It’s common to hear someone complain about a difficult person in their life, often labelling them a ‘narcissist’ or claiming they have narcissism.
However, what is often missed in these flippant adjectives or diagnoses, is the complexity and severity of personality disorders, and the fact that very few people actually live with a personality disorder.
What the experts say
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, often known as the DSM-5-TR, a personality disorder is an “enduring pattern of inner experience and behaviour that deviates noticeably from the expectations of that person’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adult, is stable over time, and leads to distress”. In other words, personality disorders are pervasive and long-term thinking patterns, emotions and behaviour that differ significantly from what is generally expected, they can be distressing, and they cause challenges for daily life. There are 10 specific types of personality disorders in the DSM-5-TR.
In Australia, it is estimated around 6.5% of adults live with a personality disorder, with narcissistic personality disorder being one of the rarest, affecting around 1% of the adult population, although some studies suggest the prevalence is slightly higher. While there are certainly people who have a personality disorder, it’s important to recognise that not every difficult person in our lives fits into this category.
Returning briefly to the DSM-5-TR, “the essential feature of narcissistic personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins in early adulthood and is persistent in a variety of contexts.”
In fact, throwing around labels like ‘narcissist’ can be harmful, not just to the person being labelled, but also for us and our relationships. It can create a sense of superiority or victimhood and prevent us from taking responsibility for our own feelings and actions.
Throwing around the word narcissist can be harmful
There are certainly people who can present with a high level of narcissism and show little or no empathy toward others, but do not have a mental illness.
When we label someone a narcissist, we may be overlooking their individual circumstances, experiences, and emotions that could be driving their thinking, emotions, and behaviour. We may also be projecting our own unresolved issues and insecurities onto them.
It’s important to recognise that hurtful behaviour does not necessarily equate to narcissism or a personality disorder. It’s natural to want to label and categorise people, but it’s essential to be cautious and mindful about how we do so. Instead, we can focus on our own emotions and needs, and work on building healthier boundaries and communication skills in our relationships (including the relationship we have with former partners).
Some individuals may display narcissistic traits, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have narcissism. It is important to be mindful of using terms like ‘narcissist’ or ‘narcissism’ when referring to people in our lives, especially when we’re using these terms casually or flippantly.
While it’s important to recognise that not everyone who has hurt you is a narcissist, it’s also helpful to recognise the signs of a narcissistic relationship.
5 common signs of narcissism
Grandiosity and sense of entitlement
People with narcissistic traits tend to think very highly of themselves and believe they are entitled to special treatment. They may express this by insisting on being the centre of attention, making all the decisions, or expecting special treatment from others.
Lack of empathy
Narcissistic individuals often struggle to recognise or understand other people’s emotions and perspectives, especially when they conflict with their own. They may dismiss others’ feelings or struggle to see things from another’s perspective.
Someone with narcissism may use manipulation tactics to get what they want, often at the expense of others. This can include lying, guilt-tripping, or gaslighting, and essentially making others doubt their own perceptions or memories.
A narcissist struggles with criticism
Criticism, even constructive, can be difficult for narcissistic individuals to handle. They can become defensive, lash out, or try to discredit the person offering the critique.
Narcissism thrives on power dynamics
A narcissistic person may view their relationships in terms of power dynamics, seeking to control or dominate others. They can use their resources or status to exert power over others and may only value people who they perceive as useful or able to provide them with something they want.
Remember, having a few of these traits doesn’t necessarily mean someone has a personality disorder. However, if you’re struggling with a relationship where these patterns are persistent, unhealthy, and impacting on your well-being, it may be worth seeking support from a mental health professional to explore your options.
Our team at Interrelate can help you find strategies to work through difficult emotions and help you to manage challenging relationships in your life.