The term “narcissistic” has become increasingly common in today’s social media-saturated world. It’s become all too easy to point at anyone acting in their own self-interest and label them as narcissistic. Apps such as TikTok and Instagram are flooded with videos and infographics about how to deal with a narcissist and what you should do if you’re dating one. A quick note as we dive in: it’s possible for someone to display narcissistic traits and not actually be a narcissist. In fact, in community samples, only about 0%-6.2% of the people sampled were narcissists (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Of the people diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), about 55-75% are male—but it’s important to note that women and people of other genders are still entirely capable of being narcissists.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) officially introduced Narcissistic Personality Disorder into the third iteration of the manual in 1980. The DSM criteria for diagnosing a narcissist are as follows:
“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that they are “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations).
- Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends).
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”
So what does this mean, exactly? For starters, a hallmark of NPD is a pervasive pattern—one moment or action alone does not make someone a narcissist. Instead, it’s the repeated patterns and actions that they take. For example, many would say that the sense of grandiosity is one of the most important traits/factors of NPD. It’s important to note that when it comes to NPD, this grandiose sense of self-importance is not rooted in reality. Someone claiming that they’re the best player on the team or the smartest person in the class isn’t something that classifies them as a narcissist if it’s the truth.
Criterion three is another surefire way to spot a true narcissist. Listen to how the person speaks of the people that they deliberately surround themselves with. Do they treat others as being beneath them because they aren’t as “special and unique” like them? Do they feel like they can only associate themselves with people at “their level?” How do they treat others when they don’t feel like they’re up to par with them? When it comes to Criterion 4, the word excessive is key. A partner telling you that they need or want to hear more compliments from you isn’t necessarily narcissistic. There is no one perfect way to draw the line between normal and excessive—however, it’s helpful to look at what is culturally sound and standard to make a judgment.
Take note: someone needs to meet at least 5/9 (55%) of the criteria in order to qualify for diagnosis; a person meeting only one criterion would not get diagnosed with NPD. While you could say they display narcissistic traits, they wouldn’t technically be a narcissist. It’s also important to keep perspective in mind. Someone isn’t a narcissist just because they aren’t acting in your best interest. They might be acting selfishly, but it does not mean they have the persistent and pervasive pattern of behavior required for diagnosis. When you remove yourself from the equation, do you continue to see this behavior? Does it exist with their friends? Their family? Their coworkers? Again, if the behavior is persistent and pervasive, it is going to show up in all facets of their life—not just with you.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.