What Do You Really Mean When You Call Someone a Narcissist?

Black and white photo of blurred reflections of passersby Narcissism.” This word is tossed around easily these days. Because people hear it so often, they tend to think they know what it means. This is often what happens when a clinical term enters the vernacular. But take a minute. What is your understanding of the word? Now ask three others the same question. I will bet you end up with four different answers.

Think about conversational use of “psychopath,” “sociopath,” “bipolar“, “OCD“, or “autistic,” to mention a few more. Two of those words have no clinical meaning at all, and the others are not likely to be understood accurately by anyone outside the health professions. Again, definitions likely vary from person to person.

So why is their use so pervasive?

To use a word is to align with a group that agrees tacitly upon its definition: to join the group of people who believe they understand the innuendo of its colloquial usage. You call someone a psychopath, for example, and you believe that others are likely to think you at least mean the person acts without regard to the welfare of others, often in a criminal manner. That’s just a sliver of the actual components of antisocial personality, the real clinical term that describes what people think they are saying with “psychopath,” but no matter. The word “psychopath” is unlikely to fall from the American lexicon anytime soon. The same goes for the slippery common usage of the other terms mentioned above.

It is also a way to use shorthand to describe more complex thoughts. Speaking in buzz words such as “psychopath” or “narcissist” is to speak with semaphores, abstractions. You assume meaning is implied. Remember, for example, that people visualize different shades of color when you say “red” or “blue.” That’s why we say “crimson,” “scarlet,” “vermillion,” “azure,” “cerulean,” or “sky.” We try to be specific when we describe color in order to communicate accurately. Why not be as specific as possible when describing your own reactions?

Another possible reason for using terms like these is because it might seem more educated to call someone a psychopath rather than a thoughtless and selfish bully. If you really understand something well, however, you are able to explain it to a child. Using impressive words sometimes masks insecurities, and it can also be an unconscious attempt to deflect attention from otherwise vague understanding.

It is not just the language of mental health that gets eviscerated and co-opted in this manner. People often claim that something begs the question, for example, which is a term borrowed from formal logic. (To “beg the question” means to “assume something you’re trying to prove,” instead of proving it. It doesn’t mean forcing the question.)

People say someone is “libel” when they mean responsible, which no doubt makes lawyers cringe. And you hear climate change disparaged as “just a theory,” a dismissal that demonstrates a miscomprehension of the scientific method.

It is difficult to look at any news source without stumbling upon a discussion of the supposed narcissism of Donald Trump. Is it inaccurate to use this word when talking about the Republican candidate for presidency of the United States? His behavior suggests there is a reason the word “narcissist” seems to be everywhere these days. I suggest there are better, more specific words that would describe it with undeniable precision. No diagnosis is required to speak about him in meaningful terms.

When you hear Trump speak, what do you feel? What do you think? When you watch his posture and gestures, what is your reaction? What thoughts does his presentation evoke from you? This is interesting stuff. This is what your friends want to know about you. By providing it, you give them permission to go deeper in their own comments and articulate their own personal responses with greater discernment.

Anyone can apply insight to watching Donald Trump and describe his manner, behavior, and persistent views with knife-like accuracy. Borrowing clinical terms actually dilutes this accuracy. Go for articulating your opinion in your own meaningful language instead.

The Goldwater rule is the colloquial name of an aspect of medical ethics that the American Psychiatric Association developed after certain psychiatrists put forward their purported psychological evaluations of Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1964. These psychiatrists claimed that because of his mental status, he was not fit to be president. He sued for libel and won.

APA ethics have since required diagnoses to be made only when someone is a patient or client, rather than based upon observations of someone in the public eye. This makes many mental health professionals duly wary about making public declarations.

It is certainly worth examining our daily language for hollow words such as “narcissist.” For example, is it really so bad to say “selfish”? Or to describe the way a person’s behavior hurt you or damaged someone else? Speaking your own truth is more powerful than any borrowed term could ever be.

It is clear that times have changed since 1964, when America had three television channels. Today, we have access to so much information about public figures that it is possible to get a profound sense of who a person is without actually having met. In fact, with the current Republican candidate for president, it is likely that mental health professionals know more about him than they know about the interactions and lives of some of the people they meet with in their offices.

So what does this mean with regard to the term “narcissism”?

