Is the Narcissistic Label Being Abused?

Narcissistic personality disorder is a psychiatric condition, we shouldn't trivialize its use by labelling a selfish friend, a boss we don't like, or an argumentative ex-partner as narcissistic.
Is the Narcissistic Label Being Abused?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 18 April, 2023

When you hear the label ‘narcissistic’, who do you think of? Maybe that colleague who’s a bit of a corporate climber? A mother who systematically ignores the needs of her children? That friend to whom lying comes as naturally as breathing?

We all live with problematic people and not all of them fit the clinical criteria of this psychiatric condition. However, we’re going through a time when terms like ‘toxic’ people or gaslighting have almost become the norm. Furthermore, we constantly use the term narcissism in our conversations. In fact, we use it to describe countless figures in our social environments. Indeed, we tend to see the world as full of narcissists.

Many insist that only those who’ve had the misfortune to meet a narcissist understand what they’re like. Others think that it remains an underdiagnosed condition. Whatever the case may be, the indiscriminate use of the term narcissism trivializes the real impact of this personality disorder.

Some people have narcissistic traits. As a matter of fact, we’re all somewhat narcissistic. That said, the psychiatric condition itself encompasses a set of broader, more problematic, and harmful dimensions, which trace a specific psychological malignancy. As a matter of fact, this disorder isn’t as common as you probably think.

It isn’t appropriate to use the word ‘narcissist’ as a pejorative term. It distracts us from the true impact of the personality disorder itself.

Stressed woman yelling at her partner the label "narcissistic"
All of us can show certain narcissistic traits.

Being narcissistic isn’t the same as having a narcissistic personality disorder

Many patients come to psychological therapy because they’ve suffered abuse from a person with a narcissistic personality disorder. Indeed, people with this psychiatric condition usually end up causing damage to the mental health of the people with whom they live.

They leave psychological effects behind and can even cause trauma. In addition, those who suffer from the disorder usually have to face conditions like loneliness, addictions, and depression.

Therefore, it’s important to understand that being narcissistic isn’t the same as suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder. Because, although it might sound surprising, we all manipulate, lie, try to hide our flaws, and make our talents more notable. Furthermore, at certain times we can be overcome by the desire to be the center of attention. We can also all feel envy and even be a little arrogant at times.

A problem appears when all these traits appear together (added to others) and are stable over time.  In fact, narcissistic personality disorder falls on a spectrum from less to more severe. This means that there are functional people who, even though suffering from this condition, can adapt and manage themselves well in society.

However, the problem escalates when they exhibit malignant narcissism.

In today’s culture of selfies, influencers, and the power of social media, it’s all too common to label these behaviors as narcissistic. This downplays the impact of those who actually have the condition.

Man in psychological therapy thinking about the label "narcissistic"
People with narcissistic personality disorder also have other clinical problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, etc.

The prevalence of this disorder is between 0.5 and 5 percent of the population

The abuse of the narcissistic label doesn’t accord with reality and scientific literature. Research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry states that the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is between 0.5 and 5 percent of the population. This figure has remained the same for years.

Narcissistic personality disorder usually appears together with other clinical problems. For example, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder, histrionic, schizotypal, passive-aggressive, etc

People with narcissistic personality disorder are liars, as well as selfish and treacherous individuals. They exhibit really problematic behavior that’s harmful to their environment and also to themselves. They exist in cycles of high self-destruction and often end up getting ill.

Narcissism isn’t always negative. There are some characteristics that can benefit us at certain times. In contrast, narcissistic personality disorder, at its most pronounced, is potentially damaging and dangerous.

The label ‘narcissistic’ mustn’t be used lightly

Narcissistic personality disorder can only be diagnosed by a specialized professional. It’s a clinical condition that’s included in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in the section on group B disorders.

Giving someone the label of a narcissist in a pejorative way just because you don’t like them or they bother you, is a mistake. As we mentioned earlier, we all have more than one narcissistic trait. In fact, sometimes, that behavior benefits us because it drives us to achieve and be more ambitious.

Healthy narcissism exists and not everyone who demonstrates some narcissistic trait has a mental problem. For instance, a mother who’s emotionally cold doesn’t necessarily have NPD (narcissistic personality disorder).

The brother who wants to be the center of attention, the friend who takes a lot of selfies, the corporate climber who wants to get promoted, or the professor who wants to make a name for themselves shouldn’t be labeled “narcissists.”

Ambition, lack of empathy, vanity, and selfishness have always existed and always will, as will people who are difficult to live with. Therefore, you should try not to be prejudiced or you might find yourself underestimating those figures who are really dangerous.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Caligor E, Levy KN, Yeomans FE. Narcissistic personality disorder: diagnostic and clinical challenges. Am J Psychiatry. 2015 May;172(5):415-22. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.14060723. PMID: 25930131.
  • Ronningstam E. An update on narcissistic personality disorder. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2013 Jan;26(1):102-6.
  • Ronningstam E. Narcissistic personality disorder: a current review. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2010 Feb;12(1):68-75.
  • Ronningstam E. Narcissistic personality disorder in DSM-V–in support of retaining a significant diagnosis. J Pers Disord. 2011 Apr;25(2):248-59.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.