Recently in a conversation with some friends and colleagues, we had been discussing and debating the overuse of the now popularized term of narcissism. This is not something I deal with in my practice, meaning that this is not an area that I treat. I wanted to give my take on it, especially when I see so much name calling on this, and many other social media websites when it comes to people. There are inherent problems with just blanketly labeling someone a “narcissist.”
There are many people that have suffered at the hands of severely narcissistic people. That have felt emotional pain on levels that leaves scars that are seen by any surface level glance. It is exacerbated by those that are extremely manipulative, which fall into the category of malignant narcissists. People who have suffered at the hands of these self-indulgent, self-centered people can be so weakened by those instances that they are left in a state of post-traumatic stress. Our ability to label to name or call a partner, confidant, family member or lover a narcissist can relieve some of the pressure for those that have suffered at the hands of these people. It allows them to place a name on the abuse they received, giving them a conduit to understand and find a path to heal from the abuse.
The flagrant and daily use of the word “narcissist” for every example of self-absorbed behavior, in reality, minimalizes the pain that real victims feel. Just because you upload 50 selfies a day, spend two hours in the bathroom mirror, or talk loud enough on your cellphone that ISS can hear is not the same as being constantly berated, lied to, gaslighted, or being yelled at by someone, which are all commonalities of someone that is extremely narcissistic. Comparing these traits by associating them with people who demonstrate the former as narcissists is like equating a beggar on the street to someone that holds you up at gun point.
With all of this blanket labeling across different instances that occur, people seem to label any moment of another person’s behavior as narcissistic, and this leads to a greater distortion of what it is. As many therapists and researchers, that are subject matter experts (SME’s) point out, narcissism does not fall in an all or nothing type of category. Consequently, there are healthy levels of narcissism that benefit us, so using a blanket term of “narcissist” has not been used as a mental health diagnosis, and that for now is unlikely to change.
There are plenty of narcissists that may not fall under the malignant range or exhibit any other mental health issues. It is probable that they operate on a different or higher plain than other people. There is only one official mental health diagnosis that references narcissism at all, which is called “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” These people are so severely high on the spectrum that they fall into the illness category. Researchers have discovered that there are subtypes to NPD.
When therapists, psychiatrists or researchers use the term narcissist, they are not necessarily referring to those that are malignant or people that have been diagnosed with NPD, which that diagnosis is extremely rare, somewhere between 1% to 6%, however these people score very high on testing like the personality inventory. We need to keep in mind that, just because you scored high on these test does not mean it is a bad thing.
In some cases, researchers have pointed out that some people that are narcissistic are healthy, driven, productive, empathetic and kind individuals. They are placed into the category known as autonomous narcissism. The difference between bad and good levels of narcissism, is that healthy levels empower our self-confidence and teaches us resiliency. When we get to a point that everything is labeled as narcissistic, and there is no difference between someone being an asshole and someone like President Putin, we not only minimize the suffering of the thousands of survivors, if not millions globally, we blur the lines by assuming that all narcissistic behavior is inherently evil.
By throwing around “narcissist” at every person we feel is deserving causes more issues than it solves. It takes a psychological premise and issue and reduces it to a hallow pejorative. It also distracts us from our own unhealthy levels of narcissism.
When I was in school, studying feverously with fellow classmates and future clinicians and psychiatrists, we would banter back and forth about our own narcissistic qualities. We reveled in the discussions as we discovered more, not only about ourselves, but the human condition. It grounded us. I recoil at the thought of what would happen in today’s society if any of us then, made a joking comment about someone’s narcissism over breakfast or over lunch. I would equate that bomb to farting inside of a crowded elevator just as it breaks down and you’re on a juice fast. Instead of us becoming more aware about the world around us, we have so neatly stigmatized narcissism to the point that we just accuse everyone around us as arrogant and self-centered. We have adopted the shield effect, that we can no longer ever be the narcissist, and steadfastly insist it can only be others. These are the hushed tones we whisper throughout dungeons, private events, demonstrations or munches, “I could never behave in such a manner!”
The irony within believing that statement or any other version of it, is that it leads to belief that our egos are impervious of ever demonstrating or becoming narcissistic.
In varying degrees, we can become ignorant to the world around us and our perceived reality, that runs a myriad of things from fear or agitation with people. Narcissism is not static. It ebbs and flows like the ocean. It explodes like a volcano or recedes like flooding waters, which is dependent on the hurdles or anxieties one deals with. While the BDSM community is not perfect, it is a place where some of these traits can overlap and be misconstrued very easily. This does not mean we should condone the behavior but refrain from the quick quip response of blurting it out at someone. If it requires extensive training for therapists and researchers to determine who falls into this category, how difficult must it be for the lay person to identify, let alone attempt to diagnose, a person and their subtype?
The major issue with focusing, to the point of being manic, on stamping someone with the moniker of “narcissist” is that it diverts our attention away from more pressing and escalating problems. When i talk with colleagues or get questions or read comments about a husband, wife, partner, boyfriend, girlfriend that is abusive beyond all means, whom they feel and believe in their heart is a “narcissist.” The only comment I continually have when this is posed is the following, the Abuse is the problem, not the narcissism. It can be substance use, isolation, withdrawal, anger issues, or extreme narcissism which causes the abuse to happen, is not the pressing concern. There are points and boundaries that should never be traversed no matter how upset we get. The only thing that rings true is that we have to focus on protecting ourselves the best we can, regardless of all the potential pitfalls the world and this lifestyle throw at us.