The Danger of Overusing The Narcissism Label

Ryan Fan by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

Who do we think of when we hear the word narcissist? Is it our selfish sibling? Our abusive parent? Our troubled ex? Most of our friends? Every single celebrity?

We can run down the list, realizing that, wow, there are a lot of narcissists out there. And I never question it when other people mention the narcissists in their lives who have hurt them — after all, it’s not my place to try to make those judgment values for others.

But then I think back to my life and the various people I’ve called narcissists and I realize that the list includes, well, a lot of people. And then I consider their circumstances and where I was — did I just misunderstand them? I could say that they were gaslighting me, but I gaslight myself psychologically much more.

Maybe, to me, narcissism is a word much like gaslighting — overused and perhaps over labeled. To call someone a narcissist is to dismiss them. They become cruel, unsympathetic, abusive black and white figures as opposed to people.

Yes, I know that there are real narcissists out there, but perhaps not everyone I have thought in my head to be a narcissist is one — after all, only one percent of the population is pathologically narcissist.

No rational human being out there wants to get the label of “narcissistic personality disorder” as a diagnosis. Sure, I believe that a lot of narcissists are probably undiagnosed. It takes a lot to make people seek out a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.

But according to Jia Tolentino at The New Yorker, defining a narcissist is still a very subjective and intimate act. It puts the person who is diagnosing in power, whether they want to deem someone pathological or not. You usually don’t deem strangers narcissists — only people you’ve been close with or who are in your in-group.

To baby-boomers and the older generations, it seems like all millennials are narcissists. And when we think about the power of diagnosis, who has it? Everyone?

Tolentino argues, with research, that we have started to pathologize ordinary flaws in people as narcissistic. And it’s to think poorly of people who have wronged us — but that doesn’t make them a narcissist.

Am I, then a narcissist? Are there people out there who would label me as one?

I’m actually confident that there are people out there who would — especially people who don’t like me. And yet most people I interact with on a day to day basis would not call me a narcissist. I have been called a narcissist once or twice when getting into heated arguments with others.

So when the label is just thrown around so casually like that, does it trivialize people who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, and victims who suffer at the hands of people diagnosed with narcissism?

I don’t know.

But I do know if you ask the majority of people out there if they’re narcissists, they would say no. I would say no. And then there’s a big disconnect between the people that get labeled narcissists, often by people they have seriously wronged and people who think that they themselves are narcissists.

In the DSM-5, one of the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder is “a demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes.” It might be an unpopular view, but isn’t not thinking you could possibly be a narcissist an arrogant attitude, especially if narcissism is reserved for all those other people, but not you?

And then there are broad strokes of generalizations. If all millennials are narcissists, doesn’t that dumb down and trivialize the whole label of actual narcissists? If all Americans are narcissists, isn’t that the same trivialization?

Tolentino ends with noting that the pathologizing of narcissism makes us forget “how perilous it is to constantly diagnose other people.” She states that the world view that requires for the labeler to believe that he or she is inherently good or pure, free of any narcissism and the psychiatric judge of others, is dangerous.

Again, I don’t want to minimize any of the experiences people have had with narcissists, but we can be respectful of those experiences while also noting how labeling people narcissists tends to be overused in this day and age. After all, narcissism is a personality disorder, not a label to nonchalantly throw.

To help support both narcissists and people who have loved ones that suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, it’s important, above all, to proceed cautiously and treat narcissism like the serious condition it is.

Originally published on August 5, 2020 on Invisible Illness.

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