Why it doesn’t help to diagnose a “Narcissist.”

I’m going to say up front that I’m uncomfortable with labelling people. And, ultimately, I don’t think it is helpful to you to do it either.

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Have you decided your partner is a narcissist?
Have you decided your partner is a narcissist?

A whole industry has sprung up around “narcissism”; many people who don’t have a formal diagnosis are currently being identified as having NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) by partners, family and friends. If you join Narcissistic Abuse Survivor chat rooms or Facebook Groups, you’ll see partners or ex-partners being referred to as “my Narc”, or “my Nex” (Narcissistic ex). You’ll also find lists of traits, lists of behaviours, lists of recommendations, memes, cartoons, and in-jokes.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask? If you’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship with someone who is displaying narcissistic traits, then it can be a huge relief to find like-minded people who share something of your experience and can offer support. I wholeheartedly agree that it is validating to discover – perhaps for the first time – that you are not alone, not imagining things, and that there is hope for recovery.

However, what is less helpful is categorising, and demonising, an entire group of people. The aforementioned lists arise from the idea that we can ascribe generalised notions of thoughts, feelings, and motivations to the entirety of people in that group.

Lumping people together and classifying them as a distinct group has the effect of locating all of the problems in them. This is called psychological splitting, which paints a very black and white “them” and “us” picture of our relationship. The effect is to neatly erase us while making a monster of our partner.

Perhaps we then become obsessed with that “monster” pathology. We become desperate to get a handle on things to quell our fear and misgivings.

If fear looms large, we remain transfixed.

Let me tell you about Meg*

When Meg began therapy, she was pretty confident that John, her partner, had NPD. However, Meg became confused when she realised that John seemed to meet some of the criteria and not others. She wondered if this meant he didn’t have NPD after all. She kept researching on YouTube, subscribing to podcasts and joining Facebook groups. Some made Meg feel more and more convinced; but then the next day, she’d hear something about X, and that didn’t fit, so the self-doubt started up again. Is he or isn’t he a narcissist? Should she grey rock him, how would she withstand being hoovered back in, how soon before the next discard? And so on. She was very fearful of the outcomes her research led her to expect.

Meg felt as though she was going around and around in circles. “I just wish he would get a diagnosis,” she said, “then I’d understand what’s happening to me.”

It is significant that Meg hoped she could find clarity on her relationship – and what she should do about it – by understanding him rather than by understanding herself.

Ironically, a characteristic of relationships with someone who has narcissistic traits is that the focus becomes exclusively fixed on them. We feel that we are there merely for narcissistic supply and that our needs and feelings don’t count, don’t register, aren’t important.

What are we doing to ourselves, then, when we spend hours daily trying to understand “the narcissist”? Are we not focusing all our attention on them? Are we not overlooking our own experience, feelings, and needs?

Why is it, d’you think, that do we do to ourselves what our abuser has done to us?

What was missing from Meg’s account was her own feelings and experience. She didn’t describe the events in terms of the impact they made on her, how angry, sad, and humiliated she felt, or how hurt she was. Those feelings were buried in a fog of confusion, and she wasn’t convinced she was entitled to them anyway. Yet real knowledge of her feelings would guide her; if she could only allow them to become central in her thinking.

Perhaps, if we can become able to find enough space to reflect, we would find a way, gradually, to answer our own questions. In contrast, understanding our experience in the generalised terms of being a “victim of narcissistic abuse”, doesn’t directly speak to our own deeply felt, lived, experience.

To have self-agency, to be able to make choices about our lives, we need to be in touch with ourselves first and foremost. Only then can we see the future.

*client material is always held in confidence.  This vignette is fictional but was constructed with reference to many similar experiences

Jo Mercer is a London-based Psychotherapist who treats clients around the world via Zoom. Click here to request to join her new Facebook group, which is launching soon!

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