The term “narcissist” has become a buzzword for just about anyone who exhibits selfish tendencies and an inflated sense of self-importance. From controversial reality stars to attention-seeking social media influencers and bad boyfriends to egocentric bosses, we’ve all encountered someone whom we suspect could be deserving of the “narcissist” label.
Given how much attention the term “narcissist” gets, plus all of its derogatory associations, it’s normal to be concerned if you think you might be one. However, there’s a lot more to narcissism than just a bit of selfishness. In this article, we’ll untangle what being a narcissist actually means, and go over what you can do if you’re worried that you might fit the bill.
Origins of the term “narcissist”
The word “narcissist” originally comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a story about a handsome and vain young man with many of the same selfish tendencies that we associate the word with today. According to the version of the myth by the Roman poet Ovid, Narcissus rejects all romantic advances from other people and is eventually punished by a spurned nymph named Echo, who makes Narcissus fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. When he realizes that he can’t be loved back by his own reflection, he eventually pines away and dies.
These days, the term “narcissist” has become a bit of a catch-all label, used in a general context to describe anyone with selfish and self-centered personality traits. But it’s more than just a term: it’s also a diagnosable mental health condition.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder that is recognized by the DSM-5 for its pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and, importantly, a lack of empathy for others around them.
“A narcissist is someone who has an unreasonably high sense of their own importance,” explains licensed therapist Monique Williamson, LMFT. “They need attention and seek it. They want people to admire them and, very importantly, they have a lack of understanding or even consideration for the feelings of others or how their actions negatively impact others. They might think about how they positively impact others, but not necessarily the repercussions for their actions.”
There are other diagnostic criteria for NPD as well, and it requires a long-standing pattern of this behavior in order to be diagnosed. For example, someone with narcissistic personality disorder might display a sense of entitlement and believe that they are more special and deserve more than others around them. They may also demonstrate arrogant behaviors and attitudes and a preoccupation with power or success, all of which line up pretty well with the term “narcissist” as it’s commonly used.
But is there a difference between a narcissist and someone with narcissistic personality disorder? Not necessarily—we just might be using the terminology incorrectly.
Because the term “narcissist” has become such a common buzzword in our collective consciousness, it’s easy to slap the label on anyone who we think might have an overinflated ego. But it’s crucial to note that selfishness and self-importance, like any complex psychological traits, exist on a spectrum, and not everyone who displays a higher sense of self-worth is a full-blown narcissist.
“People who are incredibly selfish get labeled as narcissistic,” says Williamson. “But even if you are selfish, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are a narcissist. You can absolutely have a high sense of self and be selfish without really meeting the criteria for narcissism.”
So having a high sense of self on its own doesn’t necessarily make you a narcissist: it may just be one of your personality traits. As a result, the casual, offhand use of the term “narcissist” in today’s culture may not be appropriate. In fact, it may just be hurtful, and it also downplays the seriousness of the actual personality disorder.
Williamson compares the use of “narcissist” to the casual use of “OCD” to describe general neatness and organization. “Very often, terms are taken from mental health and used colloquially. We start to label people while not recognizing the seriousness of those terms,” she explains. “Learning to actually label behaviors rather than trying to label the person would be much more healthy for everyone. I would love it if we could label people as selfish or arrogant or lacking empathy, rather than trying to lump them all under the label of ‘narcissist.’”
What to understand about your fear of being a narcissist
Because the narcissist label has such a negative connotation, it’s only natural that you might be concerned about your own levels of self-involvement and how they may come across to other people.
But here’s the good news: someone who is narcissistic will rarely recognize that they are narcissistic, at least without intervention. People who are narcissistic often are not introspective enough to recognize that their behaviors are wrong, nor are they likely to reflect on their ability to empathize with others.
So if this is the case, why might you then be experiencing these anxieties in the first place?
There are several different root causes that your fear of being a narcissist might stem from, including the possibility that you may just be the confident type. If you are someone who is proud of yourself and your accomplishments, you might worry that you are coming across as selfish and egotistical to others. But there’s a pretty easy way to distinguish whether your higher sense of self-worth has crossed the line from pride to self-importance: just ask yourself whether the things that you’ve accomplished and are proud of are actually true.
A grandiose sense of importance is one of the criteria of narcissistic personality disorder, which means that narcissists may believe they are unrealistically superior and may therefore brag about “accomplishments” that may or may not actually have occurred in real life. Meanwhile, someone who is proud of their actual accomplishments might be just that: proud. Williamson poses some questions to ask yourself if you find yourself in this position: “Are you talking about the accomplishments you’ve actually had, or are you talking about what you believe you are capable of? Are you talking about the things that you’ve accomplished, or are you just thinking that you would be able to do this thing?”
Trauma from emotional abuse is also a potential trigger that could make you concerned about your own sense of self-worth and how it is portrayed to other people. In other words, if someone in your life has told you that you are narcissistic and selfish over and over again, you might have begun to believe it even if it’s not true.
