It’s Narcissist Friday!
Certain communities are playing a fun game today. It could be called, “Pin the label on the narcissist.” The only problem is that it is a very difficult game to win.
Is Mr. X a narcissist? I get that question from time to time. Mostly in regard to certain leaders, but sometimes referring to husbands. (Yes, I also get, “Is Mrs. or Miss X a narcissist?” Just not as often.) The problem is that the narcissist label is slippery. I have written on this before, but it seems worth repeating in a different way.
I wrote this for a friend the other day in explanation of why I think that playing “pin the label” is not a useful activity:
1. Because this is a diagnostic term used by the psychological community, you will almost certainly be called to back up the statement by a process of personal examination and analysis, which would be impossible to do. Even if you could, the term is broad and and the characteristics are vague. One therapist might disagree with another based on the same observations.
2. Even in court situations, the label of narcissist is unhelpful. Accountability is held on the basis of actions, not labels.
3. In fact, the person you want to label might actually adopt and enjoy the label. It may be a defense against the accusation, excusing the actions associated with it. It might also be a badge of honor in a culture that sees narcissism as the supreme leadership and management quality.
4. Those who use the label are likely to be dismissed. Unless you are a trained professional whose opinion on such things is highly valued, calling someone a narcissist suggests that you don’t really know what you are talking about. This would be similar to calling someone “psychotic” or “schizophrenic.” We may know what we mean when we use those words, but to use them publicly actually reduces our credibility.
Now, if you have read this blog, you are familiar with these reasons for avoiding the label. That does not mean that the diagnosis is wrong or that it is wrong for you to respond to someone as though he or she were a narcissist. As I have said many times here and privately, respond to the behavior instead of the label.
So what are we supposed to do? If the leader or the tormentor seems to fit the label, we can certainly find it useful for our own minds. Sometimes it is very helpful to have a name to give to the actions and attitudes we see in someone, even if we don’t use the label outwardly.
Let’s take the idea of psychosis. If you see someone who seems psychotic, generally meaning that the person loses track of reality on occasion, you should certainly take notice. There are many reasons a person could experience delusions or a thought disorder. You may not be in a position to discover the reason or even make the diagnosis, but it could be very important for you to note the behavior and categorize it in your thinking.
Years ago I was talking with an older man about hallucinations brought on Parkinson’s medications. He responded by telling me that he often saw hallucinations while driving. That alarmed me to the point where I called his daughter. I didn’t say that the man was psychotic. I simply told her what he had told me. I responded to the behavior.
Likewise, if you see someone who exhibits the characteristics of narcissism, you should take notice and respond accordingly. If the person is a leader, you may begin to examine his leadership on the basis of the self-serving tendencies of a narcissist. You may reconsider whether you should follow such a leader. If the person is a family member, you may understand a lot more of why certain things continue to happen the way they do. Your trust of that person will change. The boundaries you set within the relationship will change.
But the only way you understand all of this is because you have taken the time to learn something about narcissism. You don’t need to call someone a narcissist to be aware of or to prepare for their narcissistic actions or attitudes. Once you know what narcissists do, you can see that behavior and plan accordingly.
So don’t be quick to pin the narcissist label on someone. Let the professionals do that. At the same time, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck . . . well, you know.
(Something strange going on with WordPress formatting today. Sorry for the appearance. It may fix itself.)