Narcissism Is a Spectrum, and You’re On It
Here’s how to tell where you land—and what to do next.
When I first discovered Narcissistic Personality Disorder, my world shifted.
I knew so many people who fit the clinical criteria almost perfectly—most of them in my own family—and many who didn’t fit “perfectly,” yet exhibited narcissistic qualities in their daily behavior (myself included).
I went on to study Psychology in college while simultaneously exploring additional resources (academic, anecdotal, and literary) to develop a comprehensive understanding of narcissism in modern society.
Something I realized over the course of my learning is that narcissistic behavior doesn’t necessarily imply a clinical diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which was something I’d always believed. It is possible for an individual to exhibit traits of NPD without being formally diagnosed (meaning they don’t meet all of the criteria listed in the DSM-5), and it is possible for an individual’s narcissistic behavior to fluctuate in both intensity and frequency over time.
As usual, real life applications are far more nuanced than the on-paper explanations that are disseminated within society, and narcissism is no exception. Because the modern world desperately needs mental-health assistance and because lack of access to finances, education, and social resources creates barriers-to-entry when it comes to improving mental health, I am compelled to share all that I have learned about narcissism over the course of my life thus far.
In my most recent piece about narcissism, I explore the originating trauma of narcissistic behavior and the thought patterns which accompany the pathology. If you’re looking for an in-depth dive into the causes of the disorder and its accompanying thoughts and behaviors, I recommend starting there.
If, however, you already have an understanding of what narcissistic behavior looks like (and perhaps, feels like), read on.
Narcissism Is a Spectrum
Like many disorders, behavior associated with NPD ranks on a spectrum. The idea that an individual is not a “narcissist” because that haven’t been formally diagnosed with NPD is a gross oversimplification. While diagnosing anyone without the appropriate credentials and clinical procedure is always ill-advised, it is critical that we identify behavior in ourselves and others if we intend to a) change it/treat it (for ourselves), b) bring it to their attention (for others, when appropriate), or c) create space between ourselves and another individual whose behavior may be harmful to us.
It should also be noted that many individuals can’t be formally diagnosed with NPD, simply because they refuse to seek treatment. In fact, NPD is one of the leading personality disorders in which an individual is highly likely to remain undiagnosed, given that they are typically not open to placing themselves in vulnerable situations where they are not the expert. This makes clinical settings, particularly those focused on mental health, very unattractive for those with narcissistic tendencies.
We all exhibit narcissistic behaviors—especially in the modern age.
Calling someone a narcissist when they have not received a formal diagnosis is also a gross oversimplification. It’s all too easy to point our fingers at someone who is exhibiting narcissistic behavior and cry “narcissist!”, and it does an injustice both to those who have been formally diagnosed, and to the rest of us—all of whom exhibit narcissistic behaviors.
Modern society has fostered an environment in which we are all uncontrollably self-focused. Everything, including the most allegedly selfless behavior, ultimately circulates back to our selves, our self-image, and our self-perception. This is not a bad thing, as so many would have you believe—I suspect that it’s part of humanity’s evolution toward increased self-awareness and self-betterment—but along the way, it can lead to obsession of the self if not kept in check through keen self-awareness.
Most of us are self-obsessed, and the consequent behaviors are the same as those that accompany a diagnosis of NPD. In fact, self-obsession and Narcissistic Personality Disorder aren’t vastly different: both originate from the same void of emotional validation created in early childhood, and can easily be traced back to emotionally abandoning or stunted parents, social emphasis on superficial qualities, and the development of self-aggrandizing technology.
With that in mind, many of us are low on the spectrum, and others of us are high on the spectrum. A large majority fall right in the middle, fluctuating toward the higher and lower ends depending on their stress and self-care levels. When an individual in the middle of the spectrum is highly stressed, they may begin to exhibit more narcissistic behavior. When their stress levels are low and their self-care is high, they may exhibit fewer narcissistic tendencies.
High on the Spectrum
Individuals who constantly exhibit narcissistic behaviors (and would likely be clinically diagnosed with NPD if given the opportunity) are considered high on the spectrum.
These individuals tend to have thoughts that are completely centered on people’s perception of them, coinciding with a devastating lack of self-awareness. As discussed in this article, there is an incredibly high amount of insecurity associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as well as an inability to self-validate one’s own emotional state.
As a result, individuals high on the spectrum are constantly wondering what other people are thinking about them in every conversation and interaction, and are under perpetual stress to ensure that they are perceived positively (or in whatever light they are attempting to paint themselves) by others. This way of thinking is pervasive—every action, word, and phrase is measured by how it might “land,” and at the same time, these individuals have no empathy and are therefore unable to realize how their words and behaviors might make others feel.
A high-on-the-spectrum narcissist never thinks: “did I hurt that person with my words or actions?” Instead, a narcissist ponders the ways in which the world, and the people in it, have hurt them. A high-on-the-spectrum narcissist has never developed the ability to feel emotions first-hand, and lives in a reality by which all feelings must be generated by other people and absorbed by proxy by the narcissist. This leads them to create as many scenarios as possible in which they will be able to feel the approval—or at the very least, the attention—of others. These situations may even include seemingly selfless acts which inevitably lose their shine when the high-on-the-spectrum narcissist eventually demands something in return later, or uses their generosity to guilt-trip someone or victimize themself.
A high-on-the-spectrum narcissist feels as if they don’t exist when they are not surrounded by other people (mirrors, essentially) to reflect them. When they are alone, they are consumed by thoughts of past interactions, as well as preparation for future interactions.
