There's a huge difference between being a "narcissist" and being self-centered, although you wouldn't know it by how often it's used as an insult. Even so, being a little self-centered isn't just a good thing, it's necessary for our mental health. Sure, there's a line, but let's talk about where that line is, and how you can turn that inward gaze out to the world a little bit.
What Narcissism Is, and What It Really Isn't
Narcissism is a term that's been slung around the internet quite a bit lately. Often used as a snarky barb to sling at people who are just a little self-absorbed, or who use things like social media in a way that others don't like, the phrase actually has a real psychological meaning that has nothing to do with selfies and pictures of lunch. Like some other psychological terms that after often misused, it's become a popular, albeit misplaced, insult.
Roger Gil, a friend of Lifehacker and mental health expert, notes there's a huge difference between someone who loves the sound of their own voice and someone with narcissistic personality disorder:
In clinical terms pathological narcissism refers to impairment in personality functioning caused by how people perceive themselves, how they relate to others, and how they behave around others. For example, people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) often define their identity based on others' approval, have a hard time empathizing or getting close to others, and antagonize others. According to research conducted by Dr. Drew Pinsky (yes, THAT "Dr. Drew") and Mark Young, reality TV personalities often display the highest degree of clinical narcissism among celebrities (The Mirror Effect, Harper-Collins 2009) so if you want to know what the quintessential narcissist looks like then you just need to turn on your TV.
In short, clinical narcissism isn't that person who takes a dozen selfies and posts them on Instagram. However, someone who really is a narcissist may display some of those qualities. It really comes down to a complete view of someone's personality, and whether the person is capable of empathy. Recognising clinical narcissism in others is best left to a professional with experience in personality disorders. They can help a person develop the level of self-awareness required to manage their narcissism — and any other mental health issues that may (and often) accompany it. If that's not you, you may want to hold your tongue the next time you get ready to complain about your selfie-taking classmate or dinner-shooting Instagram friend.
You couldn't be blamed for thinking this way though. A report that "scientists linked selfies and narcissism" popped up on the web last year, and went viral before it turned out to be a complete hoax. What the hoax — and its persistence in people's minds — really revealed is that we all feel a little guilty for being self-absorbed, and we really hate it when we see it in others — especially when they're unapologetic or unrestrained.
Identifying someone who's self-centered is pretty easy. The guy at work who makes themselves the center of every conversation, for example, or the guy who gets into a car accident and is more worried about his car than his passenger. The parent who buys a new console, for example, but neglects to buy their children school supplies is another candidate. They're all self-absorbed, but how they handle their behaviour being called out defines whether they're just a jerk or a clinical narcissist.
Like we mentioned, it's tough for someone who isn't an expert to recognise it, but Roger did have some advice:
Recognising a pathological level of narcissism is not easy because people are often drawn into the narcissist's distorted view of reality (i.e. their cognitive distortions). A telltale sign of a true narcissist is the inability to tolerate challenges to their cognitive distortions (e.g. challenging their perceived grandiosity or their views on damn near anything). The narcissist will act out in some way when their cognitive distortions are challenged. Another red flag for a true narcissist is a "trail of destruction" in their personal relationships. True narcissists will likely have a history of emotionally injuring people who have attempted to get close to them, either because the narcissist can't establish true intimacy or because they lack the empathy to be able to engage in pro-relationship behaviours. A third sign of a true narcissist is the propensity to exploit others for personal gain. For the true narcissist, the ends ALWAYS justify the means if the ends in question are beneficial to them.
In Walter Isaacson's biography on Steve Jobs, we read of his relationship with Tina Redse. Jobs told Isaacson that she understood him like nobody else ever did. We also read that Redse believed that Jobs suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I mention the Jobs biography because we read about many of his strained relationships, "bizarre" behaviours, and antagonism toward others and then see how the person who understood him the most felt he had NPD.
People who really suffer from NPD aren't just people who make themselves the hero of every story. They have destructive relationships, rarely admit they're wrong, or rationalize away evidence or experiences contradictory to their worldview — even if that evidence is right in front of their faces. Ideally, if the warning signs of a real problem are there, leave it to a professional. If not, you can probably appeal to their empathy and point out their behaviour is a bit selfish.
Why We're All Just a Little Self-Centered (and That's a Good Thing)
As we mentioned, you don't have to be a narcissist to display some narcissistic qualities. After all, everyone's the hero of their own story. However, the hallmark of empathy is understanding that and remembering it when you deal with people. If you can both recognise your own interests and acknowledge those of others, you're in a good place. That said, a little narcissism is good for all of us. Roger explains:
Everyone has narcissistic traits. Narcissism helps us to identify what is in our own best interest (e.g. "I believe I have value so I will pursue that promotion"). It also helps us recognise our own positive qualities (e.g. "I'm a tenacious person so I know that I'll attain my goal"). Narcissism can even help us remove ourselves from bad situations (e.g. "I'm ending this relationship. I shouldn't have to put up with abuse.").
