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HomeHealth & FitnessIs "Narcissist" Being Overused? Experts Weigh In

Is “Narcissist” Being Overused? Experts Weigh In

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At the beginning of Donald Trump’s hush money trial in New York, one prospective juror was ultimately dismissed for calling the former president a “narcissist” in an old social media post, per The Hill. She certainly wasn’t the first person to call him that: psychologist Mary Trump also
speculated in her 2020 book that her estranged uncle was a pathological narcissist.

And while there’s no public medical record of such a diagnosis, therapist Israa Nasir, MHC, says this was a pivotal moment for the narcissist label. “I’d say before 2020, people were not using this word at all outside of therapy circles,” she tells PS. “Now, I hear people in my personal life use it while describing relationships, dates gone wrong, as well as in therapeutic environments while talking about their parents. The term has proved super sticky, and has quickly skyrocketed into our public consciousness.

Now, it feels like the phrase is everywhere. Beyond politics, tips for dealing with and spotting narcissists are all over TikTok. The diagnosis is also being flung around on reality television, particularly on “Vanderpump Rules.” It’s seeped into our culture like piping hot tea, and has given us language to describe our worst exes and frenemies while we’re pouring it.

When someone seriously wrongs us, it’s natural to want to understand why, which makes it easy to stamp “narcissist” on their forehead and move on. It’s also helpful language because it sounds bad enough that people take you seriously. “Saying a friend or partner is ‘selfish’ doesn’t quite paint the picture that ‘narcissist’ does in terms of showcasing the intensity of the problem and the pain,” explains psychotherapist Courtney Tracy, LCSW, PsyD, founder of Exist Centers for mental health and substance use treatment.

Language and labels are helpful but they can also become overwrought. Anytime a phrase like this becomes so prevalent, it’s worth questioning if we’re using it correctly — or way too much.

Is the Narcissist Label Being Overused?

“Absolutely,” it is, according to both experts we interviewed. Dr. Tracy suggests we’re using the label as an umbrella term to describe aspects of a person we don’t like, “things like selfishness, greed, pride, disrespect, and egotistical behavior,” she adds.

This is a big deal because, if you’re not a trained professional, it can be hard to differentiate between “bad behavior, narcissistic traits, and narcissistic personality,” Nasir says. Those are three very different things. It’s the true mythologization of a condition already inspired by literal mythology (Narcissus was the subject of ancient Greek lore about a beautiful hunter who is cursed into falling in love with his own reflection in a pool of water).

You can act like a jerk without having a serious mental health condition. Running an hour late is disrespectful of people’s time, and constantly turning the conversation back to you makes you a grade-A Carrie Bradshaw. But those are just asshole moves — they don’t make someone a narcissist, at least not on their own.

Having “narcissistic traits” also doesn’t make someone a narcissist. Such traits include gaslighting, arrogance, emotional manipulation, grandiosity, and a sense of entitlement. “These are standalone behaviors,” Nasir says. “In order to be with a true narcissist, you need to meet the criteria for the personality disorder.”

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a serious and complex mental health condition. It generally means someone has a high sense of their own importance, and a hard time understanding or considering the feelings of others. Someone with a diagnosis might act larger than life and have little empathy.

Unlike having just a few of the traits we mentioned before, like arrogance, all these various traits are coalescing and impacting all aspects of a narcissist’s life. Often, the classic assertiveness and star power is also masking insecurities or low self-esteem, The Scientific American notes.

The condition typically “affects judgment, impulse control, empathy, and identity,” Dr. Tracy explains. “True diagnosed narcissists have extreme difficulty changing their behaviors, even if they want to change.” She adds, “People with a personality disorder are consistent in most situations, with most people, during most times. It’s persistent, pervasive, extremely-difficult-to-change personality and behavior.”

How Common Is Narcissism Actually?

A 2013 review in Current Opinion in Psychiatry says narcissism only affects about 0.5 to 5 percent of the US population, but there are some varying stats out there because it’s not always fully diagnosed, Nasir says.

That’s partly because mental health professionals tend to avoid the official diagnosis, as it can really follow people throughout their lives. “Your therapist’s notes can be subpoenaed any time by a court, and the diagnosis can be used against you in a very powerful way,” Nasir says. It could ultimately impact everything from jobs to custody battles, which is why “clinicians are very, very careful about giving people the diagnosis.”

Still, personality disorders in general are pretty rare, Nasir says. That means, a “majority of people who are being labeled as narcissists likely aren’t,” Dr. Tracy says.

