Sorry, Not Everyone You Dislike Is A Narcissist

Illustrated by Ellen Mercer
Who do you picture when you see the word 'narcissist'? Your ex? A friend’s ex? Your mother-in-law? A colleague? That writer on Twitter who is always retweeting praise directed at them? The term hisses with bad connotations: arrogance, impulsiveness, self-obsession, dominance, lack of empathy. If you learn to spot them (there’s plenty of "how to spot the signs of a narcissist" guides online), these narcissists, you’ll see them everywhere. Apparently. 
We keep being told that we are living through a narcissism epidemic. But what does that really mean?
The Narcissism Epidemic, a book published in 2009 by two psychologists, Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, is often cited as 'proof' that millennials—with their entitlement and come-to-my-Instagram-Stories eyes—are a generation of narcissists.
The book’s thesis is that narcissistic personality disorder is "no longer markedly different from the expectations of our culture". If we take the word 'disordered' at face value in this context, i.e. that a person with this 'condition' has fallen from the 'normal' order of humanity, then our logical conclusion is that lots of faulty people are walking among the good'uns.
The claim is compelling, quite frightening and makes great headlines. Several media outlets reported on it enthusiastically, but it has been criticised by more forensic readers for relying on outdated survey scales. This axiom of narcissism spreading like a virus has also been around for decades. In 1979, the American historian Christopher Lasch published his notorious book on the subject, The Culture of Narcissism, in which he diagnosed self-obsession as a pathology that had spored in every crevice of American life. The narcissistic personality inventory (NPI) was developed that same year. 

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson seem to epitomise the lack of empathy and wild self-regard that fit with what the narcissistic personality inventory tells us narcissism looks like.

Can we debunk the argument that narcissism is on the rise simply because it has been bubbling away for so long? Maybe not. If narcissism is an epidemic, the disease was born somewhere. "It would spread slowly at first, and then, after finding new methods of transmission – in this case, the internet and social media, probably – it would move quickly, reaching everyone at once," wrote Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker in 2016. In the last few years, I feel like I have heard the term on a near-daily basis. This makes sense when you consider the political slide to the right and the characters who govern in the Western world. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson seem to epitomise the lack of empathy and wild self-regard that fit with what the NPI tells us narcissism looks like. Indeed, the checklist has gone viral several times in reference to Trump.
It is undoubtedly true, too, that the individualism promoted by parties on the right can be linked to narcissism. Some social psychologists now position nationalism as collective narcissism capable of doing real, lasting harm to the human fabric of society. Support for right-wing policies often only helps manage the psychological needs of the individual; when our focus is turned so sharply inwards, away from the needs of others and society as a whole, it undermines cohesion. Connection loses its value when we’re told it is I, the individual, who must prosper at the expense of the wider community. 
"There is a lot of pressure on the individual when we only have ourselves to promote. We need to behave in narcissistic ways to do this," says Dr Kostas Papageorgiou, a psychology lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast and a researcher of narcissism. Papageorgiou’s recent research suggests that those who score highly on narcissism scales may be more confident and have greater mental resilience. This points towards the potential value in narcissism, a personality trait we all possess to some degree. Like any other trait, it exists on a spectrum. 
Other social psychologists have argued that narcissism is the inevitable 'dark' side of self-esteem. Although Papageorgiou is keen to stress that not all 'dimensions' of narcissism are 'good', he suggests that these 'dark traits' should be seen as neither good nor bad but rather as "products of evolution and the expression of our nature that, depending on the context, can be beneficial or harmful to others." 
Context, then, seems key. But on both a macro and micro level, the concept of narcissism has gained powerful social currency. 'Narcissist' is such a neat, damning label to stick on those whose behaviour has caused us harm. Oh, her? She is a classic narcissist. I have heard versions of this line many times, from people I love who feel they have been wronged by someone – usually a parent or an ex-partner – and have always been struck by the wholesale condemnation. Who are we to decide that a person is disordered, embodying far more of the bad stuff of which humans are capable than the good, and based on what metric? 

There is a lot of pressure on the individual when we only have ourselves to promote. We need to behave in narcissistic ways to do this.

