Healthy Mind

Your Guide to Distinguishing Real-Deal Narcissists From Mere Narcissistic Moods

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Getty Images/JGIJamie-Grill
You know how every once in a while, you put on an outfit that requires approximately 14,000 selfies? That's because sometimes, we all need that full Kris Jenner "you're doing amazing sweetie" gif treatment. While I call this situation "feeling myself," others may call it "being a narcissist." And, you know what? Fair. But since for many of us, instances like this represent the exception not the rule, is it really fair to color these narcissistic tendencies as full-blown cases of pathological narcissism?

Turns out, no—it's not fair. In fact, there are three key differences between narcissistic tendencies and the real deal. As a reminder, a textbook narcissist throws a fit when the attention isn't on them. Highly dramatic and self-absorbed, they tend to not respond well to criticism. In fact, they often won't even hear any criticism. Overall, they believe and often express how they're the best person and always right, and won't accept anything to the contrary.

But that's different than believing you look awesome in an outfit and wanting to share that stance with your followers and the rest of the world, right? Right. That's because the general key difference between narcissistic behavior and classic narcissism is whether those "me, me, me" traits make up your entire personality or simply spike up here and there.

To further explore, keep reading for a breakdown of three key points—frequency, intensity, and duration, per a Psychology Today piece—that explain the how having narcissistic tendencies and being a pathological narcissist aren't the same at all. Here's all the ways to identify one from the other.

3 key distinctions that separate narcissistic tendencies and being a narcissist

1. Frequency

Ask yourself how often these traits pop up, and when they do, are they emblematic of the person's personality, or more so an isolated mood?

For example: Let's say your usually very shy sister is getting married, and now that her nearest and dearest are fully vaccinated, she's really feeling the spotlight for her bridal shower. And her bachelorette party. And every single dress fitting. Sure, this may be frustrating for you endure, but in this situation, the narcissism is explained by the occasion at hand: Your sister is getting married, so let her live it up—especially after the wild year of wedding planning and canceling and replanning she just had during the pandemic.

However, let's say your sister got married five years ago and she still relentlessly posts wedding photos on social media every chance she gets… and still compares every social gathering (including weddings she attends) to her own event. In this case, a bigger problem may be at play because the narcissistic tendencies are ongoing.

2. Intensity

How would you rate the intensity of the narcissistic traits on a scale of 1 to 10? One way to measure this is to consider how much someone seems to speak about themselves compared to others in conversation. For instance, does the person in question seem to value the power of listening or prefer to redirect the conversation to themselves?

For instance, consider whether someone's empathetic jab of "I know how you feel" comes from a well-intentioned place or is more likely a thinly veiled segue to shift attention back onto themselves.

3. Duration

If you're a genuine narcissist, you likely won't listen if someone kindly asks you to dial it back a bit. On the flip side, if you're merely a confident person who's comfortable speaking their mind, a comment from a peer may well register and lead you to change your behavior.

Plainly put, there's usually a timeline—with an end point—for instances of a narcissistic mood. And when it seems the limit does not exist? You might have a real-deal narcissist on your hands. Below, get tips for how to double-check with the help of Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist and the author of “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How To Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.

6 signs someone may be a true narcissist

1. Entitlement

Narcissists tend to believe the rules do not apply to them, expect special treatment, and get angry when they don't get it. That usually bleeds into the next red flag.

2. Anger and rage in the face of frustration and disappointment

"People with narcissistic personalities are not able to regulate themselves when things don't go exactly as they want," says Dr. Durvasula. "And while nobody like that, the tendency of people with these personalities is to rage at other people."

3. Low empathy

Narcissists have almost a straight-up inability to connect with others and their emotions. "There is very little interest in the feelings of others, and very little ability to reflect on their impact on other people," Dr. Durvasula says. "There is often a contemptuous dismissal of other people's feelings and emotions."

3. Blame shifting

"People who are narcissistic are unable to take responsibility for their behavior, and will typically blame other people for anything," Dr. Durvasula says. While they refuse to be accountable for the bad, they'll switch gears if the outcome is good. Watch out for someone who only takes credit when things go well.

4. Validation and admiration seeking

Narcissists need lots of validation, admiration, and praise. They feed on it like a full-force energy vampire, and will often aim to be the star of every situation.

"They need to be the center of attention, they crave likes and followers on social media, they don't do well when they are not the center of attention." —Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist

"They need to be the center of attention, they crave likes and followers on social media, they don't do well when they are not the center of attention, and they get sullen and resentful when they don't get what they believe they deserve," says Dr. Durvasula.

5. Perfectionism

"Because at the core of themselves narcissists can feel inadequate, they will compensate by trying to be or pretending to be perfect or striving for perfection often at the expense of other people," says Dr. Durvasula.

6, Manipulation and gaslighting

"Narcissistic people will often take advantage of others, attempt to turn situations to their benefit and will manipulate emotions and situations," says Dr. Durvasula. Most commonly this happens with gaslighting. By doing this, they are able to control, and gain power since the other person is so confused and it can result in self-doubt"

Still not sure if you're dealing with a narcissist? Here are a few more niche traits to look out for.

3 key narcissistic behaviors and traits

1. Love-bombing

This is something to keep an eye out if you're dating someone new. Love-bombing is an outrageous display of affection, gifts, flattery, and special treatment way early on in a relationship. The intent of this is to control you, especially once they switch gears down the line.

2. Unsolicited dick picks

Don't laugh—there's research on this! One study of 1,087 men published in The Journal of Sex Research found that participants who reported sending unsolicited nude photos also tended to show the traits of narcissism.

3. Gaslighting by proxy

Because many narcissists tend to be unfortunately charismatic, they usually attract a fleet of 'flying monkeys' or little henchmen. These flying monkeys will gaslight you, deny your reality, and commit chaos to keep the narcissist happy. Keep an eye out for enablers in the narcissist's social circle.

Finally, if you come into contact with a narcissist, make sure to set up strong boundaries and keep yourself grounded in your own reality. But don't beat yourself up if you lean on the occasional selfie every once and a while—as long as you maintain a sense of empathy and courtesy, a narcissist won't be staring at you in the mirror.

Originally published August 20, 2019. 

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