First of all, there really is a clinical diagnosis called narcissistic personality disorder. Like the other personality issues, it is descriptive of pervasively distressing characteristics which impede an individual’s ability to live a fulfilling and healthy life. Such a diagnosis can be devastating, whether accepted by an individual or denied. It is a difficult path to change. Emotional wreckage lies in the wake of such persons over the course of their lives.

For clinicians who wonder about Trump, for example, there is no shortage of conversation among peers. There is plenty of material to discuss. Whether the APA Goldwater rule should be reviewed seems a fair question, considering so much accurate personal information is available. We can watch people we don’t know personally speak and interact in public. Still, most mental health professionals remain reticent about going public with their thoughts on this subject.

It is certainly worth examining our daily language for hollow words such as “narcissist.” For example, is it really so bad to say “selfish“? Or to describe the way a person’s behavior hurt you or damaged someone else? Speaking your own truth is more powerful than any borrowed term could ever be. Also, your well-considered personal statements convey more information than a word that each person is likely to interpret in a different way. The more code words, such as “narcissist,” we add to our speech, the less likely we are to be fully understood.

The mitigating fact for psychotherapists and other mental health professionals is always this: we can never truly know all that goes on inside the mind and life of another person. We study and train for years and then pass licensure examinations in order to have the privilege of offering what we hope are helpful observations to the people who come to us for help. Good psychotherapists live in deep humility, aware of the great gift of trust placed in them by people in distress.

If we refrain from making cavalier diagnoses, might it not be prudent also for nonprofessionals to consider doing the same? And if the goal of communication is to convey thoughts and feelings and observations to another person as fully as possible, why not go for the accuracy that your own personal vocabulary is able to provide? Describe. Explain. No diagnostic language is necessary. Most people would better understand your own definition of bullying and your views about a person who bullies than they would your description of the same person as “narcissistic.”

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Addie

    September 26th, 2016 at 9:08 AM

    When I use the term I am usually talking about someone who has little regard for the feelings of other people, that they are far more concerned about themselves than they ever are about anyone else.

  • Maisy

    September 26th, 2016 at 10:10 AM

    I try very hard not to generalize about things that I really have very little knowledge about. I try to do as you suggest and speak about the behavior without assigning a label to it because who knows?I could be using that label incorrectly and inadvertently offending others! It is a tricky kind of situation and best not to even worry with it unless there is a clear medical reason why you should be.

  • Jed

    September 27th, 2016 at 10:44 AM

    I agree that this is probably a term that many of us throw around without knowing the true meaning behind it but that doesn’t mean that we don’t know one when we see one.

    And if someone is looking for a good word to describe a bully, one is is selfish and arrogant, don’t you think that this is probably a pretty good place to start?

  • Ab

    September 27th, 2016 at 3:38 PM

    Just don’t be petty about it. Be honest but don’t be petty.

  • Patricia

    September 28th, 2016 at 2:44 PM

    Most of the time I think of someone who has a very inflated ego but they don’t know that, they just happen to think that they are all that, no one is better than they are.

  • Lisa J

    March 14th, 2017 at 2:19 PM

    Sadly..the people that love this word the most…are those people who insist that they have had to cut everyone they know off..in order to prevent being victimized by “narcissists”. One of the defining traits of a narcissist is projection…so this makes sense. Even worse… I’ve even heard therapists tell their clients that their husband or whatever is a narcissist. ..even though they have never met. This leaves their client with a vague set of traits about ANOTHER person…as an explanation for their own misery. This only prevent’s people from taking responsibility for their own issues. Narcissism had become a catchphrase for people who basically need to label themselves a victim. And that…is the
    biggest problem with the word. People use such a clinical sounding title because it lends credence to their cause. It sounds as though their perceived source of angst has indeed been identified as… not themselves…by a professional. Whenever I hear someone explaining how much trouble they have with narcissists….I can usually assume I’m dealing with a narcissist lol.

  • Dee

    July 11th, 2017 at 9:22 PM

    Wow,you must live in a world where the word is banded about often !? I hear it occasionally, but never have I heard anyone refer to their life being in the toilet solely because of ALL the narcissists they have to deal with !? Are you saying that anyone that uses the word is simply an attention seeker who can’t take responsibility for messing their own life up and choose to blame it on anyone ( and everyone by the sounds of it ) that they come into contact with on a regular basis !? You are doing exactly what you have scoffed at others for doing i.e ” projecting ” and just as you have heard therapists tell their clients ( who are obviously just wannabe attention seeking victims ) making assumptions by instantly dismissing any such notion that this could actually be the case in ANY circumstance. I have been on the receiving end of narcissistic behaviour and I can assure you, it’s nothing to ” lol ” about. Or maybe I should LOL at myself for not having the guts to admit I am deluded and just blaming others ( actually just the ONE person ) for my own personal failings !!!
    Just out of curiosity….how do you manage to be present in so many Therapist/client sessions that you can so seemingly comfortably arrive at such a conclusion and present it as fact !?

