Narcissist or Just a Jerk? How to Tell the Difference
There is a larger spotlight on narcissism just recently, and as we talked about in the podcast What Is NOT a Narcissist, there is a real danger of the misapplication of this label to people. Not all mean people are narcissists. Not all selfish people are narcissists. Narcissism is a pattern of thinking, a mental state. In its more extreme and pathological form, it is a very serious and complex personality disorder. Slapping this label on people who are not pathologically narcissistic is not only wrong, it's dangerous. It waters down the real meaning of this word.
Lots of people use the word "narcissist" now, and we are finding more and more that it is being used inappropriately. It's being applied to everyone from cheating spouses to kids that take selfies on the internet. Sure, some of these people can be narcissists - and probably are, statistically speaking. But they are certainly not all narcissists. Labeling a behavior as evidence of a disease or disorder is very dangerous. There is more to it than that, and context matters a lot. This is one of the reasons it can be so hard to prove you are a victim of narcissistic abuse. For instance, your behavior toward the narcissist as a result of being terrorized, abused, gaslighted, manipulated, tricked, put in no-win situations, and lied to for so long could come across as abusive to people who don't understand the situation. That's one of the dangers of pathologizing behavior instead of understanding the entire situation.
For example, let's say there is a person who cheats on their spouse constantly. Is this person a narcissist or not? That's a trick question because we can't answer it just based on that. Many narcissists cheat. Many people cheat who aren't narcissists. We would have to understand this person's mindset and why they cheat, along with many other things before we could make that call. Too many times, the call is made without enough information. People often ask uninvolved people if a mother or husband or sister or cousin is a narcissist. They give examples and tell stories. And even still, someone cannot answer that question. A person could guess, but that's all it would be. They can't make the call because there is enough information. We should be very careful not to throw this word around too freely, or to label people without all the facts. Plenty of "normal" people do bad things to others. It happens all the time.
It's like one of those word problems from grade school: virtually all narcissists are jerks, but not all jerks are narcissists. So how can you tell? Probably the biggest "tell" or red flag would be that when you are dealing with a true narcissist, you usually get a pretty strong sense that something is legitimately wrong with this person. It may happen quickly after meeting them, or it may take a little while but it almost always happens. Sometimes it's 'just a feeling,' more often it's something they've done or said, but who and what they really are always comes through. The truth is that when you are dealing with a true narcissist - the real deal - you'll know because other people just don't act like that. They don't do the things that narcissists do, they don't say the things narcissists say. Narcissists can act like "normal" people for a time, and some of them are pretty good at it. If your contact with them is limited or superficial, you may never notice it. However, if you spend any amount of real-time with this person, how they really are will become noticeable.
Jerks are different. People who are mean or rude or untrustworthy still act and seem like regular people. They're just mean, rude or untrustworthy. They have real feelings, they are capable of caring about other people... they may not care about you specifically or whoever they are being a jerk to, but they are capable of caring about others in general. They love their pets or their children or their friends, their family, etc. Narcissists are not capable of these things. They seem to care about themselves and that's all. Not only do they seem to only care about themselves, they can only see themselves. They are unable to separate the internal self from the external world and because of this, they feel as though the world revolves around them, the way that children do. This is not true of non-narcissistic people, whether they are mean or not.
Another big red flag is that even though some non-narcissistic people are jerks, most usually have a limit or a line they won't cross. They will only be so rude, or so mean. Narcissists have no line. There is nothing too awful for them to do or say. There is no limit to how far they will go to hurt someone or get back at them. The things they say to people are unbelievably cruel and hateful, things that most people wouldn't say even to someone they absolutely hate. They also have a tendency to cut off their noses to spite their faces. This means they will do something to get back at or hurt another person, even if it hurts them worse to do it. People who are just jerks don't usually go that far. You don't see the self-sabotage and reckless risks to themselves that you see in narcissistic people.
One of the other big red flags is that you can reason with a person who is just a jerk. You can communicate with them. You can get through to them. They can understand what you are saying to them. They may argue or disagree but you can actually have a dialogue. They don't believe you are saying something different than what you are saying. When you have an argument with a jerk, they are probably not going to accuse you of crazy things or claim you are doing and saying things when these things have not happened. They will respond to what you are actually saying, not what their feelings tell them you meant. You cannot communicate with a narcissist, especially when they are upset.
People who are just jerks are also usually pretty grounded in reality, or as grounded as anyone ever is. Narcissists are not, and it usually becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly. They can come across as grandiose or even delusional to those around them. Jerks also usually don't have huge reservoirs of self-hatred and feelings of victimization the way that narcissists do. They are basically normal people who are just not very nice. There are plenty of these around, and there is no need to pathologize their behavior by saying it's part of a disorder. Lots of people have rotten personalities. That's just how they are. It doesn't mean they are a narcissist or anything else.
In the end, it doesn't really matter what label somebody fits. If someone is abusive, they should not be part of your life. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this is that when we pathologize behavior, there is a risk of creating the belief that everyone who does not behave in a prescribed manner or follow some unwritten rule is abnormal, or disordered or sick. This is not the case, and it's a dangerous precedent to set because it ignores the huge spectrum of human behavior. It results in over-diagnosis, over-medication, misdiagnosis, stigma and many other problems. Some people are just rude. Some people are just mean-spirited. They are cheaters, they are thieves, they are jerks. And there is nothing wrong with them. That's just how they are. We don't want to get caught up in the idea that unless everyone's behavior is perfect - and perfectly the same - there is something wrong with everyone who doesn't do that.
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