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  • Writer's pictureGary Katz

Enough with Narcissism

Janet and David sat in my office on opposite sides of the couch. The space between them was only a foot or two but the divide between them felt much larger. 

David, a soft spoken man in his 40’s, was successful as an attorney, coached their son’s basketball team, drove their daughter to dance lessons, attended her competitions and was on the board of his synagogue. His head hung low and he struggled to make eye contact with Janet or me.

Janet sat crying quietly and reached for a tissue from the box on my coffee table. She had recently discovered that David had been texting with a woman from work in a very personal and flirty way. It was unclear how far things had gone. 

She looked up from her tissue, her face full of pain and anger, looked David in the eyes, and said, “You’re such a narcissist.” 

David’s body wilted. 

Over the last few years, the term "narcissist" has become more and more a ubiquitous label thrown around casually in everyday conversation, social media, and even professional settings. I used to rarely hear it from clients. Now, a week doesn’t go by where a client doesn’t ask me if their partner is a “narcissist” or where a client shares that they have been labeled that by their spouse. In both scenarios, there is usually a significant amount of pain preceding the usage of the word. It carries great weight and it wounds deeply. 

The concept of narcissism certainly exists within the realm of psychology. It’s in the DSM-5 as “narcissistic personality disorder” which like all diagnoses, has specific criteria which need to be met.  

Like many psychological terms that have risen in our consciousness and usage, including “trauma” and “boundaries,” “gaslighting” the way “narcissist” is currently used can become problematic and often inaccurate. Look up the term on Instagram or Tik Tok and see how often it’s mentioned. Podcasts such as “Navigating Narcissism,” “Surviving Narcissism,” and “Narcissistic Apocalypse,” are just a few of the many podcasts or books that have come out recently about the topic. (Note: I am not commenting on the quality of these podcasts, just mentioning them as examples of the growth in focus on narcissism.) 

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great that our society has grown in awareness of various psychological terms and issues. This can help people to better understand their own experiences and emotions. It can help them seek professional help if needed. What seems to happen though, is that the needle moves first from one extreme all the way across the spectrum to the opposite extreme. It reminds me of something a client of mine shared with me years ago. He said that when he had been at an inpatient treatment program, the counselor there said to him, “Michael, what’s the opposite of “dysfunction” - MORE dysfunction!”  Meaning, that often when we try to correct the course of some dysfunction, we may go completely to the opposite extreme which is also dysfunction. Instead, healthiness lies in the middle. Moderation as Aristotle discussed or “the middle way” as Maimonidies called it, is usually more healthy when it comes to many areas of life ranging from mental health to physical health to character. One might even throw politics into that list…

It's crucial to understand that "narcissism" is not synonymous with selfishness or self-centeredness. If that were the case, we would all be narcissists. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines specific criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a complex clinical diagnosis characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy. Applying the label "narcissist" to anyone who exhibits fleeting narcissistic traits is not only inaccurate but also minimizes the experience of individuals with NPD. If my client David had narcissistic personality disorder, he most likely would not have been as giving to his own kids or community in the way he did. 

Furthermore, labeling someone as a "narcissist" often serves as a convenient way to avoid deeper exploration of their behavior. It becomes a catch-all explanation for complex issues, overlooking potential underlying causes such as trauma, attachment issues, or other mental health conditions. For instance, labeling someone with an addiction as a "narcissist " ignores the intricate interplay of factors contributing to their addiction and hinders effective treatment. 

When someone comes into my office and tells me that they have “anxiety,” I make them describe to me in detail what that experience is like for them because it’s just a word that is used by many people in different ways. Just as labeling someone as "anxious" can be an oversimplification of their emotional experience, the "narcissist" label often fails to capture the multifaceted nature of an individual's behavior. It's important to remember that human beings are complex, and their actions are influenced by a myriad of factors beyond a single label.

David isn’t a narcissist. He’s many things; a good father, leader of his community, volunteer, successful attorney with significant pro bono work, and much more. He’s also someone who hurt his wife deeply and betrayed her. He has work to do to own his actions if he wants to repair his relationship as well as his behaviors which were selfish and not thoughtful. Labeling him a “narcissist” isn’t likely to lead to growth and repair. Taking a deeper look at him and what led to his actions will probably help much more. 

It's also worth noting how the term "narcissist" has evolved to be used almost exclusively for men. This has created a harmful narrative that demonizes men and reinforces gender stereotypes.It reminds me of 30 years ago in the education world when I was teaching. At that time, ADD was almost exclusively used as a label to describe boys who had behavioral issues or trouble sitting still in a classroom. Today, the term is used for both genders and with much more specificity of symptoms. It feels awfully similar to how the term “hysterical” and the diagnosis of “hysteria” was used almost exclusively for women. That term pathologized and harmed women in such a harmful way that it still echoes today in therapist’s offices and society. 

The weaponization of the term "narcissist" against men can have serious consequences, including reputational damage, emotional distress, and in an age of cancel culture, it can create a mob-like cancellation of someone which can have devastating impact on that person.

If you find yourself interacting with someone whose actions are causing you distress, or that feel selfish to you, it’s better to seek to understand what’s going on for that person or to do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Instead of resorting to labels such as narcissist, here are some more productive ways to deal with someone you are having a difficult experience with:

  • Share your feelings of hurt, fear, insecurity, vulnerability etc. 

  • Own your own feelings instead of attacking the other’s behavior. 

  • Seeking to understand the motivations behind someone's behavior. 

  • Take care of yourself by setting “boundaries” (another over-used therapy word!) ie limits on what you will do or accept 

  • Remove yourself from situations that aren’t healthy for you.

No one likes being labeled or reduced to a pathology. Let’s try and remember another golden rule that can hopefully create more healing in relationships as well as in the world: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


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