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Selfishness vs. Narcissism: How Can I Tell the Difference?

You hear the word “narcissist” a lot these days in contexts like this:

  • My husband didn’t check on the baby like he said he would, he is such a narcissist!
  •  My girlfriend is a total narcissist. She’s always posting selfies on Instagram or making TikTok videos. It’s so frustrating.
  • I couldn’t get a word in edgewise during that conversation with my father in law. His narcissism never ceases to amaze me.

It’s true, narcissism is on the rise in the United States and in other western countries but it’s also true that not every selfish person is a narcissist.  I’d argue that we’re using the term narcissist too casually and that can be dangerous. Dealing with a true narcissist is an incredibly toxic, negative and damaging experience.

We talk about narcissism a lot at SAGE because many abusers are narcissists. (And, interestingly, many of the people they abuse are empaths. To learn more about empathic personalities, read this SAGE article) So what is the difference between selfishness and true narcissism?

Selfishness Defined

Being selfish is a part of being narcissistic, but only a small part. Selfishness is defined as being excessively or exclusively concerned about yourself rather than considering the needs and wants of others. Being selfish is part of being human. It’s not hard to think of examples of our own selfishness. Maybe you didn’t listen to a friend’s story about her tough day because you were too focused on your own drama.  Perhaps you are so focused on your own professional success that you fail to celebrate the successes of your teammates. Normal people, when they catch themselves being selfish, apologize for their behavior and try to do better next time.  

Narcissism Defined

You may be familiar with the Greek myth of Narcissus, the boy who was so obsessed with his image in a mirror that he couldn’t look away. Sounds a lot like social media addiction, doesn’t it? But there is a big difference between vanity and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  

The Mayo Clinic defines NPD as, “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.” 

There is some debate in the medical community regarding whether people with personality disorders, including NPD, respond to talk therapy treatment.  Unfortunately talk therapy is also the only form of treatment most experts recommend. Some narcissists self-treat with alcohol, drugs or other destructive behaviors. It’s that self-treatment that sometimes lands them in a therapist’s office. 

As someone who survived an abusive relationship with a narcissist, I am highly skeptical that people with NPD can change or be cured. I also believe that the sooner you understand that, the faster you can learn how — and whether or not — you’re going to continue to invest in that relationship.

How to Recognize Narcissism

How can you tell if it’s selfishness or narcissism? According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissists often: 

  • Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
  • Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerate achievements and talents
  • Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
  • Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
  • Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
  • Take advantage of others to get what they want
  • Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Be envious of others and believe others envy them
  • Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious
  • Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office

If you’ve made it this far, chances are that you suspect that someone in your life is a narcissist or has narcissistic personality disorder. It is important to remember that NPD, like any other personality disorder, is a spectrum. There exists a wide range in severity of  “symptoms” including communication, reactivity, malice, anger and frustration. Narcissists may not exhibit every tendency on the above list, but I trust you to judge to what degree the narcissist in your life is negatively impacting themselves and those around them.  

Diagnosing NPD

NPD is extremely difficult to diagnose. Narcissists are often very intelligent, manipulative and excellent at lying. They crave attention so they’ve learned to present exactly what their audience wants to see. Even if you manage to get them to go to a therapist (which won’t be easy), they may manage to fool even the most well educated psychiatric professional. Remember, just because your narcissist doesn’t have a diagnosis, doesn’t mean they don’t have this disorder.  

The Irony of Narcissism

Think back to the definition of narcissism from the Mayo Clinic. So far, I’ve only shared the first half, which focused on the narcissist’s inflated sense of self. Here’s what the Mayo Clinic explains: “Behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

While a narcissist may at first appear to be successful and confident, to “have it all together,” within a very short amount of time that façade will start to crumble. They are desperately trying to hide their shortcomings, which often involves them lashing out at you and destroying your self-esteem and self-worth to elevate their own. This is dangerous behavior — don’t take it lightly. 

The Mayo Clinic offers these examples of how a narcissist reacts to criticism or injuries to their self esteem:

  • Become impatient or angry when they don’t receive special treatment
  • Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted
  • React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior
  • Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior
  • Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change
  • Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection
  • Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation

My Experience With a Narcissist

Earlier I said that I don’t believe a narcissist can or will change.  Please know that this does not come from a place of negativity, but from my own experience.  I saw the good in the person I loved. I forgave the bad behavior and brushed off the hurtful words and insults. I believed him when he said he recognized his anger and would change but he never did. Somehow everything was my fault: if I only believed him more; if only I were a more supportive partner; if only I bought him expensive gifts; if only I forgot all the bad things he said to me. If I did all that he wouldn’t have to talk to me aggressively. He wouldn’t get so angry. 

Now I know that it is very hard for a narcissist to truly, deeply and honestly take responsibility for their actions and behavior the way we can. You must understand this.  They will never accept responsibility the way a healthy person would. That may sound harsh, but before you can affect real change, you have to accept that.

Next Steps

Only you know what to do with this knowledge. Only you know the intricacies of your situation. I needed time and encouragement to finally say, “Enough is enough.”  Your experience may be completely different or eerily similar.  You may think you can fix this but don’t focus on fixing the narcissist, focus on doing what’s best for you. What will make you happy? Lead with that and the rest will follow.

Want to hear my story? Listen to The SAGE Advice podcast — episode 1. 

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