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It’s Time to Stop Calling Everyone a Narcissist

Psychology Science
It’s Time to Stop Calling Everyone a Narcissist


  • How empathy sometimes does more harm than good
  • How to deal with the rare person who is truly a narcissist
  • Why being a little selfish might actually be a good thing for everyone

Kristin Dombek is the award-winning author of The Selfishness of Others and advice columnist for literary magazine n+1. Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the scientific director of The Imagination Institute, and the author of Ungifted and Wired to Create. The two recently sat down on The Psychology Podcast to discuss what true narcissism looks like, the difference between empathy and compassion, and how we all might be a little more selfish that we’d like to think.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Kristin and Scott’s full conversation click here.

Scott: I wrote a cover story for Psychology Today called “How to Spot a Narcissist,” and I can’t tell you how many emails I got saying, “Thank you so much—now I know what my ex-husband was. He never paid me as much attention as I felt like I deserved.” There’s an interesting interaction going on there, where when we feel like we’re not getting the attention, [we think] the other person’s selfish. Is that real narcissism? Can we unpack what are the essential features of narcissism and what aren’t?

Kristin: My Ph.D.’s in English literature, so I read a bit into the history of the way psychologists define that word, and found a lot of contradictions and changes over time. Elizabeth Lunbeck’s book, The Americanization of Narcissism, is an account of the way that the debate over narcissism is really central to how the subfields of psychology split, historically.

How you define narcissism becomes part of why groups split. So, [first] we have the clinical definition, right? The personality disorder, it seems measurable, [someone] doing the same behaviors over the course of their adult life without being able to learn or change.

Scott: There are lots of labels we throw around. The thing with these labels, it’s a way of dehumanizing someone. Especially [a] label like narcissism. It’s a way of objectifying a person.

In the clinical literature, the essence of narcissism is entitlement. I think that we get confused between all these different things that are correlated with entitlement that tend to form the narcissistic construct, but are not actually narcissism. I’ve been having a discussion with my colleagues, too, because I firmly believe that we’ve misappropriated grandiosity.

Every time someone has a grandiose thought, the psychological literature labels them as a narcissist. For instance, [let’s] take the communal narcissist construct. A lot of those items reflect someone who has grand vision about helping the world. To me it’s wrong to just call that person a narcissist. Don’t we want more people in the world who have grandiose images of helping people? Is that a horrible, selfish thing?

It’s tricky. Where do you parse it out? Scientifically, there’s a big difference between “I want to come up with a big idea someday that helps a lot of people” and “I want to come up with an idea that is the best idea. I want to be the best at helping others.”

It’s Time to Stop Calling Everyone a Narcissist

Kristin: You bring up something that I noticed as soon as I started telling people that I was working on the topic of narcissism. One of the very common reactions I got was that people started getting nervous and then they would try to use the word “narcissist” a lot in conversation, which was a way to tell me, “I know what the word is so I’m not one, right?” We fear being called a narcissist. I do, more than almost anything else. Do you feel that same guilt?

Scott: Absolutely. I think people are scared of coming across as inauthentic. I think it’s related to imposter syndrome, where you’re scared of being “found out.”

Kristin: When I was just beginning my dissertation, we had a writer’s group in the English department where we talked about everyone’s fear of being a fraud. That was the first moment where I [realized] we all share this same fear.

Scott: But narcissists don’t have that fear. People who are clinical narcissists, diagnosed as high entitlement, never worry about these things that everyone else is worried about in this world.

Kristin: So maybe the best way to identify a true narcissist is the lack of fear of being called a narcissist.

Scott: There’s [also] the question of empathy, because there’s this idea that narcissists are empty inside. That’s quite an assumption. I think all of us are just trying to make it through the day. Maybe there’s a better common humanity, as opposed to sticking some people in the “they’re dead inside box” and those that aren’t. It seems so binary, doesn’t it?

“Psychologists have identified various components of empathy—it’s not this thing that you either have or don’t. Each one of us throughout our day wax and wane in how much we’re focused on others, how much we’re in our own head.”

Kristin: When I came across your interview with Tucker Max online, I found it fascinating. He’s clearly someone who is so thoughtful about what he was doing, reflective, almost purposeful.

I wonder, for you, what does that mean about the way we understand empathy? Did [Tucker] just have cold empathy? Like, he can develop a good theory of mind but doesn’t care, doesn’t have compassion? That interview complicated a lot of the simpler ideas we have about empathy and narcissists.

Scott: When I interviewed him, Tucker’s life was right on the cusp before he made a shift to a whole new chapter of his life as a father and a businessman. This question is tricky because psychologists have identified various components of empathy—it’s not this thing that you either have or don’t. Each one of us throughout our day wax and wane in how much we’re focused on others, how much we’re in our own head. Within-person variation is greater than between-person variation. Say you’re an introvert. There are many moments through your day where you act extroverted. What does it mean to be who you are? Who’s the real you?

It’s becoming clear that the idea of the self is an illusion. Throughout the course of our day there are lots of moments where we show zero compassion, because maybe we’re working on a math proof, or we’re intensely writing, and then our partner comes and [asks] to get some food. And you totally dismiss them. That’s a moment where you’ve showed zero compassion or empathy.

So the question we’re really asking in psychology is if some people, on average, tend to be a lot less empathic during the course of their day. I really do believe that these things can wax and wane across our lives. But are there people [who] throughout their whole life, don’t show compassion or empathy? It’s like that chip is gone. And they can never activate that chip ever. When you find the perfect storm of someone with the genes that increase the probability they’ll have anti-social traits, and horrible maltreatment, and environmental conditions that allow them to enact their dark desires, then you do tend to find what approximates evil I would say. We’re talking definitely less than 1% of the population, though.

