Language Warning: Lots of assholes ahead.
There seems to be mass confusion floating around about what narcissism is—and, unfortunately, this misunderstanding is extremely dangerous.
Due to this, many people wrongly label or try to diagnose their ex-partners as narcissists, which is someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
It also leads many people to make fun of the entire narcissistic trend by belittling those who speak out about their experiences, by telling them they are just jumping on the bandwagon of the latest fad, and that they are wrong to describe their ex as a narcissist.
Although it may seem like there’s a fine line between a narcissist and someone who is just being an asshole, the difference between the two is huge. When we have a clear understanding of what defines true narcissism, we will clearly see why it’s essential that we stop using the word so loosely and, at the same time, show compassion and stop causing a lot of people further upset and trauma.
Like with most things, there is a spectrum with narcissism. Some people will have mild symptoms, while others will align and identify strongly.
I believe that the majority of people carry some traits of the narcissistic personality type, however, that alone does not define whether someone is narcissistic. Having a few characteristics of narcissism basically means that we still have areas within ourselves that we need to work on. One of the main differences between those who are narcissistic and those who aren’t is the willingness to self-reflect and improve aspects of ourselves that are unhealthy and that cause other people harm.
A narcissist is someone who premeditates manipulation and deceit, and they are so immensely absorbed in themselves they have no care or regard for how their behaviour affects the people around them. The only person a narcissist cares about is his or her self.
Whereas, assholes do not premeditate their manipulation and deceit. They are still capable of both of these things but are more likely to do them on the spur of the moment, especially when their unhealed emotional wounds have been triggered. They are capable of caring for other people, but predominantly care about themselves.
Narcissists control other people through making them feel fearful. This may be fear of losing the relationship, fear of emotional, mental, or physical abuse, or fear that they will attempt to destroy your life if you choose to sever the connection. In all dynamics, control and fear play a major role.
Assholes control other people through emotions. They will play mind games, and they are usually emotionally unavailable, so those who are in some form of a relationship will never know where they stand and will feel like a puppet on a string just waiting to be picked up or dropped. Assholes usually play the “treat them mean keep them keen” card and thrive on the fact that this often gives them the upper hand and the ability to steer the connection in the direction they want it to go.
Narcissists will usually be all in or all out of a relationship. When they meet someone whom they believe they can easily energetically feed off of, they will turn into the most charming and charismatic character, and they will keep this charade going while everything is going their way. As soon as the mask drops, and the other person has seen through them, narcissists usually turn to dust and quickly move on to the next person they can work their “magic” on.
Assholes are usually never fully in or out of the relationship. They usually do as little as it takes to keep the relationship treading water, and they don’t waste too much of their energy if it all starts to sink. They generally have a “couldn’t care less” attitude and barely emotionally invest, so they are not too hurt or affected when a relationship draws to an end.
Narcissists are power hungry, dominating, and extremely jealous. All of these traits are inherent in them as their ego runs the show and cannot cope if they are threatened in any way. They will go to any lengths and tread on whoever is in their way to ensure they remain at the top of their game, as they refuse to be second best in any area of their lives.
Assholes enjoy feeling powerful and can be dominating and jealous, but nowhere near to the degree of narcissism. They don’t like being second best, but they won’t usually put up a huge fight to remain on top. If they aren’t winning, they will generally sulk and throw a strop before dropping out of the race and moving onto the next thing that piques their interest.
Narcissists take great pleasure from seeing the destruction they cause in other people’s lives.
Assholes don’t feel pleasure from witnessing other people’s pain, however, they may not particularly feel guilt or remorse for hurting those around them—especially when their own life is unaffected or if they stood to gain in some way.
Narcissists are compulsive liars. Lying comes so naturally to them that they often believe their own lies, which is why it can be difficult for those around them to work out what is real and what is false.
Assholes lie, but they are generally “white lies” that are told in the heat of the moment to avoid causing themselves any embarrassment. They basically lie to make their life easier, rather than creating unnecessary lies that revolve around pretty much everything they do and say.
Narcissists are self-obsessed, vain, superficial, and they constantly seek attention.
Assholes can be self-orientated and vain but are not too different from the average person with regards to these traits. They do not constantly seek attention, but do enjoy receiving it, particularly if they haven’t had to work too hard to gain it. They enjoy being flattered, but their life’s mission isn’t to be the center of the universe.
Narcissists are easily hurt. It appears that the slightest insult or criticism causes them to fly into either rage or a dramatic emotional meltdown—usually whichever method gains the best result from those around them.
Assholes are also easily hurt, but as they are also mostly emotionally unavailable, they don’t express their feelings in the same way. If an asshole feels hurt, they will usually ensure the other person knows what they’ve done wrong by giving them the silent treatment, cutting the person out of their life with no second chance, or by making the person feel shame or guilt for what they may or may not have done.
The above is not an exhaustive list of the differences, clearly, however, it is an insight into the variations of extremes between Narcissistic Personality Disorder and someone who is just being an asshole.
Narcissistic people generally won’t change, as they are so absorbed within their own ego that they cannot see that any part of their behaviour is harmful or destructive to others.
Assholes can change and do change. We all go through stages in our lives, and many of us may go through the asshole stage, particularly if we have been burnt and hurt by family, friends, work, or our romantic relationships.
This isn’t to justify that it’s okay to be an asshole, or that it’s normal. Being an asshole keeps the pain and trauma circulating as it floats from one person to the next.
However, being a narcissist is highly dysfunctional and often leaves those who are closely involved with someone with this condition with severe trauma, which can include PTSD, C-PTSD, extreme anxiety, stress, depression, suicidal thoughts—and tragically, some people don’t survive their experience with a narcissist.
This is why it is vital that those who do not understand exactly what makes someone clinically narcissistic refrain from talking about narcissism and spreading confusion and misinformation. Minimizing people’s experiences can, in many ways, be as harmful as the abuse the person has already, or is currently, going through.
When we mock or belittle people’s experiences, we risk silencing them and causing them to feel afraid to speak out and gain the help and support they may desperately need.
It is so essential that people understand the fragility that is involved when dealing with someone who has endured life at the hands of a narcissist. Narcissism involves serious and insidious abuse, and unless someone has experienced it first hand, they will never be able to imagine how it feels.
Before starting a conversation about narcissism and putting ourselves in a position of authority on the subject, we should employ empathy, compassion, and a great deal of research. This pertains not only when looking to distinguish whether someone is just acting like an asshole or whether it’s something more sinister, but it also relates to those who are quick to put narcissism down as a “trend” by claiming that everyone who says their ex is a narcissist has actually just had a bad experience, so they should shut up about it and get over it.
Unfortunately, when dealing with narcissism, it is far from that simple. Many don’t survive, many never get over it, and the majority, despite a vast amount of healing, will carry deep wounds for the rest of their lives.
Author: Alex Myles
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis