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What Happens When We Weaponize the Term ‘Narcissist’

Narrcissist Name Calling Scapegoat

Understanding the trend – and how abuse survivors can avoid falling into this dehumanizing trap.

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Navigating life after abuse can be a minefield for adult survivors, where every hurtful encounter might trigger memories of past trauma. In recent years, there’s been a notable trend among survivors engaging on social media and online support forums to quickly label those who cause them harm as narcissists. While this reaction may stem from a legitimate need for validation and understanding, it’s crucial to examine the potential pitfalls of such assumptions. This article explores why adult survivors of abuse should approach the label of “narcissist” with caution, considering its impact on personal healing, relationships, and the broader narrative surrounding genuine psychological conditions. By delving into these complexities, I hope to encourage a more nuanced understanding and empower survivors to navigate their healing journey with clarity and compassion for self and others.

Ready, Aim, Fire: Being on the Receiving End of the ‘Narcissist’ Bullet

Have you noticed over the past few years how frequently people are accused of being “a narcissist”? I see this all the time over on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook, for example, whereby content creators tell their viewers or followers “They’re a narcissist!” or “They’re an evil narcissist!” in response to a brief description of a hurtful personal interaction from a viewer or follower.

I’m also aware of several ‘Narcissistic Abuse Recovery’-type forums and social media channels who push the idea that most male clinicians are “narcissists” and most female clinicians are “covert narcissists” and therefore cannot be trusted and should be avoided at all cost. These forums are typically run by non-licensed self-proclaimed “experts” with no clinical qualifications to speak of.

Several of my female therapist colleagues have shut down their social media accounts and/or YouTube channels recently because they’ve grown weary of being subjected to verbal abuse and name calling on a daily basis, including being called a “narcissist” or “covert narcissist” by those who disagree with their point of view or something in their content.

In regard to my own experience of being called a narcissist: I remember reflecting for several days on whether I should reveal something about myself personally that I thought might benefit my YouTube channel viewers. After carefully weighing the pros and cons of taking off the “clinical mask,” I shared something about myself for all of 45 seconds, but even so, for me it was a vulnerable thing to do. Within hours of posting the video I received a comment saying, “Watch out for this woman, everybody – She’s talking about herself, she’s a narcissist!”

Although I wish it didn’t, these types of comments can take the wind out of your sails when you’re genuinely wanting to assist people in their healing and recovery process, and its not the first time this sort of thing has happened (for example, just last week a subscriber disappointed in my response time informed me that I’m “a covert narcissist who uses their followers for supply.” Ouch.)

Certainly, I can understand why many of my colleagues have chosen to abandon their social media platforms. The fact is, many therapists who are drawn to work with abuse survivors are abuse survivors themselves. Like those they serve, these therapists also suffer from complex trauma symptoms, rejection sensitivity, traumatic invalidation, and toxic shame.

I am one such therapist. It seems the price we are expected to pay to be on social media is to be (at times) the target of name calling, labeling, and verbal abuse. For some of us, it is simply too high a price for our nervous system to pay.

Interestingly, my male colleagues tell me that they rarely (if ever) experience this kind of direct name calling and labeling, which makes me wonder if the term “covert narcissist” is replacing “borderline” and “histrionic” as a means of devaluing and dismissing women (including female therapists), but that’s a rabbit hole I’ll need to further explore and dig into at a later time.

The “Narcissist” Accusation Trend

Narcissism, in psychological terms, refers to a personality trait characterized by grandiosity, a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others.

As mentioned recently in my article on malignant narcissism, it is important to distinguish between narcissistic traits and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a clinical diagnosis that includes distinct clinical features and pervasive patterns of behavior across various situations, such as entitlement; an excessive need for admiration; and lack of empathy for others.

While research suggests up to 5% of the population has NPD, that number may be closer to 10%, given most narcissists do not present themselves for testing.

