Over the years, I have had clients tell me that they were worried they might be a narcissist. I even wondered this myself at different times. I understand why people wonder; a high-level of self-centered focus, emotional outburst, being controlling/bossy, and a low-level frustration or even contempt for people in your life.
I get it. All of it. Here’s an important distinction, a true narcissist doesn’t worry they might be a narcissist. They don’t fret that something is wrong with them or what their friends think of them.
That is not how their brain works. Their brains are concerned with control, power, and “winning.” The confusion in empaths stems partly from the overuse and incorrect use of the word narcissist.
Narcissist vs Narcissistic Behavior
Narcissism is a personality disorder and in reality, it is pretty rare. We often use this term to describe people who are abusive or toxic or just selfish. People with NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) are about 5% of the general population. That is a small amount.
I am not qualified to diagnose anyone but I have two questions I ask to help me decide if someone might be a narcissist.
- Do they allow me or anyone else to hold a boundary? Do they stop when I say stop.
- Have they demonstrated feelings of love for me or someone else (animals don’t count)? Narcissists do not feel love for anyone other than themselves.
If the answer to both of these is no, then I extract myself from the relationship, stay away, and do not look back. This is just good relationship advice in general without needing to know for sure if they are a narcissist.
More likely, the vast majority of people we call narcissists are not, they are someone who has narcissistic behavior:
- Self-centered, never considering anyone else’s feelings or experience
- Arrogant thinking and behavior, an unrealistic level of confidence
- A lack of empathy especially for those people who are closest to them
- An excessive need for admiration
Anyone can have narcissistic behavior but that doesn’t mean they are irredeemable. And even if you have experiences with having these behaviors it doesn’t make you a narcissist.
What Makes People Act Like a Narcissist?
Probably the most common reason people behave like a narcissist is because they learned those behaviors from a parent or authority figure as a child. Being in a prolonged relationship with a narcissist as an adult can have the same effect.
Those everyday expressions of contempt or selfishness. The unconscious manipulation to get people to do what you want them to do. The arrogant show off who can’t look weak or stupid.
These are all things many empaths were taught in childhood by whoever raised us. Even if we are empaths and extremely sensitive to how others are feeling, we aren’t immune to using certain toxic behaviors when we are scared, tired, stressed, or running on autopilot.
That doesn’t mean you are a narcissist. You can work to heal and become conscious of your behaviors that stress brings out and actively choose different responses.
Don't Mistake Holding Boundaries for Narcissism
After leaving toxic relationships, you have to learn to have and hold boundaries with others in order to stay healthy and safe. This is uncomfortable and can feel judgmental and harsh.
You can over empathize with the very people you are attempting to distance yourself from. Those people can convince you that you are being the narcissist. That your boundaries hurt them and are ruining your relationship.
This can be very confusing for empaths. And you are so used to discounting your feelings and prioritizing other people’s, your perception of reality is not trustworthy in this context.
Learning to prioritize yourself takes time and practice. It also takes a whole lot of focus, focus on yourself. You have to learn who you are, what you want, and what you don’t want.
This process of healing does involve a lot of self-reflection and what you were taught was selfish. But let me assure you, this is not narcissism either. It is in fact mandatory for becoming healthy and happy.
So if you are concerned you about being a narcissist, make sure you are using the right filter for your exploration. After any kind of relationship with a toxic person the process of healing will indeed feel selfish and self-centered, I assure you it is not.
Keep going, keep healing, and keep asking those questions, because that is exactly how you make sure you don’t develop narcissistic tendencies.
It can be very helpful to separate your energy from the toxic person you are healing from in order to better see and understand the world. Use this practice regularly when you find yourself worried about what they think or if you find yourself focused on their healing instead of your own.