Narcissist hate-mongering has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. I’d like to blame Trump (because, why not?), but the truth is that we’ve been moving in that direction since at least 2011 when the novel 50 Shades of Grey first introduced a Hollywoodized version of Narcissistic Personality Disorder to tweens. Though I suspect that there are other contributing factors.
Almost a decade later, you can’t toss a dead squirrel without hitting dozens of articles, memes, and videos from self-proclaimed “Narcissistic Abuse Recovery” experts who seek to shame, vilify, and expose the narcissist for what he truly is — a despicable little rat bastard.
It’s strange. We live in a world that is hella woke, uber-politically correct, and socially just, yet it’s still okay and even encouraged to excoriate men (and sometimes women) who exhibit the criteria of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Setting aside the fact that NPD is a mental disorder deeply rooted in childhood trauma— it just feels wrong to me that this is socially acceptable behavior. Can you think of any other mental health condition that is vilified so freely? I can’t.
Consider, by contrast, the kid gloves with which we handle Borderline Personality Disorder. In terms of presentation, BPD and NPD are practically identical. They are even clustered together in the DSM5 because of their similarities. It’s just that women tend to get diagnosed as borderline and males as narcissistic.
And yet, were I to write an article about the evils of a borderline ex-girlfriend, more than a few readers would rage in protest, screaming at me in ALL CAPS about my intolerant and triggering neanderthal ways.
And they’d be right. It’s not cool to attack the mentally ill. To do so encourages stigma and discourages people to seek help. But more than anything else, people are not the sum of their mental health diagnoses, right?
Why then is narcissism* treated differently?
Look, I get it. Narcissists are awful. I’ve dated one or two in my life. Their reputations are well-earned. But there is a dangerous and slippery slope forming here, and we should all be a little less eager to go sliding off of it without considering the consequences.
The slope in question is the normalization of attacks on the mentally ill. And while my focus thus far has been on Narcissistic Personality Disorder, my larger argument is this:
An attack on one type of mental disorder is an attack on all types of mental disorders.
Hold on! the opposing side might say. NPD is a personality disorder. That’s totally different than a mental disorder like depression.
But they’d be wrong. The American Psychiatric Association classifies personality disorders as a type of mental disorder. The Mayo Clinic notes this as well, and research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry notes that their distinction is arbitrary.
So, while people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are capable of some truly terrible behaviors, they are nonetheless people who suffer from a mental illness that is largely beyond their control.
When it comes to mental health advocacy and reform, you can’t pick and choose like you’re ordering tapas off a dinner menu. Yes, narcissists are “bad.” But so are labels. Especially when they are overused, misapplied, and used to attack the mentally ill.
I’m certainly not here to stand up for narcissists. That’s not the point. I’m also not here to justify their abusive behavior or their reckless disregard for the welfare of others. People should be called out for awful behavior. People should be held accountable.
But when writers start using clinical terminology to describe ex-lovers (which is commonplace these days), it comes off to me as stunningly irresponsible and more than a little hypocritical. I’ll explain why in just a minute.
Though before I do, I’ll admit that these articles are satisfying to read. When relationships end, we can’t help but want to find external causes for it. That way, we don’t have to look at our own role. It’s reassuring to dismiss an ex as a “narcissist.” They were abusive and they cheated and they lied so they must have Narcissistic Personality Disorder!
Actually, no. At least, not in most cases. They could just be a garden variety asshole. They might be perfectly fine in other relationships but for whatever reason, they were toxic in ours. We’ll probably never know and it’s arrogant to think that we do.
But the biggest reason why I say no is that the authors of these anti-narcissist articles don’t seem to understand how clinical diagnosis works.
For one thing, you can’t just flip open the DSM5 and start assigning clinical criteria to your exes. That’s just silly.
These writers aren’t objective, they’re not accounting for confirmation bias, and I’ll bet a quarter that they don’t have any training. If they did, they’d know not to do it in the first place.
In other words, their judgment is so compromised that they are probably the last person on the planet who should be diagnosing anyone with anything.
