by: E.B. Johnson
When it comes to relationships and psychology, narcissism is the new buzzword. You can hardly Google “love” without being shown at least a dozen articles on the looming threat of narcissists in your life. But is every single person who disappoints us really a narcissist? No. In fact clinical narcissism is relatively rare. Sometimes the people we love are just self-centered — and it’s up to us to decide what we are and aren’t willing to accept.
The difference between a narcissistic person and a selfish one.
There’s a big difference between being a clinically diagnosable narcissist and being a self-centered person. As a matter of fact, only a small percentage of. people actually have NPD. We all have narcissistic tendencies, and sometimes this pushes us over the edge into toxic behavior (rather than all-out narcissism). It’s important to know the difference between actual narcissism and general selfishness, so that we can address our partners for what they are: Selfish people.
With the narcissist, there’s always a superiority complex. Whether they are overt or covert in their manifestation, narcissists always think that they are better than those around them. That’s why they demand that their needs be met over other others, and why they are unwilling to look outside of their own ego and selfish inhibitions. In the selfish person, this isn’t always the case. While some might have an ego, they don’t generally think of themselves as more deserving than others.
Use of awareness
Narcissists have no self-awareness, and they’re not interested in developing any. The selfish person is a little different. They may know that they’re lazy or uninvolved — they simply don’t care. The narcissist is unaware of their behavior and they don’t care to learn (because of their sense of superiority). When someone is self-centered, they’re just lazy with their awareness. Does your partner seem to genuinely understand what they’ve done wrong (even if they mess up and do it again)? Then you’re probably not confronting narcissism.
The narcissist is obsessed with themselves to the point that they aren’t really able to show genuine interest in others. Does your partner occasionally show interest in the things that you do? Do they attempt to support you in your pastimes when push comes to shove? Even if they take a lazy or lackadaisical approach, a partner who shows a willingness to do something strictly for your benefit is someone who has a sliver of empathy and desire to connect.
Most of the relationships we build are reciprocal. That is to say, we come together with people who we like, and we invest our emotional energy into them under the belief that they will return that same investment. That’s not the case with a narcissist. To the true narcissist, every relationship is take-take-take. They see their partners as wellsprings. They expect to get both energy and a social lift from the people they bring into their partnerships.
Would you describe your partner as an entitled person? Do they get mad when you take time to yourself? What happens when they don’t get something that they want? Narcissists are totally entitled. Because of their egos (whether overt or covert) they feel as though they should have what they want when they want it — no matter what it takes to get it. Selfish people can show somewhat clearer moral values. More than that, they can also feel empathy and don’t feel they are entitled to be put above others.
Even though a genuinely narcissistic person likes to claim superiority, they rely on the people around them just to regulate their emotions. This is how they maintain their paper thin self-images and frameworks. Self-centered people don’t have the same extreme dependency on others. And they certainly don’t come with the simultaneous feeling of superiority and disdainfulness that the narcissist does. They’re happy to set their own moods on their own terms
A shred of empathy
One of the truly identifying traits of a genuine narcissist is their total lack of empathy. While self-centered people can certainly lack empathy, it’s not mutually exclusive. That is the case with narcissism, though. The narcissist is incapable of feeling and sympathizing with the emotions of others. Nor do they care to. The selfish person — when it really matters to them — can put them into that emotional state and see (on some level) what the other person is saying or feeling.
What you need to do next.
Have you come to realize that your partner is self-centered or self-involved? While they may not be the narcissist of your nightmares, this behavior and approach to live is still cause for concern. It’s important that you re-channel your energies and protect yourself in your boundaries. Communicate your needs, then make sure you ask yourself the ultimate question: Are you really willing to settle for someone who only cares about themselves?
1. Focus on yourself for a change
When we have self-centered partners, they tend to suck up all our time and all our energy. Unlike the narcissist, they don’t demand this attention with violence, hostility, manipulation, or threats. While they might throw tantrums or create conflict, it doesn’t happen to the degree of the narcissist. This leaves you with the ultimate choice to pull away and see to your own needs for a while. This is a great way to gain perspective and figure out what we really want.
