Oftentimes, people mistake narcissism for selfishness: someone with narcissistic personality disorder is self-centered by definition, but someone who exhibits selfish behavior isn’t necessarily narcissistic.
True narcissism is a psychiatric disorder that typically requires therapeutic help to overcome, while selfishness or vanity can merely be annoying personality traits that can be addressed with only minimal intervention.
This blog post may help you understand the 7 common characteristics of a narcissistic person, but continue reading for a discussion on how to tell the difference between a true narcissist and a mostly harmless selfish person.
Pathological Behavior or Casual Carelessness
Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference, and we might forgive or ignore loved ones’ narcissistic behavior by brushing it off as just plain selfishness. However, there are some subtle and some not-so-subtle distinctions that can be made between the two. Here are seven of the most obvious:
1. Narcissism Takes Over Your Life
One of the most prominent signs that someone is truly narcissistic is that their self-aggrandizing, manipulative, and controlling behavior actually interferes with their daily life.
This could manifest itself in lost jobs (an inability to work well or cooperate with others), in failed relationships (a lack of empathy and affection), or in basic incompetence with daily life. This is exacerbated by a lack of self-awareness that impedes the narcissist’s ability to reflect on their actions, on why things may not be going well in their lives.
Since they believe they are never wrong, they may not be able to comprehend why daily life is difficult. Selfish people, when their inappropriate behavior is pointed out to them, can reflect on their actions and rely on their insight to work towards change.
2. Narcissist’s Conflicting Needs
Narcissists are ironically dependent on others to regulate their mood and actions, while maintaining a superior attitude toward everyone else around them. While they don’t see anyone else in their life as an equal to them, intellectually or otherwise, they still take cues from other people as to how to behave and respond.
It’s almost like they are mimicking other people’s emotions because they lack a clear understanding of their own feelings. Someone who is simply selfish doesn’t constantly grapple with these conflicting feelings.
3. Narcissists Lack Compassion
While selfish people can be hurtful, they can still maintain a sense of empathy for others—and might apologize at times for their behavior—while someone with true narcissistic personality disorder isn’t able to muster much compassion for others. This post can help you understand why they also avoid apologizing at all costs.
This is probably due to the fact that they see the world through their eyes only, and they are unable to generate true sympathy for the difficulties of others.
If everyone in a narcissist’s life is supposed to serve only their interests, then what do other people’s problems matter? The narcissist cannot be bothered to expend any emotional energy on anyone else but themselves.
4. Narcissists Are Bad Listeners
Self-absorbed people obviously crave attention—who of us haven’t at certain moments in our lives?—but they are still able to pay attention to others when necessary.
Selfish people are still able to listen to what others have to say. Narcissists, on the other hand, almost always feel more important, smarter, and just plain better than everyone else around them.
When someone wants to be noticed all the time, they’re probably just self-centered; when someone wants everyone to know why they should be noticed all the time, they might be narcissistic. When you are talking to a narcissist, they will often tune you out or switch topics in order to serve their own interests.
Anyone can “glaze over” when you are talking to them, but a true narcissist is truly uninterested in what others have to say. They will steer the conversation toward their own ends.
5. Narcissists Feel Entitled
This feeling of superiority present in narcissists also leads them to believe that they are entitled to whatever they desire. They demand special treatment and feel easily slighted when they don’t receive the level of attention and care that they deserve.
Selfish people can still recognize that the world does not necessarily cater to their wishes, while truly narcissistic individuals often feel that the rules of society and polite interaction are beneath them.
Basically, a narcissist believes that the world was created to serve their purposes; they are the center of their own universe, so everyone and everything should revolve around their needs, desires, and whims.
6. Narcissists Dominate Relationships
Narcissists are rarely able to engage in reciprocal relationships; instead, they view their interactions with others as transactions for their benefit. They aren’t interested in fostering a mutual exchange of ideas or emotions.
They are more likely to view relationships with an eye toward what the other person can bring to them, such as money or status. A selfish individual might hog the attention or put their own needs and desires first, but they are still able to form authentic connections with others; selfish people can also be extraordinarily giving at times.
There have been numerous accounts of famous figures who have developed outsized egos—a prerequisite for most selfish behavior—but who are also quite generous with their time or money for various worthy causes, for example.
7. Narcissists Feel No Guilt
Remorse is a foreign concept to the true narcissist: because they regard themselves so highly and lack much empathy, they cannot see that any of their words or actions would be cause for guilt or apology.
An average self-centered person can bring themselves to apologize for hurting someone’s feelings or behaving in an obnoxious manner. The narcissist sees the world through their eyes only, perpetually convinced that they are always right.
This can also be revealed in how narcissists tend to overreact when things do not go their way or if they are criticized or even questioned.
Self-absorbed people—really, any of us—might get offended by criticism or frustrated by unforeseen events, but their reactions are proportional to the situation. A narcissist exhibits rage and doles out punishment when they feel they are wronged.
It’s important to note that most psychological experts believe that narcissism is a disorder that occurs on a spectrum (as most psychological and some neurological disorders do) and that almost everyone can display a certain degree of narcissism at moments.
Indeed, at the healthier end of the spectrum, narcissism might not be a bad trait; it can be identified as the kind of self-confidence that allows us to take some reasonable risks, to feel that we are special enough to achieve our dreams.
In the middle of the spectrum, you might find the self-centered individual who is able to reflect upon their actions and display the capacity to change if necessary. It is at the extreme other end of the spectrum that narcissism becomes a pathology that disrupts someone’s life and relationships in extremely damaging ways.
The vast majority of people we encounter that we might categorize as “narcissistic” are more likely just plain selfish—most experts suggest that only about 1% of the population actually has narcissistic personality disorder—so beware of assigning labels until you have ample information.
That said, anyone on the far end of the spectrum can be difficult to deal with, hurtful and disdainful, and you should feel comfortable moving on from your relationship with them.
Now that you have a better understanding of what differentiates narcissism from plain, old selfishness, you might want to read this article to help you understand if your selfish friend is, in fact, a narcissist.
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