Kristin: My hunch then is that if you’re in a relationship with that sort of person, whether it’s a parent, a boss, a boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife, it is probably not that hard to figure it out. If I treat them from a diagnostic standpoint, and therefore treat [them] differently, is that better?

Scott: I think, first of all, the healthiest thing for your well-being is to get off the label train and take responsibility for your life [and] actions. All of us have a lot more power to control our lives than we realize we do. My boss here at Penn, Martin Seligman, coined the idea of learned helplessness. But, we can set boundaries, and at the same time still accept the person. These are deeply ingrained patterns of behavior in your partner or close friend that you shouldn’t be in the business of trying to change.

So you either make the decision to take responsibility of your life and say, “You know what? I don’t want to be this person’s friend anymore.” And you have an assertive conversation with this person and you get out. Or you make the decision [to] accept that person’s character, both the good and the bad.

If you’re in an abusive relationship, this doesn’t apply. [For normal relationships] I think we can accept others and still take responsibility.

“All of us have a lot more power to control our lives than we realize we do.”

Kristin: It doesn’t [do] any justice to people who are in abusive relationships for this word (narcissism), or this label to be just applied so generally. We should distinguish between [abuse] and the dynamic of everyday selfishness that we all go through in relationships.

Scott: You’re absolutely right. Values come into play with this. Some people might actually be okay with being with someone who’s a jerk—that’s your own value and that’s your decision. It’s no one’s business, in a way.

Kristin: There was one study that I read that really gave me pause, though. It was a study about people who respond to kindness by becoming more manipulative. That gave me pause, because they see kindness as an opportunity for exploitation.

It’s Time to Stop Calling Everyone a Narcissist

Scott: That’s super interesting, I haven’t come across that.

Kristin: This would destroy my entire argument. If that were true, if that’s replicable, being kind, understanding, [and] empathetic toward someone who is trying to manipulate me possibly paves the way for bad things to happen in the world. This is a difficult question and I tried to wrestle with it in the book.

Scott: Can I bring back a [related] idea about empathy? Paul Bloom has made an argument recently about why empathy is very myopic, very narrow, and how we’d all be better off without empathy. The case against empathy is not a case for narcissism, which is interesting.

He views the flipside of empathy as compassion, not [narcissism]. There is emerging brain research showing that when we automatically feel the pain of others, we are more likely to have emotional burnout. [For example,] a lot of nurses and doctors want to reduce their empathy. But compassion is different, it’s more of a feeling of love and warmth towards a person who is suffering, without feeling their suffering.

So it does complicate the picture, because you can’t just say, just because someone has little empathy, [that] they’re a narcissist. That’s way too simplistic. Someone might take a more rational approach to things where they want to actually not be biased by how someone is feeling in the moment, to get a bigger picture view of what might be going on to help the person truly.

Because there are moments when having empathy can get in the way of actually giving the person what they actually need. I just want to put that wrench in things, because it’s really tricky.

Kristin: I started thinking about how that exact problem is complicated by our desire to be seen as decent and good and empathetic. If we’re just looking for the moments where we can feel empathy because that makes us feel good about ourselves, we might actually be less likely to understand what someone else is doing.

Scott: That’s such a good point.

Kristin: That brings me back to the question of why is “narcissist” our favorite insult right now? There’s something very profound going on in this moment in history where, maybe because of the internet, we’re more and more conscious of how performed selves are, how much we depend on that mirroring and physical presence to understand each other—and then we’re [also] trying to comprehend so many more people at such a greater rate than we used to historically. This is my hunch about why, in this moment, we might feel insecure about our ability to decide whether or not to trust other people and ourselves, because we have to more explicitly perform ourselves everyday.

Scott: I take a very Maslowian approach to a lot of this stuff. [We] should acknowledge that esteem needs are a basic need of humans and if we’re not getting those needs met, we could turn into jerks. All of us have the potential for that. When we’re in a relationship, we need to recognize that if we’re getting upset that our esteem needs aren’t being met, there’s a good chance the other person is upset that their esteem needs aren’t being met too.

So you have two people who think each other are narcissists, when both people are just not getting a basic fundamental human need satisfied.

Kristin: I don’t know if you read comment sections online, but it’s like you’ve got that problem multiplied exponentially, where people are just distrusting each other right away. [People] assume that the position another is coming from has got to be a selfish one, and therefore it can be just condemned.

“We learn to be ourselves through imitating others.”

Scott: The truth is, all of our decisions are selfish ones, by definition, because we’re the only frame of reference we have. Whether we like it or not, all of our decisions are selfishly motivated, even prosocial decisions. The word “selfish” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If I’m sitting alone watching a beautiful sunset and no one else is with me to watch it, am I being selfish?

I think what we really mean is this person is not considering the needs of another person to the extent to which it’s hurting someone, and that’s a different territory. There are different categories of selfishness. When we consider the needs of other people, that is selfless. But it’s not 100% selfless, because evolution evolved us a system where we get intrinsic reward value for helping others, so it’s almost impossible to completely disentangle that.

I don’t say that in a skeptical way. I want to make a point that we throw around that word selfishness—and this relates to the essence of your book—in a way that it’s always a bad thing if we’re not considering the needs of another person. But I think it’s important to recognize that we all have this tendency to be selfish because we are the only frame of reference we have. And just wanting to be happy for yourself is not this horrible thing.

Kristin: When you get really down into it, that word itself assumes this difference between self and the other that doesn’t hold up in many philosophical and religious traditions, and also in neuroscience in some ways. We learn to be ourselves through imitating others. We want to understand how everyone else works, and we don’t understand the difference.

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