Why We Shouldn’t Be So Quick to Label People ‘Narcissists’

Have you been hearing the word ‘narcissist’ a lot lately? In recent years, I’ve seen this term all over social media and beyond, and I have to say as a clinician, the casual use of this psychiatric diagnosis is a little bit distressing. 

It seems like anytime someone behaves in a selfish, upsetting, or thoughtless way, people quickly hop in to call them a narcissist. Bad boyfriend? He’s a narcissist. Annoying mother-in-law? Narcissist. Rude customer? Narcissist. Overly-critical boss? Narcissist. 

Now, some of these people might really be officially diagnosed as a narcissist or have the potential to be labeled as such if they were tested by a mental health expert. (To see the diagnostic guidelines for Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the DSM-V, click here). But, in most cases, when we read the word ‘narcissist’ on social media or hear the label being used by family and friends, it’s generally NOT being directed to someone who has been officially given this diagnosis.

Rather, it’s just a buzzword that has become part of our cultural lexicon, the way people will casually giggle that they’re “so OCD” about cleanliness or joke that they’re “practically ADHD” because they are having a hard time focusing lately. 

Just like someone who is sometimes forgetful is not automatically struggling with ADHD, someone who is at times frustrating or even toxic to deal with is not immediately a narcissist. There are 3 big problems with cavalierly using diagnoses like this in our everyday conversations, including: 

  1. It minimizes and even makes a mockery of the individuals who legitimately have these diagnoses. There are many people who actually have received a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, just as there are people who have legitimately been diagnosed as having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Paranoid Personality Disorder, and Avoidant Personality Disorder, among others. When we use these diagnoses in a light-hearted or simplistic way (such as quickly labeling people we don’t like as ‘narcissistic’), we run the risk of further stigmatizing people who struggle with mental illness. And these individuals are already at a much higher risk of abuse, addiction, and violence than people who do not struggle with their mental health. Getting help when you struggle with your mental health is already a struggle, but when psychiatric diagnoses are used as punchlines or casually thrown about, it will only further complicate the journey to healing for people who are neuro-divergent.

  1. It demonizes people. Just because someone is diagnosed with a personality disorder does not mean that they are demons or evil people. Being a ‘narcissist’ doesn’t mean that you’re a unsalvageably awful person. Often times, people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder have a history of abuse and trauma in their childhood, and these distressing events led the person to feel very unsafe and insecure about their place in the world. Despite the outside appearance of extreme grandiosity and self-importance, people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are actually deeply insecure and often utterly devoid of self-worth. This is why they’re always struggling to assert their own importance in the world. No, this does not excuse toxic behavior, but it can help to keep this in mind when you considering Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 

  2. There’s no point to the label. Demonizing or labeling people who suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder is usually useless. In the therapy world, we only give diagnoses such as these if we believe it will meaningfully guide or alter our treatment plan. In other words, unless handing out a specific diagnosis to a patient will change the way we manage their treatment, we’re not going to put that label on a patient. Often times, we know that such labeling can have a demonstrably negative impact on these clients, as they begin to view themselves as irreparably damaged or dramatically different from the rest of the world.   

Don’t get me wrong: An accurate diagnosis can actually really help patients as it helps to give a name and a shape to their symptoms and allows them to access a community of similar people who have the same diagnosis. But, this isn’t the case across the board, and when someone only has minor symptoms of a condition like Narcissistic Personality Disorder, then handing them that diagnosis can ultimately do more harm than good. 

The same is true outside therapy as well. Labeling your ex-husband or your mother a narcissist probably won’t offer them a road to recovery, and it won’t offer you a road to recovery either. So ask yourself: How does labeling this person narcissist alter the way I think or behave around this person? In what way does this label help me to better navigate the way I manage the stress and toxicity I feel around this person? 

It’s possible that reading about narcissism or venting to online support groups about your narcissistic family member will give you some form of comfort or catharsis. But, if you stay locked in that state of mind (in which you’re the victim of this terrible narcissist), you’re just handing your own power away and selecting to continue being a martyr in this drama. 

On the flip side, if you put that same energy and focus into learning how to improve your own mental health and be a better steward of your own soulwork, you will enjoy greater peace of mind and be better able to withstand toxic situations – without having to put your focus on the ‘narcissist’ at all. 

And, for the record, we are all a little narcissistic at times: And that’s really okay. It’s part of our makeup as human beings and why we have survived and thrived so long on this planet: Because we deeply care about ourselves and our stability in our environment. We all want love and crave love, and at their core, that’s what narcissistic behavior is about…feeling loved and cherished. No, this doesn’t mean it’s okay to be abusive or thoughtless, but it does mean that we can look inward and examine what within us is so deeply triggered by ‘narc’ behavior. Is it that we too can relate to feeling unloved? Is it that we wish we could be as self-oriented and self-complimentary as a narcissist? Is that we know ourselves to be privately arrogant or judgmental of others at times? Think about it.

As the poet Rumi once wrote:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

So let’s put the casual psych diagnoses to bed for 2021. Labels only divide, and this is the year we desperately need unity. 

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