Instead of feeding all your attention to the self-centered person in your life, turn it inward on yourself. Re-channel all that effort and give it to your self-esteem and your happiness. This takes power away from the selfish person and returns it to you.
At first, it will be hard to do this — especially if you’ve spent all your time catering to your partner and their physical and emotional needs. So do it little-by-little. Each day, find 3 small things to do for yourself. As you get used to this new process, that may just entail grabbing a candy bar on the way home for work, or grabbing that book you’ve been eyeing. Gradually, however, you’ll be able to work your way up to bigger treats that allow you to remind yourself you’re loved and worthy (even if your partner doesn’t treat you that way).
2. Lay down the boundaries
Boundaries are a foundational part of every successful relationship. Happy partners respect one another’s boundaries. They want to make one another comfortable, and they are aware of one another’s needs. If you want any chance of your relationship course correcting, then you also have to express your boundaries to your self-involved partner. Let them know where the lines lie, and what you expect from the time that you share with them. Relationships, after all, are a partnership.
Lay out your boundaries with your partner. Spend some time communicating your expectations and your needs. You can’t expect someone to know what to give you if you don’t tell them. The right partner — even one who is self-centered in nature — will take strides to respect your needs and where your limits lie.
Take a look around your relationship. Where is your partner making you uncomfortable? Where are they disrespecting you? Or pushing you where you don’t want to go? These are a great starting place to work out our boundaries, but it takes a little more than that. You need to seriously consider how you want to feel in your partnerships, how you want to be treated, and what you (realistically) expect to receive from the life you’re building together.
3. Look to understand more
Understanding is a powerful tool in relationships. It helps us unlock the door to empathy, and it empowers us to use higher-level communication. You have to engage with this understanding when it comes to the selfish person. They didn’t get that way by accident. Question the series of events that led them to your door, and the experiences that taught them to put themself above others. At the same time, question yourself. Why are you settling for this behavior?
Reach for understanding and empathy when your partner falls back into their selfish behavior — but save some of that empathy for yourself too.Sure, your partner may be damaged from a painful past. Maybe they never got a chance to revel in their own needs, or what it feels like to the center of attention.
Try to understand these things from a compassionately removed distance, but know that this “understanding” is not an excuse for sub-par treatment. You can understand your partner and still refuse to tolerate their abuse, dismissal, or drama. Be understanding of your own needs and upsets too. You have a right to feel hurt, angry, or sad when your partner puts themselves forever over you. Instead of punishing yourself for negative thoughts, process them and look for potential resolutions.
Putting it all together…
Are you convinced that your partner is a narcissist? While this term has certainly become an overused buzzword favored by experts and laymen alike, it’s not always an accurate representation of what we’re experiencing. Sometimes, our partners aren’t narcissists. They’re just unlikable, self-centered people who have their own interests at heart. Instead of painting your loved one with a diagnostic brush, be honest about who they are. Then, take action to protect yourself and build a future that makes you happy.
Re-channel your attention away from your partner or spouse. Instead, spend that energy and all that effort on yourself. Build your life up and remember how to have fun in independence again. Feeling more confident, you can then form a new vision of the relationship you want — which can also be communicated more effectively to your partner. Next, lay out your boundaries and make it clear to your partner that they aren’t giving you enough. Let them know what you want and expect from the love that you share. When things get tense, reach for understanding. Dig deeper and see where your partner’s issues come from. At the same time, extend that same compassion to yourself. Selfish behavior is hard to tolerate in a relationship. If things don’t improve, make the harder decisions. After all, we deserve better than off-balance and one-sided relationships.
- Grubbs J.B., Riley A.C. (2018) Generational Differences in Narcissism and Narcissistic Traits. In: Hermann A., Brunell A., Foster J. (eds) Handbook of Trait Narcissism. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-92171-6_20
- Peisley, T. (2017). Is narcissism common? The answer may surprise you, from https://www.sane.org/information-stories/the-sane-blog/mental-illness/is-narcissism-common-the-answer-may-surprise-you