“If someone has continuously told you that you think too highly of yourself, you’re not as good as you think you are, and that you are selfish or don’t pay attention to others, that emotional abuse will make you think that you do have a disproportionately high sense of self,” explains Williamson. “You might then start to believe that you actually are being really selfish with other people. The abuser makes you want to think that you are the problem.”
Finally, if you find that your concerns about your own sense of self-importance are intrusive or rooted in a need to have certainty about what others think of you, there are also some potential links to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD experience obsessions, or unwanted and intrusive thoughts and fears—in this case, those fears would be centered around the way one’s personality and sense of self is perceived by others, or doubts that one might be unaware of their own harmful personality. To cope with the distress and anxiety that those unwanted obsessions carry, people with OCD will perform compulsions, or repetitive actions and behaviors, to neutralize that stress.
OCD-related fears of narcissism can commonly be linked to Scrupulosity OCD, a subtype of OCD in which people become concerned with rights, wrongs, morality, and doing things “appropriately.” Importantly, people who have an OCD-related fear of being a narcissist are not likely to actually be demonstrating narcissistic traits like selfishness or a lack of empathy. Instead, they might be dealing with intrusive thoughts, fears, and anxieties that they could be narcissistic, and feel unable to tolerate any uncertainty or doubt related to these worries.
How can I tell whether I am dealing with OCD or actually showing signs of being a narcissist?
The biggest clue that you may be dealing with OCD is if you notice a pattern of obsessions and compulsions, which are the two key tenets of this disorder. When left untreated, the cycle of obsessive worry or doubt followed by compulsive behaviors or mental acts done to feel better tends to get worse over time, causing more distress and taking more time. If your worries are occasional, and if you are able to move past questions about your personality or impact on others without having to perform compulsions for relief from your fears, you likely aren’t dealing with OCD.
You might also be wondering whether you have OCD and narcissistic personality disorder, but this isn’t too likely. While NPD is often comorbid with other personality disorders like histrionic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder (BPD), it’s important to note here that its overlaps with OCD are actually fairly rare.
“Narcissists aren’t questioning their goodness or whether they are as wonderful as they think they are, whereas a person with OCD is constantly questioning if they are as good as they think they are or if they deserve the things that they have,” explains Williamson.
So what might an OCD-related fear of being narcissistic actually look like? People with OCD focused on these themes might have obsessions with their own personality traits and how they treat others. They might obsess over whether they’re being self-centered or manipulative, or whether or not they are constantly seeking attention or being selfish (in short, all of the diagnostic criteria of NPD).
Then common compulsions might include seeking reassurance from others to try to validate whether or not they’re coming across as cocky, or if others might perceive them as narcissistic. They might also compulsively apologize several times any time they worry that they could have seemed self-centered, or excessively research personality traits and diagnostic criteria of someone with narcissistic personality disorder in order to compare them to their own thoughts and behaviors.
What to do about your fear of being a narcissist: Where to get help
Whether you are concerned about your own personality traits, are experiencing OCD-related obsessions and compulsions, or are actually someone with narcissistic personality disorder, there is hope out there for you.
If you’ve experienced some of the concerns we’ve discussed but don’t believe you match the profile of someone with NPD or OCD, talk therapy is a great place to start. Working with a therapist can help you learn more about yourself, your behaviors, and how you relate to others.
There are also specialty therapists who work specifically with people who are diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. These mental health professionals are trained to help you learn more about self-awareness, consequences, and empathy. They may also help you learn how to think through your own behaviors and acknowledge your own faults. Finally, you might also work on your relationships with other people, learning how to recognize if you have used or manipulated other people and what kinds of consequences those behaviors have.
Finally, for people with OCD, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the gold standard for OCD treatment. In a nutshell, ERP involves being exposed, intentionally and carefully, to the situations that trigger your fear and worry, then learning how to recognize and resist the urge to cope with those feelings through compulsions. The ultimate goal is developing the skills you need to sit with uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and uncertainty without resorting to compulsions that only reinforce your fears in the long run.
So what might this look like when applied to OCD-related fears of narcissism? Williamson explains that ERP might involve working on the patient’s self-esteem. “I would encourage some of my clients who have a fear of being narcissistic to be very proud of themselves. Let’s work on talking really highly of yourself and accepting any discomfort you feel as a result. Let’s go out and not hold the door for someone 40 feet behind you, and resist the urge to apologize to them profusely afterward.” The ultimate goal here is never to act against their values, but to help them make appropriately “selfish” choices to conquer their fears and learn that they can tolerate uncertainty that others may or may not think they are selfish or narcissistic.
NOCD’s team of therapists specializes in OCD and receives ERP-specific training, which can help you if you suspect that your fears of being a narcissist might be related to OCD. To learn more about how NOCD can help you, schedule a free call today.