yourself about both your strengths and weaknesses, and avoid putting either one on a pedestal. Learn to see your flaws and negative tendencies as part of what makes you special—embracing who you are can help you remain aware of how you’re impacting others and able to do better in situations where you’ve failed before. Admitting that you need to do some work in a couple of areas is not an excuse for past or future behavior. It’s just a fact, and once you accept it, you’re free to make different choices than before.
2. Seek mentorship and peer support. Find people you trust to give you honest answers to your questions, and be prepared to hear hard things sometimes. If you’re not able to hear criticism or advice without freaking out, ask yourself why that is. Do you honestly believe that you’re perfect? Or are you just afraid that you’ll be abandoned or left behind because you fall short? Having a small group of trustworthy people you can listen to without being defensive is an important part of growth.
3. Learn to deal with shame in a healthy way. Labeling yourself or having others call you “a narcissist” can be a very shame-inducing thing. The stigma that currently surrounds the word “narcissism” is as strong as it is negative, so if you’ve recognized some of the above behaviors in yourself, it’s important to learn about shame resilience. Check out the work of Dr. Brene Brown, or reach out to one of our Hope Coaches to get started on tackling shame.
4. Work with a licensed therapist to process your own trauma, relationship difficulties, successes, failures, hopes, fears, dreams, and more. Mental health professionals are trained to help you figure out a better way to live, no matter what your past has looked like. Talk therapy can be extremely effective in helping you learn to love yourself without using narcissistic behaviors. A therapist can also help you decide whether or not to seek an official diagnosis for NPD or another mental health condition.
Remember That Shame Isn't Helpful
If you think you have some narcissistic tendencies, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It doesn’t even mean that you’re a “narcissist.” It just means that you have a beautiful ability to honestly reflect on how you’d like to grow. You’ve been able to look at your past and realize that you’ve had an inflated sense of self-importance at times, and now you can work on it. We all make mistakes and fail to consider other people’s feelings sometimes. In fact, many narcissistic traits become more prevalent when you’re in a season of stress or after a season of trauma—when you’re not healthy, it’s very difficult to see past yourself.
The truth is you are loved and you are lovable. The truth is growth is possible.
If you want to talk to someone about narcissism or about how deeply loved you are, reach out to a Hope Coach today. We’ll listen without judgment and do our best to connect you with resources that can help you feel a little bit less alone as you pursue a healthier sense of self.
It's pretty dangerous to throw the “narcissist” term around without a professional diagnosis. It's actually pretty rare. Find out more by reading Defining and Dealing with Narcissism.