mirror240It seems like everyone is throwing around the word “narcissist” these days.  And it might seem harmless enough, but actually, it’s bad for the people being mislabeled and the people doing the labeling.

To find out if you’re really involved with a narcissist, find my more exhaustive checklist here.  In this blog, what I want to do is distinguish between true narcissism and a myriad of other things that can mistakenly be called narcissism, and explain why misidentification can be costly for everyone involved.Narcissism is not a clinical term; it’s a pejorative term that people tend to throw around as if it’s clinical.  It can be powerful, diagnosing someone who’s made you angry.  But it can also be very damaging to your relationship with them.  So think carefully before you say it.

The clinical term is narcissistic personality disorder.  It is characterized by a pattern of behavior that demonstrates a lack of empathy for others and a belief of exceptionalism, as well as a desire to be seen by others as singularly important.  The pattern is pervasive and long-standing and shows up in a variety of settings.

That is NOT the same as being merely self-centered, or selfish, or putting one’s needs before those of others in certain situations.  It’s not the same as immaturity.  It’s not the same as being part of a negative relationship dynamic that brings out a person’s worst traits.

The reason it’s important to distinguish between these other conditions/situations and true narcissism is because when people use the term casually, it is generally a way to write off another person.  It’s a way to hold yourself in higher regard, as if you’re above them.  They have some sort of disorder, but you, clearly, are healthy.

This can be a false dichotomy.  And it can be damaging to your mental health as well as theirs.  It can mean that you’re not doing the work on yourself that you should.  (“It’s not me, it’s him!  He’s the narcissist!”)

Sitting in judgment of others is not a recipe for happiness.  More likely, it’ll lead to more anxiety (because you’ll feel powerless to really change the relationship, you’re just waiting on a narcissist to change his spots) or depression (because it can feel hopeless to love a narcissist.)

On the upside, identifying (even misindentifying) someone as a narcissist might mobilize you to leave an unhealthy relationship.  But again, if you leave and your only explanation for why the relationship was unhealthy is that the other person is unhealthy, that’s no good for you either.

It’s important to do your own self-reflection.  What did you do to contribute to the relationship?  What traits do you dislike in yourself that you’d like to change?  What should be different–from your side–in your next relationship?  These are important questions, and if you simply dismiss other people are narcissists, you’ll never try to answer them, to your own detriment.

Even if someone in your life does meet the clinical definition for narcissistic personality disorder, you still don’t want to dismiss them.  Now, you may not choose to have a relationship with them, but cultivating compassion for others is something you do not just for them, but for yourself.  You will be happier if you view others as whole people, not simply as walking, talking disorders.

Categorization is, by its nature, reductionist.  But there’s always a fuller picture to be seen, if we really look.

Woman in the mirror photo available from Shutterstock