If you have ever binge-watched Frank Gallagher on the TV show Shameless, enjoyed the humour of Ron Burgundy in Will Ferrell’s Anchorman, or listened to the lyrics of Kanye ‘Yeezus’ West, you have certainly been exposed to pop culture’s classic version of a ‘Narcissist’.

Pop culture delivers countless depictions of narcissism, in accordance with how we understand the ‘classic’ narcissistic type: those who act outwardly superior and confident yet lack self-esteem and feel internally fragile. With this common depiction playing out across multiple forms of media, today the word narcissist is so prevalent, we often use it as an off-handed insult, or as a throw-away comment. Has the word narcissist lost its meaning? What does it really mean to call someone a narcissist? And are we really engaging with narcissism well today?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

In a world where ‘the individual’ is increasingly emphasised, the ubiquitousness of social media (and media in general) has made it incredibly simple for anyone to feel insecure. Whilst acting selfishly and lacking confidence respectively are understandably common phenomena,  it is ok to be selfish from time to time. So what are we really saying when we call someone a narcissist?

Let’s get one thing clear first. There is a difference between having narcissistic traits and being a narcissist. The word itself stems from the Greek mythology of Narcissus; the handsome male who because of his indifference and ill-treatment of others, was punished by the Gods by falling in love with his own image. 

In the field of Clinical Psychology, an individual labelled as a Narcissist, or more precisely, an individual diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), needs to fulfil five or more of the following criteria:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance.
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  • A belief that they are ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  • An intense need for excessive admiration.
  • A sense of entitlement – that they should get and have whatever they want.
  • A tendency to use others to achieve their own ends.
  • A lack of empathy, demonstrated through an unwillingness to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  • Envy of others, or the belief that others are envious of them.
  • Arrogant,or conceited behaviour and attitudes.

You might look at these criteria and think that you know plenty of people who display some of these narcissistic traits. But that does not necessarily make them a narcissist.

So let’s say that you know someone who you think has five or more of these traits. This is still not enough to call someone a narcissist. To have NPD, the individual needs to have experienced these traits over a long, relatively enduring period of their life.

What’s more, take a look at the above statements and see how vague they are. How ‘grandiose’ is grandiose? What makes ‘excessive admiration’ excessive? And don’t we all, in a Western privileged world, live with a sense of entitlement (just look at the reality shows we consume in droves)? Isn’t envy a human emotion that we all feel at some point in our lives? 

The criteria within this list is open to the judgment of a clinical psychologist who has trained for a minimum of six years. So when using the word narcissist, we should really be referring to someone who is experiencing NPD that exists on an extreme end of the human experience (in the way they relate to five or more of the above criteria) over a long period of time. 

How do we live with and relate to someone who has NPD?

The way we might flippantly refer to individuals as narcissists today, goes to show how little we actually understand the term. In actuality, if you were ever thinking about telling a narcissist that they are a narcissist, remember that someone with NPD is extremely sensitive to criticism. Any form of criticism may leave these individuals humiliated, degraded, hollow and empty. Hardly a recipe for fostering connection and encouraging seeking support.

If you believe an individual you are close to has NPD, start by validating their feelings. Try to find the kernel of truth in what they are saying and validate the ensuing feeling involved. For example, whilst you might not agree that they ‘deserve’ admiration for their acts, you might be able to validate that it can feel uncomfortable if they do not receive it. You might like to also encourage individuals who have NPD to seek therapy. The best way to do this is to position therapy as something that can help the individual with NPD deal with the downfalls of others, rather than their own struggles. 

Finally, for your own mental health it is important to set your own boundaries. Validating and finding the kernel of truth with an individual who has NPD can be draining. It therefore is really important to set your own non-negotiable boundaries for the way you want to be treated, spoken to, and for your own personal time.