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Are You Living With a True Narcissist?

Setting the record straight on true narcissism and narcissistic traits.

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is 1 of 10 clinically recognized personality disorders described in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), along with antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and others.

Please notice the implication here: Narcissism is an extremely rare, clinically recognizable mental health disorder, not a character flaw. Only licensed mental health professionals can diagnose someone with NPD—so the claim that your partner/parent/in-law/coworker is a narcissist, absent such a diagnosis, is almost certainly incorrect.

Yes, someone you know might exhibit narcissistic traits or tendencies, even including controlling or manipulative behavior (e.g., gaslighting), selfishness, or decreased empathy. And there's no doubt that these traits can be painful and difficult to deal with. But this doesn't necessarily mean this person you know is actually a narcissist. In the same way that it's typically wrong (and often hurtful) to call someone a "schizo" or accuse them of being "OCD," it's equally offensive to call someone a narcissist simply because they sometimes exhibit some of the traits inherent to the disorder.

Strategies for Dealing With Someone with Narcissistic Tendencies

As it is, those with NPD require intensive, long-term psychotherapy and/or medication to manage their behaviors, improve their coping skills, and heal their relationships. Unfortunately, people with NPD are highly unlikely to seek therapy, often because they don't think anything is wrong or don't much care about the way their behaviors affect others.

People who exhibit narcissistic traits can benefit from psychotherapy, too. They may even respond better to counseling and may be more likely to seek professional help in the first place, although this remains highly individual.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean things are hopeless if you have a loved one who exhibits narcissistic behaviors. But it does mean you'll need to employ some useful tactics to protect your own well-being. If your partner, parent, family member, or friend exhibits narcissistic tendencies, here are some things you can do that might help:

  • Engage in the ongoing practice of acceptance. Understand that you cannot change them.
  • Remember that what they say about you and how they treat you is a reflection on them, not you and that you are not responsible for their words, feelings, or actions.
  • Get a support system. Lean on other family members, friends, or a counselor who can help you cope and give you the confidence, love, and kind words you need and deserve.
  • Set clear boundaries (e.g., "No insults or name-calling"). Let the person know what the consequences will be if your boundaries are crossed (e.g., you will leave the conversation). Finally, be sure to follow through on these consequences. Consider trying the "grey rock" technique by keeping your interactions with this person factual, unemotional, and brief. If they see your responses as "uninteresting" or realize they can't get a rise out of you, the person might decrease or stop their harmful style of interaction. (Note: There are possible risks to this technique, including driving an escalation of abusive behaviors, so be mindful if exploring this method.)
  • Know when to cut off contact or step away (e.g., if abusive behaviors are escalating or if your safety is at risk). Do what is necessary to prepare yourself for this transition and keep yourself and others safe.

Finally, if you know someone who truly has NPD, be sure to meet with a licensed mental health counselor—even if they don't. NPD is a lifelong, intense, and challenging condition, and loved ones can greatly benefit from professional guidance.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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