With the amount of information available on narcissism, it’s easy to feel that those behaviors are everywhere. Explore how to discern narcissism from other tendencies.
Learning to spot the signs of extreme narcissism has proven to be invaluable in helping me understand those interactions I have with people who possess these strong tendencies. However, with this knowledge comes a tendency to dismiss anyone who appears to lack empathy and compassion as being a narcissist without exploring other reasons why they may come across as aloof and self-centered.
The Danger of Casually Labeling Someone a Narcissist
In a recent conversation with psychiatrist Gauri Khurana, we explored the dangers of diagnosing someone using psychological terms outside of a clinical setting. She noted, “A Google search can tell you that if a person displays a given set of conditions, they might have a particular mental illness. Too often we take this data and then conclude that we can't hang around anyone who has this condition, as they're just too much of a mess.”
Instead of viewing someone through this diagnostic lens, Dr. Khurana suggests digging a bit deeper. When someone rattles off a list of mental health conditions they feel describe themselves or others, she suggests exploring these conditions further. As she observes, “We use diagnoses primarily for insurance purposes. What matters is what the person is like. How are they coming across and treating someone else?”
Alternatives to Labeling Someone a Narcissist
Instead of labeling someone a narcissist, try exploring why they seem to have difficulty connecting with others at this moment. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when encountering someone who seems to be unable to engage with you beyond a very superficial level.
Can they express interest in anyone other than themselves?
Do you get a sense that they want to reach out to you but seem to lack the ability to make genuine connections with others?
Are they dealing with severe stressors and lack the emotional bandwidth right now to address anyone else's concerns?
Do they tend to be a creative dreamer who tends to live in their head at times, thus tuning the rest of the world out?
4 Ways to Reframe What Seems Like Narcissism
Here are some pointers I've found can help prevent us from automatically diagnosing those we meet based on our initial impressions.
Tune into your body: When you are around a seemingly narcissistic person, how does your body respond? Does your body relax or do you tense up? I've discovered that the more I can tune into what I term my “spidey sense,” the better I am at recognizing when I am with someone whom it's not healthy for me to be around.
Identify what you see: Make note of specific behaviors you observe, such as someone invading your space, putting you down, or not listening to you. This shift enables you to see this person as a fellow human being without filtering your observations through a list of diagnostic criteria. Once you can see the other person more clearly, then you can better assess what type of relationship, if any, you can have with them.
Connect offline: In our contemporary 24/7 online culture, we can easily latch on to the latest psychological tests designed to harvest our data while giving us intel about our physical and mental state of being. This self-diagnosing became exacerbated during the pandemic when we all disconnected from the outside world by retreating into our pods. Once ensconced inside our echo chambers, we can easily succumb to a form of tribalism. In this state, we can demonize and dismiss anyone who doesn't prescribe to our views on a range of hot-button topics.
But when we step back and hit pause, then we can see people as more than the results from some online psychological test. Once we put down our screens and connect with others face to face, we can then begin to explore what we may have in common in our shared humanity.
Take time for self-reflection: Dr. Khurana reminds me that we can't connect with others if we are not first connected with ourselves. What steps have we taken to practice self-care, such as meditation, physical exercise, and eating healthy? Can we turn off any distracting outside stimuli and tune into our core selves so we can hear what our inner core is trying to tell us? A trusted therapist can aid us in this journey if we can't make this switch on our own.
Once we can connect with our own needs and desires, we can learn how to differentiate between those connections that help us be our better selves versus those relationships that leave us drained and unfulfilled.
Learn more about healthy narcissism and how to use it to your advantage.