In fact, our behaviours and our reactions to other people's narcissism say a lot about us. From a great article on Forbes about "selfie" culture, much of it boils down to our desire to be recognised and appreciated by our social circles:
The cultural phenomenon of the 'Selfie' exposes a very basic human desire — to feel noticed, appreciated and recognised. And, although the 'Selfie' may not always elicit the most appropriate type of recognition (possibly why people love to hate it), receiving just a few likes from our Facebook or Instagram friends uncovers a foundational aspect of human psychology that can actually help drive results in the workplace — when people are recognised and feel appreciated, they repeat the behaviour that was recognised.
A 10-year, 100,000 person study conducted by The O.C. Tanner Institute and HealthStream throughout the United States and Canada confirms that recognition tops the list of things employees say they want most from their employers. According to the study, 79% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving. And, of the people who report the highest morale at work, 94.4% agree that their managers are effective at recognising them. In contrast, only 2.4% of people who have low morale say they have a boss who is great at recognition.
A survey of mental health professionals conducted by YourTango.com revealed that the desire to feel appreciated isn't just for the workplace either — it's actually critical to a healthy relationship. According to a survey that was focused on finding the most common issues within a marriage, 65% of respondents cited "communication problems," as the most common factor that leads to divorce. The top communication complaints by men in couples considering divorce were: nagging/complaining (70%), followed by their spouse not expressing sufficient appreciation (60%). The number one complaint (83%) from women who responded was "a lack of validation for their feelings and opinions" (sounds a lot like 'recognising' feelings and opinions).
There's a reason we're all a little into ourselves, and why we share that curated, crafted version of ourselves with the rest of the world. We all need acceptance, approval, and appreciation from the people that matter to us the most. Since technology makes it possible to expand our social circles in ways we've never been able to before, it's natural that would extend to the internet, social networks, and our online communities. Suddenly the acceptance of our Facebook friends and Instagram followers matters as much as our neighbour or coworker. There's nothing wrong with that either — it's just an indication of how technology connects us, and how robust and varied our social circles have become.
How to Turn Being Full of Yourself Into Empathy and Productivity
So now that we understand the difference between someone who's truly a narcissist and someone who just displays some narcissistic qualities, how can we turn some of those self-absorbed qualities we all have into something that benefits us? First, acknowledge that we all desire recognition and appreciation from the people around us. Whether it's at work, in our relationships, or online, we all want social affirmation. Let the people close to you have it — don't make them come looking for it.
Next, understand when you're out for it yourself. It's normal and natural, and seeking it out from the people closest to you is natural too. Don't censor yourself, but check your behaviours first. How are the same people you're seeking affirmation from reacting to you? How do they relate to you? Are they distant, or forthcoming? Do you feel like they're warm, or just putting up with you?
If you're worried you or someone you know is being a bit self-centered it's time for some altruism. Roger explained that acting for others gets us outside of our own heads. There's a reason that volunteering feels so good, as does giving to people in need. The next time you're about to go on a shoe shopping spree, pick up a pair of kicks for yourself, then buy another for the homeless man on the street, Roger suggested. You'll feel good, you'll do some good, and the focus of the story — at least for a moment — won't be you, it will be the person you helped. If you don't have a lot of money to toss around, there are other ways to lend a hand too.
Of course, this really applies to true altruism — where you do things for others with no strings attached and no real desire for reward beyond the act of doing the thing. Donating to a charity or giving to someone in need is great, but when you do it with strings attached or to buy yourself "charity cred," it's not altruism, it's just narcissism in disguise.
Beyond making a habit of giving up your time and resources to others, Roger also suggested that you can use those self-centered qualities as tools to put yourself in other people's shoes. The first step is to make yourself a better listener. Practice active listening — or rather, don't inturrupt, don't object or disagree, and don't make the conversation about yourself. Listen to the other person's story, and recognise that this time is about them, not you. If it helps, put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would feel. Like we mentioned, if you're just a bit self-absorbed, empathy shouldn't be a problem, but it just may not come naturally when you're listening to someone else's stories.
At the end of the day, narcissism and self-absorption both come to empathy. We've talked about why empathy is your most important skill before, and how empathy cements our relationships to other people. It's difficult to be empathetic all the time — especially when we're surrounded by people who constantly demand our time and attention. Even so, a little empathy goes a long way towards making sure you feel fulfilled and you're not just another demanding voice to everyone important in your life.
Roger S. Gil, MAMFT is a trained marriage and family therapist who has treated individuals and families struggling with relational and mental health issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @rogergil79, check out his blog and podcast at luvbuzd.tv. He graciously offered his expertise for this post, and we thank him.