There is often a conflation of narcissism being morally “bad,” which is understandable given that pathological narcissists can exhibit not-so-virtuous behaviors such as blame shifting, love bombing, gaslighting, and sending unsolicited dick pics (yes, really).
That said, having narcissistic tendencies alone doesn’t automatically mean you’re a terrible person. What’s more, there is also such a thing as healthy narcissism. Read on for the explanation and a new way to view narcissism.
The difference between narcissism and narcissistic tendencies
“We all have some degree of narcissism; it is a continuum,” says clinical psychologist Nancy B. Irwin, PsyD. “Diagnoses are used when there is an overwhelming tendency in that direction.”
In other words, a person diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) meets five or more key criteria, including being entitled and having an inflated sense of self, says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, an NYC-based neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind. They’re also consumed with fantasies of success, power, beauty, and attractiveness. They believe they are unique and superior to others and should only be associated with other high-status people and institutions.
People with NPD require excessive admiration while feeling envious of others and assuming others envy them. Narcissists also lack empathy, take advantage of other people for personal gain, and demean, verbally abuse, and manipulate others—hence why narcissists make up one third of the dark triad personality traits.
That said, Dr. Hafeez notes that someone who isn’t diagnosed with NPD can exhibit one or two of these criteria, which is referred to as having narcissistic tendencies. “Narcissistic tendencies can occur due to previous traumas and insecurities that present themselves at times,” she explains. Dr. Irwin adds that narcissistic tendencies can also come from a lack of appropriate parenting skills and picking up on social cues.
For instance, Dr. Hafeez says someone could obsess over, and look for compliments about, their body, but that may stem from childhood insecurities and not narcissism. Other examples: “Someone who brags about their accomplishments may be trying to hide insecurity from their adolescence,” she says. Or, “a person who posts too many pictures of themselves on Instagram may be seeking attention in the virtual world that they are lacking in real life.”
Why having narcissistic tendencies doesn’t mean you’re a bad person
With that in mind, Dr. Hafeez says having a narcissistic tendency or two doesn’t make someone a narcissist, nor does it automatically mean they’re a “bad” person. She says narcissistic tendencies often get roped into being morally bad because many people don’t understand the clinical meaning behind NPD. It’s kind of like how many people don’t know the true definition of having OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is more than a “neat freak” stereotype.
The key difference between true narcissists and people who have narcissistic tendencies? “Unlike those diagnosed with NPD, those with narcissistic tendencies often feel empathy for others and treat the people in their lives with kindness,” Dr. Hafeez says. “They don’t use or exploit others maliciously.” So, posting one too many selfies on social media doesn’t make you a bad person if you’re just doing it because you’re feeling yourself.
Furthermore, Dr. Hafeez says being self-absorbed in some areas of life doesn’t mean you’re narcissistic in all areas and having a healthy dose of narcissism is necessary to achieve goals in all areas of life, such as fitness or career. “Knowing that you deserve good things or being proud of your accomplishments is healthy and not disordered,” she says. “Those who demonstrate healthy narcissism show self-awareness, insight, and empathy that a person with NPD does not have.” And she adds that it’s common and developmentally appropriate for adolescents to show narcissistic tendencies.
It’s only when that behavior begins to harm others to reach those achievements that it can point to NPD. “Narcissists are typically considered to lack empathy and be so self-centered that they don’t care who they hurt as long as they benefit,” Dr. Hafeez says.
So, the takeaway: Being all about yourself is not necessarily bad, so long as no one else gets hurt in the process.