Isn't Everybody a Narcissist, Though?
There is a question we hear from time to time: Isn't everybody a narcissist, though? The short answer to that is No, they are not.
This question usually comes from a misunderstanding of the difference between pathological narcissism and "normal" narcissism. Many people think narcissism in and of itself is bad, so if somebody has any, they are a narcissist. This isn't true. Everyone has some narcissism, because narcissism is a spectrum. There is healthy or balanced narcissism and there is unhealthy, unbalanced narcissism.
For example, basic pride in a job well done, balanced and healthy self-esteem, getting angry when you are being legitimately treated unfairly, asserting yourself and your boundaries when you are legitimately being taken advantage of... these things are examples of healthy or normal narcissism. It's the thing that makes you stand up and say, "What about me?" Psychologically speaking, narcissism in and of itself is not a "bad" thing. The word has a negative connotation, but it's when it's taken to extremes that it becomes damaging and dangerous. These are the people we call narcissists.
For example, if you are being legitimately treated unfairly and you speak out about it, there's nothing wrong with that. You should do that. However, if you are so self-focused that you perceive it as unfair when you do not get more than your fair share, there is a problem. The biggest problem is that truly narcissistic people are unable to recognize that they are not in fact being treated unfairly. They believe they deserve whatever they want, regardless of how it affects others and if they do not get it, this is a huge problem for them and an injustice. They don't just say "What about me??" when it's appropriate or when they need to. They say it all the time, in every situation. And they expect others to consider them above all else as well.
For example, if you lose your job and your brother Johnny is a narcissist, he's only going to wonder who he will borrow money off now. He may even call you selfish for not considering that. The fact that you and your family are now facing a huge problem does not even occur to him. All he cares about is how it will affect him. You might say, "Johnny, what am I going to do? I might lose my house! My kids won't have health insurance!" and Johnny might say, "You? What am I going to do?? I can't pay my credit card bill! I was going to borrow the money off of you! My credit rating is going to go down!" Then you just sit there stunned, wondering what is wrong with this person. That is pathological narcissism.
Narcissism becomes problematic when the needs of the self are considered more important than anything else. In healthy relationships, things shift and move around. Sometimes one person needs more support and their needs take a front seat for a while, and then sometimes the other person or people need more support. Maybe someone has an illness, or they lost their job, or they just had a baby. With pathologically narcissistic people, this does not happen. Their needs matter most -- always. Any attempt to shift the focus to others is taken as a threat and an attack. Pathologically narcissistic people don't understand that others deserve the same consideration that they themselves get and they don't care. In most family or relationship situations, this leads to other people's needs being ignored and neglected in favor of the narcissist. This is not healthy or fair.
This is often when the normal narcissism in other people kicks in. They - very rightfully so - start saying, "Hey! What about me?? I matter too!" The answer from the narcissist - and often their enablers - is usually very clearly, "No. You don't." People get upset about this. They feel hurt. They get angry. They feel the need to assert themselves, to defend themselves, to get justice. And since narcissistic behavior is mostly defensive, you often see some of these same behaviors come out in people who really aren't narcissists.
That's one of the reasons we say narcissism is contagious. It isn't really, but because the behaviors are defensive, people who are being mistreated by narcissists may begin to act the same way. It's the way the ego reacts to a threat, and it's pretty much the same in every human being on the planet. The problem is that this "threat sensor" in pathologically narcissistic people is broken; it's way too sensitive. They see threats everywhere because they are so self-focused that they interpret everything that happens around them as being related to them somehow; either for or about or to or because of them. They are not just the brightest star in the solar system, but the only star.
People who are in situations that are legitimately unfair or that legitimately threaten their ego can behave in a narcissistic manner at times. One of the differences though is that these people can learn to control their behavior, and many do because they recognize that this isn't who they want to be. Many people might also realize that their behavior was inappropriate, regardless of the provocation. Narcissists do not seem capable of these insights.
Narcissistic types of behaviors can also come out in situations of high emotion, such as when someone has been very hurt. If a marriage ends or if someone loses a loved one, for example, that person may behave very self-destructively for a little while. Or someone may become so angry that they do really terrible things. That's why we only say someone is a narcissist if the behavior is a pattern that has continued for an extended period of time - usually we would see it throughout their lives. Someone who goes through one bad breakup and smears their ex, for example, is probably not a narcissist. However, if this is something they've done repeatedly and there are other red flags, we would look much more carefully at that. It's about a pattern of behavior and the mindset behind it.
That's one of the reasons you can't say if someone is a narcissist just based on something they've done. There is a lot more to consider than just that. What else was happening? Why did they do it? What kind of mindset does this person seem to have? Is this a pattern of behavior? If so, how long has it gone on? What other things have they done? All of these kinds of things are important.
The reality is, a lot of people don't like to be wrong. A lot of people are jealous or envious. A lot of people get angry and say hurtful things. A lot of people deny things or react badly to challenges to their ego. A lot of people lie. A lot of people cheat. A lot of people steal. These people are not all narcissists. The level of disorder in pathologically narcissistic people is so blatant and so obvious that it can in no way be considered "normal" behavior by anyone. That is the difference. When someone is truly pathologically narcissistic, it is obvious that something is very wrong with the way this person thinks, with the way they perceive things. You may not know what the problem is, but you can clearly tell that something is wrong.