The tendency these days to label others as narcissists has gained traction partly due to the accessibility of information about narcissistic behavior online. Social media platforms and self-help resources often list traits of narcissism, making it easier for people to identify these behaviors in others. However, exhibiting narcissistic traits (which all of us may do at one time or another for a variety of reasons) is a very different thing than being a true narcissist who meets the clinical criteria for NPD.

In my opinion, the terms “narcissist,” “covert narcissist,” and “overt narcissist” reflects a broader cultural shift that reflects how we understand and discuss interpersonal relationships and psychological behavior.

While recognizing toxic behavior patterns is important, it is equally essential to approach interpersonal conflicts with nuance and empathy. As the old saying goes: “If the only tool you have is a hammer you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Meaning, if you have been harmed by narcissistic abuse as a child or as an adult, then anyone who harms you going forward may feel or seem like a narcissist.

Empathic Breaks Are Not the Same Thing as Narcissism

Human relationships are inherently complex and multifaceted. They involve a myriad of emotions, expectations, and interactions that cannot be neatly categorized.

While narcissistic behavior can certainly exist and be damaging, not every hurtful action, misunderstanding, or relationship issue within or outside of one’s family can be attributed solely to narcissism. Miscommunication, differing expectations, empathic failure (which are not necessarily intentional), and personal insecurities also contribute to interpersonal conflicts.

Abuse survivors who suffer from complex trauma symptoms can easily shift into a survival response when triggered and feeling vulnerable. When that trauma response is ‘fight’, they may find themselves rationalizing why calling someone a “narcissist” – including publicly – is a perfectly okay thing to do.

Labeling someone “a narcissist” because they hurt or disappointed us is a particularly slippery slope in regard to our personal interactions for the following reasons:

  1. Hindering Reconciliation and Understanding: When someone is labeled as a narcissist, it often closes the door to productive dialogue and understanding. The label can become a shield behind which the accuser hides, preventing them from acknowledging their own role in the conflict. It oversimplifies the complexities of human behavior and relationships, reducing the chance of resolving conflicts through open communication and mutual empathy. Genuine attempts at reconciliation may be overshadowed by the fixation on the label, perpetuating a cycle of blame and defensiveness rather than fostering understanding and growth.
  2. Perpetuating a Victim Mentality: Labeling someone as a narcissist can reinforce a victim mentality in the accuser. This mentality involves viewing oneself as perpetually targeted by narcissists or manipulative individuals, thereby absolving oneself of responsibility in conflicts. It can lead to a sense of powerlessness and helplessness, where personal agency and growth are undermined. Instead of empowering oneself to address underlying issues or patterns in relationships, individuals may continue to perceive themselves as victims of external forces, hindering their own emotional healing and development.
  3. Complexity of Human Behavior: Human behavior is multifaceted and influenced by a variety of factors such as upbringing, past experiences, and individual personalities. Labeling someone as a narcissist oversimplifies the richness and complexity of human interactions. It ignores the potential for personal growth and change over time. People are capable of exhibiting both positive and negative behaviors depending on circumstances and personal growth trajectories. By reducing individuals to mere labels, we risk overlooking their potential for self-reflection and transformation.
  4. Professional and Personal Consequences: Beyond interpersonal relationships, labeling someone as a narcissist can have professional and legal ramifications. In workplace settings, for example, such accusations could lead to strained professional relationships, damage to reputations, or even legal disputes if accusations are unfounded or used maliciously. Personal relationships may also suffer irreparable harm if accusations are made without sufficient evidence or consideration of the broader context.
  5. Encouraging Nuanced Understanding: Instead of resorting to labels, fostering a nuanced understanding of behavior is essential. This involves recognizing that individuals may display narcissistic traits without necessarily having Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). It requires acknowledging the role of context, individual histories, and communication styles in shaping behaviors. It also requires that we acknowledge each other’s humanity – and that none of us are immune from inadvertently harming another or making a mistake.

How Labeling Harms the Person Doing the Name Calling

Weaponizing the term “narcissist” (and labeling or name-calling in general) can be harmful in several ways. Firstly, it oversimplifies and reduces a person to a single characteristic or behavior, ignoring their complexity as a human being. This can lead to misunderstanding and prejudice, as it prevents us from seeing the full range of someone’s experiences, emotions, and potential.