The Impacts of Overusing the Narcissist Label

Though an easy way to categorize people who kind of suck or have caused harm, narcissism isn’t “something to throw around as a casual term,” Dr. Tracy notes. “Although to be fair, people aren’t usually talking about ‘casual’ events or situations when calling someone a narcissist.”

But even if you’re using the phrase to help your besties understand the heartbreak you felt after a fling with your own personal version of Matty Healy (we can’t all be as poetic as Taylor), it can cause negative consequences.

Although Nasir doubts that overuse of the label could lead to true “over-diagnosis” of NPD (mostly because physicians are so cautious about the official label), it can have other negative consequences. “Overusing ‘narcissist’ can dilute the seriousness of the condition, potentially stigmatizing those who genuinely have NPD, and making it harder for them to seek or receive sympathy, empathy, and help,” Dr. Tracy says.

It’s a big accusation, which can feel quite hurtful if the “narcissism” bomb is hurled your way, Nasir says, and it can trivialize the experiences of people who’ve been harmed by people who actually have NPD.

On the other hand, Nasir notes that people who’ve been in relationships with narcissists may actually find the proliferation of the term “validating.” Because these relationships can involve manipulation and abuse, “the gaslighting can be so powerful they’re not realizing what’s actually happening,” Nasir says. “It can be a confusing environment, and now that it’s being talked about and written about more . . . it’s giving people language and understanding of: oh shit, that’s what’s happening. It’s not me.”

In general, “people want to pathologize everything, which can help us understand human emotions better,” Nasir adds. “It’s positive that we’re increasing in our emotional vocabulary and awareness, but we are forgetting that everything exists on a spectrum and there needs to be a very deep pattern to make someone a full-blown narcissist.”

How to Eliminate the Casual Use of “Narcissist” from Your Vocabulary

Don’t beat yourself up if you’re realizing you’ve been over-dramatic in your use of this term before. “Humans need language to describe their experiences,” Dr. Tracy acknowledges. Again, when we’re being treated poorly, our brains grasp for any language that can convey our anguish or frustration. And yes, we might even take to TikTok or another platform to broadcast those bruised feelings. “People hurt people, and the hurt people need a place to talk about it,” she adds.

Dr. Tracy suggests asking yourself these questions before calling someone a narcissist:

  1. 1. Does this person always act like this with everyone or are there exceptions (that don’t seem intentional or manipulative)?
  2. 2. Can the person take feedback or criticism or does it seem impossible for them to self-reflect?
  3. 3. How often does the person specifically need admiration, attention, and to be the center of everything?
  4. 4. Does this person show empathy for some people and not others . . . or no one?
  5. 5. Does this person have an accurate view of themselves or is it inflated?

Even if they meet a lot of these criteria, “just like you wouldn’t diagnose someone with cancer because you’re not a doctor, you should probably stick to just describing the symptoms or behaviors and how they’re affecting you,” Dr. Tracy adds. “If you really believe someone in your life is a narcissist, be compassionate toward them, if appropriate, and keep yourself safe. And, please know they can get better.”

With all that said, if you hear a good friend describe someone as a narcissist though, you don’t need to correct them. “It’s better to be more curious and ask questions,” Nasir says. If your friend’s relationship does have a pattern of control or abuse, it’s not worth splitting hairs over terminology or invalidating their feelings. Instead, look for ways to support them.

Wait, Am I a Narcissist?

If you’re asking that question, the answer is probably no. “A narcissist who is truly a narcissist will never stop to question that,” Nasir says. “It’s just not how they operate. True narcissism is such a complex mental framework where it’s never your fault.”

However, if you do notice some patterns or traits in your own behavior that you may want to change, the first step is acknowledging it. “If you are judging yourself, you’re never going to work through it,” Nasir says.

You can start by investigating and asking the people in your life if they’ve noticed this negative habit from you as well (to make sure you’re not being hard on yourself and making more out of a singular situation). Then, find small ways to change the habit. You can work on this with a therapist, or buy a self-help book on the topic after doing some research.

One go-to way to change behaviors? “One of the smallest things we can change is learning how to respond to conflict instead of reacting,” Nasir says. “People who might have some narcissistic traits are very reactive.” But you can change that by training yourself to take a few beats before you respond to feedback, responding deliberately rather than through instinct. Nasir also has a worksheet on her approach to changing behavior.

The Bottom Line

As Dr. Tracy so eloquently put it: “People who are just assholes simply need to start caring more about other people. People with narcissistic personality disorder need a therapist.”

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