November 25, 2023

Buddhism & Narcissism: What really Happens when we Call Someone a Narcissist.

Stop calling people narcissists.

Okay, maybe not quite that easy and maybe a little spiritual bypass-ey since the Buddha does teach us to neither deny nor indulge, so let’s see if we can find a middle path here.

I’ve been thinking a lot about name-calling lately. In way too many of the conversations I am having, I feel like I am back on the playground in early elementary school where it wasn’t uncommon to hear an insult thrown around. Back then, names were called when someone cheated (“cheater!”) or was hogging the ball (“ball hog!”) or was telling other people what to do (“bossy pants!”). Or maybe it wasn’t about something that happened, but it was about the way someone looked or the money their family didn’t have or the way they dressed or even the way they smelled.

(Fun sidenote: I have a friend who let a fart fly in fourth grade who got insulted for his, well, stinky bomb, and is, 40 years later, still called by an abbreviated form. Words can stick. That’s for sure.)

In my conversations now, the level of insulting has gotten more savvy (thank you, TikTok armchair psychology). He’s a narcissist. She’s borderline. She’s anxiously attached. He’s a sociopath. Sometimes there’s a little less finesse. I recently asked someone to stop calling her boyfriend’s ex a crazy b*tch in my presence because it made me feel uncomfortable and made me wonder how many of my ex-boyfriend’s current partners are calling me a crazy b*tch. And I realized that the high brow labels actually feel a little ickier to me than a straight-up, scrappy, and direct name-call because the person with that articulate language should be more skillful than that. (I know, I know, I’m shoulding all over the place on that one).

In Buddhism, we learn about The Eightfold Path, the way out of suffering and into enlightenment. One of the essential elements on that path is the practice of Right Speech. And it doesn’t take a practicing Buddhist to recognize the power of our words. Words matter. Some, particularly Florence Scovel-Shinn, have even called them wands.

Words create thoughts and thoughts create reality. As demonstrated parenthetically above regarding the infamous fourth grade fart, words stick. I could go on…

Buddha divided Right Speech into four components:

>> Abstaining from false speech

>> Slanderous speech (aka defamation)

>> Harsh speech

>> Idle chatter

If we put name-calling through this lens, I say it definitely falls underneath slanderous and harsh speech, and probably at most times falls under false speech and idle chatter (i.e. gossip).

Let’s take the excessive use of the insult “narcissist” we see these days. Sure, there are folks who have been diagnosed by a professional with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). I get it. As a mental health practitioner, I recognize that sometimes labels are necessary and helpful for the person being labeled to get the right kind of help. But even with a proper diagnosis, using this label to spread information about the person to other people is defaming. You are changing the way others will respond to that person based on your very specific contextual relationship with the person. And what if this person is getting help and support and trying to change? How does that help the person heal and grow if people whom they haven’t even met yet are seeing them through the lens you have created for them?

And what about all of the people out there who haven’t been diagnosed and are getting called these names? Isn’t that false speech (i.e. lying) to say someone is something they are not? And if you’re engaging in false speech, don’t you then qualify for some name-calling yourself? (Liar, liar, pants on fire!)

And if you are having a conversation with someone (not a therapist, not a trusted confidante who holds your information like a vault, and so on) about someone else’s behavior you don’t like or their diagnosis, isn’t this just idle chatter, aka gossip (cue Missy Elliot: Hilzzoo? My gizzirl! Brillzing her izzin!)? This is not to say that talking about what is bothering us is never helpful or necessary, but it is how we do it that can shift a conversation from being fruitful and kind to unproductive and mean. Some questions we may ask ourselves are: What words are we using? How long are we talking about the same thing over and over? What is our motive in having the conversation?

Everything I have described above sounds like harsh speech to me if we are defining “harsh” as said with anger or resentment. Harsh also may mean intended to hurt another person. This reminds me of what Thich Nhat Hanh said about anger being like your house burning down. Engaging in anything but right speech sounds to me like going to chase after the arsonist rather than staying present with yourself and putting out the fire. And what about the person listening to you engage in such harsh speech? Is it kind and loving to them to have you spitting your vitriol all over them, even if it’s not about them?

I think we could all agree that the world could use more kindness. We can stay in our own houses and put out our own fires with all of our spiritual practices. We can let it begin with the way we use our words—the way we talk about others. That doesn’t mean we deny, but rather recognize when we are indulging and straying from right speech, one of the steps on the noble path.


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