Furthermore, labeling often reflects biases and stereotypes that society holds, perpetuating discrimination and inequality. When we label others, we limit their opportunities and possibilities by confining them to preconceived notions, rather than allowing them to define themselves through their actions and choices.

Psychologically, labeling can also impact the person being labeled. It can contribute to feelings of shame, insecurity, and self-doubt, especially if the label is negative or derogatory. It can reinforce negative self-perceptions and erode self-esteem, as individuals may internalize the labels applied to them by others.

In relationships, labeling can damage trust and communication. It creates barriers to meaningful connection by reducing individuals to simplistic categories, making it difficult to establish genuine understanding and empathy.

Ultimately, labeling and name-calling diminish both the person doing the labeling and the person being labeled. It undermines our ability to relate to others authentically and compassionately, hindering personal growth and fostering division rather than unity. Therefore, practicing empathy, open-mindedness, and respect for individual complexity is crucial in fostering healthier relationships and a more inclusive society.

By refraining from labeling others based on superficial observations (e.g., a friend seems overly demanding on her wedding day and is therefore somehow now a narcissist) and instead focusing on open communication and personal growth, survivors can cultivate healthier relationships and continue on their path of healing and recovery.

By embracing a mindset that values genuine understanding over hasty judgments, survivors not only foster empathy within themselves but also encourage it in their interactions.

This approach builds bridges of trust and support, crucial for nurturing meaningful connections that withstand the test of time. Through ongoing personal growth and a commitment to open communication, survivors of relational / family abuse create environments where authenticity thrives, allowing them to heal and thrive alongside others.

Ultimately, by refusing to reduce individuals to mere labels and stereotypes, we can collectively pave the way for a more compassionate society where everyone can be seen and valued for who they truly are.

The Importance of Context In Human Interactions

While recognizing and addressing toxic behaviors is important for personal well-being and growth, labeling someone as being “a narcissist” should be approached with caution. (And by the way, contrary to popular belief, beginning a potentially defamatory statement with “It’s my opinion that…” does not always protect you from legal repercussions, as this article from Minc Law points out.)

Context plays a significant role in understanding behavior. What may appear as narcissistic traits in one situation could stem from entirely different motives or circumstances in another.

It is therefore crucial for survivors of relational abuse (including family abuse) to recognize the nuances of human behavior and avoid jumping to conclusions based solely on surface-level observations.

By remaining mindful of the broader context of relationships and interactions, abuse survivors can avoid oversimplifying complex dynamics and potentially mislabeling individuals who do not fit the criteria of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Below are some pathways to help abuse survivors move beyond the tendency to label others, thereby avoiding perpetuating the cycle of dehumanizing behavior that is a hallmark of any form of abuse.

Fostering Open Communication:

Instead of relying on labels, survivors of any type of relational abuse – including family scapegoating abuse (FSA) – are encouraged to foster open communication and establish healthy boundaries in their relationships. This approach allows for genuine understanding and empathy to flourish, creating opportunities for healing and personal growth. By engaging in constructive dialogue rather than labeling and distancing oneself from others perceived as potential threats, survivors can reclaim their agency and rebuild trust in their own judgment.

Seeking Support:

Moreover, seeking support from therapists or support groups specializing in narcissistic abuse recovery can provide survivors with invaluable insights and strategies. Professional guidance helps survivors navigate the complexities of healing, address lingering emotional wounds, and develop healthier relationship patterns. Through therapy, survivors can learn to differentiate between genuine red flags of narcissistic behavior and misunderstandings rooted in past trauma.

Empowerment through Knowledge:

Lastly, empowering oneself with knowledge about narcissism and its spectrum of behaviors can be empowering for survivors. Understanding the diagnostic criteria for NPD and recognizing the distinction between narcissistic traits and a clinical diagnosis can help survivors make informed assessments without resorting to hasty judgments or misinformed accusations.

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