And even if none of that were true, just how much of a narcissist does a person have to be to diagnose an ex with a personality disorder and then publish their findings for all the world to see?
Just how much of a narcissist does a person have to be to cast these men (and sometimes women) as cartoonishly evil and one-dimensional villains who methodically set out to ruin their life?
Just how much of a narcissist does a person have to be to think it’s okay to position themselves as an authority on Narcissistic Personality Disorder without the benefit of training, licensure, education, practical experience, clinical supervision, or dispassionate third-party objectivity?
Pot, meet kettle. Kettle, meet pot.
Of all the articles I’ve read where writers diagnose their exes with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, never once have I seen them explore how they contributed to the downfall of their relationship. Not once. Their analysis is entirely one-sided.
It’s always the same story. I was minding my own business when all of a sudden this man (or sometimes a woman) rolled into my life, love-bombed the shit out of me, and the next thing I know I was embroiled in a toxic cacophony of gaslighting and dysfunction.
The victim’s mentality at work in so many of these articles is disturbing, to say the least. It’s such an unhealthy way to think about things.
Of course, the counter to my argument is this — why shouldn’t I write about my narcissistic exes? I’m performing a public service. My words are a warning to each and every one of you about the dangers of dating that monster! Besides, I’m certain that he (and sometimes she) has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I’ve done the research. I’ve watched videos and read papers and talked to my therapist.
So yes, people certainly have a right to write this stuff. And it is often the case that readers glean new insights about their own relationships by reading the cautionary tales of others.
But it’s still hypocritical. It’s still narcissistic.
And it’s still irresponsible, if for no other reason than the ethical quagmire that comes with diagnosing someone you used to bang. A licensed professional would be called in front of a state board if they did that.
But wait. There’s more.
Often, the same writers who excoriate their narcissistic exes in print are the same ones who promote the virtues of self-care, the power of positivity, and the reduction of stigma surrounding mental illness.
Which makes sense, as one of the common themes with all this anti-narcissist content is the trauma and chaos that narcissists wreak in their victims’ lives. Post-traumatic stress, panic disorder, major depression, anxiety — these are the fallout of narcissistic abuse.
But here’s the problem with all this — You can’t promote self-care while raging against narcissists. You can’t promote the power of positivity while ripping another human being to shreds. And you certainly can’t promote the reduction of mental health stigma by targeting the mentally ill.
The weaponization of diagnostic labels needs to stop. And it needs to stop, not to protect narcissists, but to protect each and every one of us who has suffered from mental illness.
The reason clinical diagnoses exist in the first place is to conceptualize the nature of a problem and to guide the treatment of it. They were never designed to be weaponized, nor were they created for laypeople to toss around the internet like confetti.
Does Narcissistic Personality Disorder exist? Of course it does. Does narcissistic abuse occur? Of course it does. The bone I’m picking has more to do with the scope and scale of the actual problem than whether or not it actually exists.
And it does. It totally does.
Just not in the numbers you’d think. Judging from all the articles and Facebook support groups and memes that devote themselves exclusively to this issue, it’s easy to assume that we’re dealing with a straight-up epidemic of narcissism. In reality, NPD affects about 0.5% of the population, or 1 out of every 200 people.
That’s pretty rare.
By themselves, people are extraordinarily complicated. In relationships, people are even more impossible to understand. It’s actually amazing that any of them last for more than a few months and it accounts for why so many of them eventually fail.
And when people we love hurt us, and when our relationships with them end, it’s only natural to look for simple explanations to complicated problems that we will likely never understand.
Diagnostic labels only tell part of the story, and often that story is a work of pure fiction.
Going forward, if you are tempted to write about an ex to label them with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, consider the virtues of instead telling a story that incorporates your role in the relationship’s end as well. It might not be as satisfying to write, but at least it will be honest.
If a recent breakup has left you confused, bitter, or feeling betrayed, consider the benefits of online counseling. Sites like BetterHelp and TalkSpace (affiliate links) are affordable, confidential, and convenient alternatives to traditional face-to-face therapy. With either of these services, you’ll have access to your very own licensed therapist who is available via video, chat, or phone, all for a low monthly fee.