- Too often, people attribute dysfunctional qualities in their partners to narcissistic personality disorder.
- Learning to identify dysfunctional qualities in a partner, regardless of a diagnosis, may be more effective than labeling someone.
- Both men and women can be actual narcissists, in which case they often have different ways of exerting the power of their narcissistic appeal.
Are you married to a narcissist?
Does your spouse seem to try to make others feel worse in order to make themselves feel better?
Have you discovered that your partner's accomplishments in business or government or on The New York Times society page were highly exaggerated during your courtship?
Does your partner’s personal narrative often include an insurmountable struggle where all odds are against them, and yet, somehow, they impressively prevail?
Are you berated in private, but praised in public?
Most importantly, did you start reading this blog post because deep down you have long-suspected that perhaps you may have chosen the wrong person for you?
It is 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and in the past hour alone, there have been over a thousand tweets about narcissists. And those thousand tweets aren't even counting the others on Twitter who are so well-known that Twitter has qualified their identities as "verified," with a blue checkmark that is akin to the ribbon the farmer hopes that his pig proudly brings home this year.
Let us not forget those self-identified "survivors of narcissists" and those who claim to be experts in narcissism as a result of past relationships—all of whom are followed by hundreds of thousands of people who are eager to feel less alone in their pain.
The Reddit community is even more vocal, with more than 20 different subreddits (smaller communities) that focus on narcissistic siblings, parents, ex-husbands, childhood friends, current best friends, and so much more.
On Instagram, #narcissistic abuse is predicted to be tagged over one million times before the end of this month.
Anecdotally, it seems that there may be more individuals with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) than those without the disorder. But... since at last count the prevalence of NPD was estimated to be between 1 and 5 percent,1 it would appear that several people out there—even those of you with those blue verified checkmarks—might have made inaccurate psychological assessments of former friends and loved ones.
Is it possible that the general public has taken a carefully defined clinical diagnosis and expanded it to suit their needs through labels that oversimplify complicated mental health issues into TikTok-friendly soundbites?
So, What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Why Is It Such an Easy Target?
Narcissistic personality disorder, like many of the oldies but goodies, has at times been blamed on early development.3
Some studies suggest that children with reduced distress tolerance and dysfunction of affect regulation may be more prominent in adults who develop narcissistic personality disorder.
Of course, from Freud's first founding, it always seemed to come naturally to blame the sins of the child on the actions of the mother. It has been posited by many that the neglect of a mother can cause a child to later develop narcissistic personality disorder. Similarly, the risk may occur if a mother somehow instills the belief in the child that he or she was gifted with special abilities. Or should the actions of the mother, or the interactions of the mother and child somehow cause the creation of a "fragile ego" (a.k.a. an unstable self-image and sense of self-worth, occurring more frequently in males) during childhood might later result in narcissistic personality disorder.
It all sounds so... dramatic.
Perhaps oddly... ambiguous?
Still, we seem to find this disorder everywhere we look.
(Unless we look somewhere that allows for the presence of empirical research and statistics, in which case, not so much.)
What's With the Whole M. Night Shyamalan "I See Narcissists" Thing?
How can we all be married to a narcissistic spouse, or the child of a narcissist, or the former best friends of a narcissist—when so few diagnosticians agree?
One reason society might have such an inflated view of the prevalence of narcissists is because of the difference in presentation between male narcissists and female narcissists. Men who troll women online for pleasure, rather than for financial gain, are more likely to score higher on scales of narcissism and openly admitted to using social media to make other people feel bad.
Women, on the other hand, are more likely to use social media for prosocial means: to connect emotionally with others who make them feel better about themselves and therefore improve their self-esteem.
It is not that men are the predator and women the prey. It's just that male and female narcissists often have different ways of exerting the power of their narcissistic appeal.
Men rely on confidence to an extent that tends towards intimidation. Women are more likely to take pride in their physical good looks and lean into sexual appeal and confidence when it serves them in both personal and business deals.
What if the Real Narcissist in Your Life Left You Long Ago?
Growing up with a narcissistic parent is a trauma like no other. Can you imagine a mother who does not run to you when you cry out in pain or terror in the middle of a dark, stormy night?
What would it feel like to have a father whose "love" was only given when you brought him his sixth beer of the night without him having to demand it? Or perhaps he would look fondly upon you when you scowled at your mother and called her a "horrible cook."
When a narcissist shines his or her powerful light upon you—especially if all your life you have allowed your insecurities to guide your actions—there is no greater feeling than finally being seen.
The love of a narcissist has the same effect as Captain America's shield or Green Lantern's ring. And when that narcissist finds someone else who is more attentive to his needs, who looks prettier on his arm at social events, or whose wit and intellect make him appear to be quite impressive to his colleagues at work—the loss of that love will be painful.
Your Pain Does Not Make the Other Person a Narcissist
What if the reason we have so many more hashtags about narcissists than we do diagnoses of narcissism is that it is easier to name the demon than to claim the pain?
What if the reason we use #triggerwarnings is a desperate grasp for one more moment before the pain of our past leaks into this moment in our present?
Perhaps these qualities that we are over-labeling as narcissistic personality disorder might be better used to educate people about what to look out for in a potential partner, friend, or even dysfunctional relationship with a family member that may not be healthy to continue.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic and Clinical Challenges
Eve Caligor, Kenneth N. Levy, and Frank E. Yeomans
American Journal of Psychiatry 2015 172:5, 415-422
Jang KL, Livesley WJ, Vernon PA, Jackson DN. Heritability of personality disorder traits: a twin study. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 1996 Dec;94(6):438-44
Mitra P, Fluyau D. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. [Updated 2022 May 1]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-.
Amichai-Hamburger, Y., & Ben-Artzi, E. (2003). Loneliness and Internet use. Computers in human behavior, 19(1), 71-80.