Is That Narcissist You Know Actually Just a Self-Absorbed Jerk?

Not everyone who's into themselves is actually a narcissist

<p>skynesher / E+ / Getty</p>

skynesher / E+ / Getty

Medically reviewed by Daniel B. Block, MD

The term “narcissistic” is everywhere these days, and is overused to a degree. But what does it actually mean to be a narcissist?

There’s much more to narcissism than just being a self-absorbed jerk. Read on to learn more about narcissistic personality disorder and who can actually, accurately be called a narcissist—and who is just into themselves in a more everyday sense.

What Is Narcissism?

Narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), is a diagnosable personality disorder characterized by behavioral patterns like grandiosity, lack of empathy, and the chronic need for admiration. According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), people with NPD must display at least five of the following traits:

  • Heightened and grandiose sense of self-importance (for example, expecting to be recognized for exaggerated achievements or achievements they haven’t actually attained)

  • Preoccupied with fantasies about power, brilliance, success, beauty, and/or perfect love (love without the real-world complications of relationships)

  • Belief that they are “special” and should only associate with other “special” people or that they are only truly understood by other “special” people

  • Requiring excessive or effusive admiration

  • A sense of entitlement that would require unconditional favorable treatment and compliance with any and all demands

  • Exploiting others for their own gain

  • Lacking empathy and unable to recognize the feelings of others

  • Frequently envious of others and/or thinks others are envious of them

  • Arrogant and haughty attitudes and behaviors


There are two basic types of NPD—”grandiose” and “vulnerable.”

Grandiose NPD is exactly what you’d expect based on the characteristics listed above: defined by ostentatious grandiosity, aggression, lack of empathy, and the exploitation of others.

Vulnerable NPD is more difficult to detect because it is defined by hypersensitivity to and defensiveness in the face of criticism or what is perceived to be criticism, and therefore is often easy to miss. (Sensitivity to negative feedback is not as noticeable, or indeed as recognizable as a narcissistic need for admiration, as grandiose behavior.)

NPD is a “Cluster B” personality disorder, which is characterized by unpredictable and overtly emotional behavior (antisocial personality disorder, what we’d commonly call sociopathy, is part of this cluster). It is commonly comorbid (existing at the same time) with other personality disorders and mental health problems, making NPD particularly tricky to identify and treat.


Despite this, it is a fairly common personality disorder—some statistics estimate that it is prevalent in anywhere from 5% to 15% of the population, with the higher percentage being found specifically in those who have received inpatient psychiatric treatment.

The severity of NPD is generally measured by aggressiveness—the more aggressive the person is, the more severe their personality disorder is considered. This aggression, as well as a reduced tolerance of distress and the inability to control affect (the way emotions are displayed), is a defining characteristic of NPD.

How Is Narcissism Different Than Being a Stuck-Up Jerk?

So, how do you tell the difference between a bona fide narcissist and someone who’s just generally unpleasant and self-obsessed? There are some key clues here.


First of all, a true narcissist will display at least five of those nine characteristics listed above; someone who does not display at least five of those characteristics cannot be diagnosed with NPD.

That means that someone who displays only one or a few of these characteristics might be considered “narcissistic” in the colloquial sense of the term, but cannot be officially deemed a “narcissist” by medical standards.

The other telltale difference between a full-blown narcissist and someone who is just being a jerk is choice.

Most people have the choice between behaving badly and behaving well; a choice between selfishness and generosity, or between nastiness and respect. A true narcissist does not have that choice.

Someone who is just being a jerk might recognize that their behavior only benefits them, and choose to go ahead with it anyway, because they place their own wellbeing above the wellbeing of others.

For narcissists, this consideration is impossible. Their condition is characterized by a chronic lack of empathy and the inability to function outside of their grandiose and unrealistic inner world. Just like someone who suffers from anxiety cannot choose to not be anxious, a narcissist cannot choose to not be narcissistic.

However, just like there are effective treatments for anxiety, NPD can also be effectively treated, namely through therapy.

How to Deal With Narcissists...and Jerks

The way you handle a true narcissist can be very different from the way you handle someone who’s just being a self-absorbed jerk.


First of all, when dealing with a narcissist, it’s imperative to remember that their behavior has absolutely nothing to do with you.

No matter what you do or say, they will still behave narcissistically. Do not take their behavior personally.

If, on the other hand, the person you’re dealing with is not actually a narcissist but is still behaving badly, you might want to (and be able to) explore what has triggered them to act the way they are acting.

Confronting someone like this—someone who is not a narcissist—can actually be productive. Explaining how you feel to someone who is capable of empathy (even if they’re not acting like it at the moment) is much more likely to work than trying to do the same with a narcissist who is clinically incapable of empathy.


A narcissist, by definition, is hypersensitive to perceived criticism, so approaching them with questions and concerns is likely to backfire; however, someone who is just being unpleasant might be able to recognize and accept your feedback for what it is—feedback.

If you’re working with a narcissist, dealing with them might feel impossible. In this case, it would be important to talk to your fellow coworkers about the narcissist’s behavior in order to build up interpersonal support.

It is much easier to handle narcissistic behavior if the people around you also understand that that’s what’s happening, and you can lean on each other when their bad behavior affects you.


However, if you are dealing with a narcissist in your personal life, you might want to consider whether ending your relationship with them might be better for your own mental health.

Unless the person is actively in treatment to address their NPD, it might feel impossible for you to continue interacting with them. Again, remember that their behavior has nothing to do with you, and it might not change no matter what you do.

Treatment for Narcissistic Personality Disorder

The best treatment for NPD is psychotherapy, or talk therapy. If someone with NPD pursues therapy and commits to changing the way they think about themselves and interact with the world, therapy can be successful. That said, this can be a difficult step for someone with NPD, as they are unlikely to perceive that their behavior may be problematic or harmful.

In therapy, someone with NPD can learn to:

  • Understand and manage their emotions and tendencies, like their competitiveness and their inherent dislike of others and themselves

  • Relate more effectively with those around them to make their working and personal relationships better

  • Recognize what they are actually good at in order to better tolerate criticism and failure

  • Set realistic goals

  • Understand and handle issues about self-esteem


Therapy for someone with NPD will be about self-recognition—understanding their natural tendencies and ways of thinking and learning to act in opposition to those things.

There is no medication approved to treat NPD, though medications like anti-depressants can effectively treat comorbid conditions like depression and anxiety.

Final Thoughts

While narcissistic personality disorder is one of the more common personality disorders, the term “narcissism” is often used without a full understanding of the actual condition itself.

But recognizing the difference between a true narcissist and someone who is just behaving unpleasantly can help people learn to more effectively deal with someone who does actually have NPD. Additionally, increasing your sensitivity around this issue can help reduce any stigmas around individuals with personality disorders, which are often misunderstood.

Finally, working on your communication skills can only be a positive for you moving forward, whether or not you're dealing with a narcissist.

Read the original article on Verywell Mind.