When to Draw the Line with a Narcissist in Your Life
By Amanda Salazar
The word gets thrown around a lot in casual speech — when someone talks too much about themselves, they’re called narcissistic; an arrogant person gets labeled a narcissist. But there’s more to narcissism than that.
Narcissistic personality disorder is an actual, clinical mental health diagnosis with specific criteria and real consequences for the person and those around them.
The essence of the disorder is someone who puts themselves before others, expecting to be revered while acting callously toward people in their lives.
It’s very rare to come across a person who meets the complete list of criteria for the disorder as described in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is referred to by psychiatrists to diagnose mental illness. Only around 1% or fewer people in the country have full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, according to University of Georgia clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Miller.
On the other hand, it’s not uncommon to encounter people who meet some of the criteria for the disorder or who exhibit narcissistic traits, he said. You may come across narcissistic-leaning people multiple times throughout your life.
There are many traits of a narcissist, some that can be symptoms of other mental disorders and others that can be natural components of a person’s personality.
For this reason, it can be hard to spot a narcissistic person — everyone can be self-absorbed at times, be assertive at times, be uncomfortable receiving criticism at times. So, how can a person distinguish if someone is a narcissist or just being narcissistic?
“They can’t really, to be honest,” Miller told Preferred Health Magazine. “There is no such thing like that categorical distinction. It’s one we use in psychology; it’s how you should make diagnoses. But these, we know, are really dimensional constructs. So, there is no clear line demarcating someone that’s a little narcissistic versus someone that is a narcissist. That doesn’t exist.”
Miller, who studies narcissism and other personality disorders, shared some characteristics of a narcissist with PHM:
Grandiosity — a sense of superiority, pretentiousness, or invulnerability.
Entitlement — rules and societal constructs don’t apply to them.
Self-Absorption — the world revolves around them; they’re more important than others.
Callousness — uncaring about others’ feelings.
Reactive to Criticism — lash out at perceived criticism or slights from others.
Domineering — overly assertive; takes control of situations.
Manipulative — coerces people into doing what they want, sometimes through immense flattery, other times through intimidation.
Knowing when to set a boundary with a narcissistic person or when to cut ties with them can be challenging, and it’s a very personal decision.
“It really depends on when the balance has shifted so that this person is causing you distress, harm, when you’re regularly feeling bad about yourself, feeling intimidated, feeling put down upon, denigrated, being treated in a derogatory way,” he said. “That’s a reasonable time to really weigh whether one can cut ties entirely.”
One boundary Miller suggested is knowing your own values and not being willing to overstep or compromise them for another person, regardless of how they try to convince you. It’s also good to give yourself some space from the narcissist, if possible.
It’s best not to confront a narcissist, especially if the person is in a position of power over you or if you fear for your safety.
“Once you realize that you’re dealing with someone that’s problematically narcissistic, I think trying to find ways to minimize contact is a smart way to go about it,” he said. “Just trying to keep the emotional temperature lower, trying not to get into pissing contests with someone who’s really not going to want to lose those, right? Dominance means a lot to narcissistic people, so try not to engage them on that front when possible.”