High-on-the-spectrum narcissists tend to leave a trail of emotional violence in their wake, and usually without the faintest idea that they were somehow involved.
When it comes to conversation, these individuals frequently interrupt. When responding, they always reroute the conversation back to themselves, their accomplishments, or their family’s accomplishments. They will often make a “scene” in public, even if that scene is simply withdrawing from conversation completely and moving themselves silently to another corner of the room. Similarly, they tend to “punish” others in public, making open spectacles of uncomfortable, intimate conversations.
High-on-the-spectrum narcissists don’t typically have any hobbies that revolve around introspection and private time. Their hobbies, if they have any, are those that will be reviewed and seen by others, particularly if they are creative hobbies. If they do have a private hobby, they will be very concerned about keeping it secret, as they are extremely sensitive to the perceptions and criticism of others.
High-on-the-spectrum narcissists tend to manipulate events, even in seemingly harmless ways. They will drop conversational bombs like “so, did Marina tell you about her work situation?” in the presence of Marina, with the knowledge that Marina is not interested in sharing this information. They have no sense of empathy, no ability to comprehend the emotions of others, and no self-awareness—but they will openly pretend that they have all of these qualities, in spades.
Low on the Spectrum
Low-on-the-spectrum narcissists share the same wounds as high-on-the-spectrum narcissists, although not to the same extent. Low-on-the-spectrum narcissists are also individuals who were not sufficiently emotionally validated in childhood, leading them to require validation from others in adulthood. This is actually an enormous majority of people, and can be recognized as more prolific in certain generations where detached parenting was largely the norm.
Low-on-the-spectrum narcissists frequently find themselves in relationships with high-on-the-spectrum narcissists, often because they are codependent and have developed people-pleasing habits to secure feelings of approval and safety from their environment.
Low-on-the-spectrum narcissists may use self-sacrificial behavior to manipulate, frequently painting themselves as the victim in their relationships (platonic, romantic, and familial). Low-on-the-spectrum narcissists may also realize that their partners or family members have high-on-the-spectrum narcissistic qualities, and use this to further victimize themselves.
Low-on-the-spectrum narcissists tend to be apathetic about most of their endeavors, as they are quite insecure and don’t expect to succeed. They actually tend to be less “successful” (per mainstream society’s definition) in their careers than high-on-the-spectrum narcissists, who are often driven to succeed at all costs. Because low-on-the-spectrum narcissists fluctuate in and out of self-pitying, self-obsessed behavior, they are less consistent in their efforts to create and manipulate their self-image than their high-on-the-spectrum counterparts.
Low-on-the-spectrum narcissists may find that they suffer from depression and anxiety, which are not to be confused with narcissistic, manipulative behaviors. No matter where an individual ranks on the spectrum, anxiety and depressive disorders should be taken seriously and treated professionally—by treating anxiety and/or depression, low-on-the-spectrum narcissists may find their narcissistic behaviors significantly reduced, as they are typically exacerbated by negative circumstances, emotions, and environmental factors.
“I’m insecure. Does this mean I’m on the spectrum?”
It depends. As explained in this article, concealed insecurity is one of the hallmark characteristics of NPD.
Nary a person on this earth isn’t insecure, but there are plenty of people who are and yet don’t routinely exhibit narcissistic behaviors. Why not? Because they have developed self-awareness. This quality is key, and there are three questions to ask yourself during any interaction in order to facilitate the development of self-awareness.
- What are you doing?
- Why are you doing it?
- How is it affecting others—what is it making them feel?
Self-awareness is the antidote to narcissistic behavior—once self-awareness is developed, all individuals are capable of realizing what they are doing and how those behaviors are affecting others.
Narcissists lack self-awareness because being self-aware requires understanding and acknowledging one’s own emotional state. This is something that they were never allowed or taught to do, and so they live in a state of relative numbness to their own emotions. They might claim to feel these emotions, and of course their nervous systems are creating emotional responses—but individuals who exhibit narcissistic behaviors don’t know how to process or understand their varying levels of response and reactivity to that which they’re feeling.
Develop self-awareness, and the rest will fall into place.
If you suspect that you exhibit narcissistic behaviors, the best place to begin is by developing self-awareness. Narcissistic behaviors originate from being deeply out-of-touch with your own emotions. Self-awareness is a critical tool for understanding, accepting, and owning your emotional responses.
Tools for developing self-awareness exist in abundance on and offline. Journaling is a great way to begin developing self-awareness, starting with the prompt “right now I feel,” followed by “and here’s why.” Steam-of-consciousness writing is extremely valuable in this practice—note that second-guessing your writing or writing for an invisible audience will completely offset the purpose of the exercise.
Essentially, you must teach yourself how to validate your own emotions, and this can be difficult given that individuals who exhibit narcissistic behaviors were never taught how to do this by their caregivers. If possible, get a therapist as quickly as you can: the right therapist is an essential part of helping you learn how to validate your own emotions.
We’re all insecure, and we all exhibit narcissistic behaviors from time-to-time when our self-care cup runs low or empty. The key to owning our “ripple” (the effect of our behaviors on others) is to acknowledge this, and actively work toward learning to self-validate our actions and emotions.
Know this—wherever you land on the Narcissism Spectrum, you are worthy of love, validation, and support. As you continue to develop self-awareness, practice self-love and care, and prioritize your mental health, you will realize that the sweetest love begins with you. Once you learn that, you are well on your way to experiencing the greatest satisfaction that this life has to offer: a process that inevitably unfolds from the inside-out.