Dr Kostas Papageorgiou, Queen’s University Belfast
Even supposedly clear-cut terms like 'psychopathy' and 'sociopathy', now equally common in our day-to-day discourse, are ideologically fuzzy. 
Of course, where one person protractedly abuses another—as in a domestic violence situation—or where power imbalance is weaponised to the kind of damaging extent we saw with Harvey Weinstein, it becomes very hard indeed not to see badness and monsters. That human beings can be apparently motivated by watching the suffering of others gives us the bends because we are literally built with nervous systems that compel us to connect with—not spoil—one another. But where human brains are concerned, things are rarely so simple that people can be neatly divided into good and evil. 
In our interpersonal relationships with friends, partners, family and colleagues, it can be terribly seductive to apply a label like 'narcissist' when we have been emotionally damaged by someone’s behaviour. There is comfort in writing people off as simply 'bad' and living in the passive state of others' behaviour happening to us, rather than mentally panning out to see the whole frame, our role included. When we are in pain, it can be hard to see behaviour for what it is: communication. 
Truly considering the cause and effect of human interactions is a life’s work. The path of reflection and culpability is always knotty terrain, but the flippancy with which we throw around language of pathology and disease in relation to human behaviour makes it even harder. Confirmation bias runs riot when we're enticed by online tools and inventories to 'spot' narcissism and it gets harder to shake these terms which seem to explain so accurately the people who have hurt us.
In her book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, the essayist and journalist Kristin Dombek writes about the growing number of online forums, blogs and social media collectives of women who are connected by their (self-proclaimed) extraordinary capacity for empathy, 'surviving' narcissism and managing the associated PTSD. The subtext is that, by being too empathic, one becomes a 'target' for narcissists. By tending an identity that is built around having been a target, are we not also removing some of our own power?
I was reminded of Dombek’s writing when I read Deborah Orr’s Motherwell—a riveting, caustic-humoured telling of working-class Scottish life in the '60s and '70s, of motherhood and the devastation that can burst through the skin of love. The pulse of Motherwell is identifying and surviving narcissism; that of Orr’s parents and, later on, her spouse, Will Self. He sounds like a colossal shit but Orr delivers her broad-stroke theories on narcissism—"Once you know how to spot it," she writes, "narcissism is everywhere"—without much explanation. "One side effect of this book is you go to sleep counting narcissists you’ve known instead of sheep," read the Financial Times review of Motherwell. But the encouragement of such amateur diagnosis by words alone feels increasingly irresponsible. 

Even supposedly clear-cut terms like 'psychopathy' and 'sociopathy', now equally common in our day-to-day discourse, are ideologically fuzzy. 

Despite decades of research on narcissism as a personality trait, there is still active debate in the psychological community over its underlying components. We need to be mindful of this when applying it so liberally to others in our day-to-day lives. As the conversation around mental health has expanded and clinical terms have entered everyday conversation, the downside is how ready we are to 'diagnose' one another. 
"Narcissists are not identified in a vacuum; the person you label a narcissist is usually someone who’s close to you, or a member of a tribe that you have been culturally encouraged or professionally incentivised to dislike," wrote Tolentino. I tend to agree: despite the label’s clinical flavour, identifying its recipients is completely subjective. "Millennials seem narcissistic to baby-boomer social scientists; men and women looking for love seem narcissistic to each other; analysis-resistant patients seemed narcissistic to Freud," she continues. 
You often hear conversations move from 'X is a narcissist' to 'X has a narcissistic personality disorder'. This troubles me. Personality disorders are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) but that does not mean they are accepted as truth by everyone who works in mental health. Far from it. In fact, controversy surrounding personality disorders—as characterised by emotional turbulence, anger, unpredictability, unstable relationships and profound fear of abandonment—was always there, and is increasing. 

As the conversation around mental health has expanded and clinical terms have entered everyday conversation, the downside is how ready we are to 'diagnose' one another. 

'Personality disorder' has always been synonymous with 'difficult patient' in psychiatric-speak. Some practitioners even feel that borderline personality disorder (BPD) or emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD) are modern-day versions of hysteria; not least because three out of four BPD diagnoses are given to women. (There are psychologists who have described the label as an "irreversible stain on the soul".) Evidence shows that around 80% of those diagnosed with BPD have a history of trauma, which is why 'complex PTSD' is starting to be used more in its place. There are practitioners who reject the idea of strong diagnostic terms altogether. In short, there is no scientific consistency behind these terms which we seem to wield so confidently. 
Clinical language does not belong just to clinicians. However, we should think carefully about what these words mean and the potential harm in so readily diagnosing one another. Although it can feel like an act of self-protection, dealing in strong labels has an effect on how we view our own behaviour and inner worlds. Also, if narcissism is a spreading disease, then surely no one is immune. To label someone as a narcissist requires the person doing the labelling to believe they are morally superior—good, in the shadow of bad. Isn’t this dangerous, too? 
Eleanor Morgan is the author of Anxiety for Beginners: A Personal Investigation and Hormonal: A Conversation About Women’s Bodies, Mental Health And Why We Need To Be Heard, and is training as a psychologist. 

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