  • Dee

    July 11th, 2017 at 9:30 PM

    Hmmm…no option to edit, but just to be clear I am NOT blaming the individual with the narcissistic traits for my situation. People only do what you let them do to you and I have certainly done that. I have made excuse after excuse for his behaviour trying to make sense of it all and find a way to make things right for both of us, because I am pathetic like that !! So yes, I am to blame…but it doesn’t change the fact that he is completely narcissistic !!!
    So how do you explain that one then ?? I am not projecting, am taking responsibility, not moaning and looking for sympathy ( nobody else knows and I have no intention of telling anyone ) ….so where does that put me !?

  • Tio

    August 11th, 2018 at 7:34 AM

    They treat you not as equal person or a human with equal rights. They hoover you to destruct you. And are suspicious. Some people can generalize it when somebody is in the news and has a grat ego and are suspected as egotist or even narcissist. My trust in other people was uncritical. Maybe intuition of the first impression when you meet an other. Intuition comes before the judgement and it can save your life if you are listening to the intuition. There is written that some narcissists are living in a trailer with 2 nickle penny a week and are very poor I suppose. Hurting other innocent people makes you not attractive. They retraumatize traumatized people again to pimp them up and attack the wounds when they are sure of their supplysource. Trashing like an old rat and trash again and again. Some are working in deepest secrecy and hide their motives and test people their boundariesto come in and override them. In the beginning i had not a wellcome feeling in a restaurant. I felt haunted in that environment. It was not a pleasant feeling.

  • Tio

    August 11th, 2018 at 7:47 AM

    An overblown selfesteem and an underestimated thing what it can do with you. It is a popular item in glossy magazines and say it regular and it becomes a popular subject and some persons in P.R. managers politicians they are related with narcissistic tendencies. Conceited bragging without an apperance and quality. Poverty and ignore the needs and requirements of others very easily to get better of it. Trample the rights of other people who need food and shelter and leave them unemployed and poor with debt and moneyissues deprived situations and the working poor who can”t hardly pay the rent and has several jobs to pay the rent of their home. There is poor or no justice for poor people or who has less income or no income. When you are poor in the United States you are very poor and your life is in bad condition and no health insurance and no home left and under a bridge and no food except sleeping in a church or under a bridge. .A careless society living beneath social conditions. Pople forgotten left abandoned. Unity and solidarity and for equal rights. . . .

  • Anue

    January 18th, 2019 at 3:01 PM

    The author asks — ‘If we refrain from making cavalier diagnoses, might it not be prudent also for nonprofessionals to consider doing the same?’ In response I ask — ‘Where on earth does the author of this article, or any other psychology professional for that matter, think that all these nonprofessionals slinging around all these labels are learning them from?’

    Just do a quick google search for Narcissist and the long list of results will be articles published by the psychology profession teaching the lay person how to find and make an armchair diagnosis of a narcissist in every situation, but especially among our parents. If that isn’t called cavalierly fueling the labeling epidemic I don’t know what it is…

  • Helen

    March 2nd, 2021 at 6:14 PM

    I have been Scapegoated terribly. I don’t know how I’m still alive. Xx

  • Marie

    January 30th, 2022 at 4:49 AM

    You know it doesn’t matter what we call it. If someone in your life causes continuous confusion and you are continually questioning how to help or make them behave better, then you have to take action to protect yourself. You can only change you, personality disorders cause confusion to others. Don’t waste any more time trying to work them out, it will just cause you pain, my advice is get a dog, they will just love you for who you are.

  • Jeff

    April 24th, 2023 at 2:38 AM

    It seems quite a few of the psychiatric disorders share some symptoms? So while it may appear that an individual seems to suffer from a particular malady, it may be something else. Throughout my life I was labeled a number of armchair diagnoses including narcissism.
    I was evaluated and now have an official diagnosis of ASD/ADHD. I